Environmentalists Must Diversify Now
The Environment Can't Wait for Liberals to Find themselves
By Andy Kerr
With the movement of the nation to a more conservative posture, the environmental movement has no choice but to diversify its political alliances beyond the Democratic Party. If it is still the party of liberalism, the leaders of liberalism are presently bankrupt of new ideas, strategies and tactics. It is not a star upon which the environmental movement should any longer hitch its wagon.
Too many liberals use the campaign finance mess as an excuse to not vote. This cop-out is killing their cause. Elections and issues are being decided today. Half of winning in democracy is showing up. Let's hear from flaming liberal Congressperson Barney Frank (D-MA):
The left is a victim, to some extent, of its own ideology. People on the right are more likely to believe that America works in the textbook sense: 'This is my Government, this is my Congressman. How dare he not listen to me.' People on the left are more likely to say: 'Well wait a minute, writing letters is nothing. We need a demonstration.' That is absolutely backward.
The NRA (National Rifle Association) doesn't have demonstrations. They write letters. In fact, direct action, as a political tactic, is second-choice. The first choice is to exercise political power, to scare them into voting the right way. Direct action is what you do when you have no power. Blacks in the South had to use direct action until they got a voting rights act....
(W)e listen the critics who say, 'Oh, these politicians won't want to listen to the voters, all they do is listen to campaign contributions.' In fact, votes will beat money any day. Any politician forced to choose between his campaign contributors and strong public sentiment is going to vote public sentiment. Campaign contributions are fungible; you can get new ones. You can't get new voters.
The excessive association between the Democratic Party and the environmental movement was forced by Ronald Reagan. He was the first president to make the environment a partisan issue, forcing the environmental movement into the arms of the Congressional Democrats. An unconscious deal was struck: the Democratic leadership would kill horrible anti-environment bills, but the cost was that great environmental bills wouldn't pass either. Environmentalists have been taken for granted by the Democrats not unlike African-Americans and organized labor. What utility this deal may have had ended when the Democrats lost Congress.
The major environmental laws on the books today were passed with the bi-partisan support in the 1960s and 70s. (It was Republican Richard Nixon who signed the Endangered Species Act.)
As a political issue, the environment is like crime. No one is for crime and no one is against the environment. (Rep. Helen Chenowith's and her few cronies encamped in their Intermountain West redoubt notwithstanding; these wackos are far from a majority in this nation or even in the Republican Party nationally.)
Some politicians, of course, talk green more out of political expediency than genuine concern. Do Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) opining in the New York Times about how Republicans aren't anti-environment and House Majority Leader Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) on Fox News saying he loves clean air and water, mean it? Who cares? They have to say it! The point is that the debate about whether to save the Earth is over; it is now a debate on how.
Of course, vast ideological differences exist on how best to address the environmental issues. The Republicans are dominant (for the moment), so let's examine them. There are four kinds of Republicans:
Pro-Government/Pro-Environment Senator John Chafee (RI) is the typecast. He feels that government can often have a positive effect on people's lives and favors regulation to protect the environment. His breed is diminishing.
Pro-Government/Anti-Environment Senator Mark Hatfield (OR) likes big government and used government to meet his social and economic objectives including harming the environment. His is nearly an extinct breed.
Anti-Government/Anti-Environment Name your own here. Any US Senator from Alaska, Idaho or you name it. In environmentalists' minds, especially those living in the Intermountain West, they too often typify the Republican Party.
Anti-Government/Pro-Environment Rep. John Kasich (OH) typifies the type. As chair of the House Budget Committee, Kasich gets up every morning thinking about the evils of big government and how to downsize it. He also cares about the environment. He signed on to Rep. Furse's measure to repeal the salvage logging rider because he likes trees and hates subsidies to the Forest Service and timber industry. He may well take a lead role in next year's fight over the Forest Service budget. This is a breed can increase with our encouragement.
Eighty percent of public lands and biodiversity problems can be traced back to government subsidies. If these activities weren't subsidized, the problems would be greatly diminished, if not eliminated. Often the best and only solution is eliminating the tax subsidies to environmentally harmful industries. Environmentalists should work to eliminate the offending bureaucracy, not seek another to counter it.
The environmental opportunities are great in the next Congress which will likely balance the budget. Environmentalists can recommend many corporate welfare programs to cut.
By cultivating support in all political parties (meaning we'll support any candidate who is green, regardless of party) we can re-institute the environment as a bi- (or tri- or quad-) partisan issue. In elections, we must to get to the point that the major ideologies are competing as to the best way to protect the environment. Is it regulation, tax incentives, the creation of markets, voluntary actions or what have you? (It's never one approach for all problems; it depends on the issue.) Only then can environmentalists fully capitalize on the depth and breadth of public concern about the environment.
A social liberal and economic conservative with some libertarian and socialist tendencies, but always first an environmentalist, Andy Kerr recently retired after 20 years with the Oregon Natural Resources Council and now lives in the Wallowa Valley.
(This was written in 1996.)