As you have no doubt heard by now, Solyndra, a solar power company that got more than half a billion dollars in loan guarantees from a Department of Energy Recovery Act program, has gone bankrupt.
The truth behind the episode isn’t entirely clear yet. Apparently the Obama administration really did push way too hard to speed up the application. Then again the Bush administration pushed too. I’ve heard from people that Solyndra’s tech was crazy and doomed from the beginning, that it was brilliant and could have triumphed with more support, and that Solyndra was undercut by heavily subsidized Chinese solar companies. Exactly what mix of factors was involved will probably take months to unwind and the truth is unlikely to satisfy any of the parties to the present debate.
What actually happened, how it could have been prevented, who’s responsible — these things are orthogonal to the battle taking place in political circles. That battle has nothing to do with the facts.
For a mix of financial and ideological reasons, U.S. conservative movement activists, operators, and politicos hate clean energy. They don’t believe in climate change, they love fossil fuels and fossil-fuel campaign donations, and they think, or want the U.S. public to think, that clean energy is weak, unreliable, marginal, and dependent on government subsidies. They have been trying to make that case for a long while.
What Solyndra gives them is a symbol, something to use as a stand-in to discredit not just the DOE loan program, but all government support for clean energy and indeed clean energy itself.
Watching this unfold over the last week, I keep thinking back to “Climategate.” When it first broke back in late 2009, lefties and bloggers and Dem lawmakers just ignored it, because it was obviously dumb. This left the field entirely open to a massive attack from the right, coordinated among ideological media, staffers, lobbyists, and pols. When the left finally stirred itself to action, all that emerged were a bunch of long, boring investigations into the details and good-faith efforts to be fair about how both sides a point. By the time five separate investigations had cleared the scientists of all wrongdoing, the damage was done. Now we’re seeing the same script play out again.
Cons understand post-truth politics. They understand that truth is utterly inert in an era when mainstream institutions are viewed with hostility and skepticism, the media is fractured, and there are no shared norms or referees to enforce them. The side that wins is the side that plays to its audience’s existing preconceptions with a simple message repeated over and over and over again in multiple venues.
That’s what is happening now around Solyndra. The right is going after this whole hog, trying to make the name synonymous with clean energy boondoggle. And the left is flailing around, throwing out this fact and that fact with no coherent message. Lord am I tired of watching this script play out.
BONUS VIDEO: This is Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) at today’s hearing, once again demonstrating that he’s one of the very few Dems in Congress who understands how this game is played. Don’t quibble over facts. Change the conversation.
Get Grist in your inbox