Several results from the State of Government Affairs Survey point out a difficult truth for organizations hoping to raise their voice this year: advocacy is getting harder as America grows more divided.
Late last year, we asked almost 500 government affairs professionals about their experience and their expectations for 2022. Almost two thirds (65%) said that political polarization has made advocacy harder, a number that held up among companies, associations and nonprofits. That’s a sharp increase from when we asked that same question in 2019 and only about half said polarization was making advocacy tougher.
As one respondent wrote, “partisan polarization makes it hard for anything to be accomplished right now.”
A Tough Advocacy Landscape
The barrier presented by polarization is different at every organization. One respondent said that navigating a landscape filled with false narratives has made it hard to build relationships and gain support from some policymakers. Another said they encounter an “if you’re not all-the-way with me, you must be against me” mentality.
“As the election season unfolds, it will be difficult to ‘duck’ on some hot-button issues that many incumbents will be stressing, but are unpalatable to support,” they wrote.
Of course, there were also some who did not feel polarization presented big challenges. Almost a quarter (24%) said they saw no difference and 11% actually said it made advocacy easier.
Yet there were many indicators in the survey that advocacy is tough in today’s landscape. For example:
- One third (33%) said it is getting harder to get meetings with members of Congress and almost a quarter (23%) said they have a similar problem with state lawmakers.
- Almost one in four government affairs professionals (24%) says the difficulty of communicating in a polarized environment is a top problem for their program.
- One in five (21%) say an unstable political landscape is among their biggest challenges, a number that rose to almost one third (30%) among those working for companies.
How to Navigate Polarization
While every organization is bound to see the landscape differently based on their positioning and priorities, there are strategies to help organizations advocate amid severe political division.
Generally speaking, the idea is to authentically communicate to public officials that your organization is part of the fabric of their community and that you are willing to listen and try to find common ground. If you are able to do that, the value of your relationship and the ability to work together on common interests often transcends your differences over time.
Of course, there will always be policymakers who have a severe ideological set, who are difficult to work with or who are simply unreasonable. But lawmakers, governors and other public officials also tend to be pragmatic. They know they must face voters, that it takes massive support to win elections and that allies provide that support. Here are some ways to navigate political turbulence by appealing to that pragmatism and minimizing partisan disagreement.
- Be Honest and Transparent. Masking the nature of your organization and where you stand is never a good idea. It foments distrust. If your organization leans left or right, or stands in support or opposition on an issue, be honest about it, explain when appropriate and look for areas of common interest.
- Share Your Local Impact. Does your organization have members or employees in the district? How about state and local offices, chapters or facilities? The more evidence you can show that you are contributing to the community, the more difficult it becomes to paint you in partisan colors. Quantifiable information like revenue, jobs, customers, volunteers or charitable contributions goes a long way toward showing that you are part of the local fabric.
- Communicate Through Constituents. It is difficult for any elected official to ignore constituents. Find those among your supporters who have compelling stories and involve them in your advocacy. A real person from the district is a more authentic voice than a lobbyist or executive. Public officials need to communicate with constituents and they need good constituent stories in order to support or oppose positions. Let your people in the community do some of the talking.
- Use Data to Support Your Positions. Having to tell an incumbent that you cannot support them on an issue is tough. It helps to provide evidence showing why. For example, a poll showing that your members solidly oppose an initiative, or a projection showing how it harms your industry, may be more powerful than argument alone. It is also harder to make partisan claims when you frame your argument using credible information.
- Use Grassroots Effectively. Filling a lawmaker’s inbox may not always be appreciated, but it is a show of strength. If you can generate thousands of emails from constituents, it implies that you can influence votes when the time comes. Authentic, personal stories are always preferable to form letters.
- Show Your Financial Support. For most elected officials, financial support is meaningful. Politicians often spend some portion of their week raising money. The cost of modern campaigns requires it. And for many, it’s not part of the job they relish. Help in these endeavors, whether through fundraising or PAC contributions, rarely goes unnoticed.
Remember too that advocacy is often a long game, and persistence pays off. Proving to policymakers that you are always willing to listen and try to find common ground, even if you may sometimes wind up in opposition, will eventually lead to respect. And professional relationships based on respect are the foundation of a sound advocacy program.