The psychology of grassroots advocacy and sustaining a movement

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Joshua Habursky, director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America and Mike Fulton who directs the Washington office of the Asher Agency. 

Historically low public trust and confidence in government could pose a significant threat to sustaining grassroots movements and civic participation in government relations.

Compelling citizens to engage in grassroots advocacy with elected officials and federal decision-makers requires an emotional incentive to take the time away from careers, family and the motions of daily life. Emotions such as hope, improving quality of life, or seeking to correct an injustice are all some common catalysts to action. However, the tenor of discourse propelled by some interest groups on both sides of the aisle have been leveraging emotions such as anger and fear far too often. These emotions are certainly within the tactical toolbox and have proven to be an effective means to motivate people to take a stand.

One could argue that there is a connection between the style and tone of communication methods and public trust in government. When organizations create doomsday scenarios and hit the fear and anger pressure points they may be very successful in the short-term, but adversely affect the overall framework of a participatory democracy in the long-term.

At some point, the public trust could be so low over an extended period, causing apathy to set in and diminishing political efficacy. Instead of people distrusting government and attempting to petition them for grievances, citizens would remain distrustful, but wouldn’t do anything about it being drained for the negativity and feeling as if their efforts appear to have little to no effect.

Can high levels of grassroots participation co-exist with negative messaging over an extended period of time? According to the Pew Research Public Trust in Government research released this past May, “no more than about 30% have expressed trust in the government in Washington to do the right thing at any point over the last decade. This marks the longest period of low trust in government since the question was first posed in 1958.”

Perhaps public trust continues to decline as government and advocacy organizations continue to message negatively, yet grassroots activity continues to increase and the malaise doesn’t set in. If the current variables hold true the tactics could shift from conventional to unconventional methods that are more disruptive. Emotions have already come out in the conventional vehicles that carry political opinion such as town halls, protests, petitions, and the inundation of Facebook messages, calls, and letters to elected officials.

Dr. Mary K. Alvord, director of Alvord, Baker & Associates, LLC, suggests “strong emotions tend to motivate people to become engaged and take action.”  However, she cautions, when they become flooded with high emotion, it can also interfere with clarity of thought. “The balance of emotion is key in helping see the impact on their lives without overwhelming them,” stresses Alvord.

Alvord says, “people lose trust when there are inconsistencies in the messages and the messengers!  In addition, in psychology, we talk about tolerance of uncertainty playing a role in anxiety; those with less tolerance being more anxious and seeking certainty.  People’s tolerance varies, with some wanting to know the rules, expectations and outcomes (even if those outcomes aren’t realistic) and others who having a higher level of tolerance.”

Alvord cites a 2008 study led by Nicholas A. Valentino of the University of Texas at Austin published in Political Psychology, “Is a Worried Citizen a Good Citizen? Emotions, Political Information Seeking, and Learning via the Internet” indicating that individuals with more anger tend to suppress information-seeking, while anxiety increases information seeking.

Let us not discount the fact that political rancor is nothing new to the American Republic and trust in governmental authority is a trait of the founding of the United States. Moderate public trust is an essential ingredient for sustainable and impactful grassroots activity and informed debate. The nature of grassroots activity rests upon the notion that ordinary citizens can change the course of the most powerful institutions when they coalesce around a set of ideas. Bringing people together around a set of ideas 1) rests on the belief that the goal is attainable; and 2) someone is listening to the grievances. Clarity of communication and argument must be diversified between negative and positive messaging to have a full effect. Advocacy professionals can continue to stoke the fires in the hopes of spurring activism, but instinct tells us constant negativity cannot serve as an indefinite catalyst.

Overall, advocacy is a marathon and not a sprint and the most successful organizations do not use all their resources at one time for a short-term gain. When adversaries leave you an opening, one must leap at the opportunities presented and capitalize on it. However, a more balanced and strategic approach to advocacy communications is the secret. Government relations is a people business and our audiences need to be treated with respect and professionalism, which includes optimism in democracy.

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