Finding Leverage Points, Flexing Muscles: Lessons from the Anti-Saloon League, Part Four

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.

Leverage is literally a force multiplier. In politics, a relatively small number of very dedicated volunteers, donors and voters can have an impact far greater than their numbers if they act with precision. The secret is finding the right fulcrum or leverage point to focus your energy. It is important to choose places where you can use your limited power for maximum effect. Wayne B. Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League understood this perfectly.
By the time Wheeler stepped onto the national stage, he had long since mastered his legislative parlor tricks. When Lincoln Steffens had visited Columbus several years earlier, Wheeler explained his tactics to the great muckraker. “I do it the way the bosses do it, with minorities,” Wheeler said. By delivering his voters to one candidate or another in a close race, he could control an election: “We’ll vote against all the men in office who won’t support our bills. We’ll vote for candidates who will promise to.”

Wheeler made the Prohibition vote the deciding voting bloc in close elections. Even a small group of dedicated supporters became incredibly powerful. They could reward supportive candidates or, more important, dispense retribution to those in office who failed to deliver. In a close election, if you can swing even a few percentage points of the total vote as a bloc, you get to decide who wins the election. You can demand almost anything you want from the candidates. Wheeler found the right leverage points to multiply his force.

I have heard Firedoglake founder Jane Hamsher describe it this way: If you lightly hit someone in the stomach, they don't feel much. If you lightly hit the bicep, they don't feel much. But if you lightly hit just that right spot on their funny bone, they feel it.

Finding the pressure points was an important part of the Anti-Saloon League's success. It became the decider in close elections. The ASL knew how to make the most out of its resources and achieved the rare goal of passing a Constitutional amendment. What’s important is not just the size of a political organization but where and how well it uses its numbers to create the greatest impact.

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