The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Movie Review (or the problem with Liberalism)


July 12, 2006

I saw two movies recently: Superman Returns and An Inconvenient Truth

Superman was good, summer super-hero action fun, though probably just a bit too long. My favorite part– the music. They were loyal to the original John Williams score, and really, nothing beats heroic John Williams music.

Al Gore’s movie was surprisingly good. To borrow from the line from John Stewart, the “film combines the mainstream appeal of climate science with the non-stop action of Al Gore” (and you should really watch Gore’s appearance on the show, top notch). Seriously, though, who would have thought that a hour long power point presentation by Al Gore could be so interesting, and yet it is.

After watching that movie, you come away quite convinced that climate change is a really, really big issue and we really really need to thing long and hard about what we’re doing about it. The evidence is quite strong and very convincing, and Gore does a great job of explaining a lot of scientific data in a way that gets all the critical facts correct.

What I liked best about the movie, though, is the transformation that it revealed in Al Gore himself, and Gore’s transformation reflects a larger issue / problem with liberalism as a political ideology within the US and the Democratic Party.

Early in the film, Gore talks about how he first learned about the issues of climate change in the 1960’s as a student at Harvard. He sat in class with a leading scholar on the issue and was amazed by the power of the evidence arrayed in front of him. When Gore became a US Senator in the 1980’s, he held hearings on the subject, asking his former professor to testify before Congress. The hearings laid out relatively clear evidence of climate change and global warming, with a trend starting mid-century and climbing to the (then) present day. Here’s the important point: Gore says at this point in the film that he figured this was a slam dunk. He’d present the clear scientific evidence, have testimony from leading experts in the field, and the sheer volume of evidence, the magnitude of the problem, the potential impact on society would be clear, and Congress would surely act.

Well, it didn’t. He was ignored at best and castigated at worst for sham science and radical environmentalism.

The (first) Bush Administration attended an international summit meeting on the environment and Gore shows a slide from their presentation. It is a scale (picture the scales of justice) and on one side sit a stack of gold bars. On the other side sits a nice planet, earth. The slide was supposed to show that we needed a balance between the economy and the environment, but Gore reads it differently. He says, gee, we have a choice– those gold bars, or….. Those Gold Bars look awfully nice, but if we take the gold bars, where will we put them? Still, gold bars…. Awfully tempting….

You see Gore as VP candidate, and Bush the elder calling him a radical environmentalist who will destroy the US economy, trading jobs for owls. Gore talks about how as VP, he helped enact a carbon tax and later signed onto the Kyoto protocol. Again, he said, with the clear evidence for global warming and climate change, this time 10 years later, surely Congress would act. And again, they didn’t. Kyoto languishes in the Senate even now.

Finally, post-2000 election Gore comes to a realization that reaches fruition with this film. He runs smack into the fallacy and fundamental problem that plagues liberalism and afflicts liberals in national electoral politics. Liberalism prizes the rational actor and assumes that if only people knew the “true” causes, the “true” costs, the “true” implications of actions, they would correct their wayward behavior and obviously come around to the more sensible, the more rational, the more beneficial course of action. This, I think, is the source of “liberal elitism”– liberalism assumes that if you show people the “facts” then policy and policy preferences (not to mention voting) will come around. So, liberal think tanks try to find better, truer data and provide a more accurate picture of the world in order to devise policies that will correct those deficiencies. Liberals really do know what is best because they have the facts to prove it.

The fundamental political flaw in this is that people don’t react well to such raw facts, especially when those facts have no meaning in the general context of their life. People, as political actors, react to meaning-laden notions that somehow fit or challenge what is important to them, what they value. Here is where political conservatives within the US have made a profound breakthrough and liberals are left confused. Sure, the economy sucks and the war is going badly, so why do people vote for Bush? The empirical data suggests the rational course of behavior is to vote against Bush (recall how many political scientists’ models predicted Gore over Bush in 2000?), but the structure of meaning suggests vote for Bush– he’s for what people think matters to them: a strong USA, anti-terrorism, no gay marriage. The raw empirics are less important than the meaning that these empirics are given within the political sphere.

The metaphor that Gore continually returns to is Smoking. For years, it was clear that smoking was unhealthy, but the tobacco companies promoted doubt and debate in order to make anti-smoking policies politically dicey. They also gave plenty of money to pro-tobacco members of Congress. But, as the public came to see smoking as a health risk, with real costs and with a negative meaning, then anti-smoking policies were rapidly enacted. People crow about the economic impact of banning smoking from bars and restaurants and such, but local governments do it because a non-smoking environment is now a politically legitimate public good. And, New York, Boston, and California– all major economies– have done just fine with smoking bans.

And here is where Gore finally gets it, with this movie. What he’s trying to do is legitimate climate change as a relevant and significant political (electoral) issue. His solutions are brilliant– he doesn’t have a technical fix to the climate crisis (in fact, relying on such a technical fix is part of the problem). Rather, he has a political solution. Care. Ask your elected representative what his / her position is on the issue. Raise it as an issue in the next election. As the result of a complex interaction of a host of carbon-emitting systems, there is no one way to reduce green house gasses. But, there are a host of ways to cut out a chunk here, reduce a chunk there, all of which add up to a significant reduction in emissions. Most of them are not rocket science, all they require is people care and put political will behind climate-friendly energy production. Once climate change is legitimated as a political issue within the US electoral sphere, you can darn well bet that some intrepid Senator or Member of Congress will trot out a plan to corner the issue. As will others.

One would hope that Democrats learn from Gore. Winning is more than just a cute metaphor, its more than having “facts” and “reality” on your side. Politics is a legitimation game, and once Democrats start to legitimate their issues in a way that is politically meaningful to the average American voter, they will do just fine. The problem that Democrats have had recently is to hope that people “see through” this “cheap talk” and realize “the facts.” Facts may be stubborn things, but they are particularly stubborn when legitimize within a larger web of political meaning. Gore has finally realized that he needs to make his facts meaningful and legitimate his political vision. One hopes other Democrats pay attention.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.