The GOP's Enviro-Rut

By Mastio, David | Policy Review, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The GOP's Enviro-Rut

Mastio, David, Policy Review

SINCE RICHARD NIXON created the Environmental Protection Agency 30 years ago, conservatives have struggled to deal with the environment as a political issue. And, with the exception of occasional tactical victories, we have miserably failed.

By now, the positions conservatives take on environmental issues are not only out of touch with the American electorate; according to some polls, they are out of touch with the views of sell-identified Republicans. As things stand in most voters' minds, what Republicans say about the environment is marred from the start by a lack of credibility. Voters accept dogma from environmentalists as truth while taking truth, when conservatives utter it, as dogma.

The news from polls is uniformly bad for conservative positions, even from polls paid for by advocacy groups and accordingly skewed to favor the positions of those commissioning them. It doesn't matter how one manipulates the sample, tweaks the questions, or pushes the focus groups. It doesn't matter who is doing the research. The fact is that American voters not only support today's environmental protection; the plurality wants more and stricter regulation. And they see conservatives as opposed to their wishes.

According to two decades' worth of Wirthlin polls, Americans overwhelmingly agree with this statement: "Environmental standards cannot be too high and continuing improvements must be made regardless of cost." The low ebb was in 1981 at 45 percent -- the only year support dropped below 58 percent. At the bottom of the last recession in 1992, support for that statement sat at 80 percent.

Gallup's latest Earth Day polling found that 83 percent of Americans agree with the goals of the environmental movement (as compared to 86 percent agreeing with those of the civil rights movement, 69 percent with those of the gun control movement, 61 percent with those of the abortion rights movement, and 49 percent with those of the gay rights movement). Though the question obviously loads the dice for a liberal response by asking about agreement with a movement's "goals," it is telling that environmentalism has become such a universally accepted value that adherence to it is about as widespread as support for civil rights for blacks.

Another way Gallup looked at the question was to ask people about their activity in environmental groups. Sixteen percent said they were active, 55 percent were not active but sympathetic, 23 percent said they were neutral; only 5 percent said they were unsympathetic. The Polling Company found nearly identical numbers last year.

Whom do Americans trust as a source for environmental information? Coming in first at 78 percent were national environmental groups -- followed by local environmental groups and the EPA. Who came in seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth most trusted of the 10 categories given, bottoming out at 37 percent? Small business, the Congress, the Republican Party, and large corporations.

Last, but hardly least, after nearly eight years of Carol Browner's zeal as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, 57 percent of Americans think the government is not worried enough about the environment.

Even when people try to give the numbers a tweak, the results are scary. A poll done for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and packed with leading questions, asked which party does a better job handling environmental issues. It found Democrats won 46 percent to 20, and nearly 30 percent of the sample was Republicans. In short, not even two-thirds of Republicans have faith in their own party on the issue.

Even more telling are the answers to really loaded questions. Consider the following: "I think the government should pass new laws and regulations dealing with global warming, even if agreement on the causes of global warming isn't reached by the vast majority of scientists. It is better to pass strict environmental laws even if these restrictions hurt our economy and standard of living in order to protect against the possibility that pollution is causing global warming. …

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