Monday, October 15, 2012

Kyrsten Sinema and Why Atheists can be elected to public ofice in America

Kyrsten Sinema
 Though the common perception is that open atheists are among the least likely candidates to succeed in attaining public office here in the United States, I often wonder how often the idea has been tested empirically. In other words, how many open atheists actually run for office in the United States? Herb Silverman, who ran for governor of South Carolina in 1990 did so not as a serious candidate with any intention of actually winning, but as a legal ploy to challenge the law preventing atheists from running for office. Silverman had no party backing, ran as a write-in candidate and had no previous political experience.

In truth, due to laws like those in South Carolina that have only been challenged and overturned in the last few decades, and the long held assumption on the part of atheists that nonbelievers have no real chance at being elected (due to frequently cited polls that indicate atheists as being only slightly more electable than Nazis) I suspect that politically viable candidates who are openly atheist simply do not exist to any significant degree. Figuring that their campaigns are doomed to fail, atheists don't seem to bother running for office at all, or do so in a closeted way.

This election season I've been searching for openly atheist candidates in any election anywhere in the country and so far I've found exactly one. (If anyone knows of any others, I'd love to hear about them.)

Kyrsten Sinema, who is openly atheist and openly bisexual, is running for Congress in Arizona having won the Democratic primary against two opponents. Her opponent is Vernon Parker, a conservative black Republican. In many ways, this is a very unusual race, but what is interesting is how ordinary the race is in other respects.

Sinema has a long history in Arizona state politics, and is a polarizing figure. Though she paints herself as a progressive Democrat, she has made comments that have drawn ire from the local progressive community in Arizona. Meanwhile conservatives paint Sinema, who has been lauded in the New York Times, as being a leftist extremist. In today's polarized political climate, what could be more normal?

Conservatives blast Sinema for being in favor of reforming Arizona's anti-immigration laws and being in favor of marriage equality, but progressives worry about Sinema's views on health care reform and Middle east policy. For instance, she has said that a repeal of Obamacare "really doesn't matter" and wanted to keep "all options on the table," including war, in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. These are centrist and right of center positions at best, and troubling comments from a progressive point of view. 

Sinema's bisexuality and atheism are not (if you will pardon the double negative) non-issues in this contest, but they are not issues that her opponent, Vernon Parker, has chosen to openly highlight. These "issues" are subtext in the campaign, and even the Internet trolls seem more interested in the fact that Sinema is an attractive blond woman than in the fact that she's an atheist.

The election took a weird turn recently when Vernon Parker accused the Sinema campaign of racism. The Arizona State Democratic Party sent out mailers in support of Sinema criticizing Parker's views on Medicare. Parker countered that the picture of him used in the mailer made him appear darker skinned than he really is.
“When you make me four, five shades darker and my teeth 10 shades whiter and my eyes 10 shades whiter, I think they get the point I am black,” Parker told Roll Call. When asked if he thought the image resembled a minstrel, Parker said yes.
“The mailers are being used as a divisive factor in the campaign,” Parker said. ”It is unfortunate that the Democratic Party [that] goes around saying that they’re ecumenical and inclusive would use a photograph like that.”
Parker's complaint seems ridiculous (you can decide for yourself at the bottom of this post), and Sinema has nothing to apologize for since her campaign had nothing to do with the flyer or the photo. A Democratic Party spokesman has defended the flyer pointing out that all he did was take a color photograph of Parker and make it black and white. The picture was not intentionally darkened.

Parker has played the race card before:
Parker has alleged racism before. During a primary campaign for Congress two years ago, he called out fellow Republican Ben Quayle for telling voters that Parker would become "the national poster boy for the Democratic Party if elected."

Parker said then that he was offended by the use of the word "boy."
Despite the fact that I don't see true racism at work in these examples, Parker might have a point. In a race where the big issues are so divisive, and minds on both sides of the issues are pretty well made up, subtext potentially becomes very important. Vernon's conservatism and Sinema's progressiveness are where the race wants to be, which is on the issues. Vernon's blackness and Sinema's bisexuality is the subtext we all want to avoid.

But Sinema's atheism, so far, hasn't really been that big a deal. Given this, could atheists be wrong about their inability to get elected? If Sinema loses in Arizona, there's no reason to think that it will be because of her lack of religion. It will simply be politics as usual in America.

Vernon Parker's Original

Democratic Party mailer

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I'm curious--what has she done to tick off the progressive community in Arizona?

    I was shocked when The New Republic included her in their list of "ridiculous" candidates, especially when they attacked her for wearing a pink tutu.

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    1. Here's a link to the article I was referencing: http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/108689/five-ridiculous-congressional-candidates-who-will-probably-win

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  2. I can't explain The New Republic's position, but I'll hazard a guess that they were looking to strike some kind of non-partisan "balance" since the other four mentioned in the article seem to be Republicans or worse. None of her policies were mentioned, which are very much in line with the current Democratic Party and maybe a little to the left of Obama. Also, her opponent, Vernon Parker, is somewhere between full on Tea Party and our own Brendan Doherty as far as I can tell. Any centrist politicians from Arizona should be welcomed. As for the pink tutu, so what? And the comment quoted in the article is a bit dated and her policies don't relect anything like that. So yes, it is shocking to see The New Republic engage like this.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. She is NOT an atheist. I just saw a post on her facebook page yesterday by Kyrsten herself correcting someone on this. Do you hacks even fact check before you post your drivel? Jeez

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  5. I'd love to see the source on this. I got my information from a few different places, but if Sinema has said differently, I'd love to hear it.

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  6. I found this here (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/secular-ariz-democrat-to-replace-sole-atheist-in-congress/2012/11/09/a91885fa-2ab4-11e2-aaa5-ac786110c486_story.html):

    "While Sinema’s campaign was initially unavailable for comment after Tuesday’s election, spokesman Justin Unga said Friday that Sinema does not consider herself a nonbeliever, adding that she prefers a 'secular approach.'"

    I'm happy for the correction, though when I looked on her Facebook page I found nothing like what Hoosier Boy mentioned. Still, since this source is from yesterday, and the post above ran on October 15th using the best sources I had at the time, I'm not sure why Hoosier Boy has such a negative attitude about this. I think "hack" or even "retard" the word he used in his original post, since deleted, is a bit unnecessary.

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  7. You couldn't pay me enough to run for office. Instead, I'd much prefer to own a politician or three. I'm kind of Medici in that respect.

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