Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? asked the Roman satirist Juvenal: Who will watch the guards? In our society, we have another question to ask: Who will reform the reformers?
As the country sweltered under the hottest three months since record keeping began, as the gushing oil spill in the Gulf riveted the country’s attention on the environment as never before, and as the largest Democratic majority in a generation — fresh from historic victories over health care and financial reform — turned to the rest of its legislative agenda, the Green Dream languished in what Politico called a “near death” condition on Capitol Hill. Liberal Washington Post writer Ezra Klein goes farther; cap and trade, he says, is “dead”. As Klein puts it, “If cap-and-trade is so unpopular that its primary legislative advocates can’t mention it, then it’s dead.”
Klein is almost certainly right; the good ship Greenpeace is sinking. Skittish Democratic politicians are still casting about desperately for some way to pull together a climate bill that will keep the green lobby happy but won’t look to the voters like a grotesque and counterproductive act of social engineering fatally flawed by multibillion give-aways to well connected lobbyists. But increasingly politicians cannot speak the words “carbon cap” out loud.
It reminds me of the halcyon days of my childhood.
Back in the gloriously unregulated 1950s, when your average red blooded American kid could still buy cherry bombs and M-80s without a bunch of nanny-state do-gooders getting their knickers in a twist, and my favorite toy was a home lead smelter for making toy soldiers, the kids in my family used to play Blind Man’s Bluff in the rec room down in the basement. The person who was ‘it’ put a pillowcase over their head and tried to catch the other kids; the only rule was that the kids trying not to be caught couldn’t touch the floor. You had to jump on the furniture — from chair to chest to couch and, if you were good, to the magazine stand.
Harry Reid speaking about climate change (Credit: Center for a American Progress).
It was an excellent game; unfortunately the combination of giggles and loud bangs and crashes as we bumped into each other and knocked over the various lamps and vases that somehow kept getting in the way soon attracted my mother’s attention. She’d open the door to the basement, peer down into the noisy darkness and shout “What are you kids doing down there?”
“We’re just playing Blind Man’s Bluff,” we said with that innocent little voice kids use.
“Well stop it,” she said, unsympathetically.
That was the end of our fun for a while, until my brother Chris had a brilliant idea: we’d change the name of the game. We wouldn’t play Blind Man’s Bluff anymore; we’d just play Pillowcase Risk. We tried to keep the noise down for a while, but that didn’t last. Soon the basement was as noisy as ever, and once more my mother came to the door.
“Are you kids playing Blind Man’s Bluff?”
“Oh, no, Mommy,” we said in tones absolutely oozing with sincerity.
“Well keep it quiet down there.”
This worked for a while, but my mother is a cynical and suspicious person. After a couple more trips to the door to stop the riots downstairs, she shouted “If you aren’t playing Blind Man’s Bluff, what are you doing down there?”
“We’re just playing Pillowcase Risk.”
“I don’t care what you call it,” she said. “You aren’t making that kind of racket in my house.”
This is pretty much what is going on in the Congress. “What are you kids doing down there,” ask the voters, who’ve noticed some banging and crashing in the basement. “Are you kids writing a Carbon Tax?”
The greens check quickly with the focus groups and pollsters before shouting back up, “No, Mommy, of course not. We aren’t playing Carbon Tax. We’re playing Cap and Trade.”
That scam worked for a while, but as Politico tells us, ‘cap and trade’ is now as toxic as ‘carbon tax’, and the greens are trying to come up with a new name. Asked if the Democrats were working on a carbon “cap,” Majority Leader Harry Reid brushed the charge aside. “Those words are not in my vocabulary. We’re going to work on pollution.”
What the greens don’t seem to get is this: you can’t make fundamental changes in American energy policy by stealth legislation. It’s not a matter of focus groups and labels. Energy policy is an important issue to most Americans, and for most of them, the kind of energy policy they want is one that makes American energy supplies abundant, secure and cheap. Greens generally think that the key to good energy policy is to raise prices (directly through a carbon tax, indirectly through ‘cap and trade’ and other arcane ideas); public opinion just doesn’t buy it. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t.
