Friday, November 09, 2007

A Rationalist Caucus

P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula has asked, Can We Please For a Rationalist Party Now? in the face of significant theism on display in both the Democratic and Republican Parties.

It is a bad idea.

What happens with third parties in a winner-take-all political system that we have is that it drives the nation in the opposite direction to that which the third party desires.

A third party has almost no chance of winning an election. The winner will inevitably be a member of one of the two major parties (unless the nation is on the verge of a major schism such as that produced at the eve of the Civil War). A rationalist party will effectively take all rationalist voters out of the election – telling the candidates in both major parties that the rationalist vote is unavailable.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that rationalists tend to support Democrats over Republicans. If a Rationalist Party removes the rationalist vote from the Democratic Party, the Democratic candidates are going to have to make up those votes somehow. The only option is to embrace theocracy even more strongly than it has in the past, in order to seduce a larger percentage of theocratic voters out of the Republican Party. The result is to drive both major parties (the only parties capable of fielding viable candidates) even closer to theocracy.

If rationalists want to have a genuine influence on the political process, what they need to do is to organize a faction within one of the two major parties. They have to join a party, they have to identify themselves at party meetings and party functions, they have to get together on their own, and they have to commit themselves to simultaneously promoting their own power within the party while promoting the power of the party itself.

Step 1: Join the party. Register as a party member, find out when the next party meeting is, and show up.

Step 2: Declare yourself. At some time, declare that you are a rationalist, that you insist on dealing with social problems by applying the scientific method to those problems and allow policies to be dictated by the results of peer-reviewed academic research. Make it known that you would like to get together with other rationalists to discuss the rationalist cause. For example, extend an open invitation for all people who are interested in a rationalist caucus to meet at your home on Sunday morning.

Step 3: At that meeting, accept the fact that your primary job is to raise money and votes for the party that you have decided to join. This is where your power will come from. When the Rationalist Caucus endorses a candidate, how many votes will that sway? When somebody that the Rationalist Caucus endorses needs money for a new set of television ads, how much money can the Rationalist Caucus provide? When election day comes, how many votes can the Rationalist Caucus deliver to the polls?

This means that, at the very first meeting, set up the infrastructure for collecting and banking money, procedures for deciding who to support with that money, and procedures for raising more money. It means setting up the infrastructure for a contact list, how to get in touch with them, and how to mobilize them when the need arises.

The Rationalist Caucus should begin with the acknowledgement that their job is to form a part of an alliance among the best 51% against the worst 49% of what this country has to offer. If they end up forcing an alliance only among the best 49% then, on election day, they will be handing the country over to an alliance of the worst 51%. This means accepting the fact that many members of that alliance will not be rationalist and may hold ideas that have no rational support whatsoever. It means saying of others, “The unreasonableness of your beliefs are as bad as the unreasonableness of others that we must truly unite against.”

The magic number, again, is an alliance of the best 51%..

Within this “best 51%”, the Rationalist Caucus has the job of making itself an ever more powerful component of that alliance. In order to throw around one’s weight, one needs to put on weight to be thrown around.

Towards this end, the Rationalist Caucus should immediately set to work advertising to increase its membership and increasing the quantity and quality of contributions it can make in terms of money and labor. It does not need to have the money and labor itself, as long as it can direct the actions of those who are willing to contribute. If appealing to the Rationalist Caucus means that an email goes out that adds a few thousand dollars to a local candidate’s election campaign, then people will be appealing to the rationalist caucus.

Growing the Rationalist Caucus does not mean only going to atheist conventions to rally the atheists. It means going onto college campuses where academically-minded people congregate. It also means recruiting the best and the brightest at the high school level – those who have labor-hours available and who show a promising ability to help organize Campus Rationalists once they go to college.

It means that the Rationalist Caucus is going to put a lot of effort in on election day making sure that RC members get out to vote. It will have people set up to call every Rationalist Caucus member to urge them to vote, arrange transportation for those who express any difficulty at all getting to the polls, be ready to answer questions for anybody who has difficulty understanding exactly what they need to do. The more votes, and the more money, that gets to the candidate through the members of the Rationalist Caucus, the more power the Caucus has in determining the course of the party.

Another way for the Rationalist Caucus to grow it power and influence would be through activities such as organizing panel discussions from people with the highest academic credentials to discuss issues of importance. Does the Party want to deal with the issue of teenage suicide? Then the Rationalist Caucus finds those people who have studied the empirical peer-reviewed research and who are respected by their academic peers to come in and explain the facts regarding teenage suicide – what the research shows to be the cause, and how to prevent it.

There will be no room at the Rationalist Caucus Forum for pseudo-scientists and witch doctors. The Rationalist Caucus is for people who want real-world solutions to real-world problems.

At each event, the Rationalist Caucus should advertise why people have reason to help the Caucus. “Our goal is to find real-world solutions to real-world problems. Please contribute. Please join. Go elsewhere, and you will be appealing to snake-oil salesmen and demagogues for your solutions. Here, you get reason and facts.”

