Senator “Snowball” Inhofe v. Science and the Rest of the Reality-Based World: Time for Progressives to Get Our Messaging Straight

Photo credit: C-SPAN, screenshot,

If you didn’t catch Senator James Inhofe’s (R-OK) snowball theatrics on the Senate floor this past week, do yourself a favor and spend 30 seconds and check out the video HERE. However, if you want the full-on crazy, rambling, science truthiness of Inhofe’s remarks, head on over to his official webpage for 23 minutes of entertainment.

Inhofe’s little piece of Big Oil sponsored performance art, might actually be entertaining if he were not just appointed to the chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. That’s right, the guy charged to protect our environment is the same guy who wrote a book arguing that climate change is a hoax. If there was any bright side to Inhofe’s remarks (beyond his snowball prop), it was that his last words were: “With that, Mr. President, I’ll yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.” That’s right, Inhofe was speaking to a nearly empty room…it would seem even his GOP pals who tapped him to head the Senate committee on the environment couldn’t bear to sit through what they know to be nonsense. Inhofe is there to secure Big Oil and Gas money for campaigns, not to enlighten anyone.

As ridiculous as Inhofe is, legislators know that it doesn’t matter if anyone is in the room or not, as long as the cameras are rolling. It’s a trick Republicans learned from their old pal Newt Gingrich who first used an empty house chamber coupled with a live TV stream to bait Democratic Majority leader Tip O’Neill into a public argument that would help usher in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. Here’s how the New York Times reflected on that moment in which Gingrich brilliantly used C-SPAN to help propel him and a particular brand of the GOP to power:

Mr. Gingrich made his name in the House a decade ago by denouncing the Democrats on the floor while the cameras rolled. What they did not show, because they were locked into a narrow field of vision, was that Mr. Gingrich was hurling his barbs at an empty chamber, when his victims could not respond.

When Representative Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr., then the Speaker, tired of Mr. Gingrich’s harangues, he ordered the cameras to pan the chamber, exposing the big-talking Georgian as something of a poseur. A debate ensued in which Mr. O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, decried Mr. Gingrich’s performance as “the lowest thing that I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.” The incident made all three network news broadcasts and led Mr. Gingrich to gloat to an interviewer afterward, “I’m famous.”

It was only the first stage of his grand design, which was to throw over the Democrats and become Speaker himself.

Democrats, by contrast, have been far less capable when it comes to using the media effectively and consistently. Despite the noteworthy attempts by progressives such as George Lakoff to get it through Democrats’ heads that facts simply do not speak for themselves – that messaging matters – Democrats and progressives often get stuck in their wonkiness and bury their audience in policy speak. You might be right as rain, but if everyone within listening distance has hit the off switch, it really doesn’t matter, does it?

That’s one reason I was particularly thrilled to see Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) take to the floor and deliver some messaging brilliance, framing Inhofe as the guy-who-stands-alone-with-his-rather-large-snowball. Here’s Whitehouse’s retort:

You Can Believe NASA, the Pope, Corporate Leaders, Every Major Scientific Organization in the World, or You Can Believe the Senator with the Snowball:

Bravo, Senator Whitehouse. Bravo.

And as much as I delight in seeing Whitehouse dismiss Inhofe’s truthiness, we have to remember, of course, that the fight does not end when we laugh, or feel good, or stand up and say “yes!” to our computer screens when someone like Whitehouse shows some skill in political messaging. Progressives may have our moments, but we do not have a political and media infrastructure to match that of the right-wing. If the fight is snarky comments v. Fox News, Fox News wins.

I am not dismissing snarky comments. The point is that if we have any hope to combat things as serious as global warming and climate change, those snarky, pointed, effective snarky comments have to move from the margins to the center until even the thought of having someone like Inhofe running a Senate environment committee would be laughable (as it should be). One of the things that Newt Gingrich understood back in 1994 was that Republicans could win only if their messaging was unapologetic, clear, and consistent and was crafted for a new media environment that necessitated bumper-stick sloganeering.

Democrats, of course, knew this at one time too. It was Harry Truman who warned Democrats not to run away from progressive politics and New Deal policies. In 1952, watching Democratic politicians starting to distance themselves from the New Deal, Truman issued this wake up call:

I’ve seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the fair Deal, and says he really doesn’t believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don’t want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.

But when a Democratic candidate goes out and explains what the New Deal and fair Deal really are–when he stands up like a man and puts the issues before the people–then Democrats can win, even in places where they have never won before. It has been proven time and again.

