There is an old axiom (sometimes attributed to Carl Sandburg) that trial attorneys know: “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law.” The 1990s courtroom/family drama “Picket Fences” featured a wily defense attorney called Douglas Wambaugh who employed this strategy. Wambaugh would sometimes stipulate to all or most of the prosecution’s case against his clients in order to try to prevent the jury from hearing about it from the real-life humans who lived or observed his clients’ bad behavior.

Wambaugh convinced TV judges to do this more often that real life judges would. Nevertheless, the plot device shows how those who want persuade others use salience, framing and emotion to influence belief. This is the stuff of political persuasion.

And in today’s hyper-connected world we are all subjected to much more “news” that uses these framing tools. Too much of it prioritizes persuasion over education. Climate of Contempt traces the ways in which this new information environment distorts the politics of the energy transition by misleading voters about its particulars, and especially about each other. The book also explains how some online opinion leaders and experts exacerbate these misunderstandings.

As a consequence, we are missing some important things about today’s regulatory politics. Conventional wisdom tells us that  voters “vote their pocketbook,” and members of Congress vote in ways that will bring economic benefits to their districts. But however powerful those drivers of votes once were, they are not nearly so dominant today.

Today, for many voters, voting is an expression of cultural identity. Negatively partisan voters insist that their representatives oppose what the other party wants, and most members comply. This explains how congressional opponents of green energy policies can take credit for the benefits those policies bring to their districts without risking electoral punishment. That earlier opposition will resonate less with their constituents than their party affiliation. They will activate that partisan identity by increasing the salience of cultural identity issues, and portraying the other party as extremists who threaten our most fundamental values.

Climate of Contempt details how and why this bottom-up dynamic has become more important over time, and why some climate policy advocates overlook or dismiss it.

This dynamic affects voters in both parties, but is much easier to “see” in the other party. Here’s a self-diagnostic test. Do you feel disgust or contempt at the mere mention of people whose only transgression is that they hold different political views than you do? If so, chances are that your news feeds or social networks are framing issues for you in misleading ways. They may even be distorting your perceptions of the politics of the energy transition.

The last chapter of Climate of Contempt offers advice to those who want to develop a more accurate picture of the energy transition, and to avoid the distorting effects of online information flows on their beliefs. This web site supplements that advice with additional helpful resources. In the meantime, watch the 2024 election cycle for more evidence of the importance of cultural identity and ideology as drivers of political behavior, and of salience, framing and emotion as tools of voter persuasion.  – David Spence