The environment has traditionally been a non-partisan area of policy in American politics, or more accurately above partisanship. There have always been individual issues – generally associated with a particular industry or project – where commercial interests have trumped environmental concerns. And there have always been disagreements on approaches to environmentalism. Outright rejection of environmental protection has never been an official mainstream party position, until now. Welcome to the 21st Century Republican Party.
The modern Republicans are not so much anti-environment as they are rabidly pro-corporate and anti-government – rallying against anything seen as getting in the way of corporate exploitation and profiteering. That’s not to mention that they also traffic in opposing anything the Democratic Party supports. This has come to include the characterization of environmental protection measures as “job-killers”. They pursue their strategy with zeal and an incredible disdain for anyone who criticizes or opposes their agenda. They steer their policy ship with purpose and determination in a “damn the torpedoes” manner that would make Admiral Farragut proud.
This approach places issues like environmental protection and climate science squarely in the path of this onrushing Republican destroyer. There may be some problems with the crew, however. Republican Party supporters who were lured onto this boat by the promise of smaller government or fiscal responsibility did not necessarily sign up for the anti-science, anti-environment policies of modern republicanism. The party that was once home to Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, and brought the National Park System and the conservation ethic to America, has abandoned these roots. This disturbing development has the potential to provide the catalyst for a political realignment in the country.
Environmental protection has become a partisan Democratic issue. This does not bode well for the long-term future of our nation’s resources. There will inevitably be swings of power between Democrats and Republicans, and periods of Republican control cannot be interludes in purgatory for the environment. This situation is bad for environmental policy and ultimately bad for politics in general. Having policy areas where the parties can find common ground and agreement is essential for a vibrant and healthy democracy. Environmental issues have traditionally provided opportunities for non-partisan cooperation. With the end of bi-partisanship and the rejection by the Republicans of environmental protections, the Democratic Party has effectively become the home of environmentalists by default. This then raises the question, “Where do conservatives who care about the environment turn?”
Millions of sportsmen-hunters, fishermen, and outdoorsmen are currently aligned with the Republican Party. The sportsmen community is dominated by people who see themselves as rugged individualists who find the rhetoric of personal accountability and limited government appealing. Many believe that gun ownership issues are best addressed by the Republicans despite the fact that Democrats do not oppose the legitimate ownership of firearms by sportsmen. These are people for whom the protection of our nation’s natural resources is a priority. How long will it be before they begin to realize that the Republican representatives they have supported have not only abandoned the policies that were once a core part of conservative thinking, but that they have categorically rejected them? When that epiphany occurs it has the potential for reshaping the political landscape for environmentalists.
A recent article by Bob Marshall entitled Sportsman’s Storm: Congress to Come Down on Anglers and Hunters – in that noted radical publication Field & Stream – warned readers in the hunting and fishing community, “The sportsmen’s conservation movement finds itself lashed by political and economic forces that threaten to undo generations of work and billions of dollars dedicated to building and protecting the habitat base that supports the world’s best public outdoors experiences.” Detailing efforts in the Republican controlled House of Representatives to dismantle environmental regulations and slash conservation funding, the article is a wake-up call to the nation’s sportsmen who may not have been cognizant of the impending threat to their avocation or its seriousness. Sportsmen who cherish clean water, clean air, open spaces and intact ecosystems that provide them with opportunities to pursue outdoor activities that are so important to them may suddenly find themselves without a political home in a shrill hyper-partisan world.
Likewise, sober-thinking conservatives who believe in science may no longer be able to reconcile the mounting empirical evidence that climate change is indeed occurring – and that it is linked to human industrial activity – with their alignment to a political party that categorically denies these facts. The continued pursuit of pro-corporate policies that reject any measures to mitigate man’s contribution to the alteration of the planet’s climate makes Republican leaders look like the mayor in the movie Jaws dismissing loose talk about sharks as bad for business. It seems almost plausible until a few beach-going tourists are devoured. How long will it be until increasingly eccentric weather and abhorrent climate trends strip the Republican policy-makers of their veneer of plausibility? Climate change poses a serious threat to the survival of our society. The magnitude of this threat will eventually drive clear-thinking people to support representatives who are willing and committed to addressing this issue. Those representatives, however, are not to be found among the current crop of Republicans.
Even the evangelical community that is so tightly aligned with the Republican Party on social issues may find that relationship strained by anti-environmental policies. Support for man’s role as steward of the Earth’s resources can be found in any number of Biblical passages. Republican governor John Kasich recently said, “…I also know the good Lord wants us to be good stewards of his creation. And so, at the end of the day, if we can find these breakthroughs to help us have a cleaner environment, I’m all for it.” Kasich’s statement was noteworthy, not because of its content, but because it deviated from what has become, for all intents and purposes, the official Republican Party line. Are social issues a strong enough draw to keep deeply religious voters from noticing the environmentally destructive policies of the GOP? If not, this potentially puts another block of voters in play over environmental issues.
Polling data shows that environmental issues barely register with voters this election cycle. That is as much a function of a failure of political leaders to make these issues a part of the public debate as it is a result of the down economy. The current political treatment of environmental issues presents a huge opportunity for environmentalists to incorporate the large sectors of the electorate that have been abandoned by the corporatists currently running the Republican Party. Strip away the sportsmen, the believers in sound science, and those who think it immoral to destroy our nation’s resources from the GOP and it starts to become a very lonely place. Without these groups it becomes a party of millionaires, presumably sitting around discussing Ayn Rand, complaining about how difficult it is to be rich in America and shooing away fringe lunatics who want to see President Obama’s birth certificate.
In the short-term, appealing to environmentally-minded voters from the Republican ranks has a great deal of potential for the environmental movement. The impact of successfully luring these groups from the GOP can be of the same magnitude that the incorporation of religious voters into Republican politics had in the 1980’s. Making appropriate overtures to these voters – essentially offering them a safe port in the environmental storm – can pay immediate dividends for environmentalists. However, a long-term alignment of conservative thinkers with the Democratic Party is probably unlikely. It may only last an election cycle or two. That’s alright. Ultimately this is not about the politics of Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s about enacting sensible policies to protect our natural resources and the environment in which we live. An enduring alliance between conservatives and progressives on environmental issues is an attainable goal. Returning environmentalism to its above-partisanship status is as important to the health of our politics as it is to the health of our planet. The opportunity to find common ground on environmental issues is staring us squarely in the face. It’s essential for the environmental movement to have the sense to take advantage of this chance.