It's not at all surprising that the DNC didn't want to have a climate change debate, as unpopular at this decision appears to have been. This isn’t to say that the decision was necessarily right – I’ll leave that judgment to others – but that it was understandable from an organizational standpoint, and illustrates some of the core dilemmas that parties face right now. And the CNN climate “town hall” may make the whole thing a moot point.)
The Democratic National Committee came out of the 2016 nomination cycle as a convenient villain. Despite efforts to improve legitimacy by further opening up the rules and lowering debate thresholds, trying to demonstrate a commitment to party openness, the DNC still managed to make itself look bad after their recent meeting. This time the topic was the decision not to host a climate change debate, despite requests from activists and support from some of the presidential candidate.
I’ve been following this for a couple of months, as part of my research on how news media depicts political parties. While the recent DNC decision appears to have attracted widespread scorn on the left, there’s a different way to look at it. From the perspective of a political party, of course the Democrats don’t want to add a climate change debate at this point.
Parties represent collections of organized, mobilized interests. (Some research suggests that the Democrats are especially group-oriented. If the DNC devoted an entire debate to climate change, this might send a signal to other issue activists that this issue is a higher priority than racial justice, economic inequality, or gender equity (for example). Climate concerns have implications for all of these – but that’s not how the interest group/activist landscape within the Democratic Party has typically worked.
A corollary to the problem of alienating core constituencies is opening up the process, relatively late in the game, might give the impression that pressure works for getting a debate devoted to your core issue. In an admittedly trivial comparison, I’m reminded of the episode of Parks and Recreation in which a Pawnee citizen goes to great lengths to persuade city government to include copies of the Twilight series, his daughter’s favorite books, in an official time capsule. Eventually Leslie Knope and her colleagues find themselves at a town hall meeting, designating several time capsules to objects important to the town’s citizens, from ashes of beloved pets to favorite books and movies. Who’s to say what’s most important, and deserving of scarce collective goods like time capsule space and debate time?
Another potential danger of a dedicated climate debate involves the issue itself. The party faces a couple of possible dilemmas here. First, part of the point of such a debate would be to expose which candidates are weak (from the standpoint of climate activists) on the issue, either because of lack of policy chops or ties with interests that oppose radical action on the issue. At the same time, it’s not clear that a poor performance in such a debate would sink a candidate for the nomination. So one outcome of a climate debate might be to weaken the eventual nominee. Maybe that person would deserve it, but it’s not surprising that party leaders wouldn’t be excited about such a scenario.
Furthermore, it’s hard to figure out exactly where the public is on climate issues. Surveys suggest that many Americans care about climate change. But other public opinion research indicates an “absence of broad urgency” about policy change, and concern about effectiveness and impact on consumer prices. Given the ambivalence in public opinion, party leaders might be concerned that a debate will not only expose the weakness of the eventual nominee, but also generate soundbites of Democrats offering policy ideas that turn out to alienate voters – and hand attack ads to the Republican campaign.
In sum, the clash over the climate debate illustrates some of the key dilemmas facing political parties right now. Party leaders have to balance the collective interests of the entire party – namely, winning a presidential election – with the demands of its different constituencies. In order to this, they have to make calculations about how much to tack to the extremes or the center. And when they do make decisions, they are vulnerable to the legitimacy critiques that have become a common part of public discourse about parties.
Importantly, though, the framework of activists vs. leadership isn’t necessarily a completely accurate one, reminiscent of the dubious distinction between party “establishment” and otherwise. Some of the activists pushing for the climate debate are also DNC members. These activists within the party structure likely care a great deal about the party’s collective fate as well. They may well see the potential gains from taking decisive stances on the climate issue, and electoral possibilities that outweigh the costs.
The debate controversy cuts to a deeper purpose of parties, however. Let’s go back to the depiction of pluralism and priorities in Parks and Recreation, and the uncertainty of public attitudes about climate change. This might be exactly the kind of decision parties should be tasked with making in a society – leading and structuring public opinion, collectively deciding priorities. The ambiguity of public attitudes suggests that there’s risk. But that also means there’s opportunity. And furthermore, if parties want to claim a serious role in contributing to democracy, they arguably have some responsibility to make these things of decisions and not just act as institutional conduits for organized interests. But taking bold action in this way requires more legitimacy than parties currently have.