September 23, 2006

Thinktanks, Political Infrastructure, and Atheists

I'm reading another book by George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives. It is best described as a brief field manual for progressive politicians to teach them why the Republicans have been so successful and provide them with practical advice for turning the political tide in the favor. I have not finished it yet, and so I will not provide a review now. However, I will say that I am very impressed so far. In fact, I see how following Lakoff's suggestions could produce great benefits to those of us in the atheist community. Once I've finished the book, I'll probably address this in a review.

The topic of this post is an interesting question raised by Lakoff fairly early in this book. Given that Republicans have developed countless influential thinktanks to assist their politicians, where are the progressive thinktanks to assist ours? I had never really considered this question before. Lakoff provides a thoughtful answer, including differences in funding mechanisms used by both parties and differences in the core values of each party. However, he also suggests that progressives need to rethink those values which stress immediate gains over the long-term assistance that could come about through the development of a thinktank infrastructure.

The crux of the issue is that progressives want to put their money into organizations that will use it right away in direct assistance to the needy. This is laudable, but it may be shortsighted. The Republicans, seemingly selfish by comparison, have a clear strategic plan. They are thinking about political domination over the long haul. Since helping the needy is not their priority, they can afford to fund their thinktanks. Moreover, by cutting social programs designed to aid the needy, they make it increasingly difficult for the progressives to develop any sort of infrastructure. Selfish? Yes, but also pretty damn clever.

I think this exposes a serious weakness of the progressive side of which I consider myself a part. Given the differences in values, we may never invest the kind of money Republicans are spending on political infrastructure (e.g., media ownership, thinktanks, intellectuals, etc.). I am okay with this to a degree, but I think some compromise is necessary. A progressive political infrastructure is sorely needed to bring us together, define a common set of progressive values, and learn how to best convey these values.

What does any of this have to do with atheism? Plenty. You see, there are plenty of conservative Christian thinktanks, and we have all seen the strength of their political infrastructure. We atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, brights, etc. have a collection of organizations with different missions and a lack of shared vision. Do we need an American Atheists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Secular Coalition for America? Probably, but I sometimes wonder if an umbrella organization might be able to do more by collapsing resources. Assuming that most of us cannot afford to contribute to each of these (and countless other) organizations, how are we to choose? I also wonder how much communication is going on among these various organizations to develop a shared vision.

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