Can We Make Environmentalism a Centrist Issue?

Flickr/Manos Simonides

For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics. Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans. The left has much to learn about this strategy. It needs to fundamentally re-align Americans around an issue with a deep and latent importance: the environment.

When asked about the most important global issue, 25 percent of Americans cite environmental degradation, while only 10 percent cite the economy. "Everyone studying American politics has been waiting for a new realignment because the last few decades have been marked by political apathy and the rise of a new voting bloc that is not strongly tied to either party,” says Dr. Benjamin Radcliff, professor of politics at Notre Dame and author of The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters' Choices Determine the Quality of Life. “What is needed is some spark, either an event, like the Great Depression—or just a party capable of mobilizing this latent potential."

Hedge-fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer’s recent pledge to pour $100 million into 2014 races could certainly create the political infrastructure to allow the left to capitalize politically on the next oil spill. A potent path forward is for the left to appeal to independent voters concerned about the environment. By adopting a moderate framing and language that appeals to both centrist thought leaders and disenchanted Republican moderates and independents, the environment could become to the left what race has been to the right.

Dr. John Roemer, a professor of political science and economics at Yale, wrote in a 2005 paper with Woojin Lee and Karine van der Straeten that “the Left might attempt to exploit global warming the way the Right has exploited racism.” He says that the issue is even more salient today, although the right is currently in a state of “cognitive dissonance” because of their anti-government ideology. His own upcoming book, Sustainability for a Warming Planet, uses terms like “intergenerational equity” and “sustainability” that are commonly used by centrists like David Brooks and Joe Scarborough, who worry that the federal debt is unfair to future generations and on an unsustainable course. Such leaders thrive on issues like the federal debt and sustainability, a leftist concept that is intellectually harmonious with stewardship, a right-wing one. By using the language of responsibility and intergenerational equity, as well as homespun wisdom about “living within our means,” the left could create a broad umbrella coalition encompassing concerned centrists. Internationally, moderate right-wing parties have successfully co-opted the environment from the left; Angela Merkel famously won re-election in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy. In Britain and France, conservative politicians have been at the forefront of initiatives to adopt alternative measures of sustainable progress. France’s conservative Nicholas Sarkozy created the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance to identify ways to move beyond GDP as the measure of economic progress. In Britain, conservative Prime Minster David Cameron also pursued a measure of happiness and well-being.

Both Roemer and Radcliff note that a key detriment to progress is the right’s fixation on eliminating government. “There’s simply no way to reduce emissions without some bureaucracy,” Roemer says. “You can’t fight global warming without government intervention.”

In America, some left-wing candidates have won in heavily right-wing parts of the country by using conservationist rhetoric. Bernie Sanders won his Senate seat in Vermont—a rural, white state that holds the record for longest-consecutive streak voting Republican in presidential elections—by, according to David Sirota, “visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with [hunters].” In Montana, a state that has voted Republican in all but one of the last ten presidential elections, Governor Brian Schweitzer won twice (the second time in a landslide) partially by wooing hunters and fisherman with land and stream access. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Governor David Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a re-election margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country with 66 percent approval among Republicans.

In hindsight, the potency of the environmentalist message should not be surprising. Religious traditions have always stressed the importance of living in harmony with the environment, and the very idea behind conservatism is not radically re-inventing the world in which one lives, lest unintended consequences ensue. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the environment used to be a non-partisan issue, and only recently became politicized. In her 2013 paper “A Cooling Climate for Change? Party Polarization and the Politics of Global Warming,” Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont, finds, “partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change” but rather, that “party polarization among elites has now trickled down to the masses.” She cites the famous memo by Republican political distorter extraordinaire Frank Lutz, in which Republican politicians were encouraged to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The Pew data cited above show that swing voters lean toward Democrats on environmental issues. Rasmussen polling finds that voters overwhelming favor the Democratic position on the environment (51 percent to 34 percent). That leaves a lot of voters open for a sustainability-minded lefty, particularly in states where big businesses threaten land that was once preserved for hunters or fracking threatens water supplies.

According to Dr. Robert Bartlett, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Vermont, the problem has been framing. “Environmentalists tend to frame the issue in terms of harm and justice, while conservatives respond to in-group loyalty, sanctity, respect and stewardship.” Aaron Sparks, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is studying the issue with Phillip Ehret, finds that about 20 to 30 percent of strong conservatives hold pro-environment attitudes (meaning they are willing to sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment). But Democrats must be “smart about how they frame their appeal,” Sparks says. “Conservatives can be persuaded to accept the environmental argument if is pitched in a way that is consistent with their morality, which tends to emphasize the sacredness of nature and a focus on local, community-building issues.”  

But a 2012 study finds that climate campaigns overwhelming continue to frame the issue as harm and care, fairness and oppression of marginalized groups. These liberal values don’t resonate with conservatives. Environmentalists might take a page from E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful:

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity.

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