To welcome in the 2012 U.S. election year, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave a New Year’s Eve speech in Ottumwa, Iowa, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. By rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, Santorum warned, President Barack Obama was “pandering to radical environmentalists who don’t want energy production, who don’t want us to burn more carbon”.
He mocked pipeline critics who were concerned about the threat to the vital Great Plains Ogallala Aquifer because of likely spills. “Has anyone looked at the number of pipelines that go through that aquifer now? I mean, you can’t even see the aquifer if you look at a schematic of how many pipelines are there.”
Just over a week later, Canada’s Stephen Harper government went on a similar attack against opponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver released an open letter—likely written in the Prime Minister’s Office—accusing “radical” environmentalists and “jet-setting celebrities” of blocking efforts to open access to Asian markets for Canadian oil.
“These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” his letter said. “They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects.”
Radical environmentalists? Coincidence? Perhaps, but there are other interesting parallels between the Harper and Santorum approaches to opponents of increased fossil-fuel use.
Santorum went further than Harper in vilifying opponents. “It has nothing to do with a pipeline. It has to do with an ideology, a religion of its own that’s being pushed on the American public,” Santorum proclaimed in a message that was not widely reported.
Three weeks later, when Obama announced he was not approving Keystone—at least until he was safely reelected—Santorum enlarged the radical-environmentalist frame to include Obama himself. But it wasn’t until February 20 that Santorum’s remarks went viral when, at a campaign stop in Ohio, he accused Obama of believing in “some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology”. A biblical view would be “about the belief that man is—should be—in charge of the Earth and have dominion over it and be good stewards of it”.
But the “radical environmentalist” believes that “man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal.”
So what is the real deal? On the third day, God raised the dry land up from the waters below the heavens, commanded the earth to bring forth all plants, and created the bitumen. God saw that it was good.
On the sixth day, God commanded the earth to bring forth all kinds of living creatures, and He saw that it was good. God then said, “Let us make man in our own image.” So God created man and woman in His own likeness and gave them dominion over all living things as well as bitumen extraction.
It’s a simple proposition: resisting bitumen extraction and transport by pipeline is a denial of God’s law.
Santorum is up-front with his radical conservative religious beliefs; Harper, who may be as religiously conservative as Santorum, keeps his views to himself. Since 2006, Harper has been a member of Ottawa’s East Gate Alliance church, which is affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. The statement of faith of this church declares:
“The Old and New Testaments, inerrant as originally given, were verbally inspired by God and are a complete revelation of His will for the salvation of people. They constitute the divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice.”
That puts bitumen extraction under the direct authority of God. Woe to those who would stand in the way of this holy pursuit.
No wonder Harper is secretive about his beliefs. In the U.S., God is tacked onto just about every political speech; in Canada, politicians rarely talk about God. As Marci McDonald observed in her 2010 book The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada), Harper was aware of “the risks of mixing faith and politics: he had watched creationist sentiments sink the leadership career of his Canadian Alliance rival Stockwell Day”.
There are also the numbers to consider. In the U.S., more than 30 percent of the population is evangelical, while in Canada it’s 10 to 12 percent. Santorum has a lot to gain, but Harper risks alienating a large majority of Canadians if he uses Santorum’s messaging techniques.
Nonetheless, McDonald noted, Harper covertly courted the religious right to his political advantage, using social-conservative policies to broaden the appeal of his party. Attacking environmentalists who are defying God’s law is one oft-used approach.
The term radical environmentalist comes from a Frank Luntz briefing memo for the Republican Party. Luntz is a long-time Republican pollster and strategist whose specialty is using language to evoke feeling. In a 2003 interview on PBS’s Frontline, he said: “My job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion. Words alone can be found in a dictionary or a telephone book, but words with emotion can change destiny, can change life as we know it.”
Luntz was a major force behind Newt Gingrich’s bogus 1994 Contract With America and helped George W. Bush win reelection in 2004 by portraying opponent John Kerry as a flip-flopper. He was on the program with Santorum on February 20, 2012, at the annual Kent County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day dinner in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Santorum continued his attacks on Obama and “radical environmentalists”.
Luntz must have listened with satisfaction to Santorum’s language, since he originated it. His 16-page 2002 memo “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America” crafted the words that Republicans used in debates about the environment for the next decade.
His first rule was to never use the term global warming, which suggests something cataclysmic, while the phrase climate change suggests something more gradual, something that takes place over time. “Global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it; climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge,” like going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.
He advised Republicans “to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue”.
