I was recently asked to give a short presentation on the subject of political polarization to a group of professional greenies. I took down some notes to get my thoughts in order, and figured I might as well publish them. This covers a lot of the same ground as an earlier post; think of it as the tl;dr version of that post, or maybe an outline for a book someone other than me should write.

In the U.S., environmental philanthropy has been failing for decades. There have been plenty of small-scale victories and successful campaigns, but the big picture (on climate change, species and habitat loss, etc.) remains grim. Political polarization can help explain why.

1. Political polarization is the new normal in America.

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  • The U.S. has become steadily more politically polarized for decades. At this point, with rare exceptions, the rightmost elected Dem is to the left of the leftmost elected Republican.
  • The trend is being driven by deep demographic and economic forces that are unlikely to reverse themselves.
  • It is not just a phenomenon among national politicians; Americans are sorting themselves geographically into ideological enclaves, with specialized media sources to reinforce their tribal identities.
  • Republicans dominate rural and exurban areas while most elements of the Dem coalition — young people, minorities, single mothers, LGBT people, service workers, artists, cosmopolitans, and academics — cluster in urban areas and inner-ring suburbs.

2. The polarization is not symmetrical.

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  • The right has grown increasingly homogenous — ideologically, demographically, geographically — and more extreme in both outlook and tactics. At this point, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein write, “the GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
  • The left is less a coherent ideological force than a collection of disparate interests; as such, it is inherently more difficult to organize and turn out on Election Day (especially in midterms). Its elements fight for their priorities but those priorities are rarely traced back to a shared core philosophy. There is little to no sense of the left as a cohesive political and ideological entity in the U.S.

3. One way the right gained cohesion and power is through philanthropy, or more broadly, patient funding.

  • In the ’70s, conservatism was in tatters and liberalism ascendent. (When the GOP took the Senate in 1981, it was the first time they’d controlled either house of Congress since 1953.) Wealthy conservatives like Paul Weyrich waged a long campaign to create an alternative infrastructure, including foundations, think tanks, legal groups, college recruiting groups, and media.
  • These institutions absorbed young people, supported them, trained them, schooled them, and released them into the wild to become lawyers, lobbyists, and elected officials.
  • At this point, that infrastructure is in place and ready to mobilize in response to threats as they arise. It doesn’t have to start from scratch or develop new messages.

4. Environmentalism has been badly hurt by polarization.

  • Professional environmentalism and green philanthropy have always been self-consciously nonpartisan/bipartisan. The key environmental policy wins of the post-war era have passed with bipartisan support, often under Republican presidents.
  • After the popular grassroots surge that helped pass the Clean Water Act and key Clean Air Act amendments in the ’70s, environmentalism became a mostly Beltway-based affair conducted among lawyers, lobbyists, and regulators, building on those laws. It relied on bipartisanship (especially on friendly Northeast Republicans) for its status and viability.
  • Today, all friendly Northeast Republicans have been drummed out of the party, many via primaries from the right. With the loss of Republican validators, environmentalism has lost its hallowed bipartisan status among U.S. elites. Inside the Democratic coalition, it has come to be seen as a left interest group, a risk to key Dem legislators from coal and oil states. Environmentalism now finds itself with no Republican support and no support from 20 percent (give or take) of Dem legislators; that is a political coalition insufficient to overcome the many barriers to action in the U.S. political system.

5. In a polarized environment, team identity now almost entirely trumps “issues.”

  • Professional environmentalism’s instinctive response to polarization has been to try to win back conservative validators by celebrating market mechanisms, promising green jobs, invoking “creation care,” and framing green in terms of national security and energy independence. All such attempts have failed to win back substantial conservative support.
  • Environmentalists tend to see environmental degradation as an “issue,” a practical problem with commonsense solutions that can unite people of all ideological stripes. But it turns out people do not vote on issues; they vote with their cultural team. The conservative team has successfully defined support from Democrats as the sine qua non of bad policy.
  • Thus, even benign issues like energy efficiency, which previously drew support from both sides of the aisle, now die in Congress.

6. The alternative to wooing back Republicans is taking over the Democratic Party the way Tea Partiers took over the GOP, which will require the same patient, long-term funding of infrastructure.

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  • Like it or not, the basic premises underlying solutions to environmental problems — namely, collective action, using government for good — are now contested ideological assumptions that require defense.
  • We need a generation of young people who see the principles of sustainability as core to their politics and are willing to punish politicians who disagree.
  • Environmental and climate funders should concentrate on making grants with longer time frames (five or even 10 years), fewer hoops to jump through, and fewer strings attached, to help build up the kinds of intellectual and advocacy institutions that defend fairness, the possibility of good government, and sustainability. That means think tanks, campus groups, legal groups, and media (ahem).
  • It also means accepting that anyone who wants environmental or energy reform that would reduce pollution and improve public health is, de facto, on a side — namely, the left. The American right has become too constricted to fit green in. The left is all that’s left, so for environmental solutions to happen, the left must win (see: California).

This can mean a variety of different things to different funders — maybe chipping in to the Democracy Alliance, or the Center for American Progress, or groups seeking collective impact (drawing disparate groups together for more cumulative force). But everyone on the left — and greens are on the left now — needs to think about how to make liberalism, including sustainability, a more vital force in American life. Short-term campaigns will never accomplish that.