Politicians are motivated by a variety of things: money, power, ideology, vanity … but the one thing most important to all politicians is being in the position to acquire, exercise, affect or nourish those things – namely, getting elected and reelected.

The only attribute necessary to be a successful politician – and, therefore, the most important asset any politician possesses – is the ability to be elected. While politicians can sometimes be swayed by reason or emotion, the only real leverage an activist has with a politician is the activist’s ability to enhance or impair that politician’s ability to be elected.

Helping politicians sympathetic to our cause is important, but they have a tendency to take that help for granted and repay it with lip service.

Being aggressively vindictive to impede a politician’s ability to be elected not only captures that politician’s attention but has the added benefit of sending a strong message to other politicians that they should not cross you or balance too delicately on the fence.

As Machiavelli said (and my father was fond of repeating), “It is better to be feared than loved.”

Impacting elections is the essence of political power, and the key to effectively exercising this power is to wield it consistently and dispassionately, without consideration of any factor beyond the politician’s actual actions – votes, statements and backroom dealing – and the most recent actions are always the most important.

Whether a politician is self-serving and corrupt with no real concern for anything beyond the perks his office provides or a committed ideologue casting votes based on core beliefs and conviction of conscience, it is the function of effective activists to make sure that the elected are held accountable when November rolls around. Activists must make sure that all of the chickens come home to roost. Activists must also be constantly reminding politicians between elections that their activities are being monitored and that there will be consequences for every vote.

This is why clear, recorded votes are so critical. Activists must always push to force politicians to take a public stand on critical issues. That means that, to get activists’ support, politicians must not only vote favorably when a measure finally hits the floor, but also be active behind the scenes, helping to promote or oppose the bill and casting correct votes during procedural voting that allow the measure to reach the floor and a final vote.

Politicians will bend over backwards to avoid “hard” votes, and any measure must run a gauntlet of procedural roadblocks before the measure itself can be voted on. Therefore, it is critical that every procedural vote to bring good legislation to the floor should be clearly labeled by the rights community as being a pro-rights or an anti-rights vote, and every one of those politicians must be held accountable for every one of those votes.

Along the same lines, a politician must never be given a “pass” or be “allowed” to vote wrong. Whether it is a bill that is politically and philosophically difficult to oppose – such as the legislation revoking the gun rights of misdemeanor child molesters – or a procedural vote that goes against the president or party leadership, it must never be OK to vote wrong on even minor procedural matters if they help bad legislation survive or progress. Every vote must hold consequences.

The bottom line is that talking loudly and carrying a big stick will generate a lot of noise but won’t move politicians to actively work for what’s right unless the big stick is regularly and consistently used to pummel those who fail to toe the line and particularly those who betray and backstab. If the big stick is rarely if ever used, the threat becomes hollow, and politicians will ignore it.

We in the gun lobby are strong, committed and numerous. We have carrots for those who help us, but we also have a really big stick that can do serious damage to any politician in the country – if we’re willing to use it.

An effective activist movement or organization must not only carry the big stick, they must apply it to the careers of politicians without fear, without remorse and without hesitation.

Taking such a hard line will alienate some friends in office. It will occasionally result in the loss of a “moderate” friendly to an outright opponent. But, in the long run, it will result in solidifying and advancing the cause, and that is the essence of effective lobbying. That’s how the gun lobby became one of the most influential movements in American politics, and it is how political activists can move a popular agenda even against powerful politicians and political machines.

There is, of course, a downside to using the stick too much. It can become weakened and less effective through overuse. That’s where some political pragmatism must come into play, but not too much, because pragmatism kills initiative and dampens activist fervor more effectively than any other tool in the opposition’s arsenal.

The most effective course is to have clear policies in place regarding deployment of the big stick, to make those policies very public and to stick to the policies ruthlessly, regardless of the circumstances. Anything else just motivates politicians to ignore you.

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