Why Aren’t We a Bigger Political Force? June 15, 2011

Why Aren’t We a Bigger Political Force?

Adam Lee asks a great question at AlterNet: There Are 10 Times As Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?

The answer’s pretty simple to me.

For most Americans, Mormonism is pretty weird… but it’s their kind of weird. It’s religious weird. It’s someone who looks to a “higher power” for guidance instead of experts or themselves. It’s lunacy, but it’s the kind most Americans live out every day in some form or another.

Meanwhile, atheists represent a group of people who don’t try to sugarcoat the harsh realities of life. We’re not afraid to believe there’s no heaven/hell/god/devil and we don’t pray when life gets difficult.

Our country can’t handle that. Reality is too foreign a concept to many Americans.

It doesn’t matter if you believe something weird. It’s all weird when it comes down to it. To fit in and to get people to vote for you, it just matters that you believe, period. That’s why most politicians don’t come out as atheists even if they are and it’s why they don’t reach out to our communities.

Adam has a couple other theories about why politicians love religious constituencies:

Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it’s easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch — and while I wouldn’t change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.

If we could ever change that, though, the benefits could be huge:

Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn’t interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We’d rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.

You don’t even need an atheist president for all that. You just need elected officials who are able to keep their faith a private matter, who know that governance based on evidence, good science, and rational thinking is superior to any government based on someone’s holy book.

(Thanks to “Jesus” for the link!)

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  • Kimmerz

    I think it’s hard for us to be a political force because, unlike Mormons (of whom probably 99% side with the religious right), we have a more diverse set of beliefs. I know Atheists who are very liberal, independent, libertarian, republican, and everything in between. (Don’t know any who are very conservative but I guess that’s not surprising.)

  • silly, the reason the Mormons are a bigger political force is because of one thing: money.
    Remember our society is capitalistically based. It is all about the money.
    oh, and if atheists had political clout, it would only lead to otters riding ostriches:

  • Fitzgerald

    @skeletaldropkick. Atheists have money, they’re one of the highest earning. Atheist have money, but they don’t spend it as a bloc like Mormons do.

    The fact is, the “Mormon Agenda” doesn’t look all that different from the “Catholic Agenda’ or the “Southern Baptist Agenda” most of the time. Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants might view each other as heathens and heretics, but they can cooperate for the purposes of promoting social conservatism. Atheists occasionally make common cause with religious minorities (including Mormons!) to defend freedom of religion. Other than that, we’re on our own.

  • Ollie

    It isn’t this so much as atheists are impossible to organize; give me 3 atheists in a room and there will be at least 4 opinions.

  • Anonymous

    Come out, come out, wherever you are! The more normalized it is in society, the easier it will be for politicians. Come out on your school boards, come out in your local political organizing committees, come out when writing a letter to the editor on political matters. Be vocal about insisting your leaders make evidence-based decisions. Keep marching in your town’s parades. Even coming out in your school or around town will have a residual effect.

  • Anonymous says come out.

  • Tristan Lawksley
  • Jennifer

    Why put Jesus in quotes? It is a very common name, particularly in the Southwestern US.

    I wouldn’t have said anything but in the prior post you didn’t put Jim in quotes.

  • The LDS church is an extremely organized religion. Few people leave it, and those who do, like the atheist teen I took in last summer, are likely to lose their families because of it. The brainwashing is total. I remember my teenage cousins making certain that they tithed 10 percent of the money they made from babysitting. That money amounted to very little, but it started the tithing habit early. Listen to “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon musical–you have to be well indoctrinated to believe some of that crap. They are organized for political clout.

  • Nordog

    Why aren’t atheists a bigger political force?

    Could it be because, as someone here on another thread put it…

    Atheists aren’t a cohesive group or a community. All we are are people who lack belief in gods. You can’t build a community on a negative and we aren’t responsible for every negative action of people who we hold similar views to us.

    Or could it be the withering scorn and condencension summed up in statements like…

    Our country can’t handle that. Reality is too foreign a concept to many Americans.

    …or snarky comments about sky faries or the Sky Daddy?

