The Hoggan Blog

When Compromise is a Dirty Word: Haidt on our Culture of Contention

Posted on: March 7, 2012

"Our country is more politically polarized than ever. Is it possible to agree to disagree and still move on to solve our massive problems?  Or are the blind leading the blind — over the cliff?"

Last month, social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt sat down with Bill Moyer to talk about the psychological underpinnings of political polarization. Haidt deftly sketches out some fundamental differences between liberal and conservative mindsets, the problem with demonizing your adversaries and why it's wise to think twice before trumpeting our opinions.

In his Ted Talk, Haidt focuses on the moral roots of these partisan worldviews, outlining the different moral values of liberal and conservative ideologies. Haidt paints morality as a double-edged sword: it both binds us together and blinds us to our biases. "By understanding more about our moral roots, his hope is that we can learn to be civil and open-minded toward those whose morals don't match ours, but who are equally good and moral people on their own terms."

Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics & Religion, is out March 13th. 

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Denial of Facts Is No Way to Understand Science

Posted on: December 12, 2011

Originally published on Huffington Post on Dec 7, 2011

On Thursday Dec. 1, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente declared herself a defender of scientific integrity by calling upon the scientific community to replace the “rhetoric” of climate change with open, honest debate.

According to Wente, the impacts of climate change remain a future fantasy, unquantifiable by data collected through “insanely complicated” climate science. Her perspective is informed by the omission of facts, falsehoods, and fake experts. In a dance with smoke and mirrors she creates issues where none exist and ignores others that do.

There was a time when I couldn’t understand what motivated writers like Wente to stand so firmly against such clear and solid science. The psychology of “confirmation bias” has provided the answer for me. 

Like all of us, Wente has her biases, and most of us, like her, like to have those biases confirmed. So we seek out the information that confirms what we already believe and disregard that information that might prove us wrong.

As a columnist, Wente presents the information which confirms her ideological beliefs as truths and facts to the readers of the Globe and Mail. She excels as a columnist in part because she mocks and jeers her detractors. This pleases the people who agree with her but makes her loathed by those who don’t.  It provokes reaction on both sides and eliminates any possibility of civil conversation.

When it comes to climate change she suffers from an extreme case of motivated reasoning. She has to ignore the concerns and views of virtually all of the world’s scientific academies and rely on the views of oil industry-funded groups like the Fraser Institute as she scrounges for shreds of evidence to back up her contrary view of climate science.

In the fantastical future Wente claims climate scientists are inventing, “the seas will rise, the glaciers will melt, the hurricanes will blow, the forest fires will rage.”

But climate change and its consequences are not mere predictions. We live in a world that is already affected by rising global temperatures, with more frequent and more intense heat waves, more powerful hurricanes, increasing numbers of forest fires, floods and droughts. These changes are consistent with the climate data on which future predictions are built.

In November, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the impacts and costs of rising global temperatures, with suggestions on mitigating the damage. The report points out that although it is difficult to attribute single extreme events to anthropogenic climate change, increased global temperatures do contribute to the extreme weather trends and those are already underway.

Wente admits to her lack of scientific credentials, but immediately attacks the world’s leading climate scientists. Their own lack of certainty about the earth’s changing climate and its causes, she implies, is clearly demonstrated by the “so-called Climategate affair.”  

The private emails between the world’s top scientists were stolen, misquoted and published as a massive accusation that the science behind climate change has been fabricated.

Wente mentions that Climategate has been "widely dismissed," yet goes on to re-state the initial false claims made through the "affair." In this, she confirms research on “confirmation bias” that proves people who read false information continue to believe it even after it has been corrected, especially if the misinformation confirms their ideological perspectives.  

Whether she is aware of it or not, Ms. Wente has become part of an “echo chamber” of misinformation created through Climategate. Following the original theft of the emails, right wing groups in the US including the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation – to name a few – made sure the scandal’s message (climate change science is a hoax) was repeated publicly as much as possible.

She avoids mentioning that nine independent inquiries exonerated the scientists and their work, proving the biggest scandal of 2009 to be a fake scandal. After all of this, Wente still thinks the lie is worth repeating.

Happily duped into repeating and publishing proven falsehoods, Wente has not helped her readers gain any better understanding of “the Climategate affair”. A proper explanation of Climategate would include the facts about who funded it.

Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles and David Koch have generously donated some $50 million of their company’s fortune to fund the same industry front groups and right wing think-tanks that bolstered Climategate. The Kochs' business activities range from the manufacturing, refining and distribution of petroleum, as well as the production of chemicals, energy, fiber, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper. In 2009 alone, Koch Industries paid more than half a billion dollars in fines for environmental damages. 

Looking for back-up on her false assertions on Climategate, Wente refers to economics professorRoss McKitrick. He agrees with her that Climategate proves climate science is phony, and thinks the IPCC should change its process entirely.

Surely, she knows that McKitrick is a fellow at the Fraser Institute (given $175,000 by Koch foundations between 2005 and 2008) and is affiliated with numerous other industry-funded think tanks. He is an open skeptic of climate science, and a perfect validator for Wente’s entrenched beliefs – and he has no credentials in atmospheric science whatsoever.

recent study by Yale University law Professor Dan Kahan would suggest that Wente and McKitrick have a lot more in common than their view on climate change. Kahan surveyed more than 1,500 Americans and found that their cultural values had a far greater impact on their view of climate change than their level of scientific literacy. Most people who tended towards a view of the world that is hierarchical and individualistic were more skeptical of environmental risks including climate change than people whose outlook was communal and egalitarian. 

Margaret Wente is only human, and is as susceptible to her own biases as anyone else. As a journalist, however, she needs to be held accountable for her errors and omissions. While misinformed vitriol may provoke reactions, and may even sell newspapers, the Globe and Mail and other newspapers should be held accountable for the accuracy of the material they choose to publish.

If misinformation is the new journalistic standard, then people will only absorb more media that re-enforces their own opinions, and the possibility for consensus on any issue will be lost.



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Thich Nhat Hanh and David Suzuki in Conversation About the Health of the Planet

Posted on: August 20, 2011

Despair and anger are contributing to a feeling that people have no power to stop the destructive forces behind climate change, but the feeling can be reversed through personal hope and inner peace, an audience in Vancouver was told earlier this week by Buddhist monk, poet, peace and human rights activist, Thich Nhat Hanh.

In Vancouver for a week of teaching and lectures, Thich Nhat Hanh, sat down with Canada's David Suzuki, a world-renowned authority on sustainable ecology, to discuss the path forward to a more sustainable way of living.

Their conversation, based on the premise that it is well-known that humans are harming the earth, destroying its ecosystems and disrupting the climate, focused on how to bring about the change in human behavior that is needed to put the world on a path that will ensure a healthy planet for future generations.

With contributions to the discussion from Vancouver's mayor, Gregor Robertson, the audience listened for an hour to a thoughtful dialogue on tackling attitudes to climate change. The following clips provide a snapshot of the discussion. They will also be featured on the David Suzuki Foundation website and Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's website. A full version of the event is available for viewing here.

Thich Nhat Hanh said we have to accept that our civilization can be destroyed, not by an outside force, but by ourselves, just as many civilizations before ours have been destroyed. If we allow despair to take over, we will lose the strength to do anything to protect and preserve our civilization. Personal hope and inner peace will help build the strength we need to become instruments to protect the environment.

The conversation was structured around the following questions:

1. I would like your reaction to this economic advice a Lehman Brothers banker, named Paul Mazer, gave American business in 1930 when the age of consumerism was beginning: "People need to be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed… Man's desires must overshadow his needs."

2. What gives you hope that we can bring about the collective awakening needed to restore health to the planet? Most of us know we are harming the earth, destroying its ecosystems and disrupting the climate. But we act as if it is not happening. How do we bring about the change in human behavior that is needed to put us on a path that will ensure a healthy planet for our children and grandchildren?

3. Oil industry groups over the past few decades have financed misinformation campaigns to cast doubt on climate science. Today 45 per cent of Americans mistakenly believe there is disagreement among climate scientists that global warming is even happening, this number is up 12 percent since 2008. The number climate scientists saying Climate Change isn't happening is actually closer to zero. It seems to be very easy to pull the wool over the eyes of the public, why are we so gullible? What do you think we can we do to change from deniers of the environmental problems we face to responsible stewards of the environment?

4. What responsibility does government have for solving these problems? How do we motivate government to do the right thing?

5. Social science research in Canada and the U.S. shows that public mistrust is at an all-time high. People believe Government and business say one thing and do another. They don't trust Government; they don't trust business and wonder about each other. This is particularly true when it comes to the environment. This mistrust has led to a kind of social paralysis where people believe their own actions won't make a difference. How do we overcome this mistrust?

