Politics Is the Art of the Possible

After writing my previous post chastising the National Atheist Party, I thought (and hoped) that I’d be done writing about Reason Rally drama. Alas, it was not to be. Apparently, the organizers are now getting an earful of complaints about the speakers list: partially with reference to Bill Maher (who’s supported deplorably irrational anti-vaccine kookery), but more specifically about Senator Tom Harkin, who’ll be greeting the Rally in a brief videotaped message. The complaint is that Harkin isn’t much of a friend of reason or secularism – for example, he’s a backer of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which wastes millions of dollars of taxpayer money each year investigating dubious therapies – and the argument, apparently, is that we ought to disinvite him.

I’d understand this argument in other venues. At an atheist conference, which is meant to appeal to atheists and promote the atheist view, it’s perfectly OK to insist on a degree of consistency from the speakers. (I’d be very sympathetic to an argument for not inviting Maher to Skepticon, for example.) But this isn’t a conference, it’s a rally: its purpose is to show our numbers and our strength. To achieve that, we want to attract the largest coalition possible, even if that means more diversity and disagreement; and we absolutely want to draw notice from elected officials. For that reason, scoring a sitting senator is a coup.

Sen. Harkin didn’t have to go to even this much effort – and most elected officials didn’t. Make no mistake, even recording a simple greeting to us is a political risk, and it’s one he didn’t have to take. At the very least, we should acknowledge that. If a politician reaches out to us and we slap his hand down, what will happen? Will he learn the error of his ways and stop supporting religion and pseudoscience? Of course not: he’ll write us off as unreachable, and go back to appealing to the people he thinks are persuadable. Even worse, other politicians will see this and learn that seeking support from atheists is a waste of their time.

By recording a message to the Reason Rally, Sen. Harkin is implicitly saying, “I think you may be an important voting bloc (which we are) and I want your support.” That’s a solid-gold opportunity, and we shouldn’t pass it up. Of course, if this is all he intends to do for us – throw us scraps of symbolic acknowledgement while ignoring our real political concerns – then we don’t have to support him. Time will tell on that score. We shouldn’t let ourselves be led into the veal pen, and no one’s saying we have to vote for him or donate to him just because he said “hi” to us.

Instead, we should use this as the launching point for a dialogue. Imagine if Sen. Harkin’s office gets hundreds of letters after the Reason Rally, all of the form, “Senator, we appreciate your interest in reaching out to us, and we’re willing to support you, but only if you’ll vote with us on X, Y and Z.” This would send a strong message that reaching out to atheists pays political dividends, but that we want something substantive in exchange for our support. There’s a real possibility of getting a sitting senator in our corner, and that would be huge.

Even in the best case, no politician is going to vote our way 100% of the time, and we shouldn’t expect them to. But we can help to push them in the direction we want, counterbalancing some of the political pressure from enemies of reason. It’s better to negotiate and have an elected official on our side, say, 50% of the time, rather than writing them off because they don’t unconditionally support us, and thus ensuring we get their support 0% of the time. This is a foolish and self-defeating strategy. If we want politicians to vote our way, we need to show them what they get out of doing so. If our demands are “Vote with us every time or you get nothing”, they won’t even try.

On his blog, PZ wrote that that he’d rather “change the world“, but I don’t know how he expects to do that if he thinks our strategy should consist of shunning everyone who’s ever taken any position we disagree with. If we seek support from elected officials who’ve cast votes we dislike, are we “compromising our principles”? Only if your principles are “Maintain ideological purity at all costs, even if it means passing up chances to make alliances and effect meaningful change.” And that, frankly, is a stupid principle.

Politics is the art of the possible. The essence of politics is bargaining, negotiating, and yes, compromise. Since we live in a democracy where everyone gets a vote, there is no alternative. If we want to change the world, we have to engage with people who don’t believe as we do, and in that situation, total inflexibility is a sure path to failure. We don’t have to change what we want, but we do have to accept that we’re not going to get everything we want every time, and take our victories where we can. We also have to accept that we’re a minority, and therefore it’s important to make alliances with people who offer us their support, even when we disagree with them on other issues. (I’ve made this same point about working with theists on humanitarian causes.)

If you refuse to ever compromise, if you refuse to ever share a stage with people whose beliefs are different from yours, you can maintain your unsullied ideological purity, but only at the cost of being completely ineffective in the real world. If your numbers are tiny it doesn’t matter in any case, but the atheist movement is becoming large enough that this is a choice we have to make fairly soon. PZ and others seem to want us to barricade ourselves in a fortified castle of reason and pull up the drawbridge, so that no one ever gets in without our say-so. I’d rather leave the gates open so that we can go out into the world and talk to people, and those who want to learn more about us can come inside. It won’t be long before our community will have to choose which of these paths we want to go down.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.