    …or insisting that the ontological arguments for the probability of a creator are on par with believing in unicorns or gnomes?

    Now of course the political forum is a type of battlefield, but it is also one of compromise. If atheists were as organized and as well funded as Mormons, they still would be political outsiders as long as they riducule the vast majority of the electorate for what the vast morjority thinks about the most fundamental questions of being, id est, is there a immaterial uncreated creator of an immaterial as well as physical world and people with souls, or is everything just material stuff.

    It’s one thing to disagree on the answer to that question, it’s quite another to denigrate those who disagree.

    In a representative republic like America, people are not going to vote in any significant numbers to be governed by people who insist that the majority of the electorate is the source of societies ills because of their stupid and delusional religious faith.


    Excellent stuff. Thanks.

  • coyotenose

    I only just realized when I read this that I regularly hear from the “Their Kind of Weird” crowd. I wrote the following to address several people having conniptions over my opinions in my area newspaper forum:

    “My detractors on this forum and in this paper have not intimated, but outright said they support torture; that they advocate forced sterilization; that they enjoy lying about science; that they wish they could kill people with poison gas over ideology. They’ve posted these things in front of you. And they’ve all declared their belief in God. You’ve never had a bad word for any of them.

    “No, the only thing that riles you up and makes you rant and troll is that I’m an atheist and skeptic, and I don’t respect political and scientific opinions based on the alleged existence of invisible supermen.

    “Take a moment out of your busy day to consider why you’re offended by one and not the other.”

  • fett101

    It may be an overused analogy but it fits so here goes.
    Why aren’t non-stamp collectors a bigger political force?

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    @Nordog- Wouldn’t reality/truth/factual integrity in politics however much an oxymoron it’s come to be perceived, be a common cause enough to unite and elect people?

  • jbrock

    Okay, as about a 5.6 on the Dawkins scale (from a solid 2 a couple of years ago) I don’t quite qualify as Atheist; crypto-humanist is closer. But for whatever it’s worth:

    Nordog pretty much beat me to it.

    The stereotypical “why the @#&% don’t you delusional cousin-humping retards trust us?” thing might be bold and plain-spoken and reality-based and progressive and visionary and all that. It’s also lousy PR, and if you can’t/won’t (a) reinstitute poll tests and (b) design them to disqualify voters who find that sort of attitude offputting, then PR will remain a factor in politics.

    Anyway, you don’t have to pretend to agree with anyone’s religion. Just consider pretending not to think that the very state of having one places them mentally and morally beyond the pale.

    Also, consider endorsing–publicly, enthusiastically, and on any pretext whatsoever–the most batshit insane wannabe theocrats. It might not help, but it can’t hurt.

    Bottom line, I guess, is that reason has very little relation to politics and candor has none at all.

  • Sinfanti

    Sorry fett101, but your analogy doesn’t fit here because stamp collectors aren’t a political force.

  • Nordog

    But, don’t stamp collectors stick together?

  • everyone made some good points especially the part about how we aren’t a monolithic group. While I enjoy hanging out with my freethought group, i have very little in common with 99% of them. and I disagree with about 50% on everything except that there is no god. To assume that all atheists think alike or agree on most issues is unrealistic. I know atheists of every political stripe and most atheists i know are apolitical anyway.

    i do think that we should put our money behind candidates who agree on issues that we care about. we should continue to make noise about church/state issues and discrimination. and we should call out charlatans and faith healers.

  • Dan W

    Like others have said above, we don’t all share the same political views. I’m an atheist with liberal political views, but there are plenty of other atheists with political views that are more centrist or conservative. I don’t think it’ll be easy to unite a group of people if they don’t all have similar views on political issues.

  • Joolz

    As a Brit my question has always been why the US appear to put so much importance on the religious beliefs of their political representatives. If my local political candidate decided to mention s/he was atheist on the flyers I get through my door I would just wonder why s/he decided to mention such an irrelevant topic.

    I don’t think the US needs more atheist representatives, I think it needs religion to become irrelevant in politics. I know that’s easy to say, but I think trying to push atheism as a political issue is the wrong way to go.

