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Red State Environmentalism

I post a lot of pessimistic stuff here, and I don't intend to stop. But it left me momentarily uncertain how to react when I came across this bit of good news. It's not an environmental victory per se, but at least it's an environmental defeat avoidance:

House Republicans have dropped a provision in budget legislation that would have allowed the sale of public lands for mining.

... Critics — including hunters, anglers and several Democratic Western governors — said the legislation could prompt the sale of millions of acres of public lands.

... "It's important to give a voice to those who are so closely connected to our public lands," [Wyoming Sen. Craig] Thomas said.

Mining is a clear example of a case where the libertarian argument that privatization promotes environmental stewardship falls through. The argument rests on two important premises: that the owner wants the land to be productive in perpetuity, and that the productivity of the land is linked to broader environmental sustainability. Both of these are true in many cases, such as farming. But mining is an inherently time-limited operation, since it deals in non-renewable resources -- the land will become worthless after a finite amount of time, so there's little incentive to maintain its health beyond the anticipated expiration date. What's more, the gas or gold will still be there regardless of whether the ecosystems live or die, providing little reason not to sacrifice those ecosystems in the interests of short-term profits.

What's interesting, though, is where the opposition to this legislation came from: much of it came from the people who live on or near the lands in question. They may pull the lever for the GOP every other November, but -- on this issue, at least -- they saw that, while the Republicans get their votes from regular people, they get their ideas from the corporate elite.

America is a conservative country, so liberals face a tough challenge in selling their ideas to enough voters to put a non-Republican in office. Various strategies have been proposed, most of which seems to boil down to pretending to be conservative. There's embarrasing grandstanding on minor issues, a la Hillary Clinton's crusades against flag-burning and media violence. There's selling out important sectors of the liberal platform -- women's rights seem to be a popular cut among the Daily Kos crowd. And of course there's wartime jingoism.

The interesting thing about all these strategies that have been actually tried and failed is that they assume a rigid bipolarity of politics -- that is, the only thing one can do is slide either leftward or centreward on an issue. The defeat of the mining legislation (as well as other similar incidents over the past few years) point in a different direction -- the possibility of achieving not just a sell-out or a compromise, but a real rapproachment, between conservatives and liberals. This doesn't just mean changing the spin that Democrats put on their ideas, or telling conservatives that liberalism is good for them. It means actually listening to western conservative voters -- treating them as people to be represented, not just vote ores. It means understanding their views and priorities, and weaving them into the larger liberal project in a way that's mutually acceptable. All the raw materials are there in, for example, the frustrations of western ranchers who feel attacked by drilling companies.

The great thing about this strategy is that it could help reconnect the party with its own base as well. Blacks are one of the most reliable constituencies for the Democratic party, yet they often have to hold their nose and vote for the party that's not actively trying to undermine their interests. Blacks, as well as Latinos in some regions, are disproportionately the victims of pollution. This kind of classic environmental injustice needs to be fought in its own right. But it also resonates with the environmental injustices faced by the white westerners who could be brought in to push some Democratic candidates past the 50% mark. They both draw on the same storyline -- regular people, who depend on a healthy environment, seeing their interests trampled by corporations concerned only with their CEO's bonus. To be truly successful, liberalism can't be just a series of separate panders to independent interest groups. It has to weave those panders into a larger storyline, and weave those groups into a true coalition. A small-d democratic environmentalism is one facet of that storyline, and it's a tractable one to begin with.

A populism that reinforces liberal principles has to be more successful than one based on embarassment about those principles.


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