America's nightmarish political situation: two illustrative graphs

Harvard University's Theda Skocpol just put out a serious look at the fight for a cap and trade bill in 2009-10 with an effort to draw lessons for environmental organizations (and others) for future action. As with essentially everything that Skocpol has ever published, there is much to be learned and think about from "Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight Against Global Warming." (pdf) -- no matter how much agreement one has with Skocpol's conclusions. Skocpol's work help crystallize, for me, something long 'realized' (by many) but not truly absorbed into our national political discussion: that the entire nature of American politics is being skewed by a radicalized 'just say no' minority of the Republican Party and that 'institutional' failures to recognize this are compounding the problem.
Two graphics illuminate the issue.
Congressional GOP hates environment
The first, to the right, contrasts Congressional perspectives (based on League of Conservation Voter ratings) with the public's perspective (based on public opinion polling) on environmental issues. While a deep divide existed between Republican and Democratic Party members of Congress, this divide has become a chasm over the past 20 years. Notably, "GOP views" (as an entirety) tracked more closely with the Democratic Party than GOP politicians until Ronald Reagan and the era of 'trees cause pollution'. Even so, "GOP views" remained closer to Democratic Party perspectives (both party members and members of Congress) than with the GOP members of Congress.
As Skocpol put it:

two realities are worth emphasis.
Partisan differences in public opinion remained very small compared to steadily growing partisan splits in Congressional voting about environmental policies; and
Public views evolved in closer relationship to the pro- environmental positions taken by Democrats in Congress than to the increasingly all-out oppositional voting of Congressional Republicans.

The GOP Congressional caucus has -- for the past 30 years or so -- become far more representative of a radical, fossil-foolish (funded) minority perspective than the overall viewpoint of those stating allegiance to the Republican Party. The wall of (in)difference between GOP Congressional perspectives and the general voter has been morphing into an ever more impressive Great Wall of Denial on climate science, pollution, and other environmental issues with each passing primary. Even as the Republican Party entered the 1980s with President Ronald Reagan showed the dominance of GOP's polluter wing ('polluting trees), a meaningful portion of the Party would count -- today -- as environmentalists with representation and voice in people like Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias, R-MD - and Mathias didn't stand alone (Hatfield, Weicker, Javits, ...). Mathias would almost seem a radical environmentalist today (noting that Mathias has an environmental medal named after him). In 2013, there is not a single Republican in Congress with even a shadow of Mathias (and his cohort's) understanding and consideration of environmental issues. In Mathias' day there would have been a good share of the GOP 'caucus' who would have been in line with the "Dem views" and "GOP views" somewhat balancing those Republicans (and, well, Democratic politicians as well) who were in bad with polluting industries. Those 'balancers' have been driven out of the GOP political elite by a radicalized minority whipped to a froth via Koch Brothers and other funded astroturfing.
Now, as to whipping to a froth' Fox Reporting and Climate Denialism, let us take a moment to consider the impact of Faux News. As Rupert Murdoch's News Corp machine (including, of course, the Wall Street Journal) propagates deceptive, partial, and outright false information on climate science and climate mitigation, there follow (at least a portion of the) GOP (primary) voters.
If we combine these two graphs, take the lesson that polluters take:

Investing in astroturf political movements whipped to a froth by deceptive (and false) reporting drives primary election results that provide veto power over Republican Party political action.

Professor Skocpol eloquently captures the basic Congressional Republican strategy and how it has been driven by the "Grassroots":

Grassroots conservatives were not about to let their party’s Congressional leaders repeat old mistakes by cooperating with Obama’s initiatives in any area – and certainly not with his proposals for stimulus spending, the expansion of health insurance coverage, or regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Strategic considerations and popular pressures alike make it understandable that GOP Congressional leaders chose a “just say hell no” approach to the new Obama administration.

