Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Strategic Silence
distributed 1/23/04 - ©2004

This week, the leadership of the two big political parties in the US set forth their respective views of the State of the Union. In prime-time broadcasts, President Bush and Democratic leaders Pelosi and Daschle addressed common themes -- security, prosperity and health care-- and spelled out their parties' distinctive approaches to addressing such issues.

Neither statement mentioned anything about the environmental crises that surround us. More than an hour and a half was spent in presenting political visions and philosophy, and connecting those to specific policy proposals. And in all that time, not a word was said about local, regional or global environmental issues.

President Bush did say: "Consumers and businesses need reliable supplies of energy to make our economy run - so I urge you to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy." But since the record of the current administration has done little to encourage significant conservation, and has done much to promote domestic production of oil, gas and coal as the favored way of reducing dependence on foreign energy, that one sentence hardly counts as an "environmental" statement.

In the Democratic response, not a single word was said which even hinted at environmental problems as a source of concern, whether in terms of health issues, energy policies, or more "extreme" areas like the preservation of habitat and species.

So what's going on? Don't any of the country's political leaders think that there are important issues here?

As I try to make sense out of this silence from the two dominant political parties, I turn to a consideration of courtroom strategy.

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Even though I grew up in a family of lawyers, it took me quite a while to accept a central part of how the US legal system works. When a dispute goes to trial -- whether in a criminal or civil case -- the lawyers are not there to help the court find the truth.

In our adversarial system, each side is committed to presenting only the evidence that will help them win the case. Standards of evidence and procedures of cross-examination help to ensure that what is presented in the courtroom is truthful. But it is quite likely that "the whole truth" will not be spelled out.

In deciding what witnesses and evidence to present, the lawyers will leave out anything that might distract the jury, or raise unnecessary complications in their argument. Often, details that seem important to outside observers are never mentioned, because raising those points won't give a clear advantage to either side.

Was much of the case against a drug dealer developed with the use of a paid informant? If the prosecutors can bring in enough other strong evidence, they won't be inclined to mention that fact. And the defense may not be eager to name their close ties to such an unsavory character, even if it does challenge to prosecutor's strategy. So the role of the person who developed the leads and set up the sting will never emerge in court.

In laying out how to present a case, there may be important pieces of evidence that neither side will voluntarily raise. Witnesses with powerful testimony may never be brought to the stand, because they stir up other legal or emotional issues.

The same factor seems to be at work in this week's speeches.

Three years into this administration, the Bush record on the environment is bad enough that there is no plausible way for him to appeal to hard-core environmentalists. And any attempt to present his administration as "green" would alienate much of his core constituency. It is not surprising that he didn't bring it up.

And the Democrat party is already likely to attract those voters who claim the environment as a core issue. But naming that area of concern, and describing specific policies, may stir up troubling questions in the minds of other key Democratic constituencies -- especially in light of their increasingly fragile alliance with labor.

In this election year, neither side gets a clear benefit from bringing up the environment, and each side faces some significant risks in doing so. Like the lawyers in a courtroom, the job of these speeches is not to spell out a comprehensive description of the truth. They are going to present only their most persuasive evidence to the jury -- to us.

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This week's speeches raise a tough question for those of who are passionate about eco-justice. Is an election season the best time and setting to raise these questions?

Will lifting up environmental policies as a major theme advance the cause, change any votes, or shift any policies? In a world of sound-bite news and opinion, can questions of equity, sustainability and sufficiency be addressed in helpful ways? Or will naming those issues confuse and distract the "jury"?

Strategically, it is fair to ask if the Democrats took a rational, or even wise, course by not mentioning environmental issues in their response to the State of the Union speech.

I don't like that silence. I wish that a candidate's depth of environmental vision and commitment were a make-or-break factor. But I need to think about whether silence on the issue is an appropriate political strategy.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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