Thursday, March 15, 2012

Confessions of a Political Intern

By Grace Tate

            This year I had the incredible privilege of interning with my Delegate during the eight weeks of the 2012 Virginia General Assembly. It was an exciting opportunity to learn lessons that couldn’t be taught in a book; elusive mysteries that answer only to Master Experience. How do things really happen? Who really holds the power?

            Upon reflection, I would like to try to put a few of my most notable lessons into words, in case I’m not the only one who can benefit from them. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
1.    Politics is about real, regular people.

            Some things seem so obvious, they sound silly saying out loud: Politicians are just people; lobbyists are just people; voters are just people.
Politicians are often accused of living “in a bubble,” disconnected from reality. While this is a very real problem, it is not limited to the politicians. Just as distance distorts image, it also can distort our image of each other. To many voters, politicians resemble the mythical villains in Saturday morning cartoons. In turn, many politicians come to view voters as spoiled children to be placated, rather than taken seriously.
The majority of my work was responding to constituents, and it was interesting to read letters to the Delegate from people I knew, striking a completely different tone from how they communicate with me face to face. Some were demanding and demeaning, implying that the Delegate had the power to fix everything, if only he would ______. It made me wonder, how many would change their tone if it was their relative, friend, or neighbor who was elected, instead of a stranger?
I think I could write a book about this subject alone, but no one would probably read it. Besides, my point is hardly original: Love your neighbor as yourself. Respect for others opens doors. Those who manage to successfully bridge the gap between the elected and the represented wield great power.

2.    The power of the public is real

            Speaking of power, here’s something that surprised me. I went to Richmond expecting to see how things are “really done” on the inside – you know, all the back-room, closed-door deals. Subconsciously, I shared the sneaking suspicion of many: that “We the People” don’t really matter much beyond election day. To really make a difference, you have to be an insider. And money helps.
            But this is not an accurate picture of reality. There are parallel political battles being waged in private and public, and both greatly influence the other. Yes, insiders certainly do make things happen, lobbyists have influence, and back-room, closed-door deals are a daily reality. But you know what? A great majority of what goes on behind those closed doors is dictated by public opinion. Blitzes of phone calls and editorials can send seismic shockwaves through  the halls of power, upsetting even the most well-established game plans. I witnessed this first hand, as several bills turned controversial, and were eventually dismissed as “political liabilities” by party leadership. The insiders called the shots, but it was for a decision that never would have been considered if the public had not spoken.
    If you disagree with the “public opinion,” make sure your voice is a part of it. The constituency of my Delegate’s district is predominately pro-life. But for the first half of session, I received way more pro-choice opinions than otherwise. They were feeling threatened by legislation being considered, and therefore had a greater incentive to speak out. But the pro-life community seemed unprepared for the challenge. Please don’t assume that others will think like you and speak for you. Electing like-minded representatives is a good start, but they need our support beyond election day. We have great influence, like it or not.

3.    It really does take courage to get involved.

That last paragraph was preaching more to myself than anyone else. Being immersed in the world of politics brought me face to face with the embarrassing reality of how little I am actually involved in it. In Richmond, I couldn’t ignore what was going on... even though some days I wished I could.
Perhaps I’m the only one, but the more involved I become in political developments, the stronger my inclination to withdraw from the controversy. I almost never read the comments on an article online, and rarely weigh in on a debate. I avoid the editorial/opinion section of the newspaper like its contaminated with anthrax. Why? Because honestly, I don't like to disagree with people, much less have someone disagree with me. Sometimes pride disguises itself in noble justifications. “Peace, peace! There is no peace…” 

    Yet love is not silent on issues that matter. Caring is what makes me vulnerable, but is also exactly why I work to stay involved. Some things need to be said. Some ideas need to be challenged. Some things are worth sacrificing my neutral reputation and emotional tranquility. If I let pro-choice propaganda rule the editorials in my newspaper unanswered, who do I have to blame for inhibiting the pro-life message? Ideas not only have consequences – they inherently challenge opposing ideas. Humanity is engaged in an inescapable battle of ideas and beliefs. Those that prevail, define our world.

            These are some of the thoughts that weigh on my mind as I come home from Richmond.
            True loves cares enough to get hurt. Only Christians, those who believe the Son of God gave Himself in the place of mere sinners, can hope to understand this kind of love. It’s Christ that makes us capable of loving and respecting a person, even if we disagree with them. It’s Christ that gives us courage to speak the truth, with humility - even if we stand alone. It’s Christ that gives us real hope. This is what makes us salt and light; this is why we're called to every area of the world – including the hard places, like politics. The world desperately needs us – you and me – because it desperately needs Christ. May we live in such a way that makes Him shine.

            Thanks for reading! If you have any questions about my experience in Richmond, I’m happy to share more if it could benefit someone else. Here are some other lessons I learned:
·         Lobbyists are very necessary, and not always evil.
·         The “Party Machine” is also necessary, but not all-powerful.
·         Character should indeed be the number one qualification for elected office.
·         Legislative Assistants are often just as powerful as their bosses.

Interested? Leave a comment on this post! I’d love to hear from you. :)

5 comments:

  1. Best post I've read in a very long time. Thank you so much for sharing!

    I find myself frequently noticing people's attitudes towards politicians and wanting to point out that these are _people_, prone to mistakes and etc just like the rest of us.. I rarely have the courage to actually speak up though. You're right.

    Also I appreciate the comment about lobbyists. I happen to know a very good one (and expect to work for him sometime..), and don't like how people automatically think ill of them.

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    Replies
    1. You're so welcome, Katie! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      It's humbling to consider what (if anything) I would do differently if I were in a politician's shoes... not that I would want to be. There's simply so much to keep track of, so many opinions to take in, so many people tugging you in every direction... that's what makes your internal compass so important.
      It's also why I appreciate lobbyists; we need the watchdog groups to stay on top of their special issues, because no one person can watch it all. Perhaps that's a flaw with our system that should be addressed, but it's the reality right now.
      Anyways, it's nice to know others are thinking along the same lines. :) Thanks for commenting!

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  2. What a great post! Very well articulated. Thank you for sharing that with us, Grace. We all need to know how important it is for us to make our voices heard, and how it CAN make a difference. I, for one, am guilty of not wanting to get involved, and hoping that other people will make the calls. But this is not only OUR future that is being effected, but the future of our children and grandchildren as well, and we can't sit by and do nothing.

    One of the sobering realities that Daniel shared with us was how Sen. Garrett received so much irate feedback from the pro-choice crowd after the ultrasound bill went through, but scarcely a word of thanks from the pro-life crowd. You're right - these politicians are people, too, and they deserve an expression of our appreciation when they do what we ask them to. It's not fair to bombard them with demands, and then take it for granted when they do the right thing.

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