The Progressive Failure to Engage the Grassroots on Climate Change

by: Chris Bowers

Tue Jul 07, 2009 at 16:15

In explaining why he voted against climate change legislation in the House, freshman Democratic Representative Eric Massa said yesterday 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 to 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, for example (more in the extended enry):

Chris Bowers :: The Progressive Failure to Engage the Grassroots on Climate Change
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 actively working against any attempts to strengthen the bill:

A good number of people have told me in the past few days that 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 Shcer 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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You missed another one (4.00 / 2)
Here's what Matt Taibbi says in his Goldman Sachs article,

the next bubble, is in carbon credits - a booming trillion- dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an "environmental plan," called cap-and-trade.

As with the health care scam bill at some point it is better to say "no deal" than to continue to fight for something that is scarcely better than nothing, because by owning that crap, you're basically capitulating.  Has that point already passed?  If Goldman Sachs are getting huge pay outs from this thing let them fight for it.

By the way, on that 19:1 call ratio thing (0.00 / 0)
Do you think this guy would have voted any differently had the phone calls been 19:1 in favour of the bill?

I ask because it sounds like you do but surely any congressman would have some knowledge of what political polls say about public support for various issues.  Surely any congressman knows that phone-ins don't agree with what people actually think.  

I just assumed this was an example of cover-your-ass.  The astroturf is paid for NOT because it will persuade the congressman, who has been paid for separately on his own cheque, but to give the congressman deniability.

Which leads to yet another explanation for why people don't bother to phone in;  it's a rigged game.  How do we even know he's reporting figures accurately?  Playing a rigged game is stupid.  Even if you win, you lose.

What was the ratio of calls against the financial bailout last year? (0.00 / 0)
Was it not 19:1 or thereabouts?

I think the outpouring of spontaneous anger (in this case backed by real opinion polls) put pols on their marks but it didn't alter the outcome.  Rigged game.

[ Parent ]
Not 19:1, 100:1, and they passed it anyhow (4.00 / 1)

Hey, maybe this bill just did suck.  

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

[ Parent ]
19-1 sounds like a consensus not a trouncing. (4.00 / 1)
The bill sucked. If it can't/won't be fixed now, don't pass it.

This post makes it sound like the Democrats/green groups failed with their messaging: "Gee, if we only hadn't told the grassroots the truth about how sucky this bill was, they would have called to support it."

The failure is in the substance of the bill.

I actually don't have a problem with a carbon credit bubble.  Offering to make people rich is pretty much the only way that decent legislation will get passed.

Spot on! (4.00 / 1)
Except for local efforts, I've just about given up on what constitutes the "environmental movement" in this country. I used to donate and volunteer for many of the national organizations and even had a few as clients until I realized that they rarely present a unified, coordinated front that could activate the grassroots to mobilize for effective change. They all seem to have their own separate agendas and constituencies and rarely deal with the big picture issues. There's so darn many of them to begin with that they focus most of their outreach on differentiating themselves from each other.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

Yeah... but (0.00 / 0)
As I remember it, the Repugs gerrymandered the state's districts a few years ago making a democratic victory almost impossible. No?

continued messaging failure (0.00 / 0)
What exactly does "...strengthen the bill..." mean?

I'm still not sure what specific policies to ask my Senators to put into the bill and I follow this stuff pretty closely.

By any comparison, "please vote against X because it might hurt someone in our district" is a really simple message.

They call me Clem, Clem Guttata. Come visit wild, wonderful West Virginia Blue

I wouldn't attribute the calling to astroturf (0.00 / 0)
Redstate made calling against that a front page issue and Republicans really don't have anything else positive to focus on.


Sounds just like health care (0.00 / 0)
Like a game plan, or something:

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.

Just replace "climate change" with "public option."

I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD.  

failure in concept (4.00 / 1)
As far as I could tell, the bill itself seems like a failed strategy. It is not a good bill for protecting the environment. It may be a good bill for energy security. The combination of coal subsidies and restrictions of EPA power seems like a unnecessary give-away. If Obama's goal was really to protect the environment, he could have just started EPA regulation of carbon. Then, next year, industry would be begging for a bill that would be much more favorable to the environment than this one was. I don't really trust Obama on the environment. I think his real goal here is energy security, which is a much more pressing concern for presidential politics.

So fundamentally, I think the left wing base got it right: this bill is not for us. The left is less concerned with energy security than with climate change. The two are not the same issue, and the attempt to conflate them in this bill did not work to convince us.

ec=-8.50 soc=-8.41   (3,967 Watts)

Also, some green groups opposed it. (4.00 / 1)
I'm on the email lists of half a dozen green groups, and two of them--Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, sent me email urging me to tell my congresscritter to vote NO, while the other 4-5 groups all said to call to ask for a YES.

Given the large number of issues in which advocacy/progressive groups have consensus (e.g. having a public option without trigger for health insurance), it seemed not worth wasting a call on a bill which might or might not be a good idea.  

What I really wish... (4.00 / 2) that instead of the yes-or-no vote, that green groups had all pushed a strengthening amendment.  For example, it would've been great if we'd all pushed to remove the part of the bill which strips the EPA of authority to regulate carbon emissions.

[ Parent ]
You're missing a vital point. (0.00 / 0)
The grassroots folk know that this horrendously weak bill will do nothing but further erode any chance of taking substantive action to combat climate change and its effects.  THAT is why we must get with the program and push for GOOD legislation.


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