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  • Writer's picturePriti Rangnekar

Environmental Politics: Nonfiction Book Summary — The Republican Reversal

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

Author Credit: Priti Rangnekar

In traditional history courses, students often become familiar with events in the political, militaristic, and economic realm — memorizing election outcomes, names of battles, and years of stock market panics is a regular task. However, one area of analysis that is often neglected is that of environmental politics. Although the environment immediately strikes as a field of science, not as much of politics and power, even the earliest years of the 21st century have revealed that the Republican Party, specifically, has turned its back on environmental protection, characterizing public fears regarding pollution, ecology, and climate change as far-fetched and a threat to free enterprise. However, this perspective was not always present. In fact, the laws passed under Nixon were some of the most progressive of the time, prioritizing cleanliness of the air and water and protection of public lands.

In The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, authors James Morton Turner and Andrew Isenberg analyze the relationship between conservatism and environmental protection by the government by dissecting the causes of this reversal, narrating the change over time in the Republican platform, and providing explanations for the significance of this change. Essentially, economic pressures, an increasingly conservative base backed by interest groups, and a need to discount scientific evidence and environmental concerns as paranoia led the Republican Party to gradually take a stance that prioritized American exceptionalism in the economy over long-term sustainability.

The introduction provides insight into the definition, context, explanations, and implications of the “Republican Reversal.” This term is defined by the change in the Republican Party’s stance on environmental protection beginning with the Reagan administration and reaching its peak so far with the Trump administration. The aim of this book is to analyze the relationship between conservatism and environmental protection by the government by dissecting the causes of this reversal, narrating the change over time in the Republican platform, and providing explanations for the significance of this change. The organization of this analysis will be in the form of accounting for the context of Nixon and Reagan before and after Earth Day, explaining the issues of public lands, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and finally, climate change.

Specifically, the authors strive to read “against the grain” in the narrative of environmental politics. Most accounts of the Republican platform have tended to focus on social, economic, and political issues, such as immigration, trade, and healthcare. However, Trump has been decidedly against environmentalism despite expressing ambivalent, changing attitudes towards other issues. Furthermore, factors of cause and effect beyond simple legislation will be analyzed to take into account the rise of alternative means of policymaking, discussed in detail later.

Context for this reversal is established to provide background for the topic of this book. The early Republicans of the 1800s, such as Grant, Harrison, and Nixon, were pioneers in the environmental protection movement. In fact, through the creation of the EPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and protection of national parks, these Republicans prized their platforms on their environmental stewardship. However, Reagan’s presidency brought hesitation regarding stringent protections, but he nevertheless was committed to the ozone hole. Even under George H.W. Bush, acid rain was tackled. Yet, the growing trend has remained one of growing support for deregulation at the cost of the environment and public health. In 2006, Trump declared that climate change was a “hoax” and would gain the support of Republican senators who would narrow the enforcement of the Clean Water Acts, withdraw from the Paris Accord, and sue the EPA, in order to protect free enterprise and jobs.

Three key features of this reversal are explained, in the context of changes from the 1970s to the present time. First, Republicans have begun to view environmentalist concerns as exaggerated rather than with a sense of urgency. This is explained by the fact that in the 1970s, Nixon’s environmentalist platforms of the Clean Acts were supported due to concerns of a sudden population boom. However, in the 1990s, the focus has turned to protecting exotic endangered animals, unknown to the public, and the looming threat of climate change, seen as vague and distant into the future for conservatives. As a result, Obama’s regulations in his Clean Acts were almost unanimously rejected by Republicans. Second, they have begun to cast doubt on research rather than trust scientific expertise. Due to the formation of large-scale business think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institutes, misinformation campaigns have emerged, characterizing scientific research as false and conveying exaggerated information about environmental risks. Finally, rather than supporting the government’s role in regulating businesses in order to promote public health and sustainability, they see regulations as threats to enterprise. This can be seen in the context of Reagan’s election, as he needed support from conservative business interests and wanted to rally businesspeople, Christians, and workers and farmers from rural areas. As a result, the influence of interest groups who preferred free enterprise and protection for their jobs led to his less environmentalist stance. The role of interest groups and grassroots movements is especially key, as it played a role well before the 2010 Citizens United decision about monetary donations. In fact, the Republican party would advocate that America was exceptional in its productivity and natural resources and that free enterprise and deregulation would allow businesses to create innovative technology to address environmental concerns, rather than top-down control. As a result, each of these factors of the rise of the conservative ideology, mobilizing activists and think tanks, and rejecting a regulatory state would contribute to the Republican reversal.

