A few days ago I got a review copy of Newt Gingrich’s new book, A Contract with the Earth. We’ve got somebody else reviewing it, so I don’t plan to read it. I do, however, want to make two observations, one on policy, one on politics.
On policy: Gingrich’s shtick is that leftists took over the environmental movement and have made it synonymous with taxation, regulation, and litigation. That alienated conservatives, who thereafter got demonized as enemies of the environment. What Gingrich says he’s trying to do is outline an environmentalism based on conservative principles: small government, private property, markets, etc.
This is all well and good, except that it’s wrong. I think some greens would concede that there was a time (late-’70s, early-’80s, say) when environmentalism had become ossified, technocratic, and overly reliant on command-and-control regulation as its first-resort strategy. But I think those days are largely past (obviously some folks will disagree with me on this). There is no progressive movement today that’s doing more to find creative solutions to problems, working with market-based mechanisms, public-private partnerships, shareholder activism, consumer activism, technological innovation, and old-fashioned entrepreneurialism. Greens haven’t abandoned regulation and legislation, but they’ve shown remarkable willingness to rethink their tactics and strategy.
In short, the green movement has become pragmatic rather than ideological. The green movements’s primary commitment is to the health of ecosystems and the concomitant health of human societies (in the long term, there’s no distinction). It is the goal they seek; about means, they are, for the most part and with some exceptions, flexible.
In contrast, the movement conservatism Gingrich championed in the ’90s has only gotten more and more rigidly ideological. Its primary commitment is to cutting existing taxes and fighting new ones, getting rid of regulations, and privileging favored business interests over the broader public interest (and even the broader economic interest). It will not budge on those commitments. Insofar as protecting ecosystems can be done inside those parameters, I’m sure conservatives are happy to rehabilitate their image on the issue. But it’s the commitments, not the environment, that come first.
In sum: for greens, protecting ecosystems is the fixed commitment; means come and go. For movement conservatives, cutting taxes is the fixed commitment; if protecting ecosystems clashes with that, so much the worse for ecosystems. Don’t forget that. (I’ve made this point before.)
Secondly, on politics: Some way, somehow, Gingrich has managed to reinvent himself as a visionary intellectual. He’s celebrated as such in the right-wing and mainstream media like. When he flirted with running for president earlier this year, it was actually taken seriously. The mind boggles.
This isn’t really the place for it, so I won’t go into Gingrich’s history. Suffice to say, those who were paying attention during the ’90s will remember Gingrich as above all else a vicious, unprincipled partisan knife fighter. He crippled the government, purely for partisan advantage. Add to that his titanic narcissism, serial adultery, and ethics violations, and yeah, you’ve got a real prince. He left office horribly unpopular, having all but destroyed the “revolution” he so pompously claimed to lead.
The media will lap Gingrich’s “new” environmentalism up with a spoon, but while there may be a principled conservative environmentalism on tap somewhere, this ain’t the source.