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Energy politics research

Opening PowerPoint slide of 2007 ATTW presentationPresentation at the 2007 ATTW Conference.

In the past few years, I have become increasingly fascinated with the connections between rhetorical theory and energy politics. I'm currently researching a book analyzing the speeches and public statements of six presidents—Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton—in their efforts to deal with energy issues during their administrations, and I have worked with colleagues in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology at Iowa State to map the rhetorical terrain of the biofuels economy in Iowa. I have also conducted a rhetorical analysis of the ongoing debate over corn-based ethanol's energy balance, which I presented at the 2007 ATTW Conference. My research on energy politics stems from my advocacy of renewable energies; I am a former member on the Board of Directors of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association.

But the bulk of my time has been concentrated on the book project, which was the focus of my spring 2009 research sabbatical. During that time, I conducted archival research at the Carter, Clinton, and Ford presidential libraries, and during summer 2010, I spent some very fruitful research time in both the Nixon and Reagan libraries. Tentatively entitled "The Moral Equivalent of War": Presidential Language in American Energy Politics, my book weaves together succinct narratives of administration energy policies with rhetorical analyses of how each president framed energy issues during his time in office. My goal is to demonstrate the role that language and linguistic framing play in shaping the energy choices our country makes during periods of both crisis and plenty. During the past 50 years, our collective interest in energy has waxed and waned as a political subject, with market forces and geopolitical events driving various forms of energy in and out of economic and political focus. Energy crises have come and gone, but nothing we have done yet has weaned us from our reliance on petroleum and other fossil fuels that now threatens the stability of the world's climate.

Though market forces and geopolitical events most often determine public interest in energy, our reaction to energy related events is influenced in subtle yet powerful ways by the language of politicians, policy wonks, and journalists. As rhetorician Kenneth Burke so well knew, the use of words in our political debates (about energy or anything) has a tremendous impact on the actions taken by others in the name of public policy. And no other politician has the rhetorical ability to influence events more than the President. Those influenced (or not) by presidential rhetoric might include politicians, lobbyists, and others populating the often narrow arena of US energy policy making. Or it might include the citizens and small business owners of the broader public sphere who seem to wake up and express interest in energy issues only during times of shortage or increasing prices.

Fig. 1 - Jon Stewart's Daily Show (June 16, 2010) on energy efforts of the last eight presidents.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future

But rarely do changes in energy policy occur without the groundswell of concern and support emanating from the public sphere. The movement of energy politics from the narrow policy arena to the public sphere has happened numerous times in our country's history and for various reasons. For example, the politics of oil production and distribution were largely ignored by the general public from World War I until 1945, when Harry Truman proclaimed federal control over the entire continental shelf, which until this time had been regulated by individual states. Though Congress later passed two bills reversing his proclamation, Truman vetoed both, and when the courts could reach no resolution, the controversy became a primary issue of the 1952 political campaign (Davis 81). In effect, the issue became an ideological referendum on the New Deal and a host of government projects related to national forests, water projects, and public domain mineral rights.

After Eisenhower carried the election, he submitted two bills to Congress that helped resolve the issue with a compromise between state and national control. The first bill, the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, gave states control of all sea floors within three miles of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and within 10.5 miles of the Gulf Coast. However, the second bill, the Outer Continental Shelf Act of 1953, placed all areas beyond the states' limit under federal control, and the Interior Department proceeded to lease mineral rights for these areas to the oil companies (Davis 82).

The influence of Presidential rhetoric on American policy has been well documented by political scientists and rhetoricians. Jeffrey K. Tullis, for example, believes that direct rhetorical appeals to the public are a new form of governance that comprises a "second constitution" external to the powers of the presidency laid down by the nation's founders. Central to this second constitution is a view of statecraft that is in tension with the original Constitution—indeed, is opposed to the founders' understanding of the political system. The second constitution, which puts a premium on active and continuous presidential leadership of popular opinion, is buttressed by several extra-constitutional factors such as the mass media and the proliferation of primaries as a mode of presidential selection. (18)

Of course, each of the six presidents employed a different rhetorical style in confronting a different set of political variables related to energy. Consider these two examples:

We have heard a lot about a crisis. I do not use that term, because we do not face a crisis in that sense of the word. I would simply say that in the short term we face a problem, a problem with regard to energy....
— Richard M. Nixon, September 1973
Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern this Nation. This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war, except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not to destroy.
— Jimmy Carter, April 1977

Faced with our nation's first shortage of energy, Nixon chose to downplay the event and refused to use the word "crisis" in the beginning, though events of a non-energy nature soon engulfed his presidency. Carter, on the other hand, tackled the issue of energy head on, calling legislative proposals at the beginning of his administration the "moral equivalent of war." The language used by these six presidents during State of the Union addresses, press conferences, and other public statements set the tone of how each administration framed its energy policy and how the nation as a whole reacted to these policies. For unless they are made manifest through skillful rhetoric, even the best of intentions can sometimes pave the way to ruin. As energy attorney Paul T. Ruxin has noted, one of the more curious paradoxes of modern energy policy in the United States is that administrations with "well-intentioned activism," such as Carter and Bush, suffered politically from engagement with the issue, while the "hands-off approach" of Reagan and Clinton profited through a neglect of policy (xi). My research tells the story of how words can make a world of difference in dealing with perhaps our nation's most challenging political issue.

Works Cited

Carter, Jimmy. "The Energy Problem, April 18, 1977." Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1977. Vol. 1. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1977. 656-62.

Davis, David Howard. Energy Politics. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Nixon, Richard M. "Remarks About the Nation’s Energy Policy, September 8, 1973." Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1973. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1975. 752-55.

Ruxin, Paul T. "Forward." in Vito Stagliano, A Policy of Discontent: The Making of a National Energy Strategy. Tulsa, OK: PennWell, 2001. ix-xii.

Tulis, Jeffrey K. The Rhetorical Presidency. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987.