Wednesday, April 3, 2013

More on Talk and Action and Agenda Setting and Climate

I wrote one over at Plum Line yesterday about a Media Matters push to get people to lobby the broadcast networks to run more stories about climate. My argument was that it's unlikely that such an effort would be successful, and that if the goal was more attention to climate, the more likely way to get results would be for activists to target politicians, and especially the president. Basically, the path going activists to parties to politicians to news coverage works better than the more direct activists to news coverage path.

After some pushback, I'm thinking that it wasn't the smartest item I ever wrote. Not that I got it wrong, exactly, but just that my focus on the narrow question wasn't really very helpful. So, I'm going with a long, rambling post that considers the more general issue from several different perspectives.

First, I agree with what Michael Grunwald tweeted: "Deeds>Words!" Along with a link to his argument (well, a short form of his argument) that "while it’s absolutely fair to complain that Obama doesn’t talk about climate change anymore, except at rallies when he’s firing up his liberal base, it’s also worth noting that he’s probably done more to prevent climate change than anyone else on the planet." Leaving aside whether he's correct about Obama, I think his general point is clearly correct: policy formation and implementation is more important than getting stuff into news broadcasts. The question is whether those things are independent of each other, but I think he's right that the Obama case shows they are at least largely independent of each other. For better or worse, a lot of the press doesn't cover policy, and so they can easily just miss important things that happen, especially at the regulatory level.

Second, digby raises a fair point about the bully pulpit:
I had thought the bully pulpit is not only useless, but often counter-productive, so this is a surprise to me. Ezra Klein explained it to us all in this New Yorker piece from 2012, wherein he outlined all the political science numbers-crunching that proves public opinion is fairly irrelevant to public policy and presidential rhetoric even more so. Indeed, the thesis says that while the president coming out publicly for a particular policy may be able to harden his own troops' resolve from time to time, he also hardens the opposition against him, so government basically can only be effective through the use of backroom deals and inside the beltway politicking:
So, considering how well the obsession wit the deficit has worked to make it a top priority issue,  I totally agree that the president should talk a lot about climate change.  I do think it makes a difference and I think the very act of doing it repeatedly puts it on the agenda and gives it an urgency.  Will he change climate change deniers minds?  Doubtful.  In fact, I agree that it may very well harden their opposition to any policies designed to prevent it, although it's hard to see how they could be more hardened than they already are.  But it could help persuade Democrats and Independents that this is something to which they need to pay attention and that's a necessary first step. So start yammering Mr President! 
See, this is where it gets tricky.

On the one hand: presidents can definitely get people talking about things, mainly by "agenda-setting" -- that is, by getting the news media to talk about things.

On the other, Klein's article was exactly right: it's not clear to what effect all that agenda-setting is for. And it has the potential to backfire.

Digby argues that Barack Obama's frequent public support of deficit reduction has had the consequence of pushing Democrats to become more likely to support deficit reduction in polls. That seems likely to me, but only because (with the president joining Republicans) there's an elite consensus, or close to it, for deficit reduction. But that wouldn't be the case on climate of course.

Moreover, and this gets back to Grunwald's point: to what effect? Suppose that liberals pushed Obama to talk about climate more often, and it had the effects I predict: he would in fact respond to that pressure by talking about climate more often, and it would yield more news coverage. Suppose that digby is correct that as a consequence, climate concern among Democrats would go up in polling...suppose even that Obama could change peoples' minds, so that the overall numbers on whether the government should do more on the environment tipped back towards the Democrats' position.

OK, then what? Would legislation be more likely to get through the current Congress? Not that I can see. Would the EPA and other government agencies be more likely to adopt tough regulations? Not really, I don't think; while public opinion might matter to them, relatively small shifts probably don't.

Would relatively small shifts in polling make it more likely that climate would be a higher agenda item for Democrats in 2014, or 2016? Harder to say...maybe? And that would very much be (if you want action on climate) a valuable result. But I'm not sure that the news media/agenda setting portion of it is really a particularly efficient way of getting there. Why not just directly organize within nomination battles?

And yet...on the other, other, other hand: as far as I understand it, the data we have on public opinion and the bully pulpit are mainly about short-term effects, and especially the (non-) effects of attempting to move Congress on specific legislation by changing public opinion. I don't think we know much, if anything (and I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong) about long-term effects, if any. I mean, we know that Ronald Reagan didn't make US voters more conservative during his presidency...but I don't think we know anything about what, if any, long-term effects he might have had either on specific issues or ideology in general -- including effects concentrated within conservatives. Or, to put it the other way: we could have something here similar to campaign effects in which strong professional electioneering tends to cancel out; if one side saw the minimal effects results and decided to not campaign at all, we're fairly certain that it would create a very large effect. If Democratic presidents preach liberal ideals it might not change any minds, but if they don't, it might fail to "educate" a generation of Democratic activists.

I should wrap this up, but one more point. The holy grail on this, for climate activists, is to get mainstream conservatives (that is, non-crazy conservatives) to accept the scientific consensus on climate; if that happens, then it probably becomes relatively easy to get legislation done. Would agenda-setting through the media make that more likely? If it's accomplished by having a Democratic president talk more about it?