Additionally, the book will also address the countering actions and responses environmentalists have made to the Republican reversal. In order to understand how effective Republicans have been in their attempts at deregulation, an analysis of responses is also key. The authors note that a common assumption by the public has been that environmental policy has been primarily propagated through the passage of laws. However, due to the party polarization between Democrats and Republicans, resulting in gridlock, other methods of enforcement and defending earlier laws through executive orders, appropriations, and courts have grown, as well as the rise of interest groups such as the Sierra Club. Ultimately, by explaining the successes of the government to protect public health through expanding and enforcing laws and acknowledging the failures to commit to environmentalism, a true narrative of environmental politics can emerge.

The first chapter provides an overview of conservatives before and after Earth Day. Specifically, the authors explain that during the 1970s, economic growth decreased, causing many citizens to oppose regulations that supported environmental protection over production and profit. As a result, conservative corporations were presented with the ideal reason to make their long-standing pro-business approach stand. Reagan began to readily pursue his free-enterprise approach and stand against governmental regulation. Several primary sources are presented and analyzed. In 1964, Reagan’s speech “A Time for Choosing” illustrates that even his initial stance was one that rejected large government and preferred protection of liberties. The authors explain how this speech helped Reagan rise in the eyes of the Republicans and gave him support. In contrast, Barry Goldwater from the Senate had a mixed record on environmental protection bills. Under Nixon, the environment came into vision as needing preservation. This was evidenced by Nixon’s creation of the EPA, the 1972 Republican Party platform, and President Carter’s emphasis on the urgency of addressing the energy crisis in order to become a more successful and productive nation. In the 1980s, the primary sources all take a turn. With Reagan’s 1980 campaign and Trump’s state of the union, clear prioritization of coal and efficient energy over long-term environmental conservation is expressed.

The second chapter zones in on the Republican “vision of abundance”, the idea that the U.S. should not restrain itself, as it is privileged and naturally gifted with resources to capitalize on. During the 1980s and 1990s, this conflict was seen through court cases, such as the confirmation hearing of the Secretary of the Interior and public hearings on preserved owl species. Specifically, the Endangered Species Act was sought to be weakened, as conservative think tanks, such as the Competitive Enterprises Institute, thought private lands to be far more productive than governmentally protected ones that were going waste. This was met with backlash by environmental activists, who wrote reports against Reagan’s policies. In 2001, there was a slight point of reconciliation attempt, with Dick Cheney’s Energy Plan to converge environmental regulations with the Republican policy. However, under Trump, these attempts have become irrelevant, as evidenced by this choice to reduce two national monuments in Utah. Through this chapter, the key conflict between the pressures by interest groups and lower-level politicians is clearly seen in influencing the Republican reversal, and we can also see that the other side attempted to pursue its goals of environmental protection nonetheless.

The third chapter highlights the Clean Air and Water Acts, two key environmental protection acts that emerged since Nixon’s time. The 1970 Clean Air Act enforced restrictions on factories and vehicles and monitored air quality. However, Nixon later vetoed the Clean Water Act due to its high cost, as he did not want to place too high of a price for corporations and factories. Yet, Congress overturned the veto. Meanwhile, environmentalist groups continued their protests, as shown by the Friends of the Earth’s publication which was against resource extraction that did not keep in mind forest preservation. In the meantime, reconciliation attempts continued as well. Fredd Krupp of the Wall Street Journal and 2 senators advocated for and attempted to find market solutions to protect the environment. Under more recent presidents, such as Bush and Obama, amendments to the Clean Air Act against acid rain and pollution were enacted, and the role of the federal government in water protection became clearly defined through the WOTUS rule, which defined the government’s land in terms of water. Nevertheless, in 2017, under Scott Pruitt, the science behind WOTUS was ignored, and the rule was rewritten to favor businesses and the economy instead.

Lastly, the fourth chapter evaluates the mindset of American exceptionalism in the trends of environmental politics. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol regarding emissions was rejected due to the fear that it would threaten the United States economy, making it worse than that of China. Even under Bush’s attempts to prioritize resource extraction over environmental protection, the NRDC evaluated his plans to be counterproductive and damaging overall, and the Tea Party rallied against climate change in the 2000s. This example aligns with the past cases of interest groups and agencies attempting to preserve the environment by exposing reports and evaluations. 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. Debates continued, as seen between the pro-economy Heritage Foundation and the environmentalist Waxman-Markey Climate Bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Despite Obama’s standards for combating climate change and the Clean Power Plan, Trump eventually proved attempts futile by committing to serve coal miners as part of his campaign and signing an executive order to eliminate the Clean Power Plan.

By providing numerous primary sources regarding the view of conservatives in supporting free enterprise and deregulation, the debates and trials between the 2 perspectives, and the attempts of environmentalists to create a rallying cry for fighting climate change, the authors document this complex history of environmental politics.


Turner, James Morton, and Andrew Christian Isenberg. The Republican Reversal Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump. Harvard University Press, 2018.

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