“Turn on the cartoons on any random Saturday morning, and you see Captain Planet,” Kellyanne Conway, president and CEO of The Polling Company, said to an audience of students and professors in Sage Hall Thursday afternoon. What this means, she explained, is that environmental concerns have assimilated into American culture.
Conway spoke as part of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Spring Lecture Series called “Politics and the Environment in the 2004 Election Year.” Her lecture was titled “Do Americans Care About the Environment?” and explored the misrepresentations of public opinion in the U.S.
“We wanted to present a nonpartisan set of perspectives as it is or could be in the 2004 elections,” event organizer and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Professor James R. Lyons explained.
Conway is a Republican pollster for The Polling Company and is a political analyst for CNN. Kathleen Campbell MESc ’04, a student organizer of the lecture, said Conway was selected to speak because her viewpoint differs from that of many students at the School of Forestry.
“We very deliberately tried to bring Democratic and Republican perspectives. I think that people at the Forestry School tend to hear only one side of the debate, and we think professionals going into the world should understand and maybe even appreciate where the other side is coming from,” Campbell said.
Conway argued that most Americans do care about the environment. She referenced the ubiquity of recycling bins, the option of paper or plastic grocery bags, and the Adopt the Highway Program. But she acknowledged that there is “a larger gap between agreement and intensity” with environmental issues more than any other political issue.
Conway discussed the problems of inadequate and unqualified pollsters who design political polling without addressing the nuances of the subjects’ opinions. Such polls often claim that Americans have strong feelings about one issue when that may not in fact be the case.
“We are a country of many options, so why should a poll say support or oppose?” Conway said. “Feel-good phraseology does nothing to probe one’s ideology.”
The so-called feel-good phraseology of polling regarding, for example, campaign finance reform has hugely impacted the U.S.’ political agenda in the past few years, Conway said. Though most people polled support the issue of campaign finance reform, this does not indicate they have sufficient knowledge about its implications.
Conway also noted that just because someone supports an issue, they do not necessarily give it utmost importance in their lives. For example, for most Americans campaign finance reform is not as important as issues like education and employment, yet it has become a hot-button political topic, she said.
“It’s like the Sesame Street song, ‘One of these things is not like the other.’” Conway said.
Conway also noted the hypocrisy of some supporters of the environmental movement.
“A lot of people who call themselves environmentalists drive Hummers,” Conway said. “The two don’t go together.”
She said this kind of inconsistency can be seen in other movements as well.
“Converting ‘somewhat interested’ into ‘engaged’ is difficult [for environmentalists],” Conway said.
Most Americans are cautious of political spending habits and are even wary of environmental spending that does produce significant results, she said. Environmental policy needs to conform with this idea and environmentalists need to make the issues palpable to all Americans.
Many students expressed their gratitude for hearing a different political perspective from what is generally expressed at Yale.
“It’s nice to have a speaker who represents a demographic I can relate to — a young successful woman.” Elizabeth Wyman FES ’04 said.
In contrast to Conway, the next speaker in the lecture series will be a Democratic pollster.