Hurricane Irma and the Political Whirlwind
“We have for 90 years avoided this day, but I think our day has come.”
Legendary Tampa Bay mayor Bob Buckhorn uttered these words just a day before the gigantic Category 4 Hurricane Irma was set to slam into Tampa as the next Katrina. Had it happened, entire communities would have been annihilated by the storm surge. My hometown would have suddenly become a group of three islands overnight.
By almost prophetic coincidence, The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears wrote a story about Tampa Bay’s incredible vulnerability just weeks before the storm materialized. Fears focused on a political angle as he discussed the unwillingness of local Republican officials to prepare for the heightened climatic threats, as well as the dangerous self-assuredness of builders who participated in a construction boom directly along the waterfront, with few safeguards and even fewer hurricane-proof buildings. A particularly telling anecdote is the fact that a local museum dedicated to Salvador Dalí is much better protected than one of the largest hospitals in the state, the Tampa General Hospital.
And while that might be great news for fans of surrealist art, this contrast is representative of the terrifyingly lopsided nature of Tampa’s infrastructure. Homes and businesses are not properly elevated, large stretches of highway along the water reach barely above sea level, and the streets of many neighborhoods flood after even small storms.
A couple of years ago, local watchdogs in the regional planning council conducted a series of simulations designed to show the effects of a disaster. Project Phoenix was one of these disaster scenarios, in which the woefully unprepared area suffers a direct hit from a Category 5 storm that kills more people than Hurricane Katrina and causes $200 billion in structural damage alone. In the scenario, nearly one million buildings—homes, hospitals, banks—are severely damaged or utterly destroyed, producing a total of 41 million tons of debris. That scale of destruction is akin to the city of New York collapsing overnight.
And then, “the big one” came, in the form of Hurricane Irma. Facebook feeds flooded with re-uploads of the Phoenix Project’s video from years before. This new behemoth was set to bring economic and environmental devastation and, most dishearteningly, a devastating loss of life as well.
Although Irma did not hit the area, thanks to a brief but debilitating landfall in Cuba, the increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes today make the eventual appearance of such a monster inevitable. Tampa Bay has now made two razor-thin escapes in the 21st century—first from Hurricane Charley in 2004 and now from Irma—but the current rate of global warming and climate change suggest it will not continue to be so fortunate. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, the arrival of a devastating storm in Tampa Bay is not a question of “if” but a question of “when.” Global warming means warmer oceans, which is what fuels these disasters. Melting ice caps contribute to rising sea levels and heighten the danger of flooding. Global warming is a problem that is growing exponentially, which is why it is crucial to take urgent action.
This is also why it is so alarming that our politicians have flatly refused to take meaningful action against global warming. All of the facts lie before us in plain sight. 2017 is on track to be the second most active hurricane cycle in history after 2005. We had never before seen a storm as large and sustained as Irma. Ten of the fifteen most active hurricane seasons since the decade before the Civil War have occurred in the 21st century—in just the past 17 years. The percentage of intense Category 4 and 5 hurricanes among the total has doubled since 1970. Now, roughly one in three storms is one of these behemoths.
Our current climate change-skeptical Republican government, at both the federal and state levels, chooses to ignore the problem or, even worse, to actively exacerbate it.
The reality is disturbing. And yet, it is brushed off by the population with a complacent, “it’ll never happen here” kind of attitude.Why? It is equal parts luck and politics. In fairness to the skeptics, Tampa Bay hasn’t been directly hit by a powerful hurricane in almost a century. Some attribute that luck to favorable weather patterns. Others, Floridians being Floridians, give the credit to Native American burial mounds. And if you remind a local of the ramifications of climate change, especially the inevitability of rising of sea levels, there is a significant chance that they will simply brush it off as not being a real problem. Many may even call it “fake news.”
Yet, this area is still offers a large base of support for President Trump and the Republican Party. On dangerously low-lying barrier islands, Trump bumper stickers decorate cars in driveways and Trump flags wave from mobile homes which face the threat of flooding even by common thunderstorms.
