Friday, May 25, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Lobbyist and the Organization She Represents

A lobbyist walks into a legislator's office . . . .

She is carrying a folder that demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt the merits of some proposal that she (and the organization she represents) wants the legislator to support.

After making her case, the legislator shrugs and says, "I agree with everything you said and your reasoning is sound. However, it doesn't make one bit of difference."

Holding up a copy of the most recent party surveys, the legislator says, According to this, if I adopt your proposal, I an going to lose 10,000 votes. My opponent will pick up 8000 of those votes. Furthermore, my opponent will send out a fundraising letter and collect about $500,000 in added campaign contributions, and about 1000 hours worth of additional volunteer labor. This means what you are asking me to do is to make a significant contribution to my opponent's campaign - enough, perhaps, to give him the election.

Let's say I go with your proposal. In that case, you lose. What do you get out of it? You will get somebody sitting in this chair that is not at all sympathetic to your view. He will reject it, and everything related to it. That will be the cost of your efforts. Ralph Nader ran for President on a third-party ticket. The result was to bring about eight years with a complete lack of corporate oversight and environmental disregard that, at this point, might still destroy the economy and make extreme global warming a reality. These are the costs of political stupidity. I am going to defend as much good as I can for as long as I can.

Imagine that we are defending a fortified town from barbarians. Your plan for defending the town is for me to open the gate, stand there by myself, scream at the barbarians, and challenge them to take me on. At that point, they will charge the gate and rush into the town, slaughtering me on the way past. You call this bravery. You say that it demonstrates my political courage. I call it stupidity.

Do you really want to get this proposal accepted? If you do, then don't come here asking me to make a suicidal stand at the gate of some principle.

Holding up the survey results again, he continues, If you want to make effective change, then you must change these numbers. Lower the number of votes that a legislator who supports your position will give up - or, better yet, turn support into a real political benefit. Lower the amounts that people can be inspired to contribute to campaign opposing the person who supports your proposal. Improve the number of votes or the size of the contributions that a politician can expect if he goes along with your proposal. Then, come here and talk to me.

Contact a public relations company. Don't rely on the amateur judgment and the limited contacts available to your ego-driven board of directors. That's like going to a mechanic for a medical diagnosis or allowing a shipping clerk to design a bridge. Go to a company that has focused its energy for years on delivering an effective message. Find out how much they will charge you, then go to those who support your cause and get the money.

Let them design the advertisements and place them in the media where they will have the most effect. (But, please, demand that the advertisements be honest and responsible, and not politically effective lies and distortions.) Let them identify the influential people and groups that may ally with you and support your cause, make the introductions, and design the pitch. When you come back here, bring your list of facts and figures telling me that you are right. But also come with the economic and political support that tells me that I can support you without losing my job. Better yet, come to me with proof that not supporting your proposal might cost me my job.

Of course, to the ethical atheist lobbyist, and to the ethical atheist organization she represents, being right matters. They will have a personal need to bring their reason-based thinking and best available evidence to bear on making sure they are doing the right thing. Yet, once this is determined, the practical task of doing the right thing requires acting in the real world. In the real world, presenting this set of facts and figures to a politician is seldom the next step. The next step is to rally votes and economic support behind the right thing. The third step, then, is to take this political and economic muscle one has gathered in support of the right thing and say to the politician, "We've done our job. Now, you do yours."

Any ethical atheist lobbyist worth her salt will tell you the same thing. "My effectiveness when I walk into a legislator's office is directly proportional to the weight of the votes and the economic support I have behind me. My job is to throw that political and economic weight around as efficiently as possible. Your job, as the ethical atheist organization I represent, is to find more political and economic weight for me to throw around. Our joint responsibility is to make sure that we throw this weight in the right direction - that we are using it to do good things."

(I have heard many atheists say that preaching to and trying to convert others is beneath them. They cringe at the accusation of being "fundamentalists" - an accusation they get simply because they engage in the practice of defending certain important, potentially life-saving propositions as true. This attitude merely guarantees that atheists remain socially and politically impotent - which is probably why theists love to make these types of accusations.)

One of the guiding principles for the ethical atheist lobbyist - and the ethical atheist organization she represents - should be a healthy respect for and devotion to reality-based planning and decision making. These are the facts of the political universe in which the ethical atheist lobbyist and the ethical atheist organization must work. It is irrational to ignore them.


Bilbo Fraggins said...

Two things: when Edwina was called out on this reality on Culture Wars Radio, she brought up a few good points. First, the best place to influence legislation is in committee, and killing or tweaking bad legislation at that stage is just as important and less politically dangerous then introducing new legislation or voting on the floor. If that was the only place that lobbying was effective, it would be worth it.

If you read the issues, or listen to Sean Faircloth's presentations, you'll notice many of the issues listed are not the most important ones to the movement, though some of those are thown in. They are by and large health,safety, and discrimination issues around which a collision can be built, and with which many religious people agree when questioned. Personally I think some of the issues are listed to get atheist firebrands on board, and are unlikely to actually get any traction in the near term.

Sean Faircloth made great hay out of the child are safety issues, and the woman's and gay rights are quite hot topics at them moment. These are issues where adding our voice to the collective din can be quite effective.

Meanwhile, in the process coalitions are built and political capital accrues. Getting and maintaining access is one of the most difficult jobs for a lobbyist, and inertia is a powerful thing. And building coalitions is the necessary long term solution. Bootstrapping and growing those around issues rather than candidates seems to be the way such things usually go. Then if a hero figure emerges to run for office, the coalition will be waiting for her.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

My project during the first two months of this year (the January and February posts) concerned an assessment of Sean Faircloth's new strategy for atheists and secularists. I was mostly supportive in general, though I brought up some disagreements as to the details.

Also, I agree that there are things that a lobbyist can do now - even with little political or economic weight. They can still work at the margins, sometimes very effectively.

But there is nothing they can do with a trace of political and evonomic weight behind them that they cannot do better with more political and economic weight. And there us no trick a lobbyist can use that others with more political and economc clout are already using.

I do not think we are disagreeing on anything, to be honest. At least, I am having trouble finding any actual disagreement.

Unknown said...

“Ralph Nader ran for President on a third-party ticket. The result was to bring about eight years with a complete lack of corporate oversight...”

No, that was not Ralph Nader's fault for a very simple reason: when all votes were counted, Al Gore won. Blatant electoral fraud cost him that election, not votes choosing Nader over him.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

That blatant electoral fraud (which, by the way, is an accusation I reject as unsound) would not have been possible with a clearer majority.