With the political conventions reaching a fever pitch and the election looming in the middle distance, I'm constantly reminded that the issues I work on -- copyright and telecommunications -- aren't often on the front page, and are rarely the sort of things that make single-issue voters.
But over the past year, the groundswell of passionate citizens has become more vocal on these issues, particularly writing and calling their senators and representatives about SOPA and PIPA. While watching many of them engage the legislative process for the first time, I was struck by the need for more people to overcome a long-engrained cynicism about Congress and the political process.
Hang around in a geeky enough community, and you'll soon come across a pervasive cynicism. "Washington's bought and paid for," people say. "Record labels and movie studios dump a fraction of their money into the process, and we reap the results. Why should I bother calling up their office just to have them nod at me and hang up, or write an email that will never get read?"
I'm not saying there isn't a lot to be cynical about. But while no one's going to pull a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there are still things that individuals can do to influence Congress, even if they aren't hosting fundraisers or making any campaign donations.
Money is Just a Pathway to Votes
The basic tool you have is the ability contact your senators and representative. That may sound like a pitifully small act, but it can work, even against entrenched, moneyed interests. To understand how, it's important to know how money influences legislators.
While there's rightly been a lot of focus on campaign donations, those donations are, for an elected official, just a means to an end. They're not trying to get rich off of campaign donations; they're trying to get re-elected. However much money gets poured in to a campaign fund, it can't buy more votes than there are voters in their district.
This is why direct calls are important. And while you're highly unlikely to get in touch with the senator or representative in person, and while you may well be talking to a junior staffer or sometimes even an intern, rest assured that that person is noting why you called, and what your stance on an issue is. Because forget about money that can be spent on ads that might possibly affect your vote -- your voice on the line then is representative of a vote won or lost on the issue you're calling about. This, of course, is why you're likely to be asked where you live when you call -- a Chicagoan (or even a Houstonian) calling Rep. Lamar Smith's office (representing a San Antonio-area district) just isn't going to mean as much to him.
Of course, a call from one voter in a district of thousands, or in a state of millions, isn't going to put your issue (especially if your issue is as geeky as preventing DNS fragmentation) on a legislator's map. But a surprisingly small number of calls to the same office, and particularly on the same day, can indicate the importance of an issue to their district of state.
This is particularly useful in areas that haven't become entrenched partisan battlegrounds -- something which has worked in our favor to a degree on particularly nerdy technology issues. Where there's room for legislators to come to the issues afresh, they'll be willing to act on the expressed needs of their constituents.
Money Can Construct a Bubble
Of course, legislators don't come to all technological issues afresh. If there's an equal number of constituents pushing back against you, then it comes out a draw (of course, if that's happening, your call can keep worse legislation from going through). But more often than not on copyright issues, it's not a grassroots groundswell that's pressing for increased penalties for file-sharing, or new law enforcement powers to seize domain names.
What happens instead is that the money used by industry lobbyists doesn't just go to candidates' campaign funds; it's used to pay lobbyists to make visits to legislators' offices, or to set up "informational briefings" for congressional staff. This isn't in itself sinister; they're simply telling Congress their side of the story.
Over and over. Constantly.
And even the most upright and incorruptible member of Congress is going to have her worldview shaped by those meetings. If the only story that a senator hears is one of jobs lost to "pirate streaming," he's going to be more likely to vote for DNS blocking to stop it. Unless someone's been knocking on his office door just as much talking about how DNS blocking doesn't work and can create massive problems for innocent people, he's going to assume that there's only one side to the issue. Lawmakers have often only been exposed to the most heavily lobbied side of that argument, since any time they might have taken to investigate the other side is being taken up by budget fights, abortion debates, or whatever bit of flak is coming their way in an election year.
So all the lobbying money spent by groups like the RIAA and MPAA can help to construct a bubble -- a particular worldview that fits their particular agenda. We at Public Knowledge work to try and penetrate that bubble, but we can only meet with so many people on so many topics at a time. And while we like to think we can raise some good arguments, they're often only going to work to the extent that the member recognizes that voters in their district, not just some Beltway nerds, have the same concerns.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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