The entire population of Florida obviously does not hold these views, as the residents of bigger cities tend to be more educated and alarmed about climate change. But a strikingly large proportion of the bay area’s populace—the more vulnerable part of it—is blissfully ignorant of the consequences of our commander-in-chief’s actions. The man behind our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and the return of coal “like you’ve never seen” is sacrificing the very lives of his own constituents to benefit himself—and those very constituents seem to be celebrating it.
The phenomenon, the people apparently disregarding their own interests, is not just specific to Tampa Bay or the issue of climate change—the GOP is taking advantage of their vulnerable constituents all across the country: Heat waves grounded flights this summer in Arizona, and the Republicans’ various healthcare ideas pose an existential threat to Trump’s very own Forgotten Men. He has abandoned them in favor of big business. So why, then, do these individuals still champion him so zealously?
The secret lies, as you may have guessed, in the widespread appeal of Trump’s populist message. Its power to unlock emotion while abandoning logic was unmatched by any other candidate’s platform in the 2016 election. But Trump’s appeal is only part of a much larger issue —after all, his constituents have been voting red against their own logical interests for some time now.
The story of the strength of Republican rhetoric really begins in the 1990s with the appearance of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. In a study conducted by researchers at Stanford, Brown, and Microsoft, the 1994 election was defined as a “watershed moment in political marketing.” From that point onward, the ability of the average person to correctly identify a politician’s party from his speech leapt from 57 percent to 73 percent accuracy, after remaining fairly constant for decades.
The mastermind behind the strategy was an innovative media strategist and focus-group guru who changed the way Republicans speak: Frank Luntz. He masterfully transformed the estate tax into the “death tax,” drilling for oil into “exploring for energy,” and the Bush tax cuts into “tax relief.” When Luntz put together the strategies of Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, he turned a capital gains tax cut into “job creation and wage enhancement” and tax-sheltered retirement account reform into a “restoration of the American Dream.” It was a genius move, allowing the GOP to shift the nature of political discourse and tilt the playing field in their favor. The way Republicans now frame their key ideas allows them to tap into deeper, more subconscious emotions in their audiences, sidestepping the realm of logic and critical thinking. Luntz’s breakthrough resulted in a Republican majority in Congress for twelve years following 1994. His strategy even had ripple effects outside electoral politics. When you listen to a conservative pundit on the television today, chances are that you are listening to rhetoric that has been fundamentally shaped by Frank Luntz.
Today, Luntz’s rhetorical strategy allows local Republican officials to get away with not paying for the maintenance and upgrading of storm drains in the vulnerable Tampa Bay area. As Republican officials might say: Taxes are evil, and we’re not sending your hard-earned tax dollars to Washington and those corrupt elitist Democrats. It seems incredible that they can get away with this—surely one would figure out the truth eventually?
But some people do not want the truth and many Republican-led administrations are happy to oblige this. In Florida, one of the states most threatened by climate change, Governor Rick Scott has repeatedly discouraged state employees from using the words “climate change,” as discovered by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting in 2015. In July of this year, Scott and the Florida state legislature passed laws allowing any citizen to challenge school textbooks and other material, with issues like evolution and climate change blatantly in his crosshairs. How does he get away with it? Simple—the law is designed to get that Washington government out of the classroom because this is America, land of the free and home of the brave.
It is not complicated. In fact, that is entirely the point. Rhetoric has been around for thousands of years—persuading people is, after all, fundamental to politics. So, then, why are the Democrats so bad at it?
Many would cite the mire of identity politics into which mainstream Democrats have fallen, most recently in the form of Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign which tried to appeal to various demographics with some pretty opaque pandering. The problem is that, in electoral politics, a strategy like this is difficult and impractical—the risks are high, and the rewards are low. You must be sure to tick every box, and if you forget a group, you have lost them. Clinton forgot the white working class—wherever on the political spectrum you land, this is objectively why she lost.
Conversely, compare Clinton’s failures in this realm with the success of Bernie Sanders, who focused his campaign not on appealing to demographics haphazardly but instead on a cohesive message of economic justice. The biggest irony is that all of the groups which Clinton desperately tried to flatter ended up comprising Bernie’s base, without his lifting a finger. He, like Trump, offered a central focus, a real message, not merely platitudes.
This the context—the macro scale, the things people can clearly see and recognize. But what happens when we compare these two candidates under a Luntzian microscope? As we saw earlier, the content of their platforms certainly had some effect, but what really mattered in this vitriolic election was how they talked.
