Environmental Politics: Nonfiction Book Analysis - The Republican Reversal
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Author Credit: Priti Rangnekar
In our last post, we provided an overview and summary of The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump by Turner and Isenberg. This article will discuss specific historical themes and arguments presented by the authors in their book:
Analyzing Historical Evidence
Continuity and Change Over Time
Analyzing Historical Evidence
The authors begin their analysis of the “Republican Reversal” by documenting the initial shift from environmental advocacy to a strong opposition to regulation of the economy for the sake of the environment. A key primary source utilized to mark the beginning of this transition is the presidential campaign speech of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In this speech, Reagan highlighted the crucial need for allowing free enterprise, which he believed was the best way to increase use of natural resources, such as coal, to benefit the economy. The authors provide context for Reagan’s stance by characterizing the political and economic environment of the 1900s. In the 1960s and 1970s, Reagan had been supporting environmental protection and air quality reforms despite maintaining an anti-regulation stance on other issues, as evidenced by his creation of an Ecology Corps to maintain state parks and the California Environmental Quality Study Council with strict standards of air quality. However, an economic oil crisis of the late 1970s brought about changes. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries implemented an oil embargo and raised oil prices, leading to rapid inflation. The authors mention this crisis as “an important turning point”, as it forced the US to deregulate businesses to increase energy production to compensate for oil losses. As a result, Reagan was forced to adopt a more conservative stance that prioritized economic benefits in order to maintain political influence among voters, who were increasingly concerned about the economy. These economic trends explain the “indigestible economic slew” Reagan criticizes in favor of “growth and productivity” using coal, nuclear power, oil, and gas in his campaign speech at the Republican National Convention. Since the authors state in their introductory thesis that economic tensions were a key contributor to the Republican prioritization of the economy over the environment, this context of the economy in the 1970s explains why Reagan’s presidential campaign was a marked turning point in the Republicans’ relation with environmental issues.
On the same topic of Reagan’s campaign, the authors also analyze the primary sources of Reagan mocking environmentalists as too radical and his attempts to denounce scientific evidence against industrialization and chemicals. For example, he told the Chicago Tribune that insects had caused malaria “resurgence” due to the prohibition of DDT and that volcanoes had been causing more emissions than “the last ten years of automobile driving”, despite the outbreaks occurring outside of the US and statistical evidence proving that automobiles cause over 40 times as much emissions compared to volcanoes. The authors argue that Reagan’s purpose in showing a disregard for scientific evidence was to portray the opposition, whom the authors suggest Reagan considered to be “subversives” against free enterprise, as being too paranoid about environmental harm caused by humans, thus gaining trust from voters as a reliable, objective source. This purpose aligns with one of the authors’ main reason for the reversal: a growing neglect and suspicion of scientific evidence and “intellectual” arguments for environmental activism. Moreover, the authors conclude that such press statements by Reagan were effective, as he earned over half of the popular vote.
In relation to secondary sources, authors strive to read “against the grain” in the narrative of environmental politics. The authors explicitly warn that most accounts of the Republican platform, excluding those of Judith Layzer, have tended to focus on social and political issues, such as immigration, trade, and healthcare. However, they indicate that a driving motivation in writing their book was that Trump has been decidedly against environmentalism despite expressing ambivalent, changing attitudes towards other social and political issues. Additionally, the authors use secondary sources analyzing specific pieces of legislation and their long-term impact on environmental politics. For example, they refer to a book published in 2008 that explains the impact of Bush’s support for Project 88 in creating temporary progress towards bipartisan efforts. Specifically, the authors support the book’s argument that Bush’s development of a program to address acid rain set achievable targets for reducing emission. Moreover, the authors corroborate this positive impact by adding that this development opened up the potential for corporations, such as railroad operators in Wyoming, to realize that environmental protection and economic profit were not mutually exclusive. Thus, by synthesizing the secondary source’s tangible impact of environmental benefit with their own insight of political bipartisanship, the authors strengthen the complexity of their argument by documenting Bush’s new attempts to reconcile differences.
