The American Psychological Association (APA) announced the formation of its companion 501 (c) (6) tax exempt organization last year with a good deal of deserved fanfare. One of the primary objectives for this new entity, as envisioned by APA, is to provide assistance in educating uninformed psychologists about the importance of POLITICAL action (including political giving) to advancing the practitioners’ legislative agenda. Remember, APA as a 501 (c) (3) tax exempt organization is strictly prohibited from even educating members about POLITICAL MATTERS, although they are permitted to do a limited amount of educative lobbying with legislators. As I have stated in this column previously, I was very enthusiastic about the (c) (6) because I hoped it would help AAP elevate the political component of the advocacy equation to a higher plane, and I anxiously looked forward to its unveiling.
I am delighted to report that under Russ Newman’s visionary leadership, the APA Practice Organization (APAPO) is living up to its commitment to provide education about the critical nature of psychologists’ political involvement and didn’t waste even a minute getting out of the blocks on this mission. As soon as its doors were officially opened on January 1st, APAPO began arrangements for an in-depth exploration to determine what variables characterize psychologists’ political giving behavior. The project is aimed at shedding some light on why psychologists have historically been so reluctant to involve themselves in things political and why we, as a group, have been so parsimonious in the political giving arena.
The first phase of the project will use the focus group format to provide preliminary information about attitudes toward political giving. The groups will be conducted in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. In each location there will be three groups: 1) one group consisting of current AAP members, 2) one group consisting of former AAP members, and 3) a third group comprised of special assessment payers who have not been AAP members. Following completion of the focus groups, information gleaned will be used to create a survey form which will be deployed to gather data from a much broader sample of the practice community and thereby amplify the findings. Three of the six scheduled focus groups have already taken place as of March 1st.
After observing these first three groups, I came away feeling torn between the proverbial good news, bad news poles. I was both heartened and discouraged by what I heard from the participants. First, let me deliver the good news. The AAP member group was surprisingly well informed about psychology’s legislative agenda and about AAP. They were a very savvy group of individuals indeed. They appreciated the importance of political activity and they were most articulate about their reasons for being so. Pragmatism, as I expected, was a cardinal feature exhibited by these group members.
On the other hand, the non-AAP member groups told a completely different story. They were totally uninformed about the existence of AAP which in itself was neither surprising nor particularly grim. In fact, this might not have been such a negative finding, if after receiving information about the value of political action which was dispersed during the group meeting, we could detect a shifting in their attitudes. It is fair to say that little if any discernible shifting in attitudes occurred amongst the members of this group, even after arguments had been presented which supported the role of political involvement for psychologists. It underscores what we have believed for a long time, namely that we have a great deal of work cut out for us in educating our non-AAP-member brethren. The work we have to do is pretty straightforward. We first have to impress upon them the importance of political action to advancing psychology’s legislative program in general; and then we need to bring them up to speed about how the system really works and why the strategies we use are best for achieving the goals we have set for psychology.
Unlike the AAP-member pragmatists, these individuals were idealists of the highest order, 180 degrees apart from the AAP-member group. While I have nothing against idealism conceptually, in the real world of the American political system idealism is anathema to the pursuit of our eminently attainable goals.
As most readers of Advance are well aware, when advocating for the greater good of the profession and the patients we serve, personal political beliefs must be relegated to a position of secondary importance. This means, for instance, that even though one may be a staunch environmentalist in the voting booth, at times we will have to support a member of Congress whose environmental record may not be stellar, but whose support of psychology is unequivocal. We can’t afford to offer our support only to members of Congress who pass muster on every social issue affecting the public interest predilections of our members, as if it would be possible to figure out what those were to begin with. This is not to say that all those strongly held beliefs about issues like gun control, tax cuts, abortion rights, etc. should be abandoned, regardless of what side of the issue you are on. As individuals we should advocate vigorously for the concerns we value highly, but at the same time we must also necessarily support the profession’s agenda even in cases where our individual beliefs collide with those of the profession. While it would be nice if all the candidates we supported also had high marks on a whole host of public interest issues, these can not and should not ultimately have any real impact on our central mission: advancing the science and profession of psychology.
The uninformed group also extended their misguided notions about advocacy to the issue of party affiliation. Even if one is a Democratic Party loyalist in the individual voting booth, as a group we must support candidates from both sides of the aisle in order to promote our legislative program. This often creates real conflict for psychologists who are typically very outspoken about a variety of social issues. AAP/PLAN has maintained a policy of bi-partisanship in our giving program because we recognize that our success in advancing psychology’s agenda on Capitol Hill is dependent upon garnering support from members of both political parties in Congress. Imagine how limited our legislative program would be if our support of candidates reached out to members of only one party and not the other. If we supported only Democrats, for example, our legislative advocacy program would have been stagnant for the past 7 years based on the fact that Republican control of both houses of Congress would have made our issues essentially dead in the water. We have cultivated champions in Congress who have come from both sides of the aisle, and our support of candidates must be extended to friends on both sides as well.
When thinking about this issue, I am reminded of an insightful statement made by Senator Tom Harkin at an AAP Black Tie Dinner in his honor some years ago. During his after dinner remarks, Senator Harkin told the attendees, “it is a tribute to how far psychology has advanced on Capitol Hill that you could enlist me, a liberal Democrat to cosponsor a piece of legislation with Senator Jesse Helms, whose political orientation needs no explanation.” What he was saying of course, was a variation on the old saw, “politics makes strange bedfellows.” And we as psychologists must accept this fact and recognize the need to prevent our own individual ideological beliefs from interfering with our advocacy for the profession and the patients we serve.
Make no mistake, our uninformed and uninvolved colleagues are going to be very tough nuts to crack (please pardon the expression), but who better than a group of trained professional psychologists to try to bring about their reformation. We’ve all got to pitch in together though to insure that this happens.