Here are two short clips from the conversation:




“A man hears what he wants to hear…”

Posted on: August 5, 2011

"A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" – Paul Simon 

Tony Schwartz blogs in the Harvard Business Review about David Brooks' new book The Social Animal and our infinite capacity for self deception.  This blog post is a must-read, as is the book. 


We Don't Know What We Don't Know

"It is a law of human nature," David Brooks writes in his newest book The Social Animal, "that the more men you concentrate in one happy pack, the more each of them will come to resemble Donald Trump. They possess a sort of masculine photosynthesis to start with — the ability to turn sunlight into self-admiration. By the law of compound egotism, they create this self-reinforcing vortex of smugness, which brings out the most-pleased-with-themselves aspects of their own personalities."

How do you not love a man who can write a paragraph like that?

What makes The Social Animal the most satisfying and important book I've read in a very long time is that Brooks so brilliantly and evocatively explains why we've gone so far off course in this country, attributing it not to bad policies but to human failings we haven't begun to recognize, much less acknowledge.

Brooks' core argument is that the vast majority of us have very little understanding of why we make the choices we do, and that we're influenced instead by peer pressure; impulsive and reactive emotions; a deep and bottomless need for admiration and status; overconfidence in the present; excessive worry about the future; the evolutionary instinct to avoid pain and move towards pleasure; and precious little capacity to delay gratification.

"The unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind," Brooks writes. "[They have] a processing capacity 200,000 times greater than the conscious mind." Tragically, this interior domain remains largely terra incognita, a vast unexplored territory full of resources and potentials we haven't begun to tame or to tap.

Instead of drawing on our rational faculties to more deeply understand our interior impulses and motivations, we too often use our prefrontal cortex to rationalize, justify, minimize and explain away the unconsciously driven actions we've already taken. "A man hears what he wants to hear," Paul Simon sings in The Boxer, "and disregards the rest."

In short, we have an infinite capacity for self-deception. Or, as Brooks puts it, "People overestimate their ability to understand why they are making certain decisions. They make up stories to explain their own actions even when they have no clue about what is happening inside."

Worse yet, the most powerful among us have a tendency to bloviating certainty — swatting away doubt and choosing up sides precisely because not having answers feels so uncomfortable and potentially threatening. Opinions, in turn, become polarized and rigid. Just consider the current budget negotiations, marked as they are by a blatant disregard for logic and a perilous potential cost to the greater good.

What Brooks argues for, and embodies in his writing, is something he calls "epistemological modesty" — substituting humility for hubris. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Modesty is warranted, Brooks argues, because there is so much of ourselves we don't and can't know. "People with this disposition believe that wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance," he explains.

I've read Brooks' op-ed columns in The New York Times for years, but it was only with this book that I understood what sets him apart from his journalistic colleagues. It's his unwavering willingness to grapple with issues rather than simply pontificate about them; to embrace nuance, ambiguity and paradox rather than choosing up sides; and to be forever open to learning and to being changed by what he learns.

What Brooks lays out in The Social Animal is a path to a more meaningful life — one that balances action with introspection, confidence with restraint.

Describing the person who aspires to such a life, Brooks is transparently autobiographical when he writes, "He (tries) to remind himself of how little we know and can know, how much our own desire for power and to do good blinds us to our own limitations. He pays attention to the sensations that come up from below. He makes tentative generalizes and analyses … He continues to wander and absorb, letting the information marinate deep inside."

I also learned from reading this book why I can't possibly assess it objectively. Each of us, he argues, consciously and unconsciously seek out people in life whose values, opinions and sensibility most mirror our own. It's humbling to recognize that I delighted in his writing at least in part because it so persuasively and stylishly confirms much of my own world view. If you resonate with what I've written, it probably confirmed a lot of yours, too.

David Suzuki’s 75th Birthday Gift

Posted on: July 7, 2011

As those of you who read our blog regularly know, I am a friend of David Suzuki. In March, we hosted David’s 75th birthday at our home. The Board and CEO of the Suzuki Foundation gave David a small totem pole, carved by one of Canada’s most talented carvers Beau Dick.

At the party, Beau, who is Kwak waka’ wakw, and Chief Bob Joseph Senior conducted a naming ceremony for David. During the ceremony, Chief Bob Joseph spread the eagle down, a gesture of peace.

