America is more polarized today than at any time since Reconstruction. A major quantitative analysis by social scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal found today to be the most polarized period in 130 years.
If you want to understand how it is that the debate over — for example — global warming policies became so shrill, consider the recent pattern of behavior by the country's second-most read climate blogger, Joe Romm. We will argue – against those who pooh-pooh his influence – that Joe Romm is, in fact, far more influential today than Joe McCarthy was in the 1950s, a fact that, unfortunately, has proven poisonous to creating the consensus needed for serious action on climate.
Today's fractured and polarized media environment has allowed Joe Romm to become the most influential liberal climate activist in the country, largely because he has convinced liberals and Democrats that he is an energy and climate science expert. This explains why Nobel Prize Winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says "I trust Joe Romm," Thomas Friedman calls ClimateProgress.org "the indispensable blog," Al Gore relies on him for technical analysis, and the Center for American Progress makes him the organization's chief spokesperson on climate and energy issues.
Partisan Identity as a Mental Short-Cut
It's no coincidence that America's Climate McCarthyite-in-chief is a blogger at the largest liberal think tank and not a U.S. Senator. Busy fundraising and campaigning, members of Congress have largely outsourced the deliberative process of legislating to partisan interest groups and think tanks.
Much has been written about the ideological echo chamber conservatives like Sen. James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, and Glen Beck have created to enforce anti-environmental orthodoxy on the Right. Less remarked upon has been the creation of its analog on the Left – an accomplishment in which Romm has taken a leading role. Romm has mastered the echo chamber in its liberal expression and creates a reassuring green womb for his growing cadre of loyal readers.
Most importantly Romm functions to inform his readers of the partisan identity of any given thing, whether it be a new technology, policy, or analysis. Thus, when it came time for Romm to criticize a rather technical piece on the rising carbon intensity of the global economy that appeared in the journal Nature he attacked it not as inaccurate or incorrect, but rather as Republican:
It will be no surprise to learn the central point of their essay, ironically titled "Dangerous Assumptions" is "Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels," which is otherwise known as the technology trap or the standard "Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah" delayer message developed by Frank Luntz and perfected by Bush/Lomborg/Gingrich.
In other words, the Nature article was not what it claimed to be. It wasn't an analysis suggesting that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should revisit its assumptions about decarbonization. It wasn't an argument for stronger technology policies. No, it was a devious Republican message – one designed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz during the Bush years – to delay action.
How then did Romm become convinced that, rather than being genuine, the "Dangerous Assumptions" analysis was, in fact, Republican propaganda? Because Romm's Climate McCarthyism is, in large measure, the product of his Hyper-Partisan mind, one which sees everything through the gaze of Republican or Democratic, "climate denier" or "climate science advocate," and "climate destroyer" or climate savior.
Elsewhere Romm attacked Robert Mendelsohn, another leading environmental economist:
When the global warming deniers and delayers at right wing think tanks like the Hoover Institute agree with your analysis, you should start to ask yourself whether you really know what you're talking about.
Get it? The economists in question should rethink their work not because their assumptions are wrong, or their findings invalid, but rather because a conservative think tank agrees with them.
If You Do Not Agree Then You Must Be A Republican
Romm does not simply enforce the existing Democratic discourse, he also seeks to narrow it, effectively reducing its appeal by making it more hysterical, shrill, and apocalyptic. Little surprise, then, that Romm felt the need to attack the views of environment writer Gregg Easterbrook for writing a critical review of Friedman's book, which relied heavily on Romm's apocalyptic interpretation of the climate science.
Why does the cocktail-party circuit embrace claims about a pending climate doomsday? Partly owing to our nation's shaky grasp of science--many Americans lack basic understanding of chemicals, biology, and natural systems. Another reason is the belief that only exaggerated cries of crisis engage the public's attention; but this makes greenhouse concern seem like just another wolf cry.
Romm responded by calling Easterbrook – wait for it – Republican:
Thanks to the Gregg Easterbrooks of the country -- otherwise known as Reagan, Gingrich, Bush and McCain – the United States became only a bit player in a global industry it helped create and once dominated, a bit player in what will certainly be one of the largest job-creating industries in the world.
Reading Romm, one would be hard pressed to conclude that Easterbrook was anything other than an opponent of action to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, Easterbrook is an advocate of the dominant Democratic and environmental approach to climate change, cap and trade. "Government should regulate greenhouse emissions," he wrote in his review, "then let the free market sort out the details, including by funding the research."
Easterbrook's policy agenda turns out to be closer to most national environmental groups than to Bush's, Gingrich's, or Luntz's. If Easterbrook is recycling partisan talking points, they are mostly Democratic, not Republican ones, save for his view that global warming's threat is real but not apocalyptic.
McCarthyism in a Hyperpartisan Era
Some readers have complained to us that Joe Romm is no Joe McCarthy. They are right. Joe Romm is far more influential. Others wonder why we criticize Romm, who believes passionately that global warming is occurring and that we must take action to address it, rather than Limbaugh or Inhofe, who reject climate science and oppose action.
And yes, to be fair, McCarthy had the ability to get people fired and put on blacklists. In this way he was more powerful. But Romm shapes how a whole generation of Democratic leaders, liberals, and greens think about the most serious environmental problem in the world, climate change, and about the master resource, energy, in the most powerful economy humankind has ever created. In this way Romm is more influential. Those who wave away Romm's influence are disconnected from our new hyper-partisan and fractured media reality.
"The nation grows more politically segregated," Nicholas Kristof quoted Bill Bishop, the author of the Big Sort, saying, "and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups."
Joe Romm has the trust of liberals and Democrats, but not on the force of his arguments, the weight of his evidence, or the success of his agenda, for all are spectacular failures. As terrible as it may turn out to be, global warming is not "apocalypse now." No, Joe Romm has won the trust of partisans because he tells them the story they want to hear better than anyone else. Unfortunately, hyper-partisans like Joe Romm are part of the problem, not the solution. Effective solutions to global warming cannot be enacted in our extremely divided political environment.
Democratic partisans, liberals and greens have spent much of the last eight years tearing out our hair about all the ways the hyper-partisan it's-all-a-hoax! Republicans have blocked action on climate. These complaints may have been cathartic, but they have not been productive. We have not had and cannot have any impact on Republicans, and our partisan apocalypse talk and our sacrifice-now agenda are obviously alienating the vast, moderate middle.
The work of holding Republican obstructionists, anti-government extremists, and right-wing conspiracy mongers to task is work for principled conservatives, not liberals. The work of greens and liberals is to challenge the Democratic demagogues, the left-wing bullies, and the Climate McCarthyites who narrow and polarize the debate in ways that make effective policy action all but impossible. If we can hold our own hyper-partisans to account then fair-minded conservatives might do the same. For until the establishment and the grassroots on both left and right learn to say no to Joe Romm and to Glenn Beck, hyper-partisanship is here to stay.
An earlier version of this article appeared at The Breakthrough Institute blog.
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute and authors of the seminal essay The Death of Environmentalism in 2004 and the controversial and critically acclaimed Break Through: Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists in 2007. They are widely recognized experts on climate and energy policy and their work has deeply influenced a new generation of clean energy advocates.