Big policy ideas are having a moment. Proposals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, $15 minimum wage, a wealth tax have captured the attention of activists and media. In truth, bold ideas have always inspired more people to join a cause. More than five decades ago the presidential candidacies of Barry Goldwater and Robert Kennedy galvanized their respective party bases with promises of major reform. The rise of digital tools that bypass elite opinion makes this easier as leading digital organizers point out. Nuanced proposals are not the main event.
This may pose a challenge for policy wonks deep in the details of their favorite issue or advocacy organizations working on a problem that has yet to capture public attention. Some inevitably decry a loss of nuance in policymaking or worse, make condescending comments about uneducated masses who don’t understand how important their work is. These attitudes are not only ineffective, but ultimately self-centered and mistaken. That millions of people could ever keep up with the complexity of every issue is a pipe dream. Of late, I spend my working days on higher education policy, and know very little about K-12 education or much else. There just is not time for all of us to be in the weeds on everything.
More to the point. If your advocacy strategy relies on everyone suddenly caring about your thing or the world going back to times before the internet or social media, you’re not going to get far. Better to embrace the moment with strategies that respond to the times. Here are a few ideas about how to stay relevant.
You Can Be Bold and Detailed
One lesson from the current Presidential campaign is that policy specifics are not inconsistent with bold proposals. Senator Elizabeth Warren staked her brand on getting big things done and telling people exactly how she do so with lengthy white papers. This may be more targeted at media members and party activists who pay closer attention to such things. Regardless, it demonstrates that even in the digital age, doing your homework still has its advantages. By all means write your detailed while paper, but push yourself to think big and be able to explain the core concept in a brief phrase or tweet.
Hitch a Ride on a Bold Train
If your issue is just too narrow or complex, another option is to try to attach it to a larger proposal. Let’s say you have an idea for making prescription drugs less costly. On its own, it may not gain serious attention, but you may be able to convince legislators proposing versions of medicare for all or a public option that your idea would complement theirs. After all, expansions of public programs cost money and lowering drug prices may help them achieve their goals. By including your idea in electoral candidate proposals or actual legislative bills, it makes it more likely that when the policymaker has a chance to move the policy forward, she will bring your idea along with it.
Of course, it may not make sense to hitch a ride on a train that isn’t going anywhere. Bold proposals can also inspire intense opposition. If your idea enjoys broad, if mild support from policymakers attaching it to a controversial legislative vehicle could make it less likely to pass. Otherwise supportive legislators might link it with something they do not want and ignore it even when discussed as a separate matter. There is no formula for knowing when to go bold and when to be cautious, it’s a matter of case by case judgement. Nevertheless, fortune’s favor leans a little heavier these days.
Reframe Your Idea to Gain Traction
If you issue does not fit neatly into an already popular bill or candidate proposal, another option is to identify it as a solution to a more widely recognized problem. Let’s say you support a new childcare policy to expand subsidies for working parents and there is no major bill capturing public attention at the moment on childcare. Another option is to frame this as part of the solution to reducing gender inequality in the workforce. Women more often end up forgoing work to take care of children and if childcare is too expensive there is more financial incentive to stay home. Expanded childcare access, therefore, would help women stay in the workforce and pursue their careers (Affordable childcare advocates have been making this point for some time). Since policy problems often connect across multiple issues, linking it to a narrative that garners more attention may help ensure that policy proposals to fix the problem includes your ideas.
Tried and true tactics should continue to be part of the plan. Identifying a key story that exemplifies the human impact of the problem you’re trying to solve, developing a statistic that shocks people into paying attention, and building champions on your issue are all important parts of moving an issue forward. I’ll cover these in more detail at another time. The point here is that if the usual methods aren’t working, it may be worth going bolder or framing your issue as part of a broader policy or narrative to gain traction.