Beau said the totem pole is carved from a 2000 year old tree. The totem features a bear and an eagle. Beau explained that the bear is a symbol of the protector – the warrior spirit – which David personifies. The eagle, he explained, is a symbol of the role David has played watching over and protecting the environment.

The celebration and presentation of the totem pole was a moving experience for all of us who had come together to honour David. I hope you’ll enjoy watching as much as I did.

– Jim Hoggan 

“The Earth is Full” of Denial, and PR Professionals Must Not Create More

Posted on: June 24, 2011

In his recent column, The Earth is Full, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes about the threats posed by soaring food and energy prices, record-setting floods and droughts, and other extreme weather disasters that displace real people and threaten diverse communities around the world.

Something occurred to me while I read Friedman’s June 7 piece – a theme among the questions – noting how it is that we refuse to panic even when it is so obvious that we’ve exacerbated these problems by assuming that limits to growth don’t apply to us.  Friedman asks whether we’ll realize this fundamental error in a few years, and wonder what were we thinking? In his words, “How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?”  

He refers to Australian author and environmentalist Paul Gilding who says the answer is rooted in denial. When humans are surrounded by problems so big that they require us to change everything about the way we think and see the world, denial is the natural human response, Gilding contends.

So it occurred to me that while denial may be natural, in this case it is also deeply immoral.  Most of us would agree that knowingly harming others is wrong. Yet when we deny the problems of climate change and over-consumption, we not only harm ourselves – we harm those least able to deal with the consequences.

When we consume trees, fish, water and other resources faster than they can be sustainably replenished, it is very often the poor who suffer most from resource scarcity, scarred landscapes and the resulting increase in the prices of basic needs.

Climate science models suggest that as we in developed nations warm the Earth with our cars, ‘cheap’ fossil fuel energy and comfortable lifestyles, it is people who farm marginal lands in the world’s poorest regions who will suffer most from the extreme weather events that leave them with less water where they need it most and more water where they need it least.  A degree or two of warming can completely alter the ability of farmers in certain areas to produce food for local populations.

Climate deniers – and the Darth Vader PR firms who assist their efforts to mislead the public – are essentially taking food out of the mouths of the people who can least afford to cope with global warming. It seems to me that this is deeply immoral, and constitutes a crime against these communities and all of humanity.

In my work as a public relations professional over the past quarter century, I have advised clients from a wide range of business interests to be honest and genuine in their communications. Straying from those tenets of basic morality leads people toward the temptation of denial.

As professional communicators, we need to encourage our clients to act honorably and distance ourselves from communications work that encourages denial.

Good communicators illuminate and inform. But anyone who uses their talents as a communicator to encourage public denial is cheating humanity. If we allow our financial interests to blind us to the unethical nature of dishonest communications,  nobody wins in the long run. Not the client, not the public and not the PR profession.  

Read Eric Friedman's full article "The Earth is Full" –

– Jim Hoggan



DeSmogBlog Named One of Time Magazine’s Best Blogs of 2011

Posted on: June 7, 2011

DeSmogBlog was honored by TIME magazine as one of theThe Best Blogs of 2011. The list compiles the top 25 blogs from across the internet. is the only Canadian blog on the list.

TIME's yearly list includes the most relevant and innovative blogs on the Internet. This year's trendsetting blogs include the NY Times Economix, the Wall-Street Journal tech blog AllThingsD and the math-based dating website OkTrends, among others.

DeSmogBlog is the only blog with an environmental focus to make the list. TIME has previously recognized Huffington Post, Daily KOS, and Mashable on past Top Blog lists.

TIME reporter Bryan Walsh calls DeSmogBlog a "necessary corrective" and "the antidote" to the corporate smoke screen surrounding news coverage of climate change and energy issues.

According to Walsh, "A corporate smoke screen surrounds much of the coverage of climate-change and energy issues. Fossil-fuel companies have spent millions funding anti-global-warming think tanks, purposely creating a climate of doubt around the science. DeSmogBlog is the antidote to that obfuscation."

DeSmogBlog is celebrating its 5th anniversary of clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science, and this nod by TIME is an honor for all the hard work of DeSmog's contributors over the years, especially their current line-up of writers and researchers whose investigations earned the award on this year's Top 25.

I want to thank you all for your loyalty and welcome new readers to the blog.