    You appear have a separation of church and state except when it comes to politics when they become inexplicably welded together. In contrast my country (England) has a state religion but most people are secular and we expect our politicians to be the same. When, on rare occasions, one of our politicians “comes out” as religious, they are pretty much derided by the general public.

    (In case anyone wants to argue the point – I don’t think the English/British political system is particularly great – I just wanted to mention that using religion or lack of religion isn’t necessarily the best way to go).


  • Rich Wilson

    A friend of mine (spiritual/agnostic, I think) posted that on FB for his atheist friends. My response was to add the link to the FSM church vandalism fundraiser, and say: “we can’t even decide on whether or not to donate money to a church to clean up some vandalism”

  • private atheist

    Here’s a friendly reminder: there are lots of atheists in office, most of them do a fantastic job of being private about it. My husband is one of three (very possibly four–see! I’m not sure!) atheists on our local city council, and believe me, they would not have been elected in our small, very religious community if they were “out”. They happen to let good judgment and reason guide them, sometimes to the confusion and chagrin of other council members. They of course don’t always agree with each other, but their decisions are clearly based on sound logic and have, over time, had a positive effect on the very “old boys club” mentality of many of the councilors and administration.
    A recommendation: get as many of your interested friends into local politics as possible; as a grass-roots movement, logic and reason has a chance.

  • Mormons are tied together by a shared set of ideals, by rituals and by community. Atheists share only a lack of belief in gods. Humanists might be able to muster up some political clout but not all atheists self identify as secular humanists.

    Making atheism a political force is to invest atheism with more than it is. Where are the shared ideals? Where is the community, except for a community of outsiders (as blunt as that sounds)? If you want to promote secularism in government then promote secular humanism or another positive ideal that includes a lack of belief in gods. Don’t promote something that is defined as a negative.

  • Adam Lee is right about this one and I really think we can should Vote Atheist! – http://www.dangeroustalk.net/?p=2315

    I think the article you wrote the other day in which you stated that atheists are unelectable is not only not true, but a dangerous meme to be pushing. The fact is that we can get atheists elected to public office is we work together to do it. http://www.dangeroustalk.net/?p=2307

    We can start by working to help Cecil Bothwell get elected to Congress. You should be trying to raise money to help his campaign rather than to clean up church graffiti. Just my opinion, I could be wrong.

  • This topic really gets me fired up. You are either part of the solution or part of the problem.

    Atheists as a Political Force – http://www.dangeroustalk.net/?p=2320

  • I think the fallacy here lies in comparing the atheist community to a religious one. It’s easy to do, since we’re united by a single religiously related idea, but we are entirely different from a church. As Jude said above, churches are organized, dogmatic, and indoctrinating — at least two of which completely go against the ideals of most atheists, and the first of which is pretty unlikely to happen.

    What we’re closer to is a one-issue political group, like a labor union. Union workers run the gamut of political beliefs, but they all vote the same way on issues that are important to them, and therefore have a powerful voice in Washington. Atheists might all have different politics, but we all believe in the separation of church and state, the importance of science over faith, and I’d venture to add the fair and ethical treatment of all humans.

    If we unite under these precepts instead of trying to pigeonhole many people of diverse viewpoints under one a-religious title, we probably could have a large impact. Indeed, there are already political organizations trying to do that right now (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for one). Why not work to make these organizations more powerful instead of focusing on uniting every atheist under one ill-fitting umbrella? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • Atheists should be a voting block. Fred Edwords was at Rebec Wineries last week (Hemant was there last year), and Fred mentioned the same exact point of us being large enough to be a block.

    In an effort to address the many differences in atheists, I think we should model ourselves after the major political parties somewhat. Basically, atheist communities should start with a list of atheist supported candidates and find our own consensus in advance of primaries and elections. You can still individually vote however you’d like. But the benefit of voting as a block is that we get listened to AS A BLOCK.

    I’m a liberal minded atheist. But I will happily vote for a capable atheist approved candidate who may not share all my political views.

