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Want To Save The World? Make People Mad About Things
Doing The Right Thing Can Only Go So Far
America did not get involved in World War II to stop Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jewish people. If anything, as Ken Burn’s recent documentary series “The U.S. and the Holocaust” laid out, America dragged its feet in multiple ways that ultimately put Jewish lives in mortal danger. The U.S. didn’t even enter the war after Germany had invaded allies like France and attacked the United Kingdom. It was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when American safety and well-being were directly affected, did the country enter the war.
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This action motivated by base survival instinct, not out of moral indignation, did ultimately contribute to actions that ended the Holocaust and liberated those held in death and work camps, but that wasn’t the initial motivation.
We as liberals sometimes believe that the way to get people off the sidelines and into political action and activism is to enlist them in a great crusade, a great cause against some evil or destructive force. We think that once people are told just how terrible the greater good will be affected by some outside force, that this will be all that is needed to get them on board.
Unfortunately that is not the case. Even when the trajectory of evil is clear and unambiguous, most people — the vast majority, I would argue — still need to be told “what’s in it for me?”
I think the recent engagement over the issue of abortion rights is an example of this. Before 2022, a blanket denial of the federal right to an abortion was merely theory for an entire generation of people since Roe vs Wade was originally decided. Voters were told to turn out to “Save Roe” to protect abortion access for the greater good, but the needed urgency was lacking.
When the conservative-led court made its fateful decision, federal abortion rights were no longer in the domain of a thought exercise. Individual women are now under direct assault, and that assault affects their male families and friends as well. What was abstract has become concrete and voters reacted to a direct threat.
Conservatives have for decades expertly marketed liberal ideas and policies as a direct threat to conservative voters. The truth, that these ideas would make lives better, doesn’t matter to the right and never will. But conservatives don’t tell their voters that efforts to fight climate change are merely wrongheaded and a bad policy decision, but they make it all very personal. And it works.
For instance, when the Green New Deal legislation was proposed, the conservative machine led by Fox News immediately leapt to action. They did not really argue about the validity of climate science, but instead focused on exaggerated and false fallout from the bill that would purportedly affect American lives. Conservatives were told that if the bill became law that YOUR hamburgers would be banned, that YOUR car would be illegal, that YOU wouldn’t be able to travel and airplanes and on and on and on it went (and continues to go).
Nearly every message about the bill becomes personalized, feeding into preexisting conservative narratives about busybody liberals doing their best to make YOUR life a living hell.
It stands in stark contrast to traditional liberal messaging on the issue of climate change. Stopping climate change is about saving the world, contributing to the greater good and enlisting in a joint international campaign to make things collectively better. That’s an argument that appeals to a lot of progressive-minded people but I would argue that taking the bits of the conservative message tactic that have worked could expand the fight to even more people, who would otherwise ignore a climate-oriented message.
You would do it by appealing to their self-interest, not in enlisting them in a do-gooder campaign. Tell them that if we allow climate change to continue, that YOUR life will be personally affected. More frequent and destructive weather patterns will destroy YOUR home and kill members of YOUR family. If the climate is allowed to get more polluted, the net effect will make YOU sick, hurt businesses in YOUR community and state, making YOU lose money on your investments and holdings.
So even if the prospective voter shrugs their shoulders at the “do-gooder” message, other messages oriented around the personal can take hold.
I believe this is a universally useful framework that liberals can adopt, using techniques that have worked unfortunately well for the right and instead adapting them to enlist people in a crusade to do the right thing. Make the abstract personal and relatable, turn issues that seem to float in the ether into something relatable and tangible, and that could be the difference maker.
Exclusive Kal-El Photo
I take a lot of photos of Kal, and sometimes he gives me this impatient look when I’m fumbling with the phone and it’s stopping him from doing or going somewhere.