By Andrew Sullivan
We need both parties to prevent environmental catastrophe. Here’s how we do it.
Politics is downstream of culture. Change the culture and (sooner or later) you change the politics. But some political issues have such hefty cultural baggage, it’s incredibly hard to shift the politics.
The most obvious recent example is what’s happened in the debate over psychedelic drugs. Their emergence in the 1960s as a sign of hippie culture stigmatized them in the mainstream for generations. That cultural stigma effectively banned serious research into the science for decades. It was only when trained chemists and psychiatrists finally gained permission to test these drugs for their psychological impact, and discovered staggeringly effective possibilities for treating mental health, that the culture shifted — and gave permission to skeptics on the right to shift their stance.
There was a very similar game-changer when some localities and a few states began to allow cannabis solely for medical use. By turning the image of weed from Cheech and Chong giggling to helping cancer patients endure chemotherapy more successfully, the whole debate changed. If weed helped some people medically, it couldn’t be all bad, could it? And as the cannabis closet crumbled, the middle-class banality of pot won the culture war. And swiftly, we moved past medical weed to recreational.
As I came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, the gay question was just as trapped in a purely leftist silo. For many people, the term homosexuality instantly evoked images of anal sex, leather bars, lewd parades, and ACT-UP shock tactics. And although this didn’t hurt much in a few cities where gays were political organized, and had its virtues, it inherently rendered any big, broader political change much more difficult. It culturally deterred conservatives and moderates from being more politically supportive. But when we re-framed the debate by embracing conservative institutions like civil marriage and military service, we gave permission to people on the right to support us. In my view, it was that cultural re-framing, along with the AIDS crisis, that gave us the real political breakthrough.
The same cultural problem, it seems to me, applies to climate change.