In the United States, the environmental cause has become tightly associated with the Democratic Party. In a recent Gallup Poll, 73% of Democrats said that changes in the Earth’s temperature over the last century are due more to human activities than to natural changes in the environment. Only 42% of Republicans agreed with this statement.
The extreme bipartisan nature of, well… nature, is a modern phenomenon. The U.S. environmental coalition once represented a broad spectrum of political interests, both demographically and politically.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was established as a public work relief program by the Roosevelt administration in 1933. In Nature’s New Deal, historian Neil Maher describes how local conservation projects completed by the CCC bolstered widespread support for the program as well as for other New Deal policies. According to a 1936 Gallup poll, 82 percent of Americans surveyed wanted the CCC to continue its conservation work in forests, farms, and national parks. A remarkable 92 % of Democrats and 60% of Republicans supported the CCC, and in no geographic region did support for the CCC fall under 80 percent. The majority of Americans felt that the CCC was the most successful program of the New Deal.
What about the 1930s accounts for such bipartisan support of a federal program centered on conservation? The Dust Bowl provides a partial explanation—natural resources degradation was clearly on people’s minds as soil from eroded prairie lands blew as far east as Washington DC.[i]
The Roosevelt administration also strategically placed CCC camps in areas where they hoped to bolster support for the 1936 election (which was won by a landslide). The CCC and other New Deal programs united those worried about agricultural lands, recreation, public health, and forest conservation under one banner. It is a success story in coalition building.[ii]
Support for environmental programs remained largely bipartisan from the time of the New Deal through the 1970s. Richard Nixon was responsible for signing some of the nation’s most notable environmental legislation into law (including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act), a fact that is rarely recognized today. Historians of conservation attribute widespread concern about environmental issues during this era to a number of events, including the first picture of the Earth from space, the Ohio River fire, and severe air pollution problems in Los Angeles.
It was not until the 1980s that environmental issues became fractured along party lines. The Reagan administration generally took the stance that environmental regulations were a burden—a stance perpetuated by George W. Bush. An ideological divide over federal environmental regulation was first noticeable among members of Congress, and what began as a modest difference between Republican and Democratic pro-environmental voting became a definite gap after the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. However, from 1970 until the mid-1990s, support for increased spending on environmental protection in the general public was only around 10 points higher for the Democratic than for Republicans.[iii] It was not until the late 1990s that this gap began to widen.
Today, Gallup polls indicate that Democrats and Republicans widely differ in their opinion on whether the environment or the economy should be given priority; 50% of Democrats support environmental protection over economic growth, whereas only 31% of Republicans agree with this statement. Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans also differ greatly in their perception of the environment (see figure below).[iv]
The poll numbers indicate that environmentalism has become a primarily Democratic cause. This assumption is certainly affirmed by the popular chant of “Drill, baby, drill” during the McCain/Palin campaign.
But are all environmentalists really Democrats, or is there such thing as a Red Environmentalism and a Blue Environmentalism?
American hunters, a group typically cached as right-leaning, are directly responsible for conserving millions of acres of habitat and donating billions of dollars to conservation efforts. Federal legislation including the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act and the Pittman-Robertson Act, the sales of licenses, and donations to organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever provide a bulk of monetary contributions to national environmental protection. Since its inception in 1937, Ducks Unlimited alone has conserved more than 9.4 million acres of waterfowl habitat and has raised approximately $1.6 billion for conservation.[v]
There are few formal analyses of the political affiliations of dues-paying members of conservation organizations. The research that does exist suggests that preservationist groups (such as Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society) have higher membership rates in states with a higher percentage of Democratic voters and higher taxes, whereas stewardship groups (such as Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) draw their members from states with low population densities, higher numbers of hunters, and a higher percentage of Republican voters.[vi]
The existence of two types of environmentalists—those who support conservation and extractive use of natural resources (typically more right-leaning individuals) and those who support preservation of no-use or recreation-only use wilderness (typically more left-leaning individuals)—may have its roots in a much older schism. Even though conservation programs enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the early twentieth century, there was no lack of disagreement on how to conserve natural resources. A famous example is that of Hetch Hetchy Dam. In 1906 the city of San Fransisco applied to the federal government to gain water rights to Hetch Hetchy Valley. The action provoked a seven-year long struggle between John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Muir was a preservationist—he believed that the valley should be preserved inviolate for its beauty alone. Pinchot, on the other hand, was a conservationist—he believed that natural resources should be used for human development, efficiently and sustainably. Pinchot won the battle, but the controversy was critical in gaining national support for citizen environmental groups.
The philosophical divide between preservation and conservation now runs in parallel with the divide between the Democratic and Republican parties. Recent conservative backlash against both science and federal overreaching (e.g. accusations of “socialism”) has only widened the chasm between Red Environmentalism and Blue Environmentalism. The interplay of these worldviews is evidenced by the statistics on belief that global warming is human-caused (73% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans, as mentioned above).
If environmentalists hope to be more successful in the 21st century, it is essential that a broader environmental coalition is built, and soon. One means of broadening the coalition would be for environmental groups to collaborate with conservative religious groups. There is no reason that environmentalism and religion need be kept apart—a good example is that of the Church of England, which has recently undertaken serious initiatives to promote green lifestyles both in sermons and in their carbon footprint.
It is unlikely, and I would venture to say impossible, that issues such as global climate change, habitat protection, agricultural reform, and profligate waste are going to be tackled by one political party working alone. Blue environmentalists, you'll need to mix in some Red to make Green.
[i] Photo: "Fleeing a dust storm". Farmer Arthur Coble and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimmaron County, Oklahoma. Arthur Rothstein, photographer, April, 1936. (Library of Congress)
[ii] Maher. Nature’s new deal. Oxford University Press, 2008.
[iii] Dunlap et al. 2001. Politics and environment in America: Partisan and ideological cleavages in public support for environmentalism. Environmental Politics 4: 29.
[iv] See Frank Newport, "Americans: Economy takes precedence over environment." Available at http://www.gallup/com/poll/116962/Americans-Economy-Takes-Precedence-Environment.aspx. Figure from Jeffrey Jones, "In US, outlook on environmental quality improving." Available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/117769/Outlook-Environmental-Quality-Improving.aspx.
[v] See Ducks Unlimited website: http://www.ducks.org/faq.aspx.
[vi] Lowry. 1998. Religion and the demand for membership in environmental citizen groups. Public choice 94: 223-240.