Time to get political? Yes, and here’s how

Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren is running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts and across the country, the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken hold as a grassroots consumer movement. Of course, there’s also Ralph Nader, who has made two unsuccessful presidential bids.

Add it all up and you can’t help but wonder if the time has come for consumers to get political.

Before I give you the answer, let’s consider a few facts about how businesses influence the legislative process. Corporate America and other special interest groups, including unions and trade groups, spent a record $3.51 billion on lobbying in 2010, according to OpenSecrets.org, which is more than twice the $1.56 billion spent just a decade earlier. That’s a whole lotta money.

Do you want to know something? That’s nothing – nothing! – compared to the $1 trillion U.S. consumers spent in 2010, up from $986 billion a year before. As I note in my book, Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, that’s the number that really matters, and it’s a number that you and I control.

Here’s how you can flex your political muscle:

Know the issues
You don’t have to read this site to know that consumer rules and regulations are made by the government every day (but it helps). From bank fees to tax reform, almost every issue that comes before your elected representative in Washington, and in your home state, will impact the way in which you buy products. Sadly, few are aware of these issues. If you don’t believe me, check out the rulemaking comments for proposed regulations at the Federal Communications Commission or the Transportation Department. Can you hear the sounds of crickets? I recommend reading Public Citizen and Consumers Union for helpful information on worthy causes.

Vote your conscience
I don’t expect you to agree with everything on the Public Citizen or Consumers Union sites, just as I don’t expect you to agree with everything I write, but when you’re aware of the issues facing the government, you can move to the next step: You can vote your conscience. I don’t mean reflexively voting for any political party; I mean learning about the candidates and where they stand on the issues that affect you, and then voting for the ones that represent your interests. (And hey, if none of them do, then consider this your invitation to run for office!) If you want to find out where your candidate stands, check out a site like Project Vote Smart, which helps match you up with the right candidate.

Don’t support a business that lobbies against you
As I’ve already mentioned, the most effective tool for change isn’t your vote (although, it is still very important), but how you spend your hard-earned cash. Thoughtlessly throwing it at the best deal is madness. See, the same business that gratefully swipes your credit card is, at the very same time, lobbying for laws that loosen regulation and that could hurt you. How would you know about that? Easy. If I want to know what a company is doing in Washington, I turn to a site called Open Secrets, which tells you how much a company has donated to a candidate, what they’re lobbying for, and how much it has spent.

The takeaway from this exercise in Politics 101 is this: A candidate who doesn’t represent your views, doesn’t deserve your vote any more than a company that pushes the government to pass laws that hurt you.

We’re in an election year. Make your vote count. Spend your money wisely.

You can change the world.

(Photo: kynan tait/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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