Now, putting the quite serious issue of how "grassroots" are often petroleum Koch-Brothers Astroturf, "just say hell no" has been the impolite Republican extension of Nancy Reagan's approach to drugs ("Just Say No!"). (To be clear, Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson's The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism provides a strong window on how real 'grassroots', impassioned Americans are being influenced (and deceived) by astroturf organizations and false reporting from Fox News and elsewhere.) And, as per the graphics above, what seems not to have been incorporated in Democratic Party leadership thinking and "The Village" conception is that this minority tail wagging the GOP dog(s) is so out-of-touch not just with "mainstream" American thinking but even mainstream Republicans.
And, the most important: this is not an environmental (climate change) issue that somehow sits in 'pet issue' for those softies cuddling polar bears and concerned amount the 10,000s of Americans killed by fossil-fuel pollution every year (year in, year out ...) but is fundamental to the entire political dynamic.
Name any major issue of American politics today (fiscal, environmental, social, ...) and the radical Republican Party elite is 'out of touch' with mainstream Americans.

  • Choice: The majority of Americans (including a good share of "GOP") align with Bill Clinton's concept of abortion: "Legal, safe, and as rare as possible." The radical Republicans in Congress call for extreme anti-choice, even thinking that rape (even "forcible rape") victims and women whose babies would suffer horrible pain en route a death shortly after birth should face criminal charges if they seek an abortion.
  • Government spending: While Americans might see concern about spending (frothed up by "Fiscal Cliff" mania and fed even by President Obama's over-discussion of it), Americans want investment and expenditures to help create employment and foster a real end to the recession. The radical Republicans in Congress want to starve the government and many are gleeful at the prospects of a government shutdown over a debt ceiling fight.
  • Taxes: The vast majority of Americans support a more equitable tax code, seeing that the richest Americans can actually afford to pay somewhat more and 'sacrifice' just a bit to help pay for wars & the strengthening of society. The radical Republicans in Congress never met a billionaire tax-subsidy path that they didn't love.
  • Health Care: Americans saw value to 'single payer' approaches, certainly favored having a 'government option', and see many values from ACA like being able to cover children through age 26 and the elimination of pre-existing condition constraints (although this support has been skewed by false reporting and mediocre Administration messaging). The radical Republicans in Congress want to wipe away the ACA and, in fact, reduce Americans' access to affordable health care coverage to beneath the pitiful state it was before the health care legislation.
  • Gun Control: Americans -- especially in face of the devastating Sandy Hook Elementary School attack -- support reasoned gun control measures by significant majorities. As an example of funded machines on specific issues, the NRA has become devoted to Nancy Reagan with 'just say no' to any rational discussion of gun control.) The radical Republicans in Congress seem to want to emulate Somalia's libertarian paradise (must see video) with a submachine gun under every pillow and a crew-served weapon in every (three-car) garage.

On issue after issue, there is a funded effort to distort reality.
On issue after issue, we have a impassioned GOP base which might best be described as delusional. Birthers, Sandy Hook conspirators, Obama as Socialist / Muslim / etc, Global Warming deniers .. Tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists being mis-informed, manipulated, and whipped to a froth to an end ...
On issue after issue, not just in pet 'green' worlds, this is a mobilized (and frothed up) a reality-denying 'base' in the primaries.
On issue after issue, we face a maniacal base that creates an environment where a Republican politician willing to work toward 'compromise', keep their feet firmly in reality-based decision-making, and figure out real solutions to the nation's real problems faces an incredible uphill battle (and is as close to impossible Sisyphean nightmare in most parts of the United States).
Climate Change denial (and, more broadly, Anti-Science Syndrome Hatred Of a Livable Economic System) is part and parcel of a generalized pattern of extreme radical right misrepresentation, truthiness, falsehoods, and outright delusion. This is not some 'pet issue' to be dragged out in an oh-by-the-way manner but is (a) key to every other issue and (b) is part-and-parcel of the effort to undermine American Democracy and undermine our future prospects via the leveraging of this extreme radicals to push American society away from reality-based policy making.
Unless (and until) the Democratic Party leadership truly incorporates this 21st century reality, policy issue after policy issue will crash against the jagged shores of radicalized Republican reality denial that specializes in "just saying no".
And, incorporating this reality and making this a centerpiece of political discourse creates the potential cracking of the radical right's control over the Republican Party while increasing the chances for reality-based politicians to win electoral contests.
And, embracing reality will heighten the chance for meaningful action forward on taxes, health care, education, social issues, gun control, ... and climate change.
Recognizing that Republican anti-science is one of the core issues that will foster a Populist Wave in 2014 will heighten the chance for political change that will enable meaningful action forward on taxes, health care, education, social issues, gun control, ... and climate change.
Sadly, the climate silence through the 2012 Presidential election campaign and stoic refusal to pound the table as to how climate disruption helped drive Sandy does not show an understanding of the necessity to confront -- directly -- the falsehoods being fostered on the American public that are driving the radical Republicans in Congress toward policies so damaging to the nation's future.

