America’s political culture is a marketplace of ideas, and like other markets it sometimes is seized by big ideas that disrupt normal operations. These ideas typically assume the character of manias, meaning “excessive or unreasonable enthusiasm” (to quote Webster). Some manias originate outside the political system and then spill over into it, as in the “great awakenings” of religious fervor that have periodically swept the nation since its birth. Other manias, such as the Reagan-era enthusiasm for deregulation, are political in nature from their inception.
Manias have been a persistent force in American history, from the temperance movement that spawned Prohibition to the anti-abortion movement that reshaped modern conservatism. Three qualities seem to separate manias from mere shifts in political sentiment. First, they have a powerful emotional component. Second, they are a departure from previously prevailing views. And third, their grip on political institutions seldom exceeds a generation.
In other words, the marketplace of ideas is self-correcting. When new ideas prove too destructive or divisive, they begin to lose adherents just as fast as they initially gained them. It’s not that the ideas are disproven; they just tend to lose support when people grasp the danger they pose to the established order.
That brings me to the subject of climate change, popularly known as “global warming.” Global warming is a real thing. It is caused by the accretion of chemicals in the atmosphere that trap solar energy, increasing surface temperatures. This process has been ebbing and flowing for hundreds of millions of years in a phenomenon scientists call the “carbon cycle.” Today the Earth is gradually warming, and if that trend were to continue indefinitely it could eventually become uninhabitable (as it was for much of its geological history).
But despite the fact climate change is real, the response of the political system to its discovery has all the earmarks of a mania. The overheated rhetoric (no pun intended) surrounding its public discussion is not sustainable, and the draconian plans advanced to correct it are sure to have destructive consequences for the existing political and economic order.
Because the carbon cycle unfolds much more slowly than political cycles, the changes proposed to deal with global warming will inevitably produce a political backlash. The backlash will erode the popular support for those who have advanced a global warming agenda, and discredit other ideas they espouse that are unrelated to climate change.
This problem can be mitigated by stressing positive solutions to global warming such as development of new technology. Unfortunately, more regulation seems to be the default setting of the modern Democratic Party, and it therefore will absorb the full burden of the popular backlash when voters realize what initiatives like “cap-and-trade” mean for their everyday lives.
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