Head over to to see the full list of The Best Blogs of 2011.

– Jim Hoggan

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The Truth, Still Inconvenient

Posted on: April 4, 2011

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair could have said when his ideology depends on his not understanding it.

See the story here: The Truth, Still Inconvenient by Paul Krugman

The Truth, Still Inconvenient


Published: April 3, 2011

So the joke begins like this: An economist, a lawyer and a professor of marketing walk into a room. What’s the punch line? They were three of the five “expert witnesses” Republicans called for last week’s Congressional hearing on climate science.

But the joke actually ended up being on the Republicans, when one of the two actual scientists they invited to testify went off script.

Prof. Richard Muller of Berkeley, a physicist who has gotten into the climate skeptic game, has been leading the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, an effort partially financed by none other than the Koch foundation. And climate deniers — who claim that researchers at NASA and other groups analyzing climate trends have massaged and distorted the data — had been hoping that the Berkeley project would conclude that global warming is a myth.

Instead, however, Professor Muller reported that his group’s preliminary results find a global warming trend “very similar to that reported by the prior groups.”

The deniers’ response was both predictable and revealing; more on that shortly. But first, let’s talk a bit more about that list of witnesses, which raised the same question I and others have had about a number of committee hearings held since the G.O.P. retook control of the House — namely, where do they find these people?

My favorite, still, was Ron Paul’s first hearing on monetary policy, in which the lead witness was someone best known for writing a book denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a “horrific tyrant” — and for advocating a new secessionist movement as the appropriate response to the “new American fascialistic state.”

The ringers (i.e., nonscientists) at last week’s hearing weren’t of quite the same caliber, but their prepared testimony still had some memorable moments. One was the lawyer’s declaration that the E.P.A. can’t declare that greenhouse gas emissions are a health threat, because these emissions have been rising for a century, but public health has improved over the same period. I am not making this up.

Oh, and the marketing professor, in providing a list of past cases of “analogies to the alarm over dangerous manmade global warming” — presumably intended to show why we should ignore the worriers — included problems such as acid rain and the ozone hole that have been contained precisely thanks to environmental regulation.

But back to Professor Muller. His climate-skeptic credentials are pretty strong: he has denounced both Al Gore and my colleague Tom Friedman as “exaggerators,” and he has participated in a number of attacks on climate research, including the witch hunt over innocuous e-mails from British climate researchers. Not surprisingly, then, climate deniers had high hopes that his new project would support their case.

You can guess what happened when those hopes were dashed.

Just a few weeks ago Anthony Watts, who runs a prominent climate denialist Web site, praised the Berkeley project and piously declared himself “prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” But never mind: once he knew that Professor Muller was going to present those preliminary results, Mr. Watts dismissed the hearing as “post normal science political theater.” And one of the regular contributors on his site dismissed Professor Muller as “a man driven by a very serious agenda.”

Of course, it’s actually the climate deniers who have the agenda, and nobody who’s been following this discussion believed for a moment that they would accept a result confirming global warming. But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking not just about the science here, but about the morality.

For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.

But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence. As I said, no surprise: as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But it’s terrifying to realize that this kind of cynical careerism — for that’s what it is — has probably ensured that we won’t do anything about climate change until catastrophe is already upon us.

So on second thought, I was wrong when I said that the joke was on the G.O.P.; actually, the joke is on the human race.

The Original Way of Living: Nomads Life

Posted on: March 29, 2011

Vancity Theatre at the Vancouver International Film Centre
1181 Seymour Street, April 2nd, 2pm (doors open at 1pm)

A benefit for the Institute for Sustainability Education and Action (I-SEA) to develop ‘Wakan Tanka,’ a new film featuring David Suzuki, James Hansen, Robert Bateman, Raffi, Paul Dickenson, Guy Dauncey and more!

……‘NomadsLife’ is a remarkable documentary about four individuals from four different countries who travel from Amsterdam in a 4×4 ex-Dutch4military vehicle to Siberia and Mongolia. They are on an adventure to raise awareness about Nomadic tribes such as the Kazakh Eagle Hunters and the Dukkah, people who haven’t strayed too far from their natural roots to understand where true spirit comes from.

The screening of ‘Nomads Life’ is a benefit for the making of ‘Wakan Tanka’, featuring lifelong activist and television personality David Suzuki; NASA scientist and author (‘Storms of my Grandchildren’) James Hansen; naturalist and painter Robert Bateman; child’s entertainer and climate change activist ‘Raffi’; climate action speaker and author Guy Dauncey; with messages from First Nation Elders from around the globe.

