Amid talk of powerful lobby groups, wealthy donors and illegal zoning, it’s often easy to forget that America is a representative democracy. Despite these real flaws though, your representatives are still yours and they have to listen to you. I discovered this after the election when I began calling the offices of my Republican congressmen (mine are all men) to voice my displeasure with their policies. A staffer at John Cornyn’s San Antonio office began to recognize my voice and invited me to come downtown for a discussion. (As a side note, Senator Cornyn is an alumnus of Trinity University and once wrote in the pages of the Trinitonian about the scourge of VD on campus. The “˜70s were wild.)
Housed within a generic office building, the Senator’s office is compact and pedestrian. There is a front desk, a conference room, a senior staffer’s office and a water cooler. Framed pictures of a smiling Cornyn with various constituents line the walls and a TV set to CSPAN-2 plays quietly in the corner. Upon entering, I was greeted amiably by the staffer who had recognized me on the phone.
We moved to the conference room and, like a therapist paid for by my tax dollars, the staffer took out a pen and notepad and asked me what my concerns were. I spoke for almost 45 minutes about issues like fact-based policy, climate change and the tiring and disgusting political hypocrisy coming from both parties. In an almost gratuitously indulgent yet thoroughly welcome display of receptivity, the staffer wrote down everything I said.
After I had exhausted my reservoir of concern, the staffer and I walked out of the conference room to the reception area. As I was about to leave, a senior staffer, who had been with Cornyn for 11 years, emerged from his own meeting with constituents and agreed to sit down with me in his office. This talk was much different. I was overmatched. The senior staffer knew more about the issues and was more familiar with Cornyn’s record and past statements than I was. For every policy or concern that I brought up, the staffer instantly parried with his own statistics and defenses of the Senator’s record. This wasn’t surprising; the job of a senior staffer is to defend his boss and presumably this staffer wouldn’t have spent 11 years with Cornyn if he wasn’t a true believer.
I was feeling defeated until I brought up the hypocrisy of the Republican refusal to hold hearings on Obama’s late-term nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, a move that Cornyn had supported. The staffer immediately pointed out the Democrats’ own obvious hypocrisy and gave a defense of Cornyn’s position that was on surface reasonable and rational. Then I asked, “Would Senator Cornyn have made the same argument if a Republican had made the nomination late in an election year, instead of Obama?”
The staffer stopped short. The smooth flow of rationalizations abruptly ceased. After a long moment he said, “I don’t know.” My point was made and I pressed it, thinking that I had finally gotten through to this staffer who, though he was sincere, had been in the game so long that he had confused rationalizations for truth and developed a tolerance for cognitive dissonance. I urged that Cornyn be a voice of honesty, calling out both his own party and the Democrats. The de-escalation of partisan politics has to start somewhere.
Perhaps I was overly optimistic. As I was leaving, the senior staffer reminded me that there are 534 other members of Congress. This struck me as defeatist, an abdication of moral courage in the face of a daunting challenge and an abdication of responsibility for the role Cornyn’s own party played in the degradation of democratic norms.
That’s a bit harsh, though. I’m very grateful to those two staffers for hearing me out and humoring me. People don’t change their minds instantly, and learning to be intellectually honest and call out hypocrisy on either side with equal vociferousness takes time. Regardless, I think that the staffers and I came out of our interaction having reached some common ground and with new ideas.
I’d encourage every person who reads this to call their senators and representatives. Politicians are influenced by their staff and by the messages of their constituents. Like all people, they feel more comfortable standing up for something when they know they have support behind them.