In a recent article in The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn assesses the turnout from the recent "Hands Across the Sand" an international offshore drilling protest that took place last Saturday, June 26th. He asserts that the turnout was relatively small, especially with respect to the recent oil spill. Cohn uses this example as an indication of the overall lack of Democratic constituent communication with Capitol Hill and what this means for climate change legislation.
Posted July 2, 2010
By Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic
Americans from across the country
went to the beach on Saturday, holdings hands to protest offshore oil
drilling and urge the use of clean energy. The effort, “Hands Across
the Sand,” was the brainchild of a Florida environmental activist
and has been in the works for months. But it gained new urgency and
attention thanks to the oil catastrophe in the Gulf.
Or so you would think.
While nobody seems to have compiled an estimate of nationwide
accounts from local papers tell of no more than a few hundred
people showing up in Pensacola Beach, FL, and Santa Monica, CA–places
where, presumably, turnout was highest. That probably means a few
thousand people participated nationwide. That’s a perfectly respectable
figure in normal times. But with the nation’s worst environmental
catastrophe–an oil spill, of all things–in progress? Under those
circumstances, the numbers seem a little disappointing.
I don’t want to make too much of this one example. (Or, for that
matter, blame the organizers.) But it’s not like there are a ton of
other examples to cite. We have no shortage of committed
environmentalists in this country. But two months after the Deepwater
Horizon rig first exploded, where are the marches on Washington? Where
are the phone calls lighting up Capitol Hill switchboards? Congressional
staffers I've contacted tell me constituent contact on climate change
has increased in the last few weeks, but only incrementally. My
reporting sample is pretty small; Hill staffers who have seen/heard
otherwise should contact me. But it's consistent with other recent
behavior on the liberal-left.
You hear a lot of disappointment with the Democratic leadership these
days–for giving up too much on financial and health care reform, and
not making aggressive climate change legislation a priority. And purely
on substantive grounds, the argument has merit: Just this afternoon,
Democrats in the Senate announced
their willingness to scale back climate change legislation even
further. But there’s a reason Obama and his allies are conceding this
much: They’ve hit the political limits of what they can achieve.
To make a point that really shouldn't need repeating by now, it takes
sixty votes to get measures through the Senate, a body that–by its
very design–skews political power so that conservative states have
disproportionate power. (A price on emissions isn't close to 60 votes
right now; that's why the White House and Senate Democrats are making
new concessions.) While Obama and congressional leaders obviously have some
leverage at the margins, their most powerful weapon is the ability
to make members of Congress fear constituent retribution. And that’s
simply not a threat they can make stick when members aren’t getting an
earful from people who care.
During the health care fight, Andy Stern, president of the Service
Employees International Union, frequently delivered a message to
liberals frustrated with Democratic Party leaders: “Be the wind at their
backs.” It’s fine to make demands of the leadership, he agreed. But
progressives who wanted bolder action in Washington had to create a
political environment where bolder action was actually possible. SEIU
did just that, pressuring not just Democratic leaders (by demanding
presidential hopefuls commit to comprehensive health care reform) but
also wavering members (by threatening potential “no” votes with primary
challenges). More important, it turned out bodies–for rallies,
letter-writing campaigns, and phone banks–to secure the politicians’
attention. But even on health care, that behavior was more the exception
than the rule.
None of this is to say Obama, in particular, couldn’t do more to
rally supporters. Count me among those persuaded that, by waiting as
long as he did for a big speech on climate change, he missed a political
opportunity to focus public attention on the issue. And, to be clear,
it’s not as if the environmental community is sitting on its hands.
Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and direct of climate change advocacy at
the Center for American Progress, points out that organizations like
CAP’s Action Fund, the Sierra Club, and Environmental Defense Fund have
been organizing everything from protests at district offices to
Washington visits from military veterans pushing energy
independence–with more activism to come. That's all to the good. Even a
scaled-back climate bill could make a difference, as my better-informed
Plumer has argued. But the existing pressure doesn't seem strong
enough to make it a reality.
P.S. Applying grassroots pressure through rallies and phone calls
isn’t necessarily the same thing as moving public opinion overall. And
the latter would obviously help as much, if not more, than the former.
If you’re interested in that subject, I highly recommend an
article by my longtime colleague Jason Zengerle in the latest issue
of New York magazine.