Wakan Tanka is being made to raise awareness about the relationship people have with their environment with messaging from our eco-hero elders. Salt Spring Island’s I-SEA has teamed up with Substantial Films Ltd. (UK) and A Purpose For Life Foundation to produce this film which in Sioux language means ‘Great Spirit’.

Set against the backdrop of a symbolic fictional journey of a thirteen year old and shot in the style of a music video, artists such as Lamb, Adham Shaikh, Dehli 2 Dublin, Trademark, Nova Nova, Wilderness of Manitoba and more are participating. Amongst scenes of both Earthly decay and beauty, this documentary will celebrate community and illustrate on the ground eco-action by the youth of today.

Tix are $12/$9 Students/Seniors at the door
Telephone (250) 653 2022 for further information


Alex Himelfarb: Crazy Ideas: Overton’s Window and the Political Imagination

Posted on: March 22, 2011

This post by Alex Himmelfarb on Overton’s Window is an imperative read for people interested in changing public perception and creating room for politicians to do the right thing.

See the blog post here: Crazy Ideas: Overton’s Window and the Political Imagination


Posted by himelfarb on February 14, 2011 · 16 Comments

A small argument about whether the government should be raising taxes broke out at a recent dinner party, quite possibly in response to something I said. Some argued that tax increases were just a terrible idea given that Canadians were already suffering tax fatigue and many were struggling from paycheck to paycheck, not to mention the supposed economic impact depending on which taxes and how much. Others argued that we had for over a decade cut taxes far too much and the wrong taxes at that, creating a structural deficit and depriving government of the resources to respond to the current challenges of climate change, deteriorating environment and infrastructure, an aging population, deepening inequality and declining productivity – take your pick. For them the issue was not whether but which, how much and who pays. And some argued that tax increases were probably a terrible idea but inevitable sooner or later, probably later.

The conversation touched on the role of government, declining trust, individualism, maybe the kind of conversation more common these days in the kitchen than in the cabinet or parliament. In any case, what was most striking amidst all the disagreement was the one area of full consensus: a politician would have to be crazy even to consider proposing tax increases on individual Canadians. While I am not sure that I agree that you would have to be nuts, I seem to be in a small minority. So just what is going on here?

We seem to have many “no go”areas in Canadian politics – taxes certainly, but Constitutional change, energy policy, maybe even health care reform seem also to be taboo. More than one pundit has worried about our failure to face these issues and wondered what it is about us that limits what we are willing to debate publicly. How can we hope to shift direction or begin to meet the great challenges if this particular brand of political correctness takes the most difficult issues off the table? But Canada is clearly not alone here. In fact, this question of how to expand the range of permissible political ideas was a preoccupation of the late Joseph Overton in the nineties when he was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank in the U.S.

Overton’s concern was why some of the libertarian policies he and his colleagues subscribed to were regarded as on the fringe or over the top. The question, “why are good ideas (good to him, that is) sometimes treated as just plain crazy” inspired his theory of “the window of political possibility”, renamed after his death, “the Overton Window“. People, the theory goes, are typically open to only a very limited range or window of issues and options, and they don’t just disagree with ideas outside this frame, they find them outlandish, radical, foolish or “unthinkable”. And of course any politician pursuing such ideas is likely to pay a heavy price — so mostly they don’t.

Overton’s interest was how the window is opened or moved, how “crazy” ideas become acceptable. His theory sets out the degrees of acceptability as moving from “unthinkable” to “policy” through the following hierarchy:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

Of course, what’s in the window isn’t static. The competition of ideas and interests is ongoing, often in the background, and what is acceptable – or crazy – shifts over time, but within limits and slowly. And in this competition, the wealthy and powerful always have advantage – though just how much varies. As well, the government of the day always has an advantage as they can move the window through concrete actions. But, again, such change is inevitably slow especially if it seeks to go against the tide.

Governments only very rarely undertake game-changing initiatives such as Constitutional Patriation or Free Trade. Some political leaders may sometimes be able to open the window to new ideas by virtue of their charisma or courage or some combination – but this is rare, the risks high — and more than one political theorist has cautioned that it is safer and more enduring to go for the great idea than the great leader. In any case, no leader can do this alone either from within government or from the opposition. And if they try and fail it may become even more difficult to gain acceptance for their ideas – witness the Green Shift. More often, then, big change comes in small steps. We have seen this with governments of all stripes. We saw this with the freedom to marry, also a reminder of the important leveling role of the courts.

