Last week, I attended a Tea Party meeting in an Atlanta suburb. It was about the horrors of cap-and-trade. But the topic that raised the most ire turned out to be a rumor that President Obama planned to bar the movement from protesting again on the National Mall.
The next day, I sauntered over to a forum at Georgia Tech, where a suit-and-tie audience of entrepreneurs, executives, advocates and students heard pro-business arguments for policies to encourage energy efficiency.
The two groups must exist in the same universe, but surely not in the same solar system.
The Tea Partiers live in a Wonderland where everything is upside down. Bankers are socialists. Rumors are more valuable than facts. Certitude trumps curiosity, and emotion breeds righteousness.
Had I thought to tell some of those attending that I planned to go the next day to a forum on energy efficiency, they would have imagined hippies in Birkenstocks and Che Guevara T-shirts — not a straight-laced crowd of capitalists listening to a couple of business consultants and a very nuts-and-bolts professor. And they surely would have wondered about the “socialism” behind anyone who advocated government steps to encourage energy efficiency.
The message at the efficiency forum was devoid of conflict and full of hope. And of course it was about as emotionally charged as the planet Vulcan. As is typical for a business-oriented crowd, the speakers focused on costs and benefits: The inefficiencies in our buildings, machinery and cars create opportunities for some companies to save money and others to make money. But policies are needed, the speakers said, to overcome the barriers that have caused energy efficiency to move too slowly.
The curmudgeonly journalist inside me tried to ruin all the good cheer with a provocative question, which was basically this: We can talk about good ideas all we want, but once they move into the realm of popular debate, pundits and politicians chew them up and spit them out with an unrecognizable spin. How do you gain traction for good, commonsense solutions in such a dysfunctional, conflict-ridden environment?
I must not have asked my question right, because I don’t think they understood it. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I’d just come from a planet they could never understand.
The reflex for anyone whose opinions have been formed by facts is to bolster his argument with more facts. One panel participant responded with an explanation that pure markets don’t always work — that some costs and benefits are by their very nature social. Leaders need to recognize that, and come up with policies that help to spread the costs and benefits more evenly.
Another panelist noted that the names of things are important. For example, why call residential energy efficiency reviews “home energy audits” — a phrase that evokes the IRS?
Well-intentioned as the answers were, I could only think of how unconvincing and irrelevant they’d seem to the Tea Party audience I’d visited with the night before. Piling on facts that support the arguments for energy efficiency would only come across to them as a desperate attempt to rationalize “socialism.” Changing something’s name? Why that’s deception, of course!
The answer may be that there is no answer to my question, that we live in an era when public debate plods along in a particularly flawed way, a time when it’s unavoidable that two sides engage in trench warfare over their ideas. In other words, when a fair chunk of the population is beyond hope.
I checked with the National Park Service about that rumor that Obama planned to bar Tea Parties from the National Mall. “First we’d heard of it,” a park service spokesman wrote back. “National Park areas provide a forum in which citizens can exercise their constitutional rights, including the freedom of speech and assembly. The United States Constitution guarantees everyone the right to speak freely and to assemble peaceably, regardless of the content of their message.”
Aha! I smell a cover-up!