Thursday, January 12, 2006

Intellectual Activism: To write or not to write?

In his comments to an HBL e-mail discussion group post on writing letters to members of Congress, Objectivist philosopher Dr. Harry Binswanger asks how members act upon the letters they receive from constituents. In my work as an organizer of several letter-writing campaigns and through my discussions with the congressional staff who answer their mails, this is what I have determined:

1.) A low-level staffer or intern will read your letter. A member will read it only if a more senior staffer believes the letter writer is a person of influence with whom the member must recon.

2.) Letters only change a member’s view when the member is undecided on a narrow issue; they will never change the member’s larger outlook. As Dr. Binswanger alludes, most letters only serve as a tally of the intensity felt for a particular issue and an accounting of the ideological spread. Since letter-reading is a non-scientific gauge of public perception, opinion polls garner more respect. Additionally, a member will be far more concerned with the demographic make-up of his district then with the content of the letters he receives. There is a reason we have a government of incumbents.

3.) The response most letter-writers receive form their Congressmen have little to do with the original letter. Low-level staffers and interns write most of the replies to constituents. They draw their responses from blocks of pre-written “approved text.” This text is purposefully vague and will typically only indicate the member is aware of your issue.

Therefore, in my view, it rarely pays for Objectivists to write their members. The broad scope of the issues that concern most Objectivists often make it all but impossible to move members on the level we seek to persuade. When mixed with the high organizational cost of getting larger groups of people to focus on a narrow issue that has a better chance for victory, the odds are typically too much against us to merit that kind of political activism.

Additionally, where there was an easy and convenient method for Objectivist’s to contact their members, few Objectivists elected to exploit the resource, or underwrite its management. The reward of saying “So I sent them a letter” only goes so far.

I do believe that there are activist opportunities in politics and law that Objectivists can engage in today, and which will reap a reasonable ROI and grow the interest in our philosophy. Letter writing may play a part in such efforts. However, I believe this activism will have to have to be well-organized, work across several realms and mediums, and be understood as part of a larger, long-range effort to create more Objectivists.

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