Nothing will change until greens mount some primary challenges
We have learned over time that you can’t win simply by explaining the crisis to political leaders; they may intellectually understand that they’re facing the end of the world, but what they really fear is the end of their political careers. We need to build a movement that can reward and punish politicians. Since we’ll never have the money to match the fossil-fuel front groups, we’re going to need a different currency: bodies, creativity, passion.
This gets at something I’ve been meaning to write about and serves as a nice jumping-off point, because I both agree and disagree.
I agree — a thousand times over! — about the dire need for the climate hawk movement to focus on political power. Facts and science are inert unless they’re backed by a constituency that has the power and willingness to reward its political allies and punish politicians who cross it. Right now greens aren’t doing that. Nobody in D.C., with the possible exception of coastal liberal pols like Barbara Boxer, has any reason at all to fear the wrath of green groups. In fact, green group wrath — expressed in grumpy TV adds, PR releases, and internet petitions — generally serves as a badge of pride in districts to the right of, say, Bernie Sanders’. It makes a pol look “moderate.”
Where I disagree is that green groups will “never have the money” to make a difference. It would be a terrible mistake for climate hawks to abandon the top-down/money field of battle and decamp entirely to People Politics. Don’t get me wrong: creating a bottom-up movement of voters is an important piece of the puzzle. But in contemporary America, public opinion is actually a fairly weak lever for moving politicians. (Recall: the public already overwhelmingly opposes neutering EPA.) What moves politicians are a) the interests of their wealthy constituents, and b) their political lives.
The problem is that greens have been playing the top-down game badly. And it’s not from lack of money — depending on how you tally it up, they spent between $200 million and $300 million just in the last year or so on the climate-bill battle. That’s more than enough money to do some damage, if it’s spent well.
Spending well means inspiring fear. So here’s my proposal:
First, green groups abandon the pretense that they are nonpartisan education groups. It’s a legacy model that makes no sense in current circumstances. The Republican Party has officially and irredeemably aligned itself against public health and a clean energy economy. That’s not greens’ fault — it’s part of a process of the parties ideologically clarifying that’s been going on for decades — but it is what it is. No sense pretending otherwise. That means shifting lots and lots of resources out of 501(c)3’s and into 501(c)4’s and PACs.
Then, green groups all contribute to a common electoral fund. Build up, say, $300 million or so. Be public and explicit about what the money is for: not ads, not canvassing, not clever websites, nothing except primarying the next Dem who f*cks with them on a big priority issue like EPA climate regs. It’s just a big, loaded primary gun.
And then … use it. Take somebody out. My personal suggestion would be the loathsome Joe Manchin. Or if that’s too big a target to begin with, start smaller, with a few state attorneys general, mayors, even school board members. Collect some wins and work up the food chain.
To respond to a few predictable objections: Yes, there are some cases, perhaps even many, in which a primary challenge would weaken the Dem and allow a Republican challenger to win. So be it. Remember, the Tea Party sacrificed several winnable seats in the midterms (see: Christine O’Donnell). In return, they got an astounding degree of fealty from Republican lawmakers, who now live in terror of them. They have become the tail wagging the dog. It doesn’t take many high-profile hit jobs for that lesson to sink in.
The crucial thing is, the challenges can’t be a half-ass. They have to work — they have to cost someone a seat. They have to be well-planned and well-executed.
Lots and lots of Very Serious People will burst blood vessels lecturing greens about how this strategy isn’t savvy, how they’re shooting themselves in the foot, how they’re not being reasonable. The Beltway establishment is quick to come down hard on liberals who act like liberals (cons who act like cons are Real Americans). Liberals have been beat down by this, domesticated, so the policy discussion now takes place entirely between the right and the center.
It’s time to deploy Nixon’s “Madman Theory” — time for greens to demonstrate that they will shoot themselves in the foot if it means hitting the bastard on the other side.
The day a Joe Manchin or Debbie Stabenow faces a choice like they did on Wednesday — whether or not to vote for an amendment screwing EPA — and thinks to him/herself, “It’s just not worth the hassle from greens”? That’s the day greens know it’s working.
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