And yet what if mainstream conservatives would never be open to legislation? In that case, the best hope is for climate to be at the top of the Democratic agenda the next time they win a landslide and hold Congress and the presidency. Would more stories in the national press make that more likely?

I don't have answers to those questions. The main thing I would say is that the answers, from all we know from the research, are non-obvious. We really, really, should avoid any simplistic ideas about what presidents can do with their rhetoric...but should also be modest in what we know, and what it implies about what presidents should talk about.


  1. I think of the bully pulpit as an organism that has the president as it's head, maybe, but also includes other PR pushes from congress (that's a pipe dream, isn't it?) and party operatives. Obama's OFA might be included in it, Howard Dean's DFA, the moguls who are pressuring congress on LGBT marriage; labor and other special interest organizations. They all have a roll in getting things going.

  2. Convincing the media that politicians will pay a political price for not backing climate change legislation is probably as effective as anything. Getting politicians of any stripe to think they lose votes (large numbers of them) would work. Getting the media to talk about climate change as an issue, all by itelf? I doubt, really, that it could have much policy effect without much political effect.

    1. I forgot this, too. It doesn't actually have to have any political effect or electoral effect at all as long as you convince the elite media/politicians that it does. Right to Life organizations figured this out years ago.

  3. The bully pulpit used to work because a large segment of the American public respected whoever was President because he was President, and if an even larger segment of the public basically liked him, they were persuadable. If the President said something, it was okay to agree, or at least think about it.

    Now there's less general respect, and there seem to be fewer who like but don't politically agree with the president. Yet the general proposition may still operate, except for the political power (and political influence over the media because of it) of specifically the Republican party even when it is a minority. Right now it is composed of zealots and monied interests. The media is always going to listen to money, and zealots are good copy.

    Climate is a special issue. It's the most important and the most frightening, and we all spend a lot of time avoiding both truths.

    What's going to move it? There's a majority in favor of meaningful action. That doesn't mean much in the short run. What's going to move it now is activism--much bigger than ever before--and administrative action. Rules on carbon. Most dramatically, kill the pipeline. It's beyond trying to win over conservatives. A lot of them have changed their minds on the issue once already. They will have to be defeated.

    1. What's your evidence that the bully pulpit used to work? I don't think it's changed over time. Didn't work for Wilson, didn't work (at least outside of emergencies, and maybe then too) for FDR, didn't work for Reagan. Doesn't work.

    2. What constitutes "didn't work?" By my perhaps overly generous definition, it did work for FDR, and I believe it worked for JFK on the nuclear test ban treaty, which the Senate seemed disinclined to ratify until he spoke about it around the country.

      It even worked for Jimmy Carter on energy conservation. Though that's not the popular impression, the numbers I've heard cited bear this out.

      And what about support for Gulf wars I and 2?
      But again, I may be missing the definition of what "bully pulpit" and "works" mean in this analysis.

  4. Let me add one thing on the specific question of organizing to get the media to cover climate. It needs to be done because there's too much cowardice, too much giving into both the opposition and the fact that alot of climate news is scary and unpleasant and people would rather avoid it.

    The New York Times has cut back its environmental coverage and killed its one climate blog, leaving something like 8 blogs on fashion and 8 on sports. That's what's happening right now. The media has to know that people want this information, that they believe it's important to their future.

  5. 1. "In that case, the best hope is for climate to be at the top of the Democratic agenda the next time they win a landslide and hold Congress and the presidency."

    Behold the Senate election of 2016: 24 Republican senators up for election but only 10 Democrats in the same position. I've been talking it up for a while as the crucial time period for legislation:

    In 2018 it will be 8 Republican incumbents and 25 Democrats. There's a two year time frame then that will quickly close as a chance for national action.

    2. Before the 2017 Senate session, or even during it, there isn't a single Holy Grail but 50 of them. State action on climate is a lot easier than getting a federal supermajority, and can pave the way. Republicans in Texas and Kansas now support wind energy tax credits for good domestic political reasons. Realigning economic incentives can help politics tremendously, and other states can follow California and the Northeastern states on climate.

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  7. Jonathan, just saw Greg's post about Obama's upcoming climate push, and I felt skeptical of his commentary about it being a good thing that Obama will be at least talking about the issue more because of all the discussion over the past few years about how President's polarize by advocating on issues. Glad to have found this post taking a deeper dive into the subject, and it makes me feel more at ease about this summer's push. Although, I see this as far more beneficial from a policy perspective than a political perspective. I think one of the better things we can do is bring down emissions and show that it does not hurt economic growth (thus, removing the economy versus environment trope that even Obama mentions). Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      As I think I said above, the first-order thing to do is to knock down overly simplistic claims that if only a president would talk about X, then he could get people to agree, or that then he could get Congress or other political players to act.

      All true, but that doesn't exhaust the potential reasons for presidents to speak up, and at that point it starts getting complex and most likely beyond what we know for sure.


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