Commentary

The Green Emperor Has No Clothes

This article appeared in the Washington Times on December 24, 1996.
Politicians have long been spooked by the environmental lobby. When surveyed, 70-80 percent of Americans identify themselves as “environmentalists.” With tens of thousands of members, an army of dedicated and politically-savvy grass roots activists, one of the most sophisticated P.R. machines in Washington, and a collective budget of $300 million, the green lobby flexes the kind of political muscle that reduces even staunch Republican partisans like House Speaker Newt Gingrich to a state of wide-eyed political fear.

But the vaunted power of the green lobby is built not on actual voter behavior but on pollster-driven smoke and mirrors. When green candidates and initiatives are placed before voters, they not only lose, but lose big. The green political emperor, who bestrides Washington like a colossus, has no clothes.

First, consider the fate of green ballot initiatives earlier this month. None of the “marquee” environmental ballot questions were approved by voters. While environmental leaders blame their losses on “massive, industry-funded campaigns” against them, those complaints ring hollow. Other ballot initiatives — the California Civil Rights Initiative and anti-tax initiatives in Nevada, South Dakota, and Florida for instance — were also dramatically out-spent but victorious nonetheless. Moreover, those initiatives won without the army of the grass-roots activists deployed by the environmental lobby or the overwhelmingly sympathetic press routinely available for green causes.

Although you’d never know it given all the hoop-la over the environmental vote, environmentalists have lost 27 of 30 major green ballot initiatives over the past eight years. So when voters were directly asked to speak to the agenda advanced by the environmental lobby, they have consistently and overwhelming spoken against it.

Green candidates haven’t fared much better. While environmentalists are crowing about the defeat of targeted incumbents this year, there is less green muscle here than meets the eye.

First, the targeted races of both the League of Conservation Voters (who compiled a “dirty dozen” list of their chief targets) and the Sierra Club overlapped the “should-win” list of Democratic Party strategists. For example, the hapless Michael Flanagan (the Republican heir to Daniel Rostenkowski’s House seat) earned a place on the League’s “Dirty Dozen” list and drew tens of thousands of dollars of independent environmental expenditures, yet no one on the planet expected him to hold on to such an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Neither the League or the Sierra Club targeted more prominent “anti-environmentalists” such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay or House Resource Committee Chairman Don Young. The reason is simple; environmentalists were primarily interested in taking credit for a high political body count (not in punishing their most dangerous opponents) to make their job of political intimidation easier in 1997.

Exit polls (the second most reliable indictor of voter sentiment beside the election itself) indicate that, when asked about the most important issues in the campaign, environmental issues were trumped by taxes, Medicare, foreign policy, the deficit, the economy, education, and crime. All the polling data to the contrary was done before election day and conducted with shamelessly leading questions (written by the environmental lobby itself) designed to elicit “green” responses.

Despite approximately $10 million in independent environmental expenditures — the largest green electoral offensive in history — and the concentrated (and invariably demagogic) elevation of environmental issues before the voters, the Senate next year will be even more conservative and hostile to the environmentalist agenda than it was before the election. The House, by all indications, will probably follow the same environmental script it did in 1996.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the elections. First, voters approve of “environmentalism” in general but are more often than not hostile to the environmental lobby’s policy agenda. The reason (according to several interesting, non-biased polls) is that voters don’t think that centralizing money, power, and authority in government bureaucracies is the best way to protect the environment. Second, voters will not automatically dismiss Congressmen accused of “gutting” environmental standards, even if they believe that is what’s going on.

It’s time that politicians realize that there’s less to the environmental lobby than meets the eye. They should liberate themselves from the political straight-jacket that prevents them from considering the kind of sweeping, thorough-going policy reforms necessary to harmonize environmental protection, economic health, and constitutional, limited government.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resources studies at the Cato Institute.