It’s been a challenging political season to sit on the sidelines. It’s now only two days before the primary election, and while I’m not about to get involved, there’s a lot worth commenting on, especially in this last week. One could argue that the Democratic contest finally got interesting.
One could also say that the Democratic arena has proven itself vulnerable to the same frothing-at-the-mouth zeitgeist that seems to pass for political discourse in this nation at late. And no, I’m not even talking about professional Diplomat and Gubernatorial Candidate Peter Galbraith referring to one of his opponents as a “fucker” on the record.
So let’s talk about wind power. Not the issue itself, but the meta-issue. Because a funny thing happened on the way to Tuesday’s exercise in democracy.
Gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne did something you don’t do on the wind debate. He fleshed out his position, bringing in a little more specificity to the vague catch-all platitudes that most Vermont politicians use on the subject. The result has been full-on rhetorical hysteria… or perhaps more accurately, a public window into the roiling hysteria which was already underway, as also witnessed in the full-on self-sabotaging snub of Chittenden Senator Philip Baruth by the VCV I discussed previously.
Now, full disclosure part one here; Matt Dunne is a friend, and I hate seeing friends get beat up on. I really hate it. I’ve been hiding from a lot of the news this week for that reason.
Full disclosure part two; I’m all for wind power. I grew up in eastern Kentucky where whole mountains are razed, pulverized, mixed with toxic chemicals, and dumped into local streams in the name of the fossil fuel industry. A few small roads to industrial sites with relatively modest footprints really doesn’t bug me if it helps choke the life out of the coal companies and save a few hundred miles of Appalachian ecosystems and water tables. As long as the science is our guide for siting (and the science says there’s very little ridgeline acreage in the state that is appropriate), and accommodations are made for critical habitat (so we don’t burn down the village in order to save it), it’s one piece of doing our part to convert to a robust electric grid powered by renewables to enable our transition off of carbon-spewing as soon as possible. I’m the kind of person whose teeth hurt everytime I hear the made up word “viewshed.” I couldn’t care less about the fleeting fickleness of anthropomorphic and anthropocentric cultural aesthetics when we are all responsible for the collective damage being done to the planet. “With great power….” and all.
But I also believe strongly that the ends do not justify the means. And the just means in our society is called democracy. Obviously in a representative government, citizens cede their rights to have say over every single decision – and in a Constitutional Republic, there are limits on democracy to prevent mobs from running roughshod over the less powerful.
But still, I see democracy as an unquestionable ethic. I see environmentalism as one too. And given the reality of climate change, it’s worth mentioning that I am also very pro self-preservation.
And I’d have been willing to bet this is where most people would say they land as well. It’s why all the politicians – no matter which “side” of the wind debate they are associated with – always give vague answers about needing to confront climate change, but needing to respect local communities when asked about wind power. Seriously, who wants to be openly anti-environment or anti-democracy? C’mon.
So Mr. Dunne made a political decision (and sure, I have no doubt it was political). Basically, that being more specific would be helpful in his quest for the Democratic nomination. So he was. He said he felt that siting towns should get a binding vote on wind power plant siting.
Now, is that where I would’ve drawn that line…?… ouch…hmmm…ugh… You see, even I don’t want to answer that specifically. I want somebody else to handle it and let me know when its all worked out so I can open my eyes. But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t have drawn the line where Dunne did. And obviously, drawing any line was going to create controversy.
But what has followed looks less like a reinvigorated public debate, and more like electoral rabies. It took me, and a lot of folks I’ve spoken with, by surprise.
It clearly took the campaign by surprise. Dunne’s initial remarks in response to the visceral fury unleashed upon him within the Montpelier/Burlington capital bubble belied a staggered candidate. It was another day before he got his rhetorical feet back under him, and the raw energy released seems to be spilling over into other controversies, and spiking early voting. Right out of the gate, Dunne lost the endorsement of Bill McKibben and others – and was broadsided with an attack from the Governor’s office by Mr. Shumlin himself, all but calling Dunne a liar and a fool (a very measured assessment of the fallout – including a calling out of Mr. Shumlin’s hypocritical hissyfit – can be found in today’s Times Argus editorial page).
So all this sturm und drang raises two questions for me. One; who are the winners and losers in this campaign? Folks like my friend John have all but declared Dunne politically friendless and dead for that one policy offering, and in rather animated terms. The truth is harder to tell. It has certainly hurt Dunne in the aforementioned bubble, but it’s true that bubble was already Minter turf. It’s also true that it may boost him in the rural – albeit less populated – regions. The timing is also harder to read. On the one hand, it could read as desperation from Team Dunne, which never looks good to the undecided set. On the other hand, it could look gutsy (and the announcement so close to the election could prove to steal away enough support from Galbraith to enhance his (grouchy) left flank). Shumlin’s impulsive attack also could arguably hurt Dunne by virtue of its content, or hurt Minter from association (I’m not sure that it pro-actively “helps” anybody).
All of which is to say, anybody who isn’t looking at current poll numbers, but tells you the whole kerfuffle definitely helps or hurts one candidate or another is likely giving you their own parochial reaction. I feel like I’m pretty good at this stuff, and I’m honestly not sure how it plays out in the final analysis.
The other question it raises is trickier; are we capable as a society, in Vermont, of having a reasoned, thoughtful debate on wind power?
Sadly, I think there is a clear answer to this, and the answer – for the present – is “no.” I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the dynamics of this debate look disturbingly familiar… they look like the dynamics of the gun debate. “Gun debate” is of course a misnomer, as there is no “debate” allowed. There is only screaming, threatening, rage and hysteric myopia.
For now, I think, calling it a “wind debate” is equally oxymoronic. Hopefully we can find our way past that – and soon. Because it’s really about a lot more than us.