OPINION: Just because you live on the other side of the Atlantic, that doesn’t mean you can’t influence politics in the US. Calling your congressman takes guts, but it can’t be harder than talking on the phone in German, argues Alexandra Dufresne.
Americans abroad today tend to fall into two camps: worried and terrified. And for good reason. The President of our country recently threatened nuclear war. Members of his own party describe him as dangerous and unstable.
The news from American is a constant stream of heartbreak. Just when we think it can’t possibly get worse – that we’ve finally hit rock-bottom – the bottom falls out again.
What can we, as Americans living abroad, do? A lot, it turns out.
As Americans abroad, we still have more political power than people in the world who do not have US voting rights – immigrants and refugees to the U.S., children, people living in Puerto Rico, civilians abroad, Americans disenfranchised, by law or in practice, and people in future generations, who will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.
These people are, not coincidentally, those at greatest risk from the current administration. Given that we do have the right to vote, the least we can do is cover for them. Indeed, as Americans abroad, we can vote, organize, volunteer, speak out, rally, boycott, protest, donate and raise money for charities, advocacy organizations, and political candidates.
We can also call our Members of Congress. We can demand that they hold the President accountable and that they refuse to normalize his actions. We can ask them to hold themselves accountable, refuse to be complicit.
Americans abroad often ask whether Members of Congress care about phone calls from American constituents abroad. The answer is yes. Why? Because our country is a representative democracy. Members of Congress do not put up with our calls out of good manners: they take them because we are their boss. It is their job to represent us. If they don’t do a good job, we can replace them.
Americans abroad often ask if they should call Members of Congress with whom they generally agree. Again, the answer is yes. Their staff are exhausted. We can call to thank them and to encourage them to keep fighting. We can share policy ideas and perspectives from living abroad. We can ask them to keep the issues we find most pressing at the top of their priority list.
Americans abroad often ask if they should call Members of Congress with whom they disagree. Yes. We can respectfully engage our Members of Congress who disappoint us. We can remind them, gently, that we are following their votes with great interest, and that we will remember their votes come election time.
Americans abroad often ask if they can just send an email or letter. No. We should pick up the phone and call. Why is calling more effective than writing? Precisely because no one wants to do it. As a result, it is more rare, and more valued. Signing a petition or sending a postcard is easy. Talking on the phone is hard.
Calling is especially hard for people who are shy or do not see themselves as political.
At Action Together: Zurich, a group of American and Swiss to which I belong, we encourage Americans abroad to make their first call, through silly campaigns and lots of (positive) peer pressure. Many of us were not “political” before; some of us are shy. But take heart: the person on the other end is a young staffer. You are not wasting their time: you are helping them do their job. And there is no way that talking to them is harder than speaking on the phone in German.
So put the numbers for both the D.C. and the local office of your members of Congress into the contacts of your phone. Sign up with advocacy organizations for issue briefs. Make calling a habit, like recycling, or saying thank you.
Americans abroad sometimes ask how we can be sure that calling will make a difference. We can’t. But we call anyway. Why? Because we are members of representative democracy, however fragile and imperfect. As such, it is our job to tell our representatives when they are not representing us faithfully. Because if not us, then who? It is still our country. And we – we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Alexandra Dufresne is an American lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland and one of the co-founders of Action Together: Zurich, CH.