Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Grass-roots lobbying as Responsible Citizen Engagement

Perry Recker


By Perry Recker

According to the Center for Public Justice Guidelines for Government and Citizenship, responsible citizenship includes not only paying taxes, law-abiding behavior, and voting, but also the exercise of influence “by means of the media and other independent organizations, such as …lobbying organizations, and advocacy groups” to help shape our civil society along paths of greater justice.

But living out the implications of such responsible engagement is no easy matter.

For one thing the universe of discourse provided by today’s media accentuates ideological polarization and militates against a more normative tone of civil discourse.  But, as Summers, Mouw, Gerson and others have advocated on these pages, encouraging civil and respectful dialogue between people who strongly disagree with each other is requisite when issues of public justice and the common good are being debated in the diverse public squares of our contemporary society.

Secondly, while the spirit of civil discourse among us may be willing, the flesh—at least in terms of available channels or structures—is weak. In my experience, for example, the Center for Public Justice has provided a consistent, articulate expression of my political voice on many political issues and principles for well over three decades.  But the lack of a party structure—that is, an organized means of identifying and electing candidates for public office who could actually represent my voice in those legislative halls and executive offices—has been a deeply discouraging and frustrating reality.

On the other hand, a second implication of the Guidelines for Citizenship states that “Citizens should not mistake the right to express political opinions through interest groups and the media for the right to exercise influence in and through elected representatives.”  While the larger context of this implication in the Guidelines is an appeal for electoral reform, in the absence of any real possibility of such reform in the near future, I believe that unpaid lobbying can also be a means of exerting influence more directly “in and through elected representatives.” 

There are, in fact two organizations, the Results organization and [its newer cousin,] the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) which have developed a method of lobbying government representatives in a tactful and respectful, yet clear and direct way about an issue of concern. Results has experienced considerable success in the areas micro-financing and  foreign aid budgets, while CCL is just getting off the ground on the issue of  a carbon tax and rebate bill.

As a result of my involvement with the CCL, I have become convinced that certain kinds of lobbying can not only be a responsible means of citizen engagement in the calling to shape public policy, but also a respectable and effective means of demonstrating an alternative political will—one that counters the insanity of media driven hostility as well other distortions of public justice resulting from the practices of corporate-sponsored paid political lobbying. 

By responsible lobbying I mean: citizens working together in an organized group, approaching Members of Congress with respect, recognizing their good intentions, bringing evidence of broader support for one’s position (editorials, letters to the editor, research studies, etc.) without “dumping” unwanted literature on either a Congressman or his staff.  Responsible lobbying also includes sharing any success with others and acknowledging the feeling of empowerment and satisfaction of meaningful civic engagement without feeling guilty or prideful crowing.

Citizen engagement of this sort can focus attention on solutions that advance public justice rather than corporate interests fixated on ever-larger bottom lines, capital assets, and unqualified GDP at the expense of public and environmental health. Such organized lobbying is a means of fulfilling our calling as citizens to shape the political process along paths of justice, and I invite readers to pursue (with discernment) these or similar opportunities that may exist in communities across the country.

--Perry Recker serves as a librarian for Chicago Semester and the City Colleges of Chicago.  He participated in the Civitas program of the Center for Public Justice in 2006 and 2008 and is currently group leader for the Chicagoland chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”