How to make sure that your elected officials actually hear your dissent.
Image by Callie Beusman
If you're feeling hopeless now that Election Day has come and gone, leaving us with the devil's spawn as our President-elect, you might want to succumb to the urge to hibernate for the next four years. But now is not the time to give up completely. Across the country, people are protesting, organizing, and donating to organizations that are dedicated to fighting Trump's anti-civil rights rhetoric and the violence it has engendered. And—since we haven't yet become a fascist state—we can all still contact our government representatives and get them to listen our concerns. As legend has it, it's their job to take our opinions into consideration. Here's how to make sure that happens.
According to Lloyd Leonard, the senior director of advocacy at the non-partisan voters rights organization League of Women Voters, you'll want to focus your efforts on your direct representative in the House. "Obviously, your Senator represents many more people. In some cases, many, many more people. So the impact is probably less," he told me over the phone. "Your member of the House represents maybe 600,000 or 700,000 people... He or she is likely to be more responsive."
It is important that you get in touch with your member of the House, he adds. Don't leave Paul Ryan a voicemail unless you live in Wisconsin's first congressional district. It might feel good to yell at any number of the anti-choice, anti-gay, racist Republicans currently in office, but it won't really do any good if they're not your anti-choice, anti-gay, racist Republican. "They just won't respond to you. They won't pay attention. Stick to the people you can vote for," Leonard said.
Once you identify your representative, you can talk with them in person at a local meeting, call them, email them, or even send them a good old-fashioned letter. You can find the number for your congressional district member here, and most emails for representatives are formatted as firstname.lastname@example.org. Emily Ellsworth, who was a staffer for Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz from 2009 to 2012, says that from her experience of fielding calls, emails, and letter from constituents, getting someone on the phone is the best way to have your concerns heard.
"The power in calling is that you have someone that needs to answer your questions right there on the phone. So you're actually having a conversation," she told me. "Someone on Twitter mentioned to me that it was almost like sales. It's like reverse cold-calling. They kind of have to make decision right on the spot."
Ellsworth says emails just won't get the same amount of individual attention. "I think most members of Congress have a system that analyzes their emails for them," she explained. "So the algorithm will look for certain patterns or words in those letters and batch them. Then everyone gets one form letter."
Regardless of how you contact your representative, however, you need to actually know what you want to say to them. Leonard says the key is to be specific. Trump is really bad, but simply telling your member, "Trump is really bad" is apparently not effective. "The more specific you can be, the better. The clearer and more direct you can be, the better," he emphasized. So, for example, you could go through some of Trump's proposed policies and explain to your representative why you're against them. Leonard recommends calling about one issue at a time.
Your representative doesn't know how you feel unless you tell them.
The catch here is that talking to your representative is most successful in aggregate. When you call in about an issue, the staffer on the other end adds your complaint (or support) to a tally. Every call is logged and added to a report that gets sent to your congressman on a weekly or monthly basis. If the staffers get a lot of calls about one issue in a day, however, that gets sent to your congressman more urgently. In short, the more calls your congressman gets about a specific issue, the more likely they are to take action. For this reason, Ellsworth recommends that, in the coming months, you try to link up with advocacy organizations that support what you care about and follow their calls to action.
When a lot of people start calling about concrete legislation, that's when you can have the most sway. Your representative won't want to vote for something that it appears everyone in their district is against. Ellsworth adds that even if your representative holds the opposing view on the issue you're calling about—which is likely in a Republican-controlled Congress—it can still have an impact.
"If you have a congressman who is very staunch on Second Amendment rights—that's who is and that's what he was elected for—it's very unlikely you're going to reverse his position on that," she conceded. "But it's still important for them to hear from people who want things like background checks and other things that people have proposed. It makes them more moderate," especially if you live in a swing state, she added. "I worked for a Republican congressman, and we never heard from the opposite side. I think they felt like it was fruitless. But I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: Your representative doesn't know how you feel unless you tell them."
One area where calling your representative might be less productive, however, is when it comes to issues under the control of the executive branch. According to Ellsworth, this unfortunately means that voters really won't have much say if Trump decides to revoke DACA—which allowed undocumented immigrant youth to stay in the US and get a work permit—or other executive orders passed by President Obama. Trump could also pass a number of executive orders that Congress will have limited power over.
And while many congress members across the country have been inundated by calls about Trump selecting Steve Bannon—the editor of the frequently racist and sexist site Breitbart—as his chief strategist, Congress technically doesn't have any real ground to repeal Trump's White House staff picks. But even so, Democratic members of congress sent a letter to the White House on Tuesday denouncing the appointment in response to all the calls.
"We all know that Steve Bannon is dangerous and does not belong in the White House. I signed onto a letter to the President-elect urging him to reconsider his appointment of Mr. Bannon, and I will continue to condemn this appointment every chance I get," Congresswoman Barbara Lee, one of the Democratic members who signed the letter, told me over the phone. "You can and should call your representative to share your concerns regarding Mr. Bannon's appointment."
Another issue that your congressperson can't really address would be Supreme Court nominations. Trump has vowed to appoint an anti-choice judge, and if he follows through on that promise, you're going to want to pick up the phone and call your Senator, according to Ellsworth. "Your Senator is the person who runs those confirmation hearings," she said. "The House of Representatives does not have anything to do with confirmation hearings at all, so it's not useful to call them."
But the most important thing to keep in mind is that any action you take to resist Trump's harmful policies is better than staying silent. "Members of Congress work for you, and they have a responsibility to listen to your concerns and take them seriously," Congresswoman Lee said. "Even if your representative does not end up agreeing with you on an issue, it is important for them to hear your dissent."