Clinton used long-winded, waffling, and abstract language, like when she confusingly promised in West Virginia to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” but then followed this by half-heartedly saying, “We don’t want to forget these people.” This comes across as insincere, mostly because it is not concrete, not a promise, and not down-to-earth. She could not connect to her audience through her language, a critical misstep that was repeated time after time. It seemed that all Trump had to do was put on a hard hat, and he won.
Sanders did not make Clinton’s mistakes. The man who said “to hell with the fossil fuel industry” managed to win over West Virginia by also saying things like ,“We have got to invest $41 billion rebuilding coal mining communities and making sure that … [they] receive the job training they need for the clean energy jobs of the future.” What Sanders has done here is to transform the negative into a positive with a simple trick of framing. He also uses buzz phrases like “crumbling infrastructure” and “rigged economy.” Sound familiar?
Phrases like this trigger an intuitive emotional response in everyone, as Frank Luntz recognized. The world’s proudest nation cannot have its bridges crumbling. We cannot rig the economy against the American Dream. This dynamism is what the Democrats are missing in their rhetoric, and it is what the GOP has mastered.
For the time being, it seems as if the Democratic Party has lost touch with its voters. Clinton lost the Obama coalition, and Democrats on the whole lost a significant chunk of the middle class’s support in the last election. To many, the Democratic politics are synonymous with Washington elitism; Democratic leaders are characterized as corrupt insiders, thanks in part to their own actions but especially due to the Republicans’ successful war of words.
The Democrats are trying to figure it out—every few months you can hear news of their “re-branding”—but they still have yet to find themselves. If they are hope to do well at the local and state levels again, as they did before 1994, then they will need to find a cohesive identity, some cause with widespread relevance for which to fight, and to win this game of linguistics.
In order to re-level the playing field, they must use Luntz’s tactics against the Republicans themselves, an idea championed by left-wing UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff, another expert on this sort of metaphorical language. This is why the Democrats have started to use the term “gun safety” instead of “gun control,” and “raising revenue” instead of “tax increases.”
But this is not enough—they need to get better. The party needs a real following, not just an ad-hoc collection of the intelligentsia and the “woke” groups that are inherently anti-Republican anyway.
But seems that the Democrats have not really tried to do that. Even their message of compassion has not been translated from identity politics to other areas. For example, I have never heard a Democratic politician say, “We are trying to protect you and your family from global warming.” The rhetoric is always more along the lines of, “We need to stop pollution in our oceans, so you need to recycle, or else.” It is aggressive, domineering, and alienating. This is the crux of the Democrats’ identity problem—Republicans have been able to create almost a cult of personality around their ideology and politicians, while the Democrats have not. If their language were more candid, cohesive, and framed better, perhaps the Democrats would be able to turn the tide in this battle.
The irony is that the answer has been right under their nose, in the form of the Sanders campaign. It is not too late for the Democrats to learn from the parts of his campaign that dominated Clinton’s: his message and the way he delivered it. It is not too late for Democrats to secure the ability to connect with their audiences in the way Sanders did and in the way the Republicans still do. It is not too late for them to save their party by ditching the stigma of Washington elitism.
The stakes have never been higher. It is not just party poll numbers that are on the line—there are millions of lives and livelihoods on the line, at a scale we have scarcely seen before. The most vulnerable areas and populations in the nation are becoming even more vulnerable by the minute. Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States, was recently devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Puerto Rico was entirely torn apart by Hurricane Maria. In coming decades, Phoenix, the sixth-largest city in the country, will face such an increase in heat and heat waves that its survival and sustainability will be put into jeopardy. New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, and other coastal cities will face ever greater dangers from hurricanes.
Responsible leadership is needed in these vulnerable regions now more than ever before.. For the time being, it seems that our government, of the people, by the people, and for the people has decided that “the people” are not really that important. But that can change, and it should, if the Democrats can adapt Sanders’s strategies to effectively challenge the Republicans’ deceptive messaging and irresponsible policies.
Maybe, one day, I will see some donkeys decorating bumper stickers back home on those islands. Right next to some brand new storm drains.