The Fatal Flaw in “Holding Your Reps Accountable”

A lot of energy is being spent in an effort to “hold our representatives accountable.” Marches, phone calls, showing up at town halls, and more. While that work may be necessary in the short term, there is a fundamental problem with the concept.

Your representatives are already 100% accountable: to their donors.

Money is what got them into power, and money is what will get them re-elected. If they don’t please their donors (by slashing your health insurance coverage, easing regulations on polluters, lowering taxes on billionaires, etc.), then those donors will give their money to some other candidate who is more likely to do their bidding. And that new candidate will probably win if they have more money. Your representative (be it in Congress, your state assembly, or city hall) will be out of a job. What lengths would you go to if you wanted to keep a very prestigious job?

Also, we forget that thousands of bills are voted on at the various levels of government each year. There is no way you and I and all of our friends could ever keep track of all of them, and your elected officials are on the billionaires’ side of every one of those issues. So even if we win one fight, there are hundreds of others we don’t even know about that we’re losing. In fact, most of the time we lose because our issues are simply not written up into bills, or if they are, they get no cosponsors (note that while Bernie Sanders health care bill now has 15 cosponsors, when he introduced a similar bill in the past it had no cosponsors). Billionaires control the agenda, and only issues they care about come up for a vote. This is why inequality in this country has been skyrocketing since the ’80s and shows no sign of stopping.

Most of the people who are in office right now — people who got into office because of big corporate money — will never be on your side. You didn’t get them into office. And by you, I mean the people, the little guy, average Joe & Josephine America, the 99%. Your participation (or non-participation) was pretty much irrelevant compared to the millions of dollars they accepted from their donors. Whether you showed up at the polls didn’t matter to them. And they don’t expect your participation to matter next time either.

Is this how government works? Is there no way to change course? How can we get out of this pattern?

First, we have to stop spending all of our energy saying “no” to things we don’t want. I don’t know about you, but in my personal life the more I focus on things I don’t want, the more I get things I don’t want. Unless we spend our energy creating things we DO want, there will be nothing to fill the void. Specifically, unless we spend our energy putting great community leaders into local office and supporting them, there will be no one to fill state and national offices except those bought by the 1%.

We need to spend our time creating what we do want: incorruptible elected officials who represent the people, not the corporations. With a little elbow grease and a thoughtful strategy we can fill all levels of government with great politicians whose mission is to pass laws that help all Americans, not just the wealthiest few.

Most of these good elected officials find that getting into office is only the beginning. Once they are elected, the bad guys do everything in their power to prevent our champions from changing anything.

The advice to “hold your representative accountable” does have a recommendation for the good guys — call them and say thank you. This is nowhere near enough.

For our chosen elected officials — those rare good ones who don’t take any corporate money — a “thank you” is too little, too late. We should be acting as an adjunct staff, helping them with research, legwork, alliances, letters to the editor, attendance at city council meetings, social media, and public marches to help with any issues they are trying to pass against the wishes of Big Corporate Money. And “holding your representative accountable” will never cover these critical actions.

The phrase “hold your representatives accountable” assumes an antagonistic relationship, which is the fundamental problem with the concept. If your job is to “hold your representatives accountable,” you will always be working against somebody, and that adversarial approach cannot create and support the good politicians we need to fill our government.

Why it’s not enough — an example

Recently we were talking with an organization that endorses progressive candidates in their city and the problems with the concept of “holding your representative accountable” became very clear. The members of this organization had worked very hard to help a number of progressive candidates get elected as city council members and mayor of their city, and their supported candidates won. Then the organization stopped being involved. Eight months later, representatives from the organization attended a city council meeting where the council members were voting on whether or not to continue using the Urban Shield program, which the organization was against. And the mayor and most of the city council members (including ones this organization had endorsed) voted to keep the program. The reasoning behind keeping the program was that no other training had been set up for the city’s police officers. This relatively progressive city council voted to extend the Urban Shield program for at least six more months.

Members of the organization’s steering committee immediately began mobilizing their members to “hold their elected representatives accountable” by following the Indivisible playbook: calling to state their unhappiness with the decision, organizing mock town halls, and threatening to vote for someone else in the next election.

If this organization had worked with the mayor or any of the city council members during the months leading up to this vote, they could have done the research and legwork to find other programs, talk to staff and police about their needs, and put pressure on the other elected officials to support the preferred program. All of this work could have been done in coordination with the politicians the organization had elected.

Instead, they took an antagonistic approach. Imagine being an elected official targeted by this group. An organization that once supported you is now actively working against you, threatening to vote you out of office. Would you choose to work with this organization again? What would your immediate reaction be to other demands that this organization presented in the future?

It’s human nature to want to do things for those who are nice to us, and to resist and ignore people who are confrontational. Big donors are almost always pleasant, and they often give gifts. Once they stop supporting a candidate, the relationship simply ends, leaving the politician wishing they were still in the relationship. Clearly the carrot is more effective than the stick.

The belief that we can get anyone to do what we want by being pains in the ass and threatening their livelihood is simply contrary to the truth about human nature.

Note: The basic premise of “holding your elected official accountable” is based on results achieved by the Tea Party. But the Tea Party situation was completely different from our current situation. In the Tea Party example, a small group of people pushed their elected officials to do things that their donors already wanted them to do. In our case, we are pushing them to do things their donors do NOT want them to do. While this approach might work in the short term for a few, very well publicized bills, it will not get us any closer to the government we want and will use up a lot of energy we could be using to elect good people and support them.

How can we achieve lasting change in our political system?

By electing people who put the well-being of their constituents first because of who they are and their relationship with the community. And the only way we can make that change permanent is to support these incorruptible officials once they are in office. Join us as we do just that.