The Rationalist Caucus should also go to businesses and organizations that depend on smart people using reason to solve problems and making sure that they know of the Caucus and of the reasons they have to support its effort.

In doing this, I would recommend that the Rationalist Caucus not embrace any particular set of conclusions. As soon as people start to embrace conclusions, they start to use the conclusions they embraced to evaluate the evidence they see. They become dismissive of research that contradicts their desired conclusion, and give extra credit to that which confirms their prejudices. The Rationalist Caucus’ job is to reveal the facts that the best academic minds have so far discovered.

So, the answer to the question of abstinence-only education is not, “Yes” or “No”. It is, “Here is a list of the academics who have written on the subject, reviews of their work, and a tally of the results. We report, you decide.”

I do not think that the Rationalist Caucus should focus so much on getting its members elected (though it certainly must exercise whatever power it has to determine who does get elected). However, the Caucus should make it a point to put its members in a position to be appointed to any committees that will be investigating important matters, and finding qualified witnesses to appear on matters of importance. In all cases, the focus should be on the quality of the arguments, not the effectiveness of the demagoguery.

The Rationalist Caucus should be the first to take action whenever a campaign gets cluttered with some lies that are circulating – through the internet, through advertisements, through campaign speeches. Their network should immediately go into action to correct those lies as loudly as possible – and to condemn the liars, the sophists, or those who generally disrespect truth to such a degree that they seemed not to care that the claims were fallacious or fictitious.


ADHR said...

You're quite right that third parties, generally, have a hard time in single-member plurality electoral systems. But, then again, look at Canada. We have a single-member plurality and yet we also have a viable third party (the NDP) federally and in most provinces (they've even formed provincial majority governments), as well as some viable fourth parties in certain areas (e.g., the ADQ in Quebec, the BQ federally). So, it's not impossible to have a viable Rationalist Party, particularly if it appeals to a significant chunk of the >50% of the population that doesn't vote in US elections. That way, in tight races between Democratic and Republican candidates, the Rationalist could run up the middle. (I believe that was how Jesse Ventura got elected on the Reform ticket.)

Where a Rationalist candidate would get killed, though, is in a presidential election. Since that's winner-take-all, there's very little hope for enough vote-splitting to pull a Rationalist Party into the presidency. It's not impossible, but history doesn't favour it; third-party presidential candidates tend to finish third. Congressionally, though, it seems perfectly possible to me for a third party to win a significant enough number of seats that they could hold the balance of power. And that would also apply to state legislatures.

Of course, the underlying problem is that single-member plurality systems encourage the existence of two giant parties. That's really where they work best, after all, as then plurality = majority. The real question is whether SMP is superior to all the other electoral systems that're out there. And, of course, what counts as a "superior" electoral system. For my money, some sort of proportional representation is best as it keeps the parties honest. There's never a guarantee of any one party winning any significant number of seats, and a new party can form and win significant influence in the legislature. Furthermore, in a system like Canada's, where there are third and fourth parties floating around, proportional representation in some form would go a long way to correcting electoral imbalances (e.g., in the recent Ontario election, the Liberals won 71 seats (66% of the house) with 42% of the vote. By contrast, the Progressive Conservatives won 24 seats (24%) with 31% of the vote and the NDP won 7 seats (7%) with 17% of the vote. The Green party won 0 seats with 8% of the vote. Just ridiculous.)

ADHR said...

I'll take back what I said about the presidency, thinking about it further. Given how evenly split John Kerry and George W. Bush were, it's reasonably possible that a third-party candidate could engage enough non-voters to run up the middle. After all, if Ventura could do it in a gubernatorial election, why couldn't someone else do it in a presidential one?

Cameron said...

Because no one thinks a third party candidate could win.

Because there's been backlash against Nader every single time he's run for "stealing" votes from the democratic candidate.

The only real way to get a viable third party would be to change the election system (to something like instant runoff voting), where people can express their true preference for their candidate of choice (through voting), without fear of "handing" the election to the other side.

ADHR said...

But why don't people think the same thing about gubernatorial elections?

On a related note, why instant runoff? Why not, say, single transferable vote (my favourite alternative)?

anticant said...

Have you been studying Lenin on entryism?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


A debate over which political system is best is somewhat outside of this particular post - which concerns the best way to proceed given the political system that we have.

In this system, it may be possible for a third party to get elected. However, it is reasonable to expect that events will transpire as I described them. The existence of a few exceptions does not disprove the general tendency - just as the existence of people who have fallen 10+ stories and walked away is not proof that jumping from the top of a 10-story building is a good idea.

And, for the record, I do think the same thing about gubenatorial elections.


Actually, I had to look up this 'Lenin on entryism'. However, when I did, I found a discussion about how one organization should try to take over another organization.

I did not say anything about 'taking over' an organization. In fact, I explicitly wrote about the need to cooperate to form a coalition of the best 51% against the worst 49%.

What I did write about was how the flow of political power works in this country. The points that I wrote are the same regardless of whether one is talking about the Log Cabin Republicans, the Congressional Black Caucus, or the Moral Majority. All of them live or die on these principles.