Going Green?


Over the last decade, Republicans have ridden the issue of taxes to electoral victory. Ronald Reagan and George Bush won three consecutive landslide victories, in part by painting their Democratic opponents as tax-and-spend advocates of big government. At the state and local level, other Republican candidates have emulated this strategy with only slightly less success.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been searching for a similar issue that will win for them the hearts, minds, and, most important, votes of the American people. The nuclear freeze, competence, the deficit, protectionism—all have been used by Democratic candidates, with little success.

The latest entry in the "Issue that will Define the Democrats in the 1990s" sweepstakes is environmentalism. But it isn't clear that this issue will be much more useful than any of the others in putting Democrats in office.

In the '70s, inflation had pushed many middle-class taxpayers into high tax brackets, and the process showed no signs of slowing. Inflation was in the double digits by the end of the Carter presidency. Real people were suffering real harm. And the Republicans seized on the problem and offered a solution: cut taxes.

This solution imposed no costs on anyone, except possibly the government bureaucrats who found their annual budget increases cut. It was the perfect win-win electoral issue.

Further, making taxes the issue allowed Republicans to expand their constituency. When many blue-collar workers, small-business owners, and other traditionally Democratic voters found themselves pushed into high tax brackets, the Republican stand on taxes seemed more appealing than anything the Democrats had to offer. For the first time many Democratic households voted Republican.

By contrast, polls may show that Americans are very concerned about the environment, but it's hard to find any major bloc of voters who are actually suffering. By all objective measures, the environment is cleaner than it was 20 years ago. Death rates for most types of cancer are down. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the air quality in most major cities is remarkably better. Our fresh water supply has recovered from the brink of destruction. And despite economic growth and population increases, America's consumption of petroleum has remained constant for the last decade.

In the absence of any real harm, it isn't clear that a nebulous emotional concern for the environment can be turned into votes for costly environmental measures. And these measures will be costly. For example, California's "Big Green," a catchall environmental initiative on the November ballot, will cost citizens of the Golden State $3 billion to $12 billion. That's about $1,000 to $4,000 a person.

And the proposition no longer appears headed for a landslide victory. In a Los Angeles Times poll taken in late August, California voters were split 44 percent to 42 percent in favor of Big Green. So much for tapping into voters' concerns.

The initiative's dwindling support illustrates the hazards of relying on environmentalism as the ticket to surefire electoral success. This is a divisive issue with plenty of losers—many of whom make up traditional Democratic constituencies.

Big Green, for example, bans a number of commonly used industrial chemicals and calls for sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. These provisions would make industrial production much more costly and undoubtedly lead to manufacturing layoffs. If Republicans could make this connection clear, they could speed up the exodus of blue-collar workers from the Democratic Party.

Big Green also bans a number of common pesticides—a requirement popular with environmentalists but not with farmers. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic candidate for governor, originally resisted backing Big Green and was doing well with California farmers. But after endorsing the measure under pressure from Democratic party activists, her popularity among farmers, says the Los Angeles Times, "appears to have withered."

Eliminating pesticides won't necessarily make the food Californians eat any safer (scientists estimate that our intake of natural carcinogens is 10,000 times greater than our intake of man-made carcinogens), but it will reduce the supply of food and push up prices. Some studies indicate that food prices in California could jump 30 percent because of Big Green. That's hardly going to attract the poor and lower-middle class to the measure or to the environmentalism it represents.

And since taxpayers still show no signs of supporting massive new tax increases, new environmental programs will inevitably vie with other programs for funding. Big Green mandates a minimum of $40 million a year in new state spending. That money will undoubtedly come at the expense of family services, health care, and other programs important to Democratic voters.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst at the Claremont Graduate School's Center for Politics and Policy, notes: "To the California that is largely white and affluent, Big Green means an improved quality of life. To the one that is largely minority and poor, 'quality of life' issues include surviving economically and staying alive.…Among blacks, there appears to be some skepticism that Big Green is 'another Westside [of L.A.] liberal thing.' Said one black leader, 'The community feels kind of used and abused.'"

Still, many environmentalists continue to ignore or dismiss the economic impact of their proposals. Big Green supporter and UCLA professor Malcolm Gordon claimed at a September forum on the initiative, "The economics are irrelevant. It's how you feel about the issue."

But economics are very important to the backbone of the Democratic party—the working people of America. If the party starts basing its policies on the emotions of Hollywood celebrities and well-paid professors, it won't attract new voters. But it may well alienate some old ones.