  • Mark

    Because the votes of most atheists are already determined.

    If you examine the rhetoric of any atheist conference you will hear a bunch of “I hate Republicans” [cued cheering] “Republicans are stupid” [more cued cheering].

    The Democrats already know that they already own most atheists and see no reason to pay attention to them and the converse applies to the Republicans.

  • JimG

    I have to disagree with Nordog and jbrock. Saying most people dislike atheists because we dismiss religious ideas as nonsense is based on a false assumption: that religious groups don’t do exactly the same thing to each other.

    While you’ll often find broad agreement among churches on specific political issues, just about any denomination/religion you listen to will assure you that they have it right and everybody else is wrong, foolish or downright evil. Mormons are a great example of this, too; and the main reason denominations like the Baptists backed a secular Constitution was that they feared some other denomination would seize power as the state church.

    In fact, the few religious groups which don’t indulge in mutual disparagement are those closest to secularism, like UUs. I think the lack of atheist political power has far more to do with lack of formal organization and enforced unanimity. Not that I’m advocating those, especially the latter; but I think they give churches a powerful edge at the polls.

  • Mark, that is why Primaries are important! In this case, there is a primary in the 11th congressional district in NC that we as the greater community of reason need to be involved in.

  • Tom Bourque

    “Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn’t interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith.”

    I think Adam made a huge leap here. Atheists are a minority. We’re the people who don’t get votes. Even if we were somehow a cohesive political entity, it doesn’t mean we’d get elected in the numbers needed to accomplish anything.

    This reminds me of another discussion that’s been had before. There’s a significant number of people out there that call themselves politically “independent”. That says nothing about what they believe in terms of politics. It’s like herding cats (to use a cliché).

    What would atheists unite under? “We all don’t believe in a god or gods!” or “We believe in a secular state!”?

    1) I think either of those statements would mobilize certain Christian groups against us.

    2) That would mean we agree on one point that is related to government. Believing in a secular state doesn’t mean we all believe in what that state should do. Let’s say this new “Atheist Party” takes a stand on any other issue of the day (I.E. social security); who’s to say they wouldn’t alienate half of their core supporters with whatever stand they took?

    The solution is for atheists to get more numbers. We don’t have enough yet for the politicians to care about us much. We don’t bring in the vote for them. Until that happens, it’s going to be a strategy of litigating the stupid religiously-themes or motivated laws out of existence.

    Edit: After reading the part I quoted again, it seems he may be talking about a time when we have the numbers to accomplish something. In that case, I tone down my criticism. If we had the numbers to effect the way politicians act, then yes, we would be able to achieve a more secular nation.

  • Nordog

    I have to disagree with Nordog and jbrock. Saying most people dislike atheists because we dismiss religious ideas as nonsense is based on a false assumption: that religious groups don’t do exactly the same thing to each other.

    That’s not quite what I said.

    Besides, dismissing one, or even many, religious ideas as nonsense is a far cry from holding that anyone who believes in a god is a dangerous cretin.

    A quick “google” search turned up an entry from the Washington post that read, “The study detailed Americans’ deep and broad religiosity, finding that 92 percent believe in God or a universal spirit…”

    92 percent.

    Survey the comments on the various threads on this blog alone and you will find no small sample of bigotry, hatred, and phobia of religious people.

    To the degree that the American public associates atheism, rightly or wrongly, with those examples of intolerance, atheism wil not be a political force received favorably by religous Americans.

    92 percent of Americans will not vote in large numbers for people who think only idiots believe in a spiritual reality.

    As I’ve said before, as a politically conservative Roman Catholic, I would have no problem voting for atheist S.E. Cupp if she were running agains Catholic Nancy Pelosi.

    But then S.E. Cupp doesn’t think Chrisitans and other religious people are morons.

  • Steve

    Here in the UK, it’s a complete non issue, it is only the candidate’s politics that matter, sure, there are small Christian parties who simply have no chance, elections always throw up weird parties, even the Monster Raving Looney Party, I kid you not!! Of course, it’s always a choice between Labour and the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are simply makeweights as in the present coalition, David Cameron did not have enough for an overall majority so he seduced the LibDems into a “partnership”, i.e. do as you’re told!!