Luntz’s second rule was to never call yourself an environmentalist, which has “the connotation of extremism”. Instead, use the word conservationist, which is more positive and “conveys a moderate, reasoned, common-sense position between replenishing the Earth’s natural resources and the human need to make use of those resources”.
Luntz travelled to Ottawa in the spring of 2006 to help Preston Manning set up his conservative front organization, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. He also spoke at the 10th annual conference of the Civitas Society—a low-profile group of leading social and economic conservatives—and met with Harper for a photo-op session and to provide advice for Harper’s new minority government.
This is the only occasion on the public record when Luntz met with Harper. But his connection to Manning and Harper goes back at least to the 1993 federal election, when Luntz was polling and strategizing for the Reform Party. With Luntz’s help, the Progressive Conservatives under Kim Campbell were annihilated and Reform emerged as the party of the right.
According to the Ottawa Citizen (May 7, 2006), some of Harper’s key aides—then–chief of staff Ian Brodie, political adviser and former national campaign chair Tom Flanagan, and then–Treasury Board president (and, later, environment minister) John Baird—attended Luntz’s talk, and Harper soon became adept at Luntz language.
He successfully framed former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion as a “flip-flopper”, and characterized the proposed coalition of Liberals, New Democrats, and the Bloc Québécois as a “reckless coalition of losers”. With the help of conservative media pundit Ezra Levant, he created the fallacious idea of “ethical oil”. Now he was framing pipeline opponents as “radical environmentalists”.
As in his other successful framing exercises, Harper’s message came from multiple sources inside and outside government. In Parliament, Fort McMurray–Athabasca Conservative MP Brian Jean called for legislation that would block foreign funding of the “radical” Canadian environmental movement.
Outside government, Marco Navarro-Genie, research director at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, wrote in a February 2012 op-ed that “radical environmentalists….real aim is eventually to stop production of all hydrocarbons,” repeating Santorum’s message. Navarro-Genie is located within the Harper orbit as a member of Civitas who did his PhD thesis under Tom Flanagan at the University of Calgary.
Here in B.C., opponents of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, by denying they are radical, seem to be falling into a Harper-set trap. They need to remember the immortal words of U.S. president Richard Nixon: “I am not a crook,” he famously declared in a televised speech to newspaper editors in November 1973, defending his record in the Watergate affair.
After that, everyone thought of him as a crook. Within a year, he was gone from office.
Nixon ignored a basic principle of message-framing. As University of California, Berkeley, cognitive scientist George Lakoff has explained, once a frame is clamped on an issue of public concern, denying the frame merely reinforces it. Thanks to Luntz’s work, conservatives have successfully framed most issues.
Are Gateway critics making the same mistake Nixon did? A coalition of northern B.C. groups ran an ad in a Smithers newspaper just before the federal review panel began its hearings in the community. The ad shows the faces of more than 100 northern British Columbians and asks: “The Harper Government and ‘Ethical Oil’ call these people radicals....Seriously?”
That single ad reinforced three conservative frames: “the Harper government”, “ethical oil”, and “radical environmentalists”.
Other denials came from David Suzuki (“They can say we’re radical if it makes them sleep better at night, but we prefer the term ‘rational’ ”) and Green party Leader Elizabeth May (“I am now condemned as against Canada, as a radical, and an enemy, and I suppose as a future terrorist”).
Lakoff has some advice for Gateway opponents: it is better to respond with an entirely new frame, one that sets out your message and doesn’t repeat that of your opponent. Otherwise, he wins.
But what is the countervailing frame?
Alan Broadbent, former chair of the Tides Canada Foundation, which Harper has held out for particular opprobrium, presented one version in a January 17, 2012, op-ed piece in the Toronto Star mocking Harper’s efforts to frame his organization as radical and extreme. But in denying that Tides is radical and extreme, Broadbent used the word radical three times and extreme twice, and offered an ambiguous counterframe.
He explained that the organization directs its grants to “developing new models of sustainable forestry, or aquaculture, education for school kids on ecosystems, and the development of low income housing”.
These are certainly not the activities of a radical organization in the way some foundations are radically conservative. The Donner Canadian and Aurea foundations, for instance, have pumped tens of millions of dollars into think tanks like the Fraser Institute and Navarro-Genie’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy as well as single-issue advocacy groups like the Canadian Constitution Foundation to wage and win the war of ideas, shifting public opinion to the right and opening the door to the possibility of a Harper majority government. Now they are covertly supporting the expansion of the Harper majority and the long march to the right.
By labelling Tides—a moderate organization whose money goes toward protecting the environment and promoting social justice—extreme and radical, and by provoking a Nixonesque response of denial, Harper may succeed in shifting public discourse even further to the right.
If the centre-left is the new radical, then the right is wide-open.