The communications staff at the Heartland Institute must be chortling with self-satisfied glee. Heartland, a rabid right-wing anti-science climate change-denying organization put up an electronic billboard in Chicago linking the infamous mass murderer, Ted Kaczynski, to people who accept climate science. A disheveled Kaczynski blankly stares over the words, “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” The outrageous billboard, up for only 24 hours, had the desired effect – it went viral. It was covered by news outlets from coast to coast and erupted across websites and blogs.
Heartland pulled the billboard, while vigorously defending it, even when corporate sponsors of the organization jumped ship. Most commentators have concluded that Heartland’s billboard experiment was a failure. I don’t think so. After all, I’m writing about it.
The appalling level of discourse represented in this billboard is probably a harbinger of the tone of the upcoming presidential campaign. While the Romney campaign will not engage in speech this outrageous, we can expect the campaign’s supporting “independent” PACs to act as the point of the spear. Expect loathsomely negative ad campaigns to pop up, but with token nods to civility in fine print rationales. Consider the language of Heartland’s concession to reality, “Of course, not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants.” And, this little question and answer explanation, Q -“Are you saying anyone who believes in global warming is a mass murderer, tyrant, or terrorist?” A- “Of course not. But we are saying that the ethics of many advocates of global warming are very suspect.”
This autumn, if not sooner, this kind of unrestrained hate speech will ooze across our airwaves and the web in the service of defeating President Obama. Some of the fossil-fueled PACs will undoubtedly try to use climate policy as a wedge issue. After all, the president has proposed the first legal restraints on the pollution that is causing climate change. But that tactic may run into a head wind of public opinion which is changing as people are now observing the actual real-world impacts of our warming planet as the weather gets more extreme.
Conventional wisdom holds that a political campaign that is the victim of a rabid attack must strike back. But it may serve the campaign to re-elect the president better to keep its cool under the inevitable barrage of hate that will be fired from the right.