Chris Bowers: The Progressive Failure To Engage The Grassroots on Climate Change

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"Chris Bowers: The Progressive Failure To Engage The Grassroots on Climate Change"

Our guest blogger is Open Left‘s Chris Bowers.

In explaining why he voted against climate change legislation in the House, freshman Democratic Representative Eric Massa said Monday that calls to his office against the bill outnumbered calls in favor of the bill by 19-1:

My final reason for opposing this bill was you, the constituents of New York’s 29th Congressional District. In the week leading up to the vote, our offices received hundreds of phone calls urging a ‘no’ vote. In fact, after we tallied the responses, the “vote no” calls outnumbered the “vote yes” calls by a ratio of 19 to 1. My job is to represent you, and that’s exactly what I did in casting my vote.

Even though conservatives pretty much always win the congressional office phone call battle through their enormous lobbying operations, a 19-1 margin is still pretty shocking. The margin is even more shocking considering that the vast majority of green groups in the United States put out high level action alerts to their membership urging them to call members of Congress in support of climate change legislation.

How could the progressive grassroots get so utterly trounced in activism on the climate change bill? One solid bet is because the messaging from those supporting the bill was patronizing, not entirely forthcoming, and full of cognitive dissonance. Supporters of the bill consistently had the following four activism-depressing messages:

  1. The climate change bill sucks, but we should pass it anyway;
  2. We are probably lying to you about actually trying to strengthen the bill;
  3. Strengthening the bill is not possible because it will probably lead to the defeat of the bill. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve.
  4. It is your fault that the climate change bill sucks.

Man, I want to get up off my ass and work hard based on that message. And this really was the message. Take self-styled climate change expert Thomas Friedman:

There is much in the House cap-and-trade energy bill that just passed that I absolutely hate. It is too weak in key areas and way too complicated in others. A simple, straightforward carbon tax would have made much more sense than this Rube Goldberg contraption. It is pathetic that we couldn’t do better. It is appalling that so much had to be given away to polluters. It stinks. It’s a mess. I detest it.

Now let’s get it passed in the Senate and make it law.

Yep, the bill sucks, but let’s do everything we can to pass this sucky bill. That sounds like a sucktastic way to spend my day, especially since Exodus Earth is free in the On Demand section now.

While not as explicit as Freidman, virtually every green group gave the same implied message to their membership. The consistent mantra was “strengthen and pass” the climate change bill. The first problem with this is that it tells people immediately that the bill is inadequate. The second problem is that very few green groups sent out any action alerts asking their members to take action on strengthening the bill, or even coherent public statements explaining how the bill could be strengthened. Worst of all, many of those groups seemed to be actively working against any attempts to strengthen the bill:

A good number of people have told me in the past few days that a major environmental organization is actively working against strengthening amendments to the bill, stating that those groups are fearful that any actual strengthening will keep the bill from being passed.

So, on top of being told that the bill sucked, there was also the uneasy feeling that the progressive grassroots were being lied to about attempts to strengthen the bill. While everyone kept saying that we needed to strengthen this sucky bill, very few green groups told us how that was even possible and some were even actively working against strengthening the bill.

When people complained about this, the general response was to be told that nothing better could even be accomplished. Bill Scher summed up that position:

There is zero reason to believe that the coalition could hold if any changes were made to the bill at this point. (Or to be more direct, there is zero reason to believe any amendment that would strengthen the bill would pass in the first place.)

So, the bill sucks, green groups might be lying to us, and there is no hope of strengthening the bill whatsoever. Now I am really feeling this call to action picking up the remote.

But wait, the genius messaging isn’t done. Thomas Friedman offers up the final coup de grace. This entire problem is actually the fault of the grassroots:

Attention all young Americans: your climate future is being decided right now in the cloakrooms of the Capitol, where the coal lobby holds huge sway. You want to make a difference? Then get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face. Get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon. That will get the Senate’s attention. Play hardball or don’t play at all.

Given that the bill sucks, that green groups might be lying to me, that there is no hope of strengthening the bill, that billionaire old dudes are telling me that this is all actually my own fault, and the Exodus Earth is really frakking awesome (except for the comic book parts), it isn’t hard to see how a lot of grassroots progressives ended up leaning toward “don’t play at all.”

This patronizing, conflicting, accusatory and even mendacious messaging surely played a role in why industry astroturf groups won the grassroots activism war by margins like 19-1. In some congressional offices, I heard the margin was much worse, and that making outgoing calls was difficult because so many people were calling in to oppose the bill.

I’m not saying that I could have done a better job, and if anything my work on climate change has simply helped reinforce this negative messaging rubric. At the very least, however, I would like to turn the blame away from the progressive grassroots, and toward green groups and progressive media figures like myself. The lack of grassroots excitement for the climate change bill is the fault of the people and organizations pushing the bill, not the grassroots themselves. It is their job to activate the grassroots on this issue, and they completely failed. Either pre-emptively or as a result of this failure, they opted instead to pursue a deal-making process with conservative Democrats which has now resulted in an almost inexorable trend of weakening the climate change legislation.

If we are ever going to turn this around, we need the advocates of the legislation, not to mention the legislation itself, to start giving people a reason to get involved.

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