Lee Hamilton: If you want a voice in government, communicate

Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is, yes, we do. But we have to use it.

I don’t just mean going to a town hall meeting and yelling, or firing off a letter or email. I mean making an appointment to sit down with your representative – in his or her office, at a cafe in the district, or anywhere you can meet. I’m talking about a real conversation.

The heart of a representative democracy does not lie in its electorate, or even its elected officials. It rests in the communication between them, in the give and take that allows each to understand the other. During my years in office I noticed a few things about how to make this conversation more effective, and, for what it’s worth, I pass them along.

First, you want to keep the discussion respectful and polite. Incivility and confrontation are counterproductive. Explain how the issues affect you personally and make it clear that you’re trying to establish ongoing communication, not just a ‘one and done’ meeting. If your representative comes to respect you because of your approach and your knowledge, that’s an important step forward in expanding your influence.

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This next part may seem daunting, but it shouldn’t be: Do your homework. You’ll be far more effective if you’re well-informed about the core facts on the issues and about the person you’re speaking to.

Understand that legislators deal with many challenging relationships: voters, donors, constituents, interest groups, party operatives, officeholders at every level of government. Listen carefully and ask a lot of questions. Find out where your representative stands on your issues and why.

If you engage this way with your representatives on a regular basis, I think you’ll have reason to be satisfied that you’re stepping up to your responsibilities and increasing your effectiveness as a citizen.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.