Not that long ago, some folks were arguing that clean energy — unlike climate change, which had been irredeemably stained by partisanship (eww!) — would bring people together across ideological lines. Persuaded by the irrefutable wisdom of wonks, we would join hands across the aisle to promote common-sense solutions. It wouldn’t be partisan, it would be … post-partisan.

Some day, I will stop mocking the people who said that. But not today. The error is an important one and it is still made regularly, especially by hyper-educated U.S. elites. They think clean energy is different from climate change, that it won’t get sucked into the same culture war. They are wrong.

On clean energy, the material/financial aspects of the conflict are the easiest to understand. Wind, solar, and the rest threaten the financial dominance and political influence of dirty energy. Last week, the Guardian broke the story of a confidential memo laying out a plan to demonize and discredit clean energy, meant to coordinate the plans/messages of several big right-wing super PACs funded by dirty-energy money.

At the bottom of that same piece, though, is one of the best expressions I’ve ever seen of the cultural and psychological aspects of the conflict. Witness:

Opposing Obama’s energy policies was a natural fit for conservatives, said Marita Noon, a conservative activist from New Mexico who was at the meeting. “The American way, what made CostCo and Walmart a success, is to use more and pay less. That’s the American way.” The president’s green policies however were the reverse, she said.

“President Obama wants us to pay more and use less.”

Not for the first time, it strikes me that conservatives understand the stakes of this struggle much better than liberals and centrists do, especially at a gut level. They’re on the wrong side of it, but at least they get it.

Photo by Walmart.

Noon is more or less correct: The American Way has been to carelessly consume high quantities of cheap energy, much of it embedded in disposable plastic crap at Walmart. Conservative leaders are telling their flock that there are endless deposits of fossil fuels all around them, if only those pesky Democrats and their regulations would get out of the way. The message is that the American way of life can continue forever, indeed that it is our patriotic birthright, but that Democrats want to take it from them. That goes deeper than energy. It’s about home and hearth.

And Noon is right that the alternative — barely hinted at by Obama’s policies, but sure to come into sharper relief in coming years — is to use much less, and more expensive, energy. You and I know that even if the per-unit price of energy goes up, consumer bills can go down, through efficiency. You and I know that it’s possible to use less energy while still enjoying the same high quality of life. You and I know that there’s no other choice, that cheap, abundant fossil fuels are a thing of the past.

But Noon and her ideological cohort are hearing otherwise. They’re hearing that American abundance, the bounty available to even the poorest Americans at Walmart, is under threat. They’re hearing that Democrats want to make America, the land of plenty, into Europe, the (imagined) land of tiny cars, cramped apartments, and high prices. Again, that’s about more than prices or watts. It’s about cultural identity.

Clean energy supporters can try, if they want, to convince people like Noon that clean energy can offer the same abundance — “use more and pay less” — that fossil fuels offered, through the magic of technology or innovation or whatever. But it’s dishonest. Reducing emissions enough to substantially slow climate change will inevitably involve being more judicious and intelligent in our energy use. Profligate, heedless consumption of disposable crap is going to have to be reined in. That will mean changing habits and land-use patterns. Insofar as those habits and land-use patterns are viewed as constitutive of a “way of life,” many will view that as a threat.

Remember, unlike wonks, average folk don’t think in terms of discrete political “issues.” They think in terms of broad cultural associations and identities. For the conservative base — about which I’ve written many times, see especially here — the issue of energy is wrapped up in a way of life that they view as under threat from multiple directions.

As I’ve said before, it’s unlikely that such people can be persuaded with evidence and reason. What they will eventually do is die off. In the meantime, the job is to define a new American way of life for young people, so when they take over they won’t view Walmart as akin to church.

See also: More on clean energy and the culture war