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Influence Policy in Washington, D.C.: Be an Activist for a Day

How Activists and NGOs Influence Policies in Washington, D.C.

Activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are important in the working of Washington, D.C. NGOs are essentially all entities outside of government, although most definitions usually exclude organizations in the private sector, and sometimes labor too. NGOs often work on a particular issue: saving children in Africa, promoting the rights of a disenfranchised minority, or protecting the environment, for example.

Yes, activists and NGOs are part of the establishment; they lobby the legislative and executive branches of government just like their counterparts on the payroll of the private sector and labor. But unlike these other groups, activists and NGOs typically identify themselves as Washington outsiders, opposed to the insiders.

Whereas corporate or labor lobbyists may be happy to admit that they are working to promote the interests of themselves, their members, or their clients, activists and NGOs see themselves as warriors fighting in the defense of their chosen cause célèbre. They present themselves as white knights in need of a dragon to slay, and more often than not this enemy is found in the corporate lobbying machine.

Yet the relationship between activists/NGOs and corporate lobbyists is more symbiosis than medieval combat. Activists and NGOs exist to promote their policy prescriptions, but fighting corporate influence in Congress and the administration is how and why they thrive and galvanize support. Corporate lobbyists, needing to justify their own worth to their bosses, can therefore emphasize the threat that activists and NGOs pose to a company’s business model or entire industry.

Activists and NGOs have their own time-tested formula to mobilize support for their issues:

  1. Define an issue and take a stand.

    Worried about oil drilling in Texas? Why not also worry about drilling in Pennsylvania? Concerned about the health effects of smoking? Why not go after soda and fast food too? Activists and NGOs can really take a stand about anything, as long as they justify it as being in the interest of something greater than themselves.

  2. Find an enemy and make a claim.

    Promoting a particular “good” such as good nutrition or environmental conservation would benefit people, but cutting through the daily political chatter to draw attention to an issue is difficult. Creating a fight, particularly a “little guy versus big guy” fight (like in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is a tried and tested way of attracting attention.

    So finding an enemy that could be perceived to be threatened by what the activist or NGO is trying to protect or defend is smart advocacy. If the issue is the environmental impact of oil drilling, the enemy is probably the oil companies, and maybe some conniving politicians to boot.

  3. Create a message to rally support to the cause.

    An objective analysis, complete with PowerPoints, of the possible impact of oil drilling on the local caribou population probably won’t do. The activist or NGO needs to grab people’s attention. Think Silent Spring or the movie Super Size Me. The goal isn’t to exaggerate, just extrapolate:

    • “At this rate every child in America will be overweight by 2020.”

    • “If glacial melting continues to accelerate, Manhattan Island will be under 3 feet of water by 2050.”

    Will this actually happen? Who knows, but parents and New Yorkers will sure take notice.

Without the activism of the past, you might still be toiling 15-hour days in dangerous workplace conditions, only to come home to firetrap apartments where you might get sick dining on potentially unsanitary food. Most Americans would agree that government regulation has seriously improved our lot by reducing the risks they face in their daily lives.

Then, as now, special interests argued that such regulation is ineffectual, burdensome, and sometimes even counterproductive. But for activists and NGOs, it’s one victory down and on to the next battle.

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