OK, tough guy/gal. We’re impressed — you read this blog or that site, you sign all the online petitions that are sent your way, you write your own blog/diary and comment on others’. And of course you’re going to vote progressive in the upcoming election and do your share to get the good propositions passed, the bad propositions defeated, and put the our people into office.
Is that enough? Probably not. There are only a few of us, and there a heck of a lot of people out there who don’t know what a “kos” is, who are confused about the propositions, are wondering if Arnold isn’t that bad, and, believe it or not, don’t even know who Deborah Bowen is!
What can we do about their votes?
If you’ve read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, you may remember that there three types of people who can help spread a message or idea like an epidemic. They are the connectors (people with lots of connections other people, even weak ties, in multiple social circles), the mavens (enthusiastic information specialists who love to share their message), and the salespeople (those with great personal persuasion skills).
We need to tap into the connector, maven, and salesperson within ourselves to help spread our message – specifically, how to vote progressive in November — to people outside the netroots. I don’t think that these three skills are mutually exclusive; I’m guessing that everybody had some abilities in all three domains. (I consider myself to be a halfway decent connector, a bit of a maven, and not much of a salesperson.)
So what does that mean?
My interpretation of the “salesperson” from the book is that it probably doesn’t apply much to our situation, because it involves persuasion, and a lot of it is person-to-person and is often non-verbal. Being able to activate progressive values in somebody isn’t impossible; George Lakoff’s latest Thinking Points has valuable good suggestions for this. But this is a long-term, neighbor-to-neighbor strategy that doesn’t fit in with the immediate goal.
The maven and the connector is what we need to become. Probably all of us in the netroots are mavens, in that we are wonks, or information junkies. We know the issues on the ballot, the progressive candidates and their opponents, and the arguments that both sides are using. We want to spread the word about what we know but maybe we haven’t.
And the connector? Well, we all have family friends and acquaintances who are not political junkies like us, and we probably have their email addresses. They don’t really have to be strong ties, like somebody you play racquetball with every week. Weak ties, according to the book, are incredibly important, so the college friend you only email once in a while or your friendly auto mechanic are just as a good a candidate for reaching out to.
If each of us in the netroots could get an enthusiastic, personal message out to 50 or 200 people, think of the effect this could have on the election. Some of the people you reach might be mavens or connectors themselves; imagine if you get just a few of them excited enough to tell some of their friends, or at least be informed enough if somebody they know asks what they think about the issues. This could be a tipping point for the election.
So this is my challenge to the netroots. Stretch out of your comfort zone of talking politics with other wonks, and get your words of wisdom out to the masses. Use the tools at your disposal such as email and even the phone or going door-to-door in your neighborhood. You will be surprised that you get many positive responses for your efforts, and very few, if any, negative feedback.
How to do it
I’m not an expert on how to craft a message, but these may be helpful suggestions to get started, based on my experience.
You can probably comb through your email address book, as well as your inbox/outbox archives to find many more email addresses than you might have thought you could. It might be a few dozen, or more than two hundred like I’ve managed to collect. Obviously, don’t bother with people whom you know it’s not appropriate to send a message to, like your managers at work or your customers – don’t send somebody a “personal” message if you risk more than a little embarrassment if they turn out to be a neo-con. And obviously don’t spam! Make sure you actually know these people so that they will feel some personal connection, even if it’s weak. But don’t OVER-filter your list either; for most people you know, the worst that will happen if they don’t like what they read is that they’ll just delete your email.
Should you exclude people from your list whom you know are as up on the issues as you? Perhaps not. Send your message to them too, just so they see what you are doing, and be inspired to do something similar.
Finally, make sure that your list is geographically appropriate for your message. Don’t bother emailing people out of state if you are going to be talking about California issues; if you want to talk local issues, make a separate list of people in your town.
Now think beyond your email list. Are you acquainted with your neighbors, on your block or around town, even vaguely? Think about printing out a hard-copy version of your message and leaving it on their doorsteps. Perhaps there others you could call, just for a chat, and take that opportunity to express your thoughts about the election.
I think that you need to keep your message relatively short, or at least simple to understand. You could always break down what you want to get across into a few separate emails that you send several days apart; e.g. local races and initiatives; the propositions, and the statewide candidates like Debra and Phil. And don’t feel the need to cover every single thing on the ballot, just cover the issues you feel strongly about. For example: if it’s 85 and 90 that are the ones get your blood boiling and 87 and 80 that make you giddy with delight, focus on those. You probably don’t need more than a sentence or two per item if you are covering multiple items; you can always refer to the advocacy websites for more information. If there’s a helpful or funny video online (like 89’s “Stop the Pounding” http://www.89now.org/media/pounding.php you can include the URL in your message.
Feel free to apologize for the mass email, but explain why you think it’s important that you reach as many people as possible. Acknowledge that people are probably sick of all the slick campaign ads. Your message is an antidote to this, and it will be welcomed with relief. And especially if you send more than one email, you can always let them know that the intrusion won’t last long. (“In ten days, I’ll stop being a pest” is what Debra Bowen suggested saying.)
If you are contacting a lot of people whose political affiliation you are not sure of, you probably want to avoid mentioning political parties. Talk instead about what’s important to you, from the perspective of ordinary people (vs. corporations), how your candidate will do better than the opponent, and so forth. Talk about how voting your way will make things better for everybody, not just people in one party. Thinking Points says that the best way to communicate with people who have both liberal and conservative mental models (incorrectly thought of as “the center”) is to speak the *same* way that you speak to your “base.” In other words, don’t try to sound less liberal than you are just to appeal to those who might be to the right of you.
Finally, it’s probably a good idea to offer to discuss any of these issues if they have any thoughts or questions. Few, if any, will want to debate you or have more questions, but it probably reinforces the personal connection and reassures your acquaintances that they are being broadcasted to. As a bonus, it might be worth a “P.S.” with an invitation to forward you message to others. Your friends might have like-minded friends who are anxious to get the scoop from a trusted friend-of-a-friend.
Getting it Emailed
It’s important if you are sending out a message to a number of people that you not put everybody on the CC list. It can be annoying to the recipient, and many people may feel that their privacy has been violated, since you’ve just shared their email address with everybody else. Instead, you should put people’s addresses in the “BCC” field. Depending on the email program you use, you can either not specify a “to” address or you could just use your own email address as the recipient. It’s probably a good idea to test this out, sending a test message to yourself and just a few close friends, and making sure that it went out OK.
Some mail systems may have restrictions on how many recipients can be specified. If this is the case, then you may have to send your message out in chunks of a couple of dozen people at a time. Another alternative is to use a special mail-merge program that sends out messages to a list of people one at a time, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
What happens next?
After you send your message, you will probably find that some of the addresses don’t work anymore. And if your experience is like mine, most of them will go unanswered. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t like the message, they might be too busy to respond. It’s possible you’ll get a request or two to not send any more political emails; you can just remove them from your list, but be sure to reply with a friendly answer since they are still people you know, right? You will also get a few responses of immense gratitude. People out there have a hard time distinguishing the facts from the propaganda, and they are grateful to know somebody who has actually had the energy to look beyond the advertisements and mailings. They will follow your advice, and tip the balance to a progressive future.
Dan Wood is an Alameda resident who was inspired to become politically active by Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004. He was featured in a San Francisco Chronicle article about people who use the power of the internet in modern political movements.