Hoping the Truth Will Set Us Free

Kevin Drum offers up compelling polling evidence to suggest that winning the climate change fight will require people to have accurate information about climate change legislation:

Now, do you think the same people who were responsible for all those townhall shoutfests this month will have any trouble convincing people that $25 is the right number? Or $100? I didn’t think so.

Are we ready for that? I’m not sure. But we’d better be, because the second part of the opposition’s message will be the little picture. In healthcare that turned out to be death panels and abortion funding and illegal immigrants. For the climate bill it will be — who knows? But it’s a long bill and there’s plenty to choose from. Maybe it will be scare talk about Wall Street getting rich by trading emission permits. Maybe it will be scare talk about China taking over the world because they get to keep polluting as much as they want. Maybe it will be culture war talk about how Midwesterners are paying a bigger price to clean up the atmosphere than all those chi chi Californians.

Now I hope progressives can find effective counter-messaging tactics. But part of the reality of the situation, I think, is simply that it’s extremely difficult to imagine progressive policy happening without some measure of responsibility on the part of elites. Lately you’re seeing a lot of focus (most heavily from Mickey Kaus) on the idea that the Obama administration committed some kind of giant blundered by emphasizing cost control arguments on health care thus leaving themselves “exposed” to the right’s demagoguery. The crux of the matter, however, is that cost control would advance some substantive policy goals that conservatives claim to believe in and that are important for the future of American business. The goal of emphasizing such factors was the belief, perhaps naive, that some conservative legislators and business leaders would look at the proposals and say “hey, this is a pretty good idea.”

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On climate, similarly, the idea behind the administration’s original rebate-heavy proposal was really just to hope that the merits of the case could persuade people. There’s not, after all, any logical reason why the Chamber of Commerce should be virulently opposed to the bill. Any firm with a below-average carbon intensity should benefit, and you would think that even rich businessmen would care about their children and grandkids growing up in a non-devastated world. This is really how legislating is supposed to work. You identify a situation people widely agree is problematic, and you advance a good remedy to the problem, and even though some narrow interests will still oppose you most elites ought to see that you have a reasonable solution and help you push it through.

But we’re not seeing anything like that behavior. So instead you enter this weird kind of semiotic space where we’re not debating whether or not it makes sense to raise taxes in order to expand Medicaid eligibility (an actual proposal) or to charge heavy carbon emitters and use the funds to help the poor and to finance clean energy investments (an actual proposal). Instead, we’re debating “death panels” and mythical $100 rate hikes. And I’m not really sure there’s any way to win a “debate” that’s completely ungrounded from reality.