So, what is the difference between inflaming people and leading them?
I began my work by going from one support group to another, all across the state. Homeschoolers well remembered the rallies, and the indignities they felt they had suffered at the hands of the state. They had neither the desire nor the inclination to reach out to their legislators, to build relationships, and to make their concerns known in a winsome way.
So for the first year, I had to lobby two different groups. I had to explain to homeschoolers the necessity of civility and the effectiveness of respectful dialogue, and I had to apologize to many legislators, and assure them I was there not to cast stones, but to build a bridge with those stones.
It was tough going both ways. Many homeschoolers, properly feeling that theirs was a righteous cause, felt no compunctions about slandering me as a tool of the state, and assuming evil motivations on my part because I negotiated with legislators rather than upbraiding them. But many others listened and learned.
At the end of that first year, we narrowly defeated a law that would have been disastrous for us. My wife urged me not to continue. The abuse from the very people I was trying to help distressed her. But board members from the state organization persuaded me to soldier on. At the end of the next year, we passed a law which — as one of our legislative allies put it — gave us 98% of what we had been seeking. And we did so with super majorities in both chambers.
I share this for one reason: to demonstrate one of the main things I learned from the experience: it is easy to inflame people, it is difficult to lead them. Numerous rallies had left people upset and momentarily energized, but it took repeated communication, multiple trips to support groups, and continuing efforts to inform and involve them to get anything actually accomplished. A 20 minute speech at a day long rally was worthless by itself.
It is easy to get people to click “like” on a Facebook meme. It is easy to get people to forward a hashtag to all their friends. This is something known frankly as “virtue signaling.” In these days of social media, it is easy to get people to make passionate statements on their social media feeds declaring their support for almost any noble sounding cause. It is relatively easy to persuade people to show up for a protest march, or a rally on the state Capitol steps. But as homeschoolers, we had done that sort of thing for seven long years before I became lobbyist, and what we had to show for it was increasing polarization and hard feelings.
Homeschoolers distrusted legislators and government officials generally, and legislators suspected homeschoolers of being potential child abusers. Rallies and marches would never end the polarization or change peoples perceptions of each other. I had to convince homeschoolers to invite legislators who were running for office into their homes for campaign events. I to convince legislators it was safe to go there. That was hard going, let me tell you. But that was one of the major tools that allowed us to change so many votes in so short a time.
Both sides feared what they did not know. Where there still some hostile legislators? A few, yes. But the final vote in the state Senate was 45 to 3 in favor of our bill, and 84 to 16 in the house. When legislators got to see the vast majority of homeschoolers, got to meet their children, their fears lessened. They felt comfortable voting to accommodate the people they had met.
And there remained more than a few, I’m sorry to say, paranoid and hostile homeschoolers. On the day the bill passed, some of them confronted me furiously. After living with the law we passed, almost all of them felt quite differently. Indeed, now they take credit for what they had opposed at the time.
I have seen these broad movements repeat themselves over the last 25 years. Someone gives a speech, posts a meme, creates a hashtag, or Tweets, and gets people excited. Remember when the terrorist group Boko Haaram abducted 300 young girls. And social media created a hashtag, #bringbackourgirls ? How effective was that? As Wikipedia states “little has been accomplished through social media regarding results. As of January 13, 2017, 195 of the 276 girls are still in captivity, close to three years after the kidnappings.” The few who have escaped and returned to their families report being raped repeatedly.
I state again, it’s easy to get people inflamed, it’s difficult to lead them, to keep them doing the small things every day that bring about real change for the better. Edmund Burke, the British philosopher and politician, spoke of the “little platoons.” These are the voluntary groups of people who get together and actually do something to make changes.
That is how we changed the climate for homeschooling in the state of Iowa. We went out and enlisted families and support groups who would actually do things; host campaign events, meet with legislators, provide opportunities for lawmakers to meet with their families, to see what they were doing. When the governor signed the bill, he gave me the first pen, citing my “leadership.” But I knew it had been accomplished by scores of families–little platoons–all across the state.
So, go ahead, “share” and “like” and hashtag to your heart’s content; but recognize that you have at best raised awareness. And be civil to those who disagree. Learn to really listen to them. And then form or join a “little platoon” to go out and do something concrete, without fanfare and in spite of obstacles, to actually help a victim of abuse, or set up counseling for an abuser–or make progress for whatever cause you claim to support. But real help will involve building healthy relationships with people, some of whom you disagree with, but who need your help, not your censure. It’s much harder than simply signaling your virtue; it’s actual leadership.