This is a problem you can’t fix by changing the title of your bill — or the name of your game. People see through these stupid tricks — especially when the Republicans and the anti-greens can raise tens of millions of dollars to drive the message home between now and November. You can call it the “Happy Clappy Coal Promotion Act” if you want to, but if your goal is to change people’s behavior by artificially raising the price they pay for energy, they are going to figure you out — and they are going to fight you. If you pass it anyway, they are going to smack you down hard at the next election and put some people in the Congress who know what the folks want back home.
Playing Pillowcase Risk with the climate bill wasn’t going to get the bill through Congress. It’s hard to believe there was anybody lame enough to think that dodge that could work — though one should never underestimate the credulity and incompetence of the leadership of the environmentalist movement. But playing silly name games could and did accomplish something: it could demonstrate just how stupid the greens think voters are and how easily fooled greens think the ignorant peasants clinging to their guns and their God out there can be. This cheap and stupid maneuver will deepen the impression among some Americans that many green leaders are disingenuous shills who will say and do anything to serve their ideological agenda. Voters watching these shenanigans can be forgiven for agreeing with Roscoe Conkling‘s observation that “When Dr. [Samuel] Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities and uses of the word ‘reform’.”
One would think a movement trying to persuade public opinion that climategate and glaciergate were trivial slips that in no way reflected the scientific and ethical standards of the green community would avoid getting entangled in stupid scams like this — but one would be wrong.
The perception among some voters that green leaders are hysterical weasels is inexpressibly damaging to the environmentalist cause. Green hopes of success ultimately hinge on their ability to persuade the public to trust the environmental movement as the source of the most sober, accurate and trustworthy information around. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t be part of the wild eyed chorus hyping the science and at the same time be the sober voice of reason adjudicating the controversy. You can’t be the Last Honest Man fighting the Minions of Big Oil while trying to bamboozle the public with cheap confidence tricks.
This is a dumb strategy, but the people who have come up with it, and who persist in it after a year of epochal political collapse and historic levels of fiasco and humiliation continue to believe with a serenity I can admire if I can’t quite respect that they are smarter, more virtuous and altogether more worthy than the rest of the world — and that they and they alone know how the world must be run.
The strategic incompetence exhibited by the climate movement and its congressional allies is something that students everywhere need to study — and especially those who hope someday to help build a better world or fight for social change. This is how you fail, kids: Advance half baked policy ideas by hyping the science to create a global panic; when that fails, fall back on shady little dodges that don’t fool anybody — all the while telling anybody and everybody that you are the smartest, most virtuous person in the room.
This is more than a green problem. The green fiasco illustrates a syndrome that pervades the ‘activist’ communities on both the left and the right. Often funded by direct mail and foundation grants, these social movements are accountable to the extremes and the purists. The various organizations on a big issue like climate change have their own constituencies and are often rivals for fundraising. Such movements often become strong, with big war chests and a significant amount of public support. But they also tend to be poorly led, poorly managed, and incapable of working effectively for positive change.
This is not new. In earlier posts I’ve compared the green failures of our time to earlier failures by the Prohibitionists, the peace campaigners of the 1920s and 1930s, and the anti-nuclear activists of more recent years. “Civil society” campaigners like to blame other forces in our society for the problems we see: corporations, lobbyists, venal politicians, ignorant and prejudiced voters. The sad fact is that most civil society groups and NGOs just don’t work very well. There are honorable exceptions, but civil society often looks like a vast wasteland of squandered resources, poor strategy, uncoordinated efforts and bad management.
To meet the challenges of the 21st century, likely to be the most challenging and difficult period in human history thus far, we are going to have to raise our game. Civil society (especially but not only the environmental movement) has a necessary and vital role to play, but on the whole at the moment it is just not up to its job.
Civil society as it now exists and is organized is profoundly dysfunctional. That needs to change. One of the many jobs on the plate of the rising generations will be the need to rethink and restructure the whole concept of civil society and the NGO. There is much work to do. It may be that the Green Gethsemane now unfolding around us will be one of the experiences that stimulates and invigorates new thinking about how civil society movements can work more effectively and intelligently for change.
I hope so. The environment matters; sustaining the diversity and vitality of the beautiful world in which we are privileged to live is one of the two or three most vital challenges before the human race. The greens have been wrong about many things, but about this they are undeniably and courageously right.