Overton and his colleagues were interested in how to change the public receptivity to ideas, how to create more room for politicians to talk about and act on the previously unspeakable. They understood not only that most big ideas originate outside of government but also that the room needed for politicians to tackle these ideas is also created outside of government. This work was part of a broader decades-long movement of free-market neoliberals and social conservatives trying to counter what they perceived to be the prevailing liberal bias in U.S. political culture. George Lakoff tracks this movement back to the seventies and an influential memo written by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the National Chamber of Commerce. Powell expressed alarm at how students, angry about the Vietnam War, were becoming dangerously anti-business and at how universities had become hot beds of “liberalism” or “worse”. He argued that reversing the tide would need a concerted strategy and considerable investment. Today it is hard to imagine that this was ever a problem.

In Canada, one might point to the Calgary “Winds of Change” Conference in 1996 which brought neoliberals, libertarians and social conservatives together to forge an alliance of the Reform and Progressive Conservative Parties. Holding them together was a shared concern about the dominance of the Liberals and their ideas and, while the Conference did not yield a consensus for coalition, it did help create something of a movement with a commitment, similar to their U.S.equivalents, to move the policy agenda, to open Overton’s window.

While Overton comes from a particular ideological position, his work and that of his colleagues may be instructive for all of us who want our political leaders debating the real issues and the real options. Lakoff tracks their unmistakable progress over the last few decades with admiration if not envy and equally with concern about the ineffectiveness of his progressive colleagues in communicating their ideas as convincingly. People of the left and right, whatever these words might mean, all want to get their ideas into the public domain and influence the direction of our country. This is as it should be. Canadians benefit from real choices and honest debate. If politics is the art of the possible and most governments manage from the centre, the danger is that difficult options may be excluded from consideration and difficult issues, especially those remote from our experience, global poverty or climate change for example, may be ignored. Democracy is the winner when we expand the range of possibility, enlarge the window and with it our political imagination.

Thus, perhaps we can draw some insights, for better and for worse, from the successes of Overton and his colleagues for improving the quality of political discourse and democracy and for making sure that the issues of greatest importance and the competing options for addressing them are in the window.

1. Words matter

Overton’s solution was deceptively simple: Talking about “unthinkable ideas” publicly, talking about them a lot and well, will gradually open the window and allow political leaders to join the conversation. Actions may speak louder than words – but words can shape which actions are permissible.

For example, Overton understood that getting new ideas on the agenda was one of the major impacts of social movements. He and his colleagues understand how historically the fear of socialist movements fueled a lot of the social development that politicians would otherwise not likely have considered. When Powell wrote his memo, the equality movements of the sixties and seventies were having their impact. Today we are seeing a very different kind of energy in the unmistakable clout of the Tea Party. Among the most successful movements for pushing difficult but important ideas are “movement/parties” which compete politically but with a focus on “education” rather than winning. For many decades, the CCF/NDP played that role in Canada, taking the risks and paying the price for advocating controversial policies that mainstream parties wouldn’t otherwise take on. In the nineties in particular, the Reform Party played a similar role though opening the window in a very different direction. But “third” and fourth parties will inevitably shift back and forth between being movements focused on ideas to parties focused on winning or they will disappear or be absorbed. Movements are important for reinvigorating democracy but live off energy that is extremely difficult to control or even predict in the short-term or sustain for the long-term so they tend to wax and wane, come and go. At the same time, we are watching the enormous impact of new social media movements. Who knows what the future of the internet means for social action and the speed of moving ideas and windows.

Non-governmental advocacy organizations have historically also played an important role in pushing unpopular issues on the agenda and continue to do so. But even in the best of times those which try to speak for the poor and despised are constrained by their resources and the tension between advocacy and service – and these are not the best of times. In Canada, for example, some decades back, the federal government killed core funding in favour of buying services from these organizations, thus making many less independent and arguably less vocal. The absence of core funding combined with the Revenue Canada rules that restrict advocacy for organizations who wish charitable status has deprived our democracy of important voices.

