We have witnessed a sea change in American politics with the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president. His message of hope and coming together for the greater good resonates with the American people and reflects a positive change in our country. APA has much to learn and to gain from this important message.
APA suffers from many internal struggles that mimic the national political scene. Are you a scientist or a practitioner? Do you practice evidence-based practice or traditional practice? Does APA spend too many resources on public interest and not enough on practice and science?
These are critical issues that we need to address, and we need to come together for the greater good of our association and psychology. It is time for APA members to unite and go beyond single issues to support our profession and work toward better serving the public through the science and applications of psychology.
• The importance of educating legislators. As a budding professional, I wondered why it was important to pay attention to politics. It seemed so unrelated to the practice or science of psychology. Boy, was I wrong! Many times when I testified in custody evaluations, my testimony was questioned because I was not a "real doctor"—i.e., an MD. Texas laws favored physicians over psychologists until Texas psychologists changed the laws. Later, when the renewal of my NIH grant was delayed because the U.S. Congress did not pass a budget on time, political influences came home again. Our budget was temporarily cut, and we had to reduce our staff. These experiences made a clear impression: What our politicians do directly affects the science and practice of psychology.
• Making an advocacy impact. What are the critical components of having political influence? Relationships, personal stories, money and data—in that order. Many psychologists naively believe that if they have a good idea and have the data to back up their views, policymakers and politicians will do what they want. Other psychologists believe that they can have little or no influence on their politicians. Elected officials are inundated with good ideas, and they don't always make their decisions based on data. Politicians are more likely to listen to and be influenced by people with whom they have a relationship. You can build a relationship by being involved in the political process, visiting your elected officials on a regular basis, working in their campaigns and through political giving. Don't be intimidated when you visit them. Remember, they represent you and they want to hear from you.
Politicians are usually more impressed with personal stories, rather than data and facts. If you present your data with stories about individuals, they will be remembered much more than numbers. When I talked with my congressman about the problems with funding my NIH grant, he was more interested in how my research was going to affect people in his district than the complex research findings. He was worried about the fact that I had to cut my staff because of the budget issues.
• Political giving. Political campaigns are extremely expensive. Congressional races can cost over $1 million and Senate races upwards of $10 million. Members of Congress spend as much as half their time fundraising. While political giving will not buy you votes, it will often give you access so that you may influence the political process. If you want to have influence for psychology, make sure you give as a psychologist—not as an anonymous donor.
APA needs your help to accomplish our goals. You can have great influence by getting involved. Become active in APA's advocacy networks. Engage. Let me hear from you. This is your APA. Contact me anytime by e-mail.