    As for religion in politics, the Church of England used to be called the Conservative party at prayer, don’t think it is now, though! As I say, a candidate’s religion is simply not touched on as it’s not “the done thing”, he or she can be atheist or a devil worshipper, we’re only interested if that person can truly represent their constituents. We like our scandals though, not one single MP is perfect!!

    For a progressive country, the USA seems backward when it comes to allowing ANYBODY to stand for office, whether local, state or federal, it’s what the person can bring to the community that matters and that only.

    Sorry for sounding bombastic, we still have a long way to go before any political party looks after everybody and not just certain interests, yes, big business rules here too!

    Cheers from an English atheist.

  • JimG

    I disagree, Nordog. Dismissing one religious idea as nonsense is exactly the same as dismissing them all – to the person whose ideas are being dismissed.

    I think that once again you mistakenly leap from the fact of widespread belief in general religious ideas straight into an unfounded assumption that this constitutes a united front. My essential point was that believers are just as mutually suspicious as they are of unbelievers. As a conservative Catholic, you should have some knowledge of how distrusted Catholics were just a few decades ago. Whole
    political parties were built, and had temporary success, on anti-Catholic platforms. What changed? Was it the Church? Or was it American opinion in general?

  • Nordog

    JimG, on quick scan, I think I agree with what you’re saying, but I don’t think you understand my point, which does not contradict what I think you’re saying.

    It’s not a wholesale dismissal of religious ideas as nonsense that I’m talking about.

    It’s the perception, aided by real examples, of hatred and bigotry on the part of atheists aimed at people who believe in a sprititual reality.

    In other words, the object of the bigtry, or “dismissal as nonsense” if you prefer, that I’m talking about is not the belief, but the person.

    To your valid point about different faiths treating each other the same way, I refer back to my previous point about the thing that unites them all, in principle: The belief that there is more to reality than material physics, and that there is a creator.

    Even battling religious factions, despite their differences, would agree that they are in opposition to the atheist/materialist position.

    When various religious factions further reflect on the hatred spewed about them and at them by certain vocal atheists, they are only further united in at least the one issue of being opposed to voting for someone like that.

  • JimG

    Oh, I agree that there’s a general perception that all atheists disdain the religious, in part because some vocal figures do, Nordog; what I’m saying is that that’s not qualitatively different from the attitude that most American religious groups held for others until very recent times. That has been preached quite openly, too. I don’t think the effect produced by the knowledge that someone thinks you and all your friends are hated by said god and will thus burn through all eternity for your errors is truly different from the knowledge that some other person thinks both your beliefs are silly.

    The current situation only looks different because most religious groups in the United States have found common ground, on policy not theology. This happened decades ago for Catholics, has generally happened for Jews, and is now underway for Mormons.

    I reiterate and expand my question: So what changed? What allowed all these groups to bury the hatchet and collaborate electorally? It surely wasn’t mutual opposition to atheists, since a visible American atheist presence is a recent phenomenon. Sure, there was lots of talk in past decades about all “good Christians” uniting against “godless Communism,” but that had little effect on internal electoral alliances. Those were matters of convergent policy.

    My suggestion is that it was the organization of each group which allowed it to become an electoral force first, then resulted in alliances when the resultant voting blocs promoted the same specific policies. Creation of religiously homogeneous electoral blocs was aided by geography: the Irish Catholic domination of the Boston area, for example, which allowed the rise of the Kennedys, and the current Mormon dominance of Utah which has thrown up several figures to national prominence.

    That geographic advantage does not exist for atheists, who are widely dispersed; but it’ll probably be in liberal urban areas where the first major atheist politicians appear – and are eventually accepted by the electorate in general, after they’ve demonstrated their concurrence on specific policy matters with the general religious public.

  • Nordog

    I reiterate and expand my question: So what changed? What allowed all these groups to bury the hatchet and collaborate electorally?

