Could Atheist Think Tanks Lead to More Effective Secular Activism?

think tank graphic on brick wall
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives was an interesting read. It is a brief manual to teach progressive politicians why Republicans have been so successful. It also aims to provide them with practical advice for turning the political tide in their favor. Some of Lakoff's suggestions could also benefit those interested in secular activism.

Early in the book, Lakoff raises an interesting question. Republicans have developed countless think tanks to assist their politicians. Why do progressives have so few in comparison? Lakoff's answer refers to differences in funding mechanisms and values. He also suggests that progressives need to rethink values that stress immediate gains. We'd do well to consider how developing a think tank infrastructure could provide long-term benefits.

Different Funders, Different Values

Progressives want to put their money into organizations that will use it right away. Think of agencies that provide direct assistance to those in need. This is laudable, but it may be somewhat shortsighted. The Republicans 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 think tanks. By cutting social programs, they make it harder for progressives to develop any sort of infrastructure. Selfish? Yes, but also pretty damn clever.

I hate to admit it, but it has been a long time since I thought about this. Much of what the Republicans do looks selfish. But what if they are doing some of it to back the Democrats into a corner? What do their efforts to dismantle the social safety net mean for Democrats? It means they are always playing defense and trying to repair the damage. It is hard to be proactive when that's the hand one receives every time.

Liberals love to accuse conservatives of hating poor people. What if it isn't about hate at all? What if they view poor people as pawns and are willing to harm them to achieve victory? The ends (i.e., a permanent Republican majority) justify the means. If this seems unrealistic, consider how many modern Republicans have embraced Christian nationalism. If you are fighting a "holy" war, what's a little collateral damage?

A short-term focus on direct aid exposes a potential weakness on the part of progressives. Given the differences in values, we may never invest the kind of money Republicans are spending on political infrastructure (e.g., media ownership, think tanks, intellectuals, etc.). I am okay with this to a degree, but some compromise could pay dividends. A progressive political infrastructure could bring people together. It could define a common set of values and better communicate these values. And who among us hasn't wished for better messaging from the left?

Lessons for Secular Activists

What does any of this have to do with secular activism? That's where things get interesting. Conservative Christians have think tanks. They play a vital role in the strength of their political infrastructure. We atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and the like have something different. We have a collection of organizations with overlapping missions. They don't always communicate well or offer much in the way of a shared vision. Do we need so many different secular organizations in one country? Would we be better served by a more strategic allocation of resources?

The problem is far worse, though. I can't imagine a better example of what it looks like to play defense all the time than our secular organizations. That's all they do. They react to the assaults on secularism. They don't have the funds to do more, and the attacks keep them on defense. Ever think that is why there might be so many of them?

You and I can't afford to contribute to every organization. So how to we choose which ones to support? How cost effective is it for every organization to hire their own attorneys? Would there be advantages to greater consolidation and more pooling of resources?

And what about secular think tanks? They could develop position papers and policy statements. They could then share them with politicians and activists. Our messaging is all over the place. It often seems haphazard, more trial and error than strategy. Secular think tanks could develop a strategy. They could even think ahead and play some offense.

If what we've been doing isn't working, it is time to consider some alternatives. Secular think tanks do not seem to be something we've tried. Developing and disseminating a coherent strategy seems useful. I can't pretend to have a great idea of everything a think tank can do, but it seems like they could help here.

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