The author’s primary argument is that although the Republican Party in the 21st century is characterized by strong opposition and mistrust of environmental protection efforts, the party was not always representative of such ideals; in the 1960s, several bi-partisan acts were passed. The authors specifically mention the transition from bipartisanship to staunch conservatism after Earth Day, the visions of abundance that characterized Republican interests to keep extracting resources, the differing perspectives governing the passage of the Clean Air and Water Act, and the ideal of American exceptionalism in resource extraction and economic growth. To support this claim, the authors provide historical evidence that economic pressures by interest groups and corporations led Republicans to oppose regulation and portray environmentalists as too paranoid and denounce scientific claims.
One crucial set of examples provided to support this thesis is campaign donation statistics from 1970 to 2016. Donations from oil and gas companies to Republicans have skyrocketed from $16K to $70K, giving “72% of their political contributions to Republicans”. These statistics also go hand in hand with evidence provided regarding the EPA budget, which steadily declined from 1977 to 1985. These statistics indicate the role played by economic incentives in forcing Republicans to oppose environmental regulation. The authors also continuously provide key phrases from the Republican Party Platform, such as “punishing government regulations”, “free market economy”, and first and foremost “American exceptionalism”, the first statement in Trump’s party platform. The authors provide insight into Trump’s manner of thinking, citing Trump’s vision of environmentalism as “shoddy science” to “kill jobs” and “strangle growth.” These examples of new diction by the Republican party contrasts with Nixon’s earlier attempts to protect the environment and support the authors’ thesis regarding the drastic reversal of the Republican agenda.
The Republican reversal was also highly complex, and a continuous drop in concern for the environment since 1970 was not clearly seen. As a result, the authors provide evidence from Congress bills as well as speeches to illustrate that even Nixon did not consistently support environmental protection. This provides historical complexity in the overall argument. For example, the authors highlight the historical evidence of Nixon’s 1972 Republican platform, in which he supports the Cooperative Agreement on Environmental Protection and acknowledges that the environment is “irreplaceable.” The authors mention that this was a necessary declaration for Nixon in order to appeal to the evident needs to address people’s concerns about pressing population growth, an urgent issue to address. However, they also provide analysis of Nixon’s veto of the Federal Water Pollution Act of 1972, stating that “laudable intent is outweighed by its unconscionable $24 billion price tag.” The authors argue that this attempt to veto, although overridden by Congress, demonstrated “deepening reservations about the scope and cost of the new environmental regulatory state.” The authors show the relationship between the seemingly environmentally supportive declaration made to the public by Nixon, contrasting with Nixon’s more private reservations about investing more funds to regulate the economy for the environment’s sake. Even within the same year, the same president was able to turn into a more qualified stance advocate due to matters of funding and regulation.
The authors provide context for the reversal by explaining the beginnings of the Republican Party Platform shift with the early days of Nixon, followed by Reagan and Goldwater. The authors argue that conservative Republicanism had first begun to rise in the 1930s in response to the New Deal and regulatory policies enacted to combat the Great Depression, as many businesses opposed the restrictions created against free enterprise. This was due to concerns by corporates about being regulated and being forced to abide by government policies. This approach contrasted with that of FDR and his affiliation with the Democratic Party in order to increase the role of government through social welfare and employment programs for the general public and lower classes. Additionally, into the 1960s, this attitude had been gaining momentum, as Reagan was elected governor of California and Goldwater had earned the Republican nomination for president. Nevertheless, both were still willing to support bipartisan environmental initiatives and did not express as much resignation regarding regulation as they did for other issues. In the 1970s, however, inflation of oil prices after the United States supported Israel in Yom Kippur Wars created economic stagflation and tensions among the public about the economy and resource extraction. The authors explain that this context influenced the Republican Reversal in that the Republicans were forced to allow energy extraction and free enterprise to increase profits. They had to take a stance that rolled back regulation in order to win the presidency, which required demonstrating that their election would create economic benefit and profit for constituents and the United States overall. As a result, this shift was significant as it reflected the growing pressures to accommodate public demands for short-term prosperity and job security in economically tumultuous times rather than strive towards elusive goals of environmental protection and preservation. This brought back the American ideal of the frontier to be explored and used, not preserved, for humankind’s benefit. Going hand in hand with the ideal of American exceptionalism in the economy, Republicans appealed to the historical ideals of the frontier and its “God-given natural resources, not exercising conservation and restraint”, as the author’s explain this new appeal. This context began, as the authors characterize, a campaign to “put ascendant conservative values-the free market, economic growth, and individual freedom-before environmental protection.” This would be significant as it would set a precedent for future Republican leaders to prioritize the economy and immediate needs of the people, while portraying the American ideals of individualism and pursuit of freedom as mutually exclusive with regulation on businesses for the sake of preserving the environment for social benefit in the long term.
