What Explains the "Republican Reversal" on Environmental Protection?

A book review of "The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump" by James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg


In 1970, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Running for President in 2016, called the EPA a "disgrace," and a Republican member of Congress introduced legislation to eliminate the agency altogether.

What explains the dramatic change in the Republican Party's approach to environmental protection? One recent effort to answer this question is The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump by James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg. I review their effort in the latest issue of Regulation.

Here is a taste:

What caused this change? Most explanations focus on the changes within the Republican Party, particularly increased hostility to federal environmental regulation. A common narrative is the GOP about-face is due to corporate influence,the fossil fuel industry in particular. Under this account,Republican officeholders have become beholden to coal barons, oil executives, and the filthy lucre of heavily polluting industries.

In The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, historians James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg offer a more nuanced explanation of the Republican Party's change on environmental policy, grounded in a shift in the party's ideology. They point to three factors operating in concert: "rise of conservative ideology, the mobilization of interest groups and activists, and the changes in the environment and the regulatory state." "Republican legislators were not simply bought off by corporate interests," they argue. Rather, the alignment of particular economic interest groups with the Republican Party occurred in concert with changes within the conservative movement and the lived experience of those regulated by federal environmental laws. They write, "Big money alone does not fully explain the Republican embrace of the gospel of more." While business groups—resource extractive industries in particular—certainly played a role by supporting candidates and organizations that opposed regulations restricting resource development, there is also a strong grass-root opposition to federal environmental regulation. . . .

Turner and Isenberg do an admirable job identifying often-overlooked factors in the Republican Party's evolution on environmental matters, yet it is quite clear where their sympathies lie. They understand that as environmental regulation became more costly and intrusive, disrupting not only particular industries but also the ways of life of workers and others dependent upon such industries, it also generated political opposition. What they fail to do, however, is cast much of a critical eye on the environmental policies the nation adopted or the evolution and increasingly partisan behavior of the organized environmental movement.

Insofar as the Republican turn against environmental regulation is reactive—and it certainly is—they show little appreciation for what it is conservatives may be reacting against. It is simply assumed that federal environmental regulation is desirable and opposition to environmental regulation necessarily translates into opposition to environmental protection.

The full review is available here.