The Spectacle Blog

Can’t We Elect a New Public?

By on 10.13.10 | 12:59PM

The post-election positioning and advice for the GOP is beginning a little early. Today's salvo asks why the GOP is out of step with Europe and the New York Times' writers. Don't they know that's wrong?

Specifcially, Ross Douthat has a strange post -- ok, not so strange for the 'climate' realm -- bemoaning that the GOP is out of step on global warming-slash-climate change.

The evidence is a brief litany of European polling showing nearly half, and sometimes more than half, the public claiming agreement with the thesis of dangerous man-made global warming (Douthat just says 'global warming' and the more politically utile 'climate change', but the context is clear what this means).

Concludes Douthat, after listing his evidence of public support near or above majority levels, "there's no denying that its left the G.O.P. on the wrong side - and increasingly so - of a pretty sturdy scientific consensus."

Erm... wha? I suppose maybe the science is so beyond 'denial' (in certain circles...paging Pauline Kael) that there need be no effort to set forth its undeniable-ness. But there is no denying that is a non sequitor.

More important, however, is how this misses the elephant in the bathtub, so to speak. A political party's relevance is typically not whether it's adherents accept all of one's fears or phobias, per se, but its policy stands. And about policy, Douthat asserts his agreement with the GOP (and, instructively, an increasing number of electorally threatened Democrats). Ok, he wouldn't acknowledge that here, but touts his own grave doubts about climate policies. And all such policies on the table are, by chance, the subject of a -- wait for it -- consensus that they would be climactically meaningless.

*So on the big policy question Douthat is aligned with the GOP, whose opposition to climate policies is, polls and political behavior show quite clearly, also aligned with the voters. As such, the effort to say the GOP is out of touch with the public by agreeing with Douthat is not only internally inconsistent, but runs contrary to this rather more "undeniable" reality of where the public really is. More on that momentarily, but this opposition to the GOP and therefore the voters is, upon scrutiny, therefore really opposition to their feelings about man-made global warming, not their actual opposition to climate policies.*

As such the author's point seems to be that, as the Democratic Party comes unglued and Republicans ascend by default, now is the time for certain of those sometime-Republicans uncomfortable with the Republican Party to remind everyone that they're not like those yahoos who won't answer "yes" to a pollster asking if they accept Man as now being responsible for the one constant about climate, which is change.

But even the meaning of these political fashions substituting for undeniable science seems somewhat confused. See, it's not just European publics of whom something-less-than-half-to-something-more-than-half believe the thesis, he says; American public opinion is very close to much of Europe. And that point, that we're not so different after all, leads to what is likely the passage which unlocks all that drives this post, "Europe's political class, left and right alike, has worked to marginalize a position that it considers intellectually disreputable, even as the American G.O.P. has exploited that same position to win votes."

Now, it is possible that he has missed a similar, extensive effort by much of America's political class, nearly all of its academic and media elites. Regardless, what else does this reveal? A belief that it's mostly skeptics that vote, or at least they vote in wildly disproportionate numbers? Because we know politicians always rush to take stands the public broadly opposes (that's actually a rather new phenomenon; see "Democrat Party coming unglued", above).

*Much of the confusion may instead have something to do with what voters are saying when they answer polls. Widespread political flight from prescriptive climate policies is probably a better reflection of what voters are saying they really mean. And my experience indicates voter opposition to the policies is of two sorts. First requires understanding the notion of cheap virtue, or the ease with which one nods yes to something when it doesn't cost you anything; say, when answering a poll question. Unlike agreeing to policies. And I believe there's fairly broad acceptance -- I won't go down Douthat's "so undeniable I'll just stipulate it" route -- that people are oddly cowed to some unknown but statistically significant level to give what they deem to be the more fashionable answer to pollsters. Or I suppose I should say avoid expressing positions subject to campaigns to marginalize them and have them deemed intellectually disreputable?

*There seems to be more to the "disagree" vote, as well, based on my experience. Maybe -- putting aside discomfort with people whose views aren't as sophisticated as those of one's preferred company -- Douthat's stipulated discomfort with these policies is really what those people are answering in the imperfect world of polling; many are surely saying no to "do you believe it's real, bad and man's fault all to a sufficient extent to support policies the president at first admitted will hurt really badly but which won't do anything about it anyway, according to anyone"? That's what distills from my discussions, which I admit are more personal, detailed and therefore less reliable than an automated telephone call.

I'm not saying that's an undeniable truth. But it does seem to be a reasonable read of half of the public sentiment, and most of the GOP. Which is actually quite unreasonable. And a little more sophisticated than the sophisticates grasp or are willing to admit.

* I have updated this in several spots to more fully state what I see as the confusion Douthat's position represents.

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