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Politician Puppy Training

What the tea parties can learn from the dogs

Almost everyone loves puppies, at least until they start making messes on the carpet.  With every puppy comes the responsibility of training it to become “man’s best friend.” The same can be said about legislators. While they are, of course, not dogs, they do need to be trained in order to be turned into a voter’s best friend. While most go to Lansing or Washington to do the right thing, many will end up making messes that result in less liberty.

Training legislators, as with training puppies, must be done with care and common sense. Puppies don’t learn to bark before going outside because their masters have set an example by relieving themselves in the backyard. That type of “communication” would just confuse a puppy (to say nothing of the neighbors).  Instead, an external system of rewards and punishments is used to guide the puppy toward doing the right thing.

There’s a lesson in this for tea party groups who seek to communicate their concerns to politicians. You don’t need to explain the principles or speak their language to get your point across. Indeed, this is often the last thing that will work.

While trying to speak their language can take many forms, the most common one is the misconception that activist citizens outside the legislative process can – in real-time – easily influence lawmakers during the heat of a legislative battle. You may have been subjected to this fallacy if you have ever received an email “alert” or other communication telling you to go call your lawmaker “immediately” so that you can make a difference regarding a vote that is taking place “right now.”

It rarely works that way.

In most cases, you got the word too late. Your lawmaker may have already made up his or her mind. Or he or she is talking to another lawmaker, or a lobbyist, who knows the issue better than you do. Or it’s one of those votes taking place late in the evening, long after the staff you think you are calling has already gone home. Or the vote you were told to call about is a version of the bill that no longer exists because new language or new amendments were added or deleted. (And when that happens, you may get another urgent “alert” telling you to call AGAIN about the NEW bill. Rinse, repeat).

Or it’s a combination of all of these, and much else.

The brutal fact of representative government is that citizens not on the floor of the legislature are suffering a massive information deficit that is usually fatal regarding their ability to change the mind of a politician during a legislative battle. Your lawmaker has the “experts,” staff, lobbyists and other lawmakers feeding him or her information that you do not and cannot know. When the situation changes – as it often does rapidly and without warning on complicated and/or controversial legislation – he or she knows this right away, but you may not know it for hours (or days). Indeed, lobbyists who are paid large salaries to know these things are not always up to speed when it counts the most because they are not in the legislative chamber either.

A tea party group trying to chase these moving targets that they often cannot even see is setting itself up for both failure and frustration. Rarely is it effective.

Like the trained puppy, your lawmakers will follow the training that has been driven into them beforehand. Trying to teach these at the last minute is usually as effective as racing out and peeing on your own backyard as soon as you see the puppy lift his leg on the rug.  Representative democracy, like puppy training, means you teach the big idea well in advance and then trust the politician or the puppy to do the right thing with the specific details when the big moment arrives.

Counter-intuitively, this means that you can often make the biggest difference well after the vote is over. Afterward, you can find out what your lawmaker knew at the time, and judge whether they made the right decision or not. If they barked smartly and did their business outside where it belongs, a tea party group can send a big important message by effusively praising them for it. But if they peed on the rug, an equally powerful and effective message can be sent by rubbing their nose in it.

With this past experience in mind, a politician will learn what is expected of them the NEXT time an important vote comes up. Whether the issue is taxes, spending, regulations or what not, a message has been sent to the politician regarding the type of conduct that is acceptable – and what is not. Either way, they learn that praise or punishment from a tea party is a real consequence of their future actions.

Astute readers of Michigan Capitol Confidential will notice that this understanding of the process informs much of our work when we report to you about legislation. We don’t attempt to give you a blow-by-blow, up to the minute, accounting of what is happening. We do indeed hear a lot of rumors, and a lot of informed speculation, as bills are moving through the process. We certainly could pass all this along to you … and then spend a lot of time backtracking, and changing the story as circumstances warrant. Every word we wrote would only be as good as the next committee hearing or amendment. The result would be frustration for both us and our audience, and not a whole lot of useful advice about bringing about changes.

Instead, we wait until the dust is clear and it is obvious what has been done and how the votes have come down. Then we tell you, and leave it to you to decide what to do about it. We try to give you the information that the politician had at the time of the vote, so you can make a fair decision about whether that vote reflected the metaphorical distinction between your puppy peeing on the rug or barking at the door.

And that’s when it is most effective for you to decide whether to scratch behind their ears or smack them on the nose. Either way, they’ll remember the next time.

A few final points to keep in mind so as to maximize your group’s effectiveness when communicating in this way:

  1. Because this is a training method, there is no such thing as an “old” lesson. The politician will learn what your expectations are, even if the vote you are contacting them about is two years old. Don’t hesitate to praise or punish as soon as you discover what has happened.
    Michigan Capitol Confidential keeps an archive of every story regarding every vote we have ever reported on. You can browse through it here: www
    .MichCapCon.com/12541.
  2. As with training the puppy, past performance is no guarantee of future results. You should never assume that any puppy is beyond redemption, but also never assume that a puppy who is good once will always keep on barking when he or she is supposed to. You expect politicians to change their future behavior based upon your reaction to their past conduct, so reserve the right to change your opinion regarding them as new information is gathered.
    It is also perfectly acceptable to look at one who wanders off the straight and narrow and ask: “What have you done for me lately?”
  3. In some cases, there are issues so big and consequential that a well-informed tea party group can tell a politician well in advance what is generally expected of them. One example in the current political environment would be public employee pay and benefits. Gov. Rick Snyder has said this will be a major issue that he plans to tackle. The controversy will be immense and the potential savings is massive. For any person or group with an opinion on this matter, there is no need to wait for a vote before training the legislative puppies how to bark.
  4. Finally, it is important to remember that while you may regret having to rub a puppy’s nose in a mess, you will swiftly learn that the same is not true of politicians. Publicly calling to account those who stray from what you want is not just effective… It can also be fun and addicting. Your group will have a good time if it gets a taste for policing what it believes is the bad conduct being done by Michigan legislators. And the membership of your group is also likely to swell as others learn of your exploits and want to join in.

This is why it is extra critical to remember not to have too much fun. One tea party leader suggests finding one politician to praise for each vote you criticize. (Conveniently, this can often be done with the same vote, because some legislators will vote in ways that you approve of). As with the puppy, you should deliberately seek out opportunities to praise politicians who bark when they are supposed to and don’t make a mess.

The original version of this story was posted online on Dec. 24, 2010.

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