An insightful comparison made by the authors lies in the similarities and differences in the public policy pursuing initiatives done by both Republicans and Democrats, who tried to combat the Republican reversal through their own environmentalist initiatives. Both parties used interest groups to support their respective goals. In 1995, for example, the Competitive Enterprises Institute, supporting the Republicans, contrasted the “overuse, waste, and extinction,” with “sustained-yield use and preservation” associated with deregulation. The authors argue that these groups expressed their “anger” and “frustration” in order to further advocate conservative values that limited government control. Additionally, in 1996, the American Petroleum Institute organized a prayer with evangelical Christians to celebrate the presence of hydrocarbons available to extract. The authors argue that these two instances provide exemplary indications of the support the Republicans received from interest groups to further their anti-environmentalist agenda and push back on preservation reforms and regulation. Similarly, Democrats and environmental activists had their own means of campaigning and persuasion. The authors provide the example of “Noah Congregations” in the 1990s, which believed that the Endangered Species Act ought to be furthered in order to protect animals such as wolves. Through posters and educational news, this environmentalist organization was able to combat growing Republican anti-environmentalist attempts through trying to educate the public and arouse emotional sentiment towards wildlife that was threatened by growing pollution and industrial harms. The authors explain that these similarities were due to the fact that each side was believing that the other had “begun to swing too far”, thus investing large amounts of resources beyond simply the legislative front to appeal to the public as well. However, the anti-environmentalists relied more on hearings to question the democratic values behind excessive control of the government on lands. In 1994, hearings on the Endangered Species Act expressed Richard Pombo’s goals to reduce the general descriptions in the act, rather arguing for limited and specific species to be protected only. Similarly, 1992 hearings on the Northern Spotted Owl were a prime opportunity for lumber workers to support acts that reduced the amount of land on which the owl was protected, citing their job protection as a reason to reduce regulation by the government under public lands. As a result, hearings proved to be a strong route through which the growing Republican party could gain supporters. The authors explain these differences in that anti-environmentalists saw the court to be a platform on which they could demonstrate the value of free enterprise and anti-regulation to workers, a growing part of their base in a legal sense. On the other hand, the appeal of the Democrats and environmentalists was more legislative through their regulatory laws and sought to appeal to the public through the press and campaign posters, providing a more emotional and forward-thinking stance. The authors explain that the significance of the similarities was more striking and impactful in the long term. Specifically, they point to examples of the Sierra Club, Earth Justice, and Center for Biological Diversity in strengthening the “mainstream environmental movement” and “defending the nation’s environmental regulations.” Although the Republicans may have used more hearings and a legal stance, the Democrats’ grassroots movements continued to convey that the environment was a worthy entity to preserve and needed the public’s support, not just those of companies and industrial workers.
