Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Jim Motavalli: Trashing the Greens

Trashing the Greens: Reports of Environmentalism’s “Death” May be Exaggerated
by Jim Motavalli

In 1992, according to Canada-based Environics Research Group, 17 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “pollution [is] necessary to preserve jobs.” In 2004, a whopping 29 percent agreed with it. In the same time span, there was also a significant increase in the percentage who think that the father of a family “must be master in his own house” (52 percent, compared to 21 percent in Canada), and who agree with the statement that “a widely advertised product is probably good” (45 percent).

Clearly, we’re dealing with a more conservative population today than we were a dozen years ago, and environmental positions do not enjoy the same level of support they did in the 1990s. If polls weren’t enough to enforce that point, the 2004 election cycle made it abundantly clear. Those results have caused a good deal of soul-searching, not only among Democrats and liberals generally, but also in the environmental movement.

The tragedy, say many green leaders, is that Americans are tuning out the environment at the very time that big-ticket crises—from global warming to endangered species loss and overfishing of the oceans—need immediate attention. Activists who had thought that President Bush couldn’t get away with simply ignoring the clear evidence that climate change was real were stunned to see that he could…and did.

Never was the movement more united in a common goal: getting rid of the President. Bush’s opponents convened America Votes, a coalition that included 20 citizens’ groups, from the AFL-CIO, NAACP and NARAL to the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. The Sierra Club doubled its commitment to put volunteers on the street ringing doorbells, and no one doubts the thoroughness of its effort. In districts where volunteers went door-to-door, more people voted for Kerry than voted for Gore. But the fact remains that the U.S. has winner-take-all elections, and the environment lost big in 2004.

Spin Factor

There were obviously many reasons for the sad showing by both the Democratic Party and the environmental cause, but some things stand out. By dutifully indulging in pack journalism on swift boats, the terrorist threat and other items on Karl Rove’s to-do list (while ignoring environmental issues entirely), the media, led by Fox News, helped re-elect President Bush.

Sheldon Rampton, research director of the Center for Media and Democracy and co-author (with John Stauber) of Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq, points out that what he calls “the right-wing echo chamber” has “gotten very good at using the habits and weaknesses of media to control the spin on stories. They know the media is entertainment, and they’ve gotten expert at creating controversy. For instance, if the print media wasn’t covering the swift boat issue, they would go on their blogs and say the newspapers aren’t objective. It works. If environmentalists had a similar echo chamber going, and were constantly harping at the media’s anti-environmental bias, the networks would be making effort to provide environmental coverage. They’ve been doing this successfully for decades.”

Rampton calls the liberal radio network Air America “a beginning.” Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning us to Death, adds, “We need an orchestra and Air America is one of the instruments. With 2004 behind us, we need to be adding more voices like that. And clearly, we have to start thinking two or three years ahead, as the right does.” The problem, as Solomon and others note, is that conservative foundations recognize the value of consistent support for a strong media chorus, while the progressive funders do not. “Conservatives know you need multi-year funding to get something off the ground,” he said. “It’s a nurturance process, and it’s very difficult with just one-year funding cycles.”

Thus, media-friendly think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are able to funnel material to a receptive and influential network that includes Reverend Moon’s Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Fox News, The Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Follow the Money

Another factor in a rising tide of anti-environmental victories, of course, is the current election laws, which ensure that voters will be influenced by a steady flow of corporate cash. Since the candidates actually meet each other only in a few rigidly controlled debates, the public makes up its mind largely on the basis of manufactured images (especially television ads) rather than a vital give-and-take on the issues. Many commentators think that public financing of elections, across-the-board elimination of cash spigots like the 527 organizations, and other reforms would help, but the results are hardly guaranteed. (The McCain-Feingold soft money ban did little to affect electoral cash flow, for instance.) In 2004, total federal election spending was fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. According to OpenSecrets.org, George W. Bush’s campaign raised $367 million, and John Kerry’s $325 million.

Probably the best approach is that taken by such parliamentary democracies as Canada, France, New Zealand and Great Britain, all of which place firm limits on candidates’ campaign spending. Most of these countries also restrict television advertising (or offer free time to qualified candidates), making it harder for office seekers to gain an unfair advantage or manufacture a false image. Australia and Ireland also use instant runoff voting, which eliminates primaries by allowing voters to mark a second and third place choice. (Lowest-placed finishers are eliminated, and votes for them transferred to the alternative choices for a second round of counting.) On a level playing field, where the issues can be heard and facts matter, the environmental message could be powerful.

Rest of the Essay

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