We can have political debate or politicized facts, but we can’t have both

We can have political debate or politicized facts, but we can’t have both September 6, 2012

First the bad news. In The New York Times, Leslie Kaufman reports on how zoos and aquariums are struggling to communicate the facts of climate change in a political climate that considers scientific facts to be matters of partisan dispute:

American zoos and aquariums enjoy a high level of public trust and are ideally positioned to teach.

Yet many managers are fearful of alienating visitors — and denting ticket sales — with tours or wall labels that dwell bleakly on damaged coral reefs, melting ice caps or dying trees.

…  At the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Brian Davis, the vice president for education and training, says to this day his institution ensures its guests will not hear the term global warming. Visitors are “very conservative,” he said. “When they hear certain terms, our guests shut down. We’ve seen it happen.”

When people “shut down” in response to certain terms or certain facts, those people are not being “very conservative,” they are, instead, just being anti-fact. Conservatism — even a hyper-partisan conservatism — is about how to respond to facts. Politicizing facts isn’t “conservative” politics, it’s a rejection of the very possibility of politics.

This polar bear is neither liberal nor conservative. It’s just a polar bear. (Photo by Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons.)

In a healthy political climate, people from different political parties or different sides of the debate will argue about how best to respond to the facts. Liberals and conservatives will disagree about that response. Such disagreement may be partisan, heated, angry, vicious and unyielding. It may get personal and uncivil, with red-faced partisans screaming at one another, employing profanity, hyperbole and insult. It may get really nasty.

And all of that is OK.

Such nastiness may be a sub-optimal expression of healthy democracy, but it’s still an expression of healthy democracy. Now matter how heated the argument over how best to respond to the facts, that argument is evidence of a people still capable of self-government.

But when the argument shifts from how to respond to the facts to become an argument over the existence of the facts themselves, then self-government is no longer possible. The news from the zoos suggests that we no longer have a healthy political climate — that our capacity for democracy is ailing.

We all love to see polar bears at zoos and aquariums. They’re beautiful and wicked smart and dangerous and just generally very cool. If we had a healthy democracy, then liberals and conservative could admire those creatures and argue about how best — or even whether — to respond to the shrinking habitats threatening polar bears in a warming Arctic. We would bring different ideas and ideologies to that argument, different visions of the scope and scale and substance of an appropriate response, different notions of which public or private actors ought to be most responsible to address those facts. It would be an argument, a debate, a disagreement.

But we don’t seem to be capable of having that argument. We don’t seem capable of achieving disagreement because, right now, the facts — reality itself — have become partisan and politicized. When the facts themselves are politicized, then politics itself becomes impossible.

That’s bad news for polar bears and bad news for democracy.

But here’s some more encouraging news, from South Carolina. Grist’s Jordan Haedtler reports on local news weathercaster Jim Gandy, “Heroic weatherman talks climate in a red state — and viewers thank him for it“:

In 2011, Gandy partnered with George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication and the nonprofit Climate Central to develop a program called Climate Matters, a segment that places his weathercasts in the context of climate change. Gandy also blogs regularly about climate. Broadcasting in South Carolina, Gandy was well aware of the risks. “I’m not from a red state, I’m from a dark red state,” he told us. Like his friend and peer Dan Satterfield, a weathercaster based until recently in Huntsville, Ala., Gandy began speaking out about climate change fully prepared to face backlash from his politically conservative audience.

But a funny thing happened: The backlash never came. Rather than facing an onslaught of angry phone calls, Gandy found that many viewers were fascinated by his reports connecting climate change with their daily lives. His report on climate change’s impact on poison ivy, for instance, received praise from viewers who stopped him on the street to thank him.

… Presenting established science to viewers and broadening the context of weather reporting isn’t just doable — it’s welcome, and sorely needed.

By reporting the facts of climate change, Gandy makes it possible for us to have the political debate over how to respond to those facts. The facts do not settle that debate, they merely allow that debate to begin.

That’s what is vitally important for a healthy democracy — not that the debate is settled one way or the other, and not whether it is conducted with the utmost politeness, just that the debate is taking place at all. (Civility and friendliness are Good Things, of course, and all else being equal, it’s nicer if we’re all nicer. But niceness and honesty are not the same thing, and only the latter is necessary for political debate in a democracy.)

That debate cannot happen if we choose, instead, to consider reality itself as subject to debate. We cannot have political disagreement if we are, instead, disagreeing over facts — if we pretend that the facts are subject to dispute and denial.

Jim Gandy’s example also reminds us that people like to learn the facts. Facts turn out to be immensely practical, useful things. They also tend to be interesting.

The essential facts of climate change due to human activity are beyond dispute. Some of us are liberals and some of us are conservatives, and thus we are bound to disagree, intensely, over how best to respond to those facts. That disagreement — how to respond — is the debate we need to be having. That is the debate we would be having, right now, if we were a healthier democracy.

That debate will involve plenty of conflict and confrontation, and moving forward will involve plenty of compromise — as it always does in a democracy. And at every step of the process the argument will continue along the same lines as it always has. If, for example, part of the eventual compromise response involves some sort of carbon tax — an idea now favored by both many reality-based conservatives and liberals — the choice to implement such a carbon tax wouldn’t end the debate.

It would, rather, launch a new round of political debate — a new variation on the old perennial argument between liberals and conservatives. Liberals like me would come to the table with one set of ideas about what other taxes could be offset or abolished with the revenue from this new carbon tax. We’d want to replace existing regressive taxes, like the payroll tax, that fall more heavily on the working class. That’s our thing. Conservatives, on the other hand, might see the revenue from a carbon tax as a substitute for capital gains taxes or corporate taxes that they believe stifle economic growth. That’s their thing. We’d have a big old fight — a very familiar big old fight — over the proper balance between those competing concerns. That fight would likely involve lots of angry shouting, name-calling, derision, huffing and puffing, and all of that would be evidence that we are governing ourselves in a healthy democracy.

And that would be much, much healthier than where we are now.

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