The most significant argument made by the authors is that of analyzing the factors that caused the Republican reversal, as well as its long term effects. In their robust introduction, they directly introduce the growing influence of conservative ideology that had been forming, due to the support of “business interests, social conservatives, Christian evangelicals, and rural Americans.” Since the strength of this conservative bloc grew into the late 1900s, Republicans were forced to appeal to these conservative interest groups, which the authors continually highlight as a key contributor to the shift. Moreover, although moderate Republicans from New England saw a need for environmental regulation, as more Republican support began to gain hold in the South and West, presidents such as Reagan were required to appeal to their base. The authors argue that this factor of a shifting base was especially crucial and outweighed other factors. Since the true reversal began with Reagan’s presidency, Reagan’s presidency largely relied on his attempts to earn the support and trust of the new constituents of his conservative bloc. As a result, even if other tactics of misinformation were not present, the shifting base and need to satisfy interests of businesses as a result of the 1970s economic crisis proved to be more than necessary to begin the long term transformation of the party.
Additionally, the party’s shift also occurred largely in part due to misinformation campaigns. The authors provide the example of the George Marshall and Heartland Institutes in arguing that environmental damage was not occurring due to pollution, nuclear radiation, DDT, and other human-induced actions. These campaigns were largely used because they would undermine the scientific evidence of environmental and biological science that provided support for the growing fear among environmentalists regarding ecological damage. These campaigns led the Republicans to find an ever-growing “ready audience” who could rally behind these accusations of falsehood against environmental activists, simply to preserve their own economic or ideological interests. The authors argue that these efforts were strengthened by the fact that 1960s environmental problems presented a form of an urgent threat, such as Malthusian overpopulation concerns, easily justifying regulation. On the other hand, new concerns about climate change and global warming of the 21st century appeared far-fetched and invisible to the human eye in the short term, urging Republican candidates to see such concerns as “alarmist and exaggerated,” as the authors explain. These concerns contributed to the long-term effects of the Republican image, connecting to the 21st century instance of Trump’s ad-hominem attacks on environmentalists and Democratic presidents, denouncing their concerns as a “hoax” and choosing to ignore the science the opposing party uses to support their justified concerns.
As for the effects of this shift, the authors point out the resulting party polarization and gridlock that has resulted in policymaking. By analyzing annual data from The League of Conservation Voters, the authors conclude that the gap between Democrats and Republicans in votes given to environmental bills has grown extensively since 1970. This has resulted in the passage of extremely few bills to support environmental reform, especially when compared to the numerous laws passed under Nixon, including the Clean Air and Water Acts. However, the authors also clarify that this gridlock has not caused all political action to come to a standstill. Rather, they draw attention to the role of the courts, appropriations, and executive orders in handling the “heavy lifting” of environmental decision-making. As a result, although legislative action is limited and lacks efficacy in productive and rapid passage of laws, the people and interest groups have not lost their influence in pushing towards their own agenda that either supports or opposes environmental protection. These effects directly relate to the causes of the shifting Republican base, which was moving South and West. As the North and New England became more Democratic and the West more interested in resource extraction, the Republican Party inevitably became more polarized and conservative in order to appeal to these interests in the most direct way possible. This polarization resulted in the gridlock in Congress, as each party was unwilling to compromise.
Continuity and Change Over Time
The authors argue that the Republican Party changed in three key ways from Nixon to Trump. First, the party shifted from considering environmental issues as urgent to ones that were expressed out of proportion by Democrats. Second, the authors argue that trust in scientific evidence was replaced by suspicion of professional research. Lastly, the government began to be seen as a burden on economic freedom rather than a necessary vessel to protect the public.
One key change over time mentioned by the authors is the increasing involvement of the Republican base. Early conversations about the environment and the role of the government in protecting it had been largely limited to politicians and some authors who were passionate about the subject. The public had remained largely uninvolved in the early 1900s. However, the 1980s, the era of a clear Republican reversal coming into picture, were characterized by strong grassroots movements of conservative organizations. The authors provide the example of American Prosperity and People for the West!, who protested energy taxes and control of land by the government to protect environmental species. Moreover, the Republican Party came on a collision course with evangelical Christians and corporations to support each other’s motives. The authors explain that many evangelicals adopted the idea of “dominion theology”, which argued that citizens had been asked by the Bible to exploit their resources. As a result, the growing influence of religion within the party complemented desires to exploit the environment for the sake of free enterprise. This strengthened the party’s appeal not only to religious folk, but also to businesses by providing a religious argument for anti-environmental regulation.
