Highs and lows of sweet, sweet wonkitude
Enough about The Reapers. How’s the rest of the American Prospect environment package?
Much of it, sadly, is deathly, wonkily boring. In particular, Carl Pope … dude. What is this pap? It’s so bland, so politician-y, it takes genuine concentration even to get through it. You’ve written better stuff on your blog, for chrissake. This from Ross Gelbspan and this from John M. Meyer are similarly forgettable.
But there are many bright moments. Bill McKibben could write about what he ate for dinner and make it engaging, but I found the conclusion of this piece on global warming particularly on-point:
The useful thing about global warming is that its causes are so large and deeply rooted that it almost forces us to begin thinking on a similar scale. It’s not “environmentalism” that will solve this issue; it has its hands full trying to keep the administration from clear-cutting the national forests and ransacking the Arctic in search of yet more carbon.
No, the political force that finally manages to take this issue on is the political force that also understands and helps to nurture the deep-rooted and unsatisfied American desire for real community, for real connection between people. The force that dares to actually say out loud that “more” is no longer making us happier, that the need for security and for connection is now more important.
There’s a lot to unpack in this paragraph. For now I’d just suggest that what’s going to “nurture the deep-rooted and unsatisfied American desire for real community” is not beating the populace over the head with climate science. What’s needed is to remind the American people that issues the Right has resolutely tried to define as matters of individual circumstance or preference — child care, time spent with family, commuting, the work week — are in fact political and appropriately addressed in the arena of public policy. Give people the option of a safer, happier, more community-oriented life, give them a political venue to address these issues, and emissions reductions will follow naturally.
Also of note is the piece by Mark Schmitt, a whipsmart progressive policy analyst. He tries to draw out the lessons of "policy literalism" for interest-group politics in general. The diagnosis is acute:
Shellenberger and Nordhaus revealed a death, but it was not that of environmentalism as an idea. Rather, it is interest-group pluralism, the model of liberal advocacy under which all of us over 30 were raised, that is finished. The environmental movement — much like groups that advocate for health policy or children or gun control or civil liberties or housing or campaign-finance reform — was created on the assumptions of pluralism: Democratic government, usually in some bipartisan fashion, would take the claims of advocates for individual causes, find balance where they conflicted, and allocate resources based on the power — electoral, moral, popular, financial, legal, or scientific — of competing claims. The mission for any individual issue-advocacy group in this game was to develop popular support, media visibility, or political clout to offset the strength of direct opponents. Citizenship meant directing your energies and some money around a particular issue, or perhaps two, that you chose as a priority. If you were moved by the direct-mail appeals of the Sierra Club, you became an environmentalist; if it was NARAL’s package that caught your attention, you were a pro-choice voter, and these allegiances defined citizenship for many Americans more strongly than any political party.
But this isn’t working any more.
Pluralism is a strategy for making improvements while holding governing power; it is not a strategy to save the world from those with unchecked power. And the radical right understands that it can maintain power by exploiting the weaknesses in interest-group pluralism, delivering to the strongest claimants the incremental achievements they and their lobbyists demand (a pro-industry Medicare prescription-drug program, for example) while undermining the very foundation of those demands — an active, responsible, fair government. Washington is filled with organizations and lobbyists who consider themselves “public-interest” activists, who celebrate the 4-percent increase they won in appropriations for their pet program or the three new co-sponsors who have signed on to their innovative bill but who remain numb or indifferent to the fact that under current policies, those programs will soon cease to exist entirely.
Unfortunately Schmitt, like everyone else these days, seems to have only the vaguest notion of what comes next.
It starts with individuals redefining citizenship, so that instead of marking themselves off as "environmentalists" or "children’s advocates" or "union" voters, they see the world the way environmentalists do, as an interconnected system in which global economic trends, corruption, ideology and values, political participation, etc. are all related to the fundamental goal of a just and sustainable society.
To do so requires organizations through which people can redefine their role as citizens. These organizations may thrive on the Internet (MoveOn.org and the vast readership connected through blogs like the Daily Kos are good examples) or at the local level, where broad-based, multi-issue progressive organizations like Progressive Maryland are reversing the trend toward direct-mail democracy. Needless to say, our history does not lack for a model of a broad-based, coalitional, multi-issue, permanent force for political change — it’s called a political party. And while environmentalists, like other issue advocates, often depend on friendly Republican allies for incremental progress, they should not lose sight of their interest in a strong and responsive Democratic Party with deep roots in communities and in states.
Among the many issues this new kind of model raises is: what will become of single-issue magazines like Grist? I’m only half kidding — I do think there’s some thinking to be done about how to focus on an area we all feel passionate about without artificially marking it off from others (poverty, national security, etc.) with which it is intimately connected. But I’m sure nobody’s read this far down, so I’ll wrap it up.