One year ago, I started this project of writing you regular letters. I’ve written 24 times in the past year. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Long, detailed letters don’t have any more influence on one’s congressional representative than letters that just state a position. Indeed, letters that say anything complicated (on the one hand, this; on the other hand, that) may have no influence at all. I have no evidence that anyone in your office (let alone you) ever read my letters. I did receive some correspondence in return, but those were boilerplate responses that could have been generated based on the subject I chose from an electronic drop-down menu and a quick skim to see if I was “for” or “against” something. If your staff was reading my letters more carefully, I couldn’t tell.
- It’s a lot of work to follow the intricacies of what is happening in Congress and of the specific legislation on which you are working. I can’t really get a sense of what’s happening just from reading summaries in newspapers or listening to news reports. It takes a lot of research–careful reading of multiple sources and seeking out analysis from different political perspectives. I spent several hours on research before writing each of my letters. Few people have time for this kind of thing.
- Political influence is still possible for ordinary people, but their options are limited. Either one needs to join up with some kind of lobbying organization (as some of my friends who are interested in climate-change legislation have done), or one can protest. (The two aren’t mutually exclusive). I saw the protest option in action at the town-hall meeting I attended in February. Political protest may get some things done but it does not foster nuance or civil debate. I’m glad that protest is still an option, but am less glad about how it coarsens the character of our discourse.
- Even if you say you’re committed to working on bi-partisan legislation, it’s very difficult for you to act on those words. Because you have to run for office every two years and you are supported by a party funded by people with certain ideological commitments, you don’t have much room for flexibility in how you actually vote. You’re stuck. I’m really sorry about that.
- Political discourse is quite degraded, especially on social media. People say awful things to you and each other on your Facebook page, and I’m sure your staff is deleting some of the worst. There don’t seem to be many venues in American culture for respectful debate.
- Engaging with one’s congressional representative can make one feel more kindly toward them. I like you, Tom. Even though I disagree with some of the positions you take, I have respect for you as a person. In the two town-hall meetings I attended in the past year, you conducted yourself with grace and dignity. Before I started this project, I saw you as a cardboard-cutout Republican, a mere set of political positions. Now I see you as a person in a complicated and compromised position, having to make difficult choices.
- Political engagement is rewarding. Even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t have any influence on you in the past year, I did find out about other people in my community who are interested in the same things I am—respectful and thoughtful engagement that breaks down traditional boundaries between right and left, Republican and Democrat. It was satisfying to figure out who those people are and to talk together about how to reform our political system.
I’m not sure how often I’ll be writing these longer letters in future (see point one). But I’m planning to stay engaged. You may hear from me in other ways. I’ll still come to town-hall meetings when I can and I’m looking forward to voting in the Republican primary next spring.
Thanks for an interesting year, Tom.
Your devoted constituent,