Nevertheless, a unique case of continuity lies in that from Nixon to Reagan to Bush, all presidents still had some nuance in their policy, making sure to not completely denounce the environment. This is best seen through the authors’ extensive use of primary sources. Nixon both announced the EPA in 1970 after the Santa Barbara oil spills and on the other hand, vetoed the Clean Water Act just two years later for budgeting concerns. Reagan both highlighted the need for coal and resource exploitation in his 1980 campaign and on the other hand, signed the 1988 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. Bush both advocated for climate research at the White House Conference on Global Change and was criticized by the NRDC by his plan which would supposedly “damage public health, and scar the landscape.” As a result, the authors nevertheless highlight that no president was truly completely pro-environment or anti-environment. Rather, they had to strive to portray at least a slightly balanced stance in order to not alienate an entire base of the public who did care for the environment or the economy.
The authors also provide additional complexity in conceding that statistically, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide pollution, along with timber cut in forests, have reduced since the 1980s. However, they argue that these short term improvements lack merit due to the looming concerns of global warming. By contrasting the fact that over 70% of the American public has come to see climate change as a serious problem with the declining EPA budget since 1970, the authors point out the unfortunate discrepancy between the Republican party agenda and the desires of majority of the population. However, the answer, once again, lies in the fact that the Republican party has grown increasingly centered upon its base of businesses, evangelicals, and miners, to whom even Trump gave a campaign speech to in order to protect resource extraction jobs.
The authors argue that these developments in the United States contrasted with the overall world at large, in which nations were building multilateral efforts to protect the environment. The authors provide the example of the Kyoto Protocol, which would force the US to decrease greenhouse emissions. In 1997, however, it was rejected due to the fear that it would threaten the United States economy, making it worse than that of China. Furthermore, the 9/11 terrorist attacks kept increasing the emphasis on the economy, as Bush wanted to keep energy prices low through natural gas and some renewable investment. These anti-environmentalist tendencies peaked in 2017, with Trump’s stance of completely ignoring the environment. In contrast, the authors explain how the Paris Climate Agreement, which was supported by developed and developing nations alike, was “deemed unfair at the highest level to the United States” by the Republicans. Thus, the authors argue that unless awareness is raised about this shift, the United States will continue to lose its image in a world that is acknowledging the growing harms of global warming. In fact, justifying economic freedom over environmental protection under the facade of “American exceptionalism” will only lower the trust other nations have in the United States policymakers and president.
Turner and Isenberg demonstrate in their analysis that the story of the Republican Party’s disregard for the environment is intricate, with several factors influencing leaders of the time to turn to conservatism, namely economics and political priorities. At the same time, such seemingly benign attempts to preserve individualism and create a robust economy have brought the United States on a path that fails to account for long-lasting problems such as climate change, which have gone unnoticed and ignored due to their nature of not being immediate. Rather, these policies have resulted in legislative gridlock, relying only on the power of grassroots movements to combat Republican attempts to block environmental protection legislation and preserve the image of the United States as a leader in not only economic profit, but also scientific thinking in terms of environmental sustainability. By analyzing the policies and approaches of presidents from Nixon to Trump towards the environment, the authors draws light to the hidden and unquestioned story of how the Republicans changed not only the agenda of their party, but also politicized a once bipartisan issue that all Americans regarded as crucial to preserving the pursuit of happiness for all.
Turner, James Morton, and Andrew Christian Isenberg. The Republican Reversal Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump. Harvard University Press, 2018.
Companion site: the-republican-reversal.com