We are getting a lot of suggestions to the effect that we ought to water down our platform and abandon parts of our program. These, my friends, are Trojan horse suggestions. I have been in politics for over 30 years, and I know what I am talking about, and I believe I know something about the business. One thing I am sure of: never, never throw away a winning program. This is so elementary that I suspect the people handing out this advice are not really well-wishers of the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party, of course, did not heed Truman’s call for long. Instead, they chose to move the party to the right through the combined efforts of the neoliberal wing of the party – the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) – and the popularity of Bill Clinton and other pro-corporate Democrats. Clinton and the DLC were extraordinarily successful, at first, at keeping the progressive language of the New Deal alive, while shifting the center of their policy priorities into the corporate camp. Clinton may have “felt our pain,” but he seemed indifferent when it came to causing pain to working families through policies such as NAFTA and “welfare reform.” Those policies made the lives of working families that much worse. Obama’s “hope and change” message has been more of the same. Feel good while the ship is driven into the ground.

The point is not that the Democrats should return to its New Deal principles. That would be awesome, of course, but my point is a bit different. I believe WE – progressives, union members, environmentalists, working families, feminists, educators, civil rights activists…the whole “big tent” of the progressive movement – need to stop apologizing for the policies we care about and start demanding all our political leaders mirror OUR commitments in their language and their policies. That was the message that Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, Senator Bernie Sanders, and so many others brought to the PA Progressive Summit at the beginning of February. And, we need to invest in our media networks (yes, this is an unashamed plug for you to help support Raging Chicken Press and other progressive media sites such as the Rick Smith Show), so that our message gets to our people.

Inhofe’s anti-science, climate-change-denying remarks on the floor of the US Senate should underscore how urgent it is that we take back the message and begin demanding more of our politicians – Democrats and Republicans alike – especially when they put campaigning over policies that could help stem the worst of climate change.

Pennsylvania really is case in point here. Both of PA’s Senators – the celebrated extreme right-wing hero, Republican Pat Toomey and the not-a-fan-of-abortion, fair-whether friend to working families, Democrat Bob Casey – voted last month for an amendment to the Keystone XL bill saying the climate change was real, not a “hoax,” as Inhofe would like us to believe. The amendment was widely viewed as a rather feeble attempt by Democrats to get Republicans on record saying climate change is real. However, without any language in the amendment saying that HUMANS are CAUSING climate change, even climate-denier-in-chief Inhofe was able to sign on as a co-sponsor. Both Pennsylvania Senators had no problem voting for the amendment.

But, in the very next breath, there were Toomey and Casey standing side-by-side attempting to get waste from coal plants exempted from critical federal pollution regulations. As Ivey DeJesus of The Patriot-News put it:

In all, their actions generated much head-scratching (from just about everyone) and considerable consternation from environmentalists. At the end of the day, though, it was business as usual: Toomey and Casey simply kowtowed to respective constituents.

It’s that business of usual that must stop.

Last year, showing some uncharacteristic spine, the Obama Administration put up a “Call Out Climate Deniers” webpage that lists all the climate change deniers currently serving in Congress. There are a surprising number of them. You can plug in your ZIP code or choose your state and see PA’s home grown list of deniers: Rep. Lou Barletta (PA-11); Rep. Scott Perry (PA-4); Rep. Glenn Thompson (PA-5); Rep. Keith Rothfus (PA-12); and, good old Senator Pat Toomey. This is the worst-of-the-worst list, of course. Excluding from Obama’s list are those members of Congress who may not wave the climate-denier banner, but are bought-and-paid-for by Big Oil and Gas (that list includes a lot more Democrats). The picture does not get better when we look at the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s dramatic right-ward shift following the 2014 elections. With a large number of legislators banking on money from Big Oil and Gas to pack their campaign coffers, we are likely to see more obstruction when it comes to attempts to regulate the worst polluters in the Commonwealth.

As I see it, part of our job here at Raging Chicken Press is to provide a counter-message to the cynical, business as usual message we get from many politicians from the two major political parties and help amplify progressive efforts to work for justice, sustainability, and democracy. And, hopefully, Raging Chicken can help amplify the message that change only comes from people’s organization. The goal for progressives across Pennsylvania, the region, and the nation should not be to tailor our message so it’s palatable to corporate Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans. It should be to organize, build grassroots political power, and invest in our media networks so that politicians are pressured to use OUR language and advocate for OUR futures.

One of my favorite attacks on the climate change denier industry was John Oliver’s cutting critique of corporate media’s coverage of the climate change debate – or, non-debate. Oliver responded to a Gallup Poll saying that 1 in 4 Americans still don’t believe that climate change is real in classic form:

Who gives a shit? That doesn’t matter. You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking which number is bigger, fifteen or five? Or, do owls exist? Or, are there hats? The debate on climate change should not be whether or not it exists. It’s what we should do about it.

He then calls the media to task for perpetuating what amounts to a sham debate perpetuating disinformation. It’s messaging we should embrace with zeal.

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