In any case, those who took up Powell’s challenge and their Canadian counterparts focused their energies elsewhere; the real action has been in the world of “think tanks” and the public marketing of political ideas. We have always had think tanks where smart and engaged people explored long-range strategy, writing papers largely for other experts and policy thinkers. But for most of us, the work was obscure and largely inaccessible. But almost immediately after the Powell memo, new think tanks started springing up all over and unlike their often academic predecessors, these new outfits focused on political communications, on persuasion, and, as Lakoff documents, they have become awfully good at it. Which brings us to the second conclusion.

2. Money talks

Ok, Ok, I know, this is not entirely a novel insight but over the last three decades the amount of investment in self-styled “conservative” think tanks in the U.S. and here in Canada has been staggering. Certainly think tanks come in all political shades but the blue ones not surprisingly have most of the money. They are many, well-financed, and good at what they do. They have also been very successful at getting media attention. Have a look at the work of Thomas Frank on U.S. think tanks, though he is admittedly partisan. In Canada, University of Ottawa’s Paul Saurette, among others, has traced a similar patternparticularly since the Calgary Conference. An ongoing SFU study has found that here too think tanks such as the Fraser Institute and the Manning Centre are more successful than their progressive counterparts at getting media attention. Their reports are treated as news, pretty uncritically as if they were neutral science, often on the front page, and complemented by opinion pieces written by the think tanks themselves. One needn’t even touch the issue of media concentration and bias to understand that the luxury of resources to prepare media-ready copy combined with a huge “media hole” begging to be filled gives the ideas of well-funded think tanks privileged position. Taken together with the revelations about how much Koch brothers money is going into the Tea Party movement, this is at the very least a reminder that the extraordinary level of inequality we are seeing both in the U.S. and here is profoundly threatening to democracy.

3.” In your face” works but at great cost

Overton’s colleagues added another dimension to his ideas the results of which play daily on the Fox network and morning talk radio. Drawing on persuasion theory, and what is called the door-in-the-face technique, it soon became apparent that one could have even greater success in moving ideas into the window by escalating the discourse. By taking ever more extreme positions, even less acceptable than those you wish to promote, and doing so over and over, a new frame or reference point may be set. The ideas you really want to promote start to look moderate in comparison. The window is moved. To take an example that interested Overton himself, if one wanted to legitimize home schooling and school vouchers, why not propose that government get out of the business of education altogether. Suddenly, your proposals seem pretty tame. Simply put, the best way to sell a crazy idea is to propose an even crazier one. Interesting that last year Glen Beck who has become the poster pundit for this approach published a novel entitled Overton’s Window.

Accompanying this rhetorical escalation are constant attacks against competing ideas and their proponents, attacks that rely on caricature – elitist, socialist, death panels, leftards – and personal smears rather than debate and evidence. Indeed, increasingly the strategy
includes attacking the evidence and those who produce it, creating doubt about just what the problem may be if indeed there is one. We saw this for decades with smoking. We see this now with climate change. In this context, it’s interesting to take note of the attacks by one of our newest think tanks on Statistics Canada’s latest crime report.

The barrage of loopy ideas and attack, the constancy, the noise, must at least create doubt, and doubt may be the first step to opening the window for new ideas and probably closing the window for others. If Overton’s original thoughts help us understand how to broaden the window and open debate, his successors don’t want debate so much as victory. The over the top and in your face probably works to change what’s in the window — but it keeps the window narrow, inhibits real debate and therefore hurts the democratic process.


So where to? What are the lessons? For starters, there’s a message here for think tanks across the spectrum. As Paul Saurette has urged, it matters what Canadians are thinking and think tanks that want to influence the agenda had better get better at communicating to citizens. Of course, it is harder for those with less money, but we can already see somehopeful signs.

There’s a message for media too – stop treating think tank reports as news without context and without some analysis of the data and arguments.

For governments, in the long-term, priority number one must be to reduce the level of inequality in Canada – our democracy demands no less. In the short-term, governments need to find some way of leveling the playing field, starting with how they fund research and advocacy. For one thing, they could restore core funding for Non-governmental organizations and change the Revenue Canada rules on advocacy. At the very least, they ought to be defending and strengthening institutions like Statistics Canada and the Parliamentary Budget Office that attempt to rise above the noise and provide Canadians with information untainted by ideology.

And finally, for all of us, we ought to be saying “enough” to personal smears and caricatures masquerading as debate and we might also take advantage of some of the new ways to get directly engaged.