    First let me say that I find your posts very interesting.

    Secondly, my response to your specific question is entirely speculative, which is a fancy way of saying, “I don’t know, but could it be…”

    I think the interdenominational alliances in the public forum come out of the idea that there are issues upon which the different parties agree, and that these issues are of far greater importance than doctrinal differences. But what changed to cause those alliances to form? Or, what are those issue of importance?

    I would venture the issues involved are those often lumped together under the umbrella of the “culture war”; abortion, gay rights, p*rn as freedom of expression, etc.

    Those issues really started to be ramped up so to speak in the ’60s and have continued to be sources of contention ever since.

    It seems reasonable that as the “culture war” grew, new alliances would form.

    I don’t think the effect produced by the knowledge that someone thinks you and all your friends are hated by said god and will thus burn through all eternity for your errors is truly different from the knowledge that some other person thinks both your beliefs are silly.

    I’m not really sure what you’re getting at here, but if the point is that there are religious bigots proclaiming eternal torment for those they don’t like just as there are atheist bigots who loathe anyone who believes in a god, then of course you are correct.

    FTR, I think both examples of bigotry are despicable.

  • HP

    Two words: Cold War.

    During the Cold War, the propagandists made sure to link Atheism with Communism, and to confuse the two in the public’s mind.

    Prior to the Cold War, American society and politics were much more secular than they are now. This was true in the early days of the republic, and it was especially true in post-Civil War era (e.g., Ingersol, Twain, Dewey, Holmes, et al).

    IIRC, in the 1920s, the Unitarian-Universalists were the fastest-growing church in America, with a lot of influence over politics, especially local politics.

    The backlash started as a fringe movement during the anti-Bolshevik hysteria in the teens and twenties, but it really got kicked into high gear only during the Cold War.

    And you don’t shrug off forty-five years of relentless propaganda overnight. Forty-five years of propaganda that have even convinced Atheists that America is traditionally religious. It isn’t.

    In any case, secularism is a Traditional American Value™, and we shouldn’t be so historically shortsighted that we miss that.

  • PhiloKGB

    “Atheist bigots”? Those would be atheists who believe that religious people are inferior and should enjoy fewer rights as a result, yes? Where are they so that I may condemn them? No random blog comments, please; I am interested in individuals with at least a modicum of influence.

  • We Atheists are a large political force already. Atheists are the 3rd largest minority group in the USA according to a recent Gallup poll I did a write-up on a week or so ago.

    The problem has been the voice of Atheism wasn’t being heard in the past because it’s been easily drowned out by religious propaganda and patently ignored. Now with social networking, and high technology that’s changing.

    We are a political force politicians will not be able to ignore. We have a voice and a vote. There are 24.6 Million Atheists in the USA (8% who don’t believe, according to the Gallup poll) That places Atheists firmly in the #3 minority behind Hispanics and African Americans. If that’s not a political force, I don’t know what is. We have the numbers. We just need to use them.

    (by the way, this poll doesn’t take into account the agnostics, and those who have a lot of doubt in a god. When you take that into consideration, [about 13%] the Atheist population in the United States grows to more than 40 Million. Add in those who profess to be religious but are closet atheists due to social constraints and you can safely predict that we could be the largest minority group in the USA)

    That is great news for Atheism.

  • Nordog

    @PhiloKGB, the restrictive qualifiers you foist upon your definition of bigotry are, ah, rhetorically self serving.

    “’Atheist bigots’? Those would be atheists who believe that religious people are inferior…”

    All stop. That’ll do. Not comprehensive, but that’ll do.

  • Nordog


    So what you’re saying is that in the Olympics of Identity Politics, atheists get the Bronze Medal.

    Don’t forget, 2nd place is the first loser.


    8% of the electorate is hardly an overwhelmingly influential force.

    Besides, the DNC already carries the water for atheists anyway, at least the liberal ones (and I suspect 8% is also the number for conservative atheists).

  • Nordog

    Er, that is to say, I suspect that of atheists, perhaps only about 8% are conservative. Whatever the percentage, it’s gonna be small I think.

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