Posts Tagged ‘Political Reality’


The illusion of the reasonable centre

4 February 2013

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment. Read the rest of this entry ?


The sabotaging of climate policy

17 July 2012

On this blog I have covered the many flaws in government policies on climate change (I’ve focused on Australia, but similar criticisms could be made of climate policies around the world). There are seemingly endless complexities which might be bewildering to casual observers, but one of the most important things to understand is: the flaws in these policies are generally not accidental. Although stupidity and short-sightedness surely make a contribution to bad policy, I am convinced the main culprits are industry lobbyists constantly trying and so far succeeding, to systematically undermine any policies which might threaten their wealth by filling them with as many holes as Swiss cheese, sometimes even twisting them to have the opposite of the intended effect.

Specific examples are far too numerous to mention, but to be diligent I should mention at least some sources. I have summarized the general state of Australian politics here, including some recent successes and ongoing campaigns by business lobby groups. This information is by no means secret; it’s in the newspapers. The latest example of overt industry lobbying in Australia is a campaign by vertically integrated electricity generators/retailers to weaken the Renewable Energy Target (which I may cover in a future post).

More broadly, the fossil fuel industry has a very long history of bad behavior. The 2009 book Climate Cover Up: The crusade to deny global warming by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore documents the industry’s multi-decadal effort to spread misinformation discrediting climate science and prevent action (they provide more up-to-date information at The 2007 book High and Dry: John Howard, climate change, and the selling of Australia’s future by former government insider Guy Pearse exposes a decade of successful lobbying by Australia’s polluting industries against climate action (his more recent writings are listed at

Readers might mistake my concerns for perfectionist nitpicking, and respond “we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. But this argument is an obscurantist red herring: strategic decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, requiring an understanding of the characteristics of the issue at hand. I’m not arguing for perfection; I’m arguing for functionality. The flaws in climate policies are calculated to neuter their effectiveness in addressing the problem. Creative accounting might be tolerable if the issue is whether or not a government’s budget is in surplus, but it is no small matter when the habitability of the entire world is at stake. Read the rest of this entry ?


Stop saying yes: “Political reality”

11 June 2012

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

Global warming is not just another issue; it is an urgent threat to human civilization. To avoid passing tipping points for dangerous climate change, humanity must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to cut emissions to zero or near-zero as soon as possible. Starting now, we must cut global fossil fuel emissions by 6%/year, and the longer we delay, the steeper the required rate will become.

Despite this inescapable reality, pragmatists argue we must keep our demands within “political reality”. The necessary actions are considered not “realistic”. But when “political reality” clashes with objective reality, only the former can give. Objective reality is a world of facts and physical laws, which cannot be changed. “Political reality” is a world of political power and human laws, which can be changed.

I believe the “political realists” misjudge our opponents, misunderstand how politics works, and overlook the nature of the climate crisis.

The opponents to whom I refer are, primarily, the fossil fuel industry, and by extension, whichever political forces do their bidding. The former is inherently unmovable on climate action. It is no use appeasing the fossil fuel industry, because they will never agree to their own demise; no amount of negotiation will change that. For the same reason, the practicality of compromise with other political groups is inversely proportional to their degree of association with the fossil fuel industry. (There are grey areas in applying this latter principle, however. In an Australian context, it is fairly straightforward to place the Liberal Party in the category of “unmovable ally of the fossil fuel industry”, but is Labor in the same category or was it worthwhile for the Greens to negotiate with them?)

Wishing for unanimous agreement on climate action is naïve, because it will never happen. We are, after all, dealing with the biggest issue confronted by humanity; there’s inevitably going to be some political conflict. Read the rest of this entry ?