How to influence a legislator…without screaming

Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University student who testified before Congress about the need for religious-affiliated institutions to provide contraception as part of their health-care coverage, visited St. Louis recently and told us that she is trying to be a talker not a screamer. Vilified as she was by Rush Limbaugh, who called her a slut and prostitute – a college girl gone wild–she urges conversation, reasoned debate and calm discussion to influence others to your point of view.

Is she correct? Why shouldn’t I tell my misinformed, ignorant legislator that she is just plain wrong, and that her legislation is immoral and will destroy our state and our democracy as we know it?

Oops . Is it too late to give up screaming for Lent?

At a recent event attended by several state legislators the question and answer session provided clear evidence that the confrontational approach does not work. After a state representative spoke about his stance on Medicaid expansion, a member of the audience stood up and berated him for his insensitively to the poor and preached to him about the immorality of his point of view. The legislator reacted by standing up straighter, clenching his lips, and finally telling the woman to sit down if she wanted a response. It was definitely not an effective exchange.

So if we give up preaching, bullying, vilifying, and waving rude signs, what do we do?

Another legislator at the meeting when asked how to influence an opponent suggested the following strategies (listed here with my own interpretations):

Research the demographic base of the legislator you want to influence. Determine how the constituents in the district will be helped (or harmed) by the proposed legislation . (I understand that 10 percent of the residents in your district rely on X regional hospital. It would be difficult for them if the hospital had to close.)

Cite polling that would support your stance and that shows the legislator’s constituents agree with you . (52% of your constituents believe…)

Find an area of agreement, no matter how small, that provides an opportunity to praise the legislator. (As a last resort, I know you want to do what you feel is right for Missouri.)

Provide facts and send articles or studies from reputable sources that support your viewpoint . (The University of Missouri has done a study which I think you might find helpful.)

Acknowledge that you and the legislator disagree but leave the door open for future discussion. (I know we disagree about this but I hope we can talk about it again.)

Perhaps we can leave the screaming up to the talk show hosts and even to our legislators in their heated floor debates . And for me, at least for the rest of the Lenten season, I am going to try the Sandra Fluke approach; I will treat the legislators I have occasion to contact with the same respect I would expect them to show me.