Here are some worthwhile discussions of the Skocpol paper:

A following thought ...
Now, while I have many 'nit pick' issues with Skocpol's paper (for example, the World Resources Institute (one of the most respected environmental think tanks in the world) is called the "World Resources Council"), a more significant issue is what one might call the 'giving the pass to President Obama and the Obama team'. In short, Professor Skocpol basically states that the Obama Administration really could not have done more related to the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act (Waxman-Markey). While fully addressing this merits another (set of) posts, consider President Obama's continued appeals for "bipartisan" action and bipartisan consensus in light of the graphics above.
Here is President Obama at his first inauguration:

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” the president said in his inaugural address. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

With this sort of rhetoric, do environmental organizations merit singling out as erroneous in fighting to create a bipartisan legislative approach to tackle climate change?
After all the efforts for otherwise, the Affordable Car Act ("Obamacare") passed on a purely partisan vote.
While Professor Skocpol lays out -- with some degree of legitimacy -- 'professional' environmental organizations' failures to adapt to the new political environment, President Obama (and the rest of the Democratic Party 'machine') failed to realize that the situation was even worse when it came to climate mitigation action because there were (are) strong political reasons why -- unlike with health care -- winning Democratic unity for anything meaningful was an illusionary concept. There were not going to be meaningful numbers of Republicans joining Democratic votes for action (as seen, those Republicans who did face funded astroturf heavy Tea-hadist assaults in primaries) and there were going to be Democratic "no" votes no matter what. Thus, a 'key' failure in 2009 was the decision (or set of decisions) not to figure out how critical measures could pass in a fiscal measure that would not require 60 votes for Senate passage with less controversial 'complementary' measures (such as tax credits for energy efficiency, energy research and development tax credits, etc ...) that could garner (some) bipartisan support left outside the tighter package.
That decision -- to let climate legislation fester in a path requiring 60 votes and thus nearly assuring non-passage -- doomed any realistic chance that climate legislation would pass the Senate without the sort of forceful Presidential engagement that, in any event, Skocpol basically suggests is essentially irrelevant to the legislative process with the exception of a limited arm twisting for that last required vote or two. Would not Presidential (Administration) realization -- not just on climate change -- of the barriers to 'bipartisan action' have created an environment for more aggressive Administrative actions along with a more serious search for what could be done without bastardizing action to the radical Republican anti-reality demands?
As to how anti-science attitudes play in the efforts to radicalize the Republican party, while the examples could be myriad as to these issues interactions, see James Downie How gun control is another front in the far right's war on science.

Regardless of where one stands on gun control, or on any of these other issues, the far right’s attempts to restrict scientific research should concern everyone. Consider the “gun in the house” study mentioned in the Times article cited earlier, conducted by Art Kellerman: Gun control advocates continue to cite the study’s finding that “a gun kept in the home was 43 times more likely to be involved in the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense.” But the study has had a number of critics and the data is now more than 20 years old. Unfortunately, more recent national studies are few and far between, and, as one paper says, “many of the studies conducted to date have been based on small samples and were limited to specific population groups such as adolescents or older adults.” Taken together, the studies still back Kellerman’s findings, but regardless of where one stands, the data are not exactly ideal for policymaking. If our country is to make smart decisions, surely suppressing science is the wrong way to go, yet the far right continues to insist on doing just that. President Obama’s call for gun violence research is an important stand against this war on science.

