Green Politics Loses Its Footing

I've been telling my students for years that politics is more like wrestling than solo clarinet. Here's what I mean. As much as we tend to praise brilliant political leaders like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan—with the kind of praise we might otherwise reserve for a wonderful soloist—they both led political enterprises that engaged in an activity more closely resembling wrestling than solo clarinet. One wrestler moves, the other responds. Repeat as necessary. In the political ecosystem, responses are continual. No important move evades response. It is sometimes said of political operatives that they think like chess players, plotting several moves in advance. What is meant by that metaphor is that political folk are always anticipating their adversaries' responses at the same time that they look for openings and opportunities to launch initiatives of their own.

Although political life may seem like a policy debating society or a corrupt influence market, to cite two common interpretations, something other than policy or simple corruption is also going on. Perhaps the quintessential political activity involves anticipating and understanding the opposition one's own moves are helping to create. Yet, in the decades after Earth Day, this focus was precisely the capacity environmentalism had blocked itself from developing. The strategy was not anticipatory, but prescriptive. Environmentalists were not willing to enter a wrestling match; they played their clarinet solos and expected other Americans to be as intoxicated as they were by the tune.

Rather than strengthening their ability to anticipate the adversary's moves, though, greens, encouraged by the science and ethics on their side, often tended to do the opposite. From the Reagan days and on, greens tended to ridicule their adversaries, using them to promote fund-raising. The assumption seems to have been that all resistance to the green line was absurd, so the accumulating successes of anti-environmentalists were just irrational and didn't deserve serious attention. That strategy turns out to have been a disastrous choice because a counterrevolution was gathering, one that would last longer and succeed more wildly than anyone, even the counterrevolutionaries, could have imagined.

Resentment against "the 60s," antiwar radicals, feminists, and others was already starting to mobilize in the 1960s, as personified by George

Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Kevin Phillips's "culture war" strategy for Nixon's 1968 campaign, and a legion of hard hats, cowboys, and other "real Americans." Surprisingly, it took until the late 1970s for the reaction to focus on environmentalism. WilliamTucker made the counterbreakthrough in a late 1970s article in Atlantic Monthly (expanded in a successful 1982 book), charging environmentalists with elite, self-serving defense of their own private privilege.2 Rachel Carson's breakthrough had been turned inside out.

Soon enough, greens were one of the prime targets for one of the most powerful recurrences of an age-old American political ritual, namely, a rowdy, populist politics of resentment. Reagan won the presidency after a campaign in which he uttered a steady stream of uninformed and condescending dismissals of environmentalism (and welfare, and affirmative action, and so on). The groundwork was laid for what would later become the wise use movement, made up of those bitterly opposed to environmental regulation as a signal of government's more general badgering of "real Americans." Before the 1980s ended, Rush Limbaugh would be carrying on about greens. Soon thereafter, the right would decide that global warming was a fiction.

In surprisingly short order, environmental politics shifted. Legislative triumphs were achieved less often, usually becoming possible when pollution issues were at stake and health effects were dramatic (as in the case of Love Canal) or federal pork barrel spending was enabled (as in the various iterations of the Clean Water Act). Reagan contested the future of the then-new Environmental Protection Agency, delaying many appointments and placing famously partisan appointees in some crucial offices. There were more successes in the courts, however. Court cases and congressional indecision "locked up" potential wilderness, an outcome greens could live with. Ecosystem-wise, however, these wins came at a terrible political cost because the politics of resentment could easily demonize the greens' new litigation strategy. The virulence of the new resentment in the rural West was particularly troubling. That region not only included crucial public lands of great interest to greens; it also contained enough U.S. Senate seats to throw the Senate to the Republicans, perhaps for generations to come.

Just as greens know that an ecosystem can mask indications of trouble, if one does not know precisely how and where to look, those more attentive to political ecosystems know that apparent stability can be misleading. A toxic event can harm relatively invisible organisms, and the threat to the more prominent ecosystem citizens might not be evident until the damage is irreversible.

By their own measures, greens could convince themselves that they were succeeding. Public support in polls remained high; group memberships and budgets grew; the courts remained generally friendly; and none of the hallmark legislation was actually dismantled, despite the vigorous criticism directed against such laws as the Endangered Species Act.

In classic ecosystem fashion, however, these optimistic indicators did not tell the whole story. A powerful opposition had formed in resistance to green proposals. That opposition was complex, including both an electoral dimension (the populist, angry anti-green element crucial to the right's electoral success) and a policy dimension (typified by Vice President Dick Cheney's secret meetings with energy lobbyists during the preparation of the George W. Bush administration's legislative proposals on energy). Although green values continued to poll well, they did so only in general terms. Few voters chose candidates on the basis of green issues, and few candidates—at any level—chose green issues as their defining trademark. Some who did—notably Sen. Frank Church of Idaho—lost their seats.

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