Political Capital: What Is it?

No one has a hard and fixed definition of what Political Capital means.  Wikipedia has one, but it’s pretty bad.  There’s some argument as to whether it exists at all, but intuitively, we know it exists in some form, or we’d never lose at politics.  It is certainly not like capital in the financial sense, in that you can measure it concretely, buy it, sell it, invest it, or stuff it under your mattress.  But it is a way to articulate that there are limits to influencing decision making in human affairs.

So what is NRA’s political capital?  What does it have, and how does it build it?  And when does it spend it?  It’s not cut and dry, and my assessment of it would be just one of many opinions.  But I will describe briefly the sources of NRA’s political capital in order of importance:

  1. Membership – The people who belong to the organization, or are perceived as belonging to the organization.
  2. Money – You won’t get very far in Washington without this, and you won’t get this without members.
  3. Political credibility – Reputation for getting what you want, being able to help friends and punish enemies.
  4. Political alliances – Relationships with elected officials, decision makers, staffers and bureaucrats.
  5. Issue expertise – Ability to answer questions reliably and honestly about your issue when people come to you with questions.
  6. Media relationships – Ability to influence debate through media

Membership is first, because it is from membership that all other things flow.  It is the NRA’s lifeblood, because it is the source of money and votes.  The more members NRA has, the more political capital it has.  If NRA had 20 million active members, it could walk onto Capitol Hill, or the White House, and dictate terms.  No politician would dare cross NRA, because it would be guaranteed political suicide for all but a few.

Money is the second most important thing in politics, and flows from membership.  Money buys political ads, funds campaigns, pays for lobbying, and provides resources and infrastructure for political activity.

Political credibility is almost as important as money.  When a politician doesn’t do what you want, you have to be able to hurt him.  The opposite is also true, in that you have to be able to help your friends.  A sure way to do that is to deny or provide money and votes.  But credibility and reputation go hand in hand.  If you have a reputation for helping friends and hurting enemies, you will be feared, even if you might not actually be able to threaten an enemy’s position, or provide that much help to a friend.  As long as the perception is there, you have credibility, but perception has to meet reality sometimes, or you lose reputation.

Political credibility is what brings political alliances.  Politicians have to deal with near infinite interests, competing for their attention.  If you have credibility, eventually you will build relationships and will earn attention.  You will have a handful of good friends you can always rely on, and a lot of people who deal with you because it’s smart politics.  The latter will usually outnumber the former.  Keeping these relationships good is key to preserving political credibility.

Issue expertise helps build both credibility and alliances.  When you come to politicians with information, if it’s good information, and accurate information, they will view you as a resource and keep coming to you with questions.

Media relationships helps support all elements of political capital.  For some organizations, this would be right behind money in terms of importance, but NRA lives in a hostile media environment, so they can’t take advantage of this as much as other groups.  I will also say that I think NRA’s overall media game could be better than it is.

Next post on the topic, I will talk about how political capital gets built up and spent, and why it’s a limited resource.