A question to ask oneself: How many other issues could similar statements be drafted?




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the environment is tangible and crosses all party lines

sartoris's picture

Safe air, water and food are matters that should cross party lines.  These issues affect both the rich and poor.  The Obama Administration has been disappointing in most environmental matters.  Climate change is a game changer.  This issue will quite literally change the way we live.

Thanks for this article.  I'm going to check out your links for additional reading.

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I've skimmed the Skocpol document

Cassiodorus's picture

I'll write a diary about it later.

For now I noticed a couple of things.

1) Skocpol dawningly realizes that "all U.S. environmentalists should recognize that they have a stake in combating income inequality."  She doesn't, however, seem to understand how thoroughly that battle has been lost under Obama, and how it has to be won in opposition to the elitists now in control both of environmental organizations and of the government.

2) Romm criticizes Obama for having punted on the cap-and-trade bill, and he also criticizes Skocpol for having underestimated the role of Obama's "blunders" (ha ha) in killing the bill.  But so what?  Cap-and-trade is a farce.  Environmental populism, which Skocpol suggests mildly, is the only way through, because environmental populists can open up a space for a debate about environmental postcapitalism.

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So ...

A Siegel's picture

1.  Interesting that Skocpol doesn't state that the Health Care advocates should have / should all become advocates of environmental protections, that anti-poverty advocates should fight for clean air, that ... It is, evidently, only environmentalists that should be outside their 'stovepipe'. (You recognize, even w/the gaps between our thinking, that I am very much an advocate for the necessity for understanding the linkages and advocating shifts across domains.)


2.  Is there any power to incrementalism?  And, "Cap and Trade" is not necessarily, by definition, "a farce".  The concept is a reasonable one, in terms of a tool to find more efficient and more effective paths to have rapid change in pollution loads against a target. Can it be done w/any reasonable controls? Could it be put into place w/out corruption undermining the goals? Could it be enforced?  Lots of 'what ifs', but putting in a carbon fee (tax) faces many of the same sort of implementation challenges. Now, by the way, what about incrementalism ... getting something (anything ...) in place that starts to reduce the damage we're creating even as 'economic populism' builds?

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This should be review by now.

Cassiodorus's picture

1.  Environmentalists need to take a populist approach because (as Skocpol points out) relying upon insiders gets them non-solutions that don't pass.  They're non-solutions because they're too compromised by the interests that they're supposed to control, and they don't pass because astroturf organizations exercise "power from below" to stop them.

Advocates of the ACA could afford to specialize because they could rely upon insiders, which in fact they did -- the ACA turned out to be an insider-written document largely intended to subsidize the purchase of insurance against the real possibility (see e.g. John Geyman's Do Not Resuscitate) that the insurance companies were themselves pricing their commodity out of business.  Abrupt climate change "regulation" can't be written by insiders for insiders because it involves the conversion of a whole society to "alternative energy" technologies whose patrons do not just yet have the financial strength to buy the services of Congress.

2.  Cap and trade is a farce because it merely adds to business as usual as it smplifies planetary ecosystems.  It's another instrument of economic financialization.  Carbon allowances simply "lock in" carbon combustion, and when the governments start to notice that cap and trade has not provided sufficient incentives for the energy corporations to invest in solar, wind, and so on, they print more carbon allowances.  The energy companies are not in the least deterred by cap and trade from the extraction of fossil fuel resources.  And "carbon offsets" have no provable relation to the sequestration of carbon dioxide.

Lastly, "incrementalism" assumes a general stability to the existing system that just isn't the case.  Global economic growth has been waning from decade to decade since 1973, as economic crises have spread.  Current trends promise greater and greater elite claims upon an economic "pie" that is not significantly expanding.  The "incrementalists," then, have an economic picture of the world that is at variance not only with the historical record but also with our best extrapolations of future trends.  Capitalism is only going to become more unstable: Jason W. Moore can tell you as much.  Why not plan for it?


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