December 24, 2004
Reframing Environmentalism -- and the Left
In 2003, in Erie, Penn. and Akron, Ohio, the Apollo Alliance did focus groups among undecided, working-class, swing voters – the very people who would determine the outcome of the 2004 election. I had the luck to observe the focus groups from the other side of a one-way mirror.
Instead of starting the focus groups by asking people what they thought of global warming [which is what Werbach says enviro pollsters ususally do], our pollster Ted Nordhaus simply asked them how things were going. This open-ended question led, invariably, to focus group participants describing the collapse of the local economy. They would list, in depressing detail, the shutting of Hoover Vacuum and Timken Ball-bearing factories; gone to Mexico. They explained that the jobs that had been created in their wake -- mostly service sector jobs in places like Wal-Mart – paid half as much and offered no health care or retirement benefits. Many said they were working two jobs to make ends meet.
We then asked them what they thought of the idea of a major federal investment program to accelerate America’s transition to the clean energy economy of the future: research and development, manufacturing of wind turbines and solar, energy efficiency. We didn’t have to prove to them that such a program would pay for itself; they knew it would intuitively. Hadn’t a similar program succeeded in the post-war period? Of course it had....
And then something extraordinary happened. Nearly every single person in the room started to sound like Sierra Club members. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. They waxed poetic about solar panels. They spoke of their children’s future – their future – and the planet’s future. They remembered episodes from the area’s local history – like when thousands of jobs were created to retrofit smokestacks after the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment – things that James Watt and Rush Limbaugh want them to forget. But more than that, Apollo tells a narrative about American greatness, our history of shared investment and prosperity, of our ingenuity, and how we build a better future....
We did a poll and found that more than 70 percent of voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania supported a $30 billion annual investment in energy efficiency and clean energy. Having never seen such high numbers supporting any government program, the pollster to the Steelworkers, an Apollo ally, stressed in a poll question he asked that the $30 billion annual investment would come from TAXPAYER money. A funny thing happened: support for Apollo went up.
So, they shopped the ideas around, and every major enviro and labor group signed on. Kerry did too. But then:
We quickly learned that Kerry would divide his campaign into four silos: the economy, foreign policy, health care and energy independence. Apollo was to be put in the box called “energy independence.” We protested that Apollo was a narrative vision, not an issue category, and that it more effectively sold his vision for the economy, foreign policy and energy independence than keeping them in separate categories would. Kerry’s economic advisers objected to our investment plan. “The country wants to see deficit reduction,” they said.... Kerry’s pollster, Mark Mellman, objected to our linkage of jobs to energy independence. Separate issues, he grumbled. What he was really saying was that the campaign didn’t need a single narrative....
Apollo was no unique victim of the Kerry campaign. I don’t blame Kerry for the campaign he ran. I’ve come to realize that the election was lost years ago.... The obstacles we face are the same obstacles any progressive faces when trying to explain the need to think differently about problems and solutions to liberals who insist on putting all problems and solutions in traditional, single-issue categories....
I still wonder about the laid-off Hoover Vacuum assembly plant workers who are waiting for that great American company to come to Akron and put them to work.
I don't know enough about the enviro movement to really assess Werbach's critique; I don't agree with a lot he says. But at least he and Andy Stern are asking the right questions.
We need to fight hard to stop the Right from turning back the clock, but resistance won't be enough. If we don't want four -- or eight or twelve -- more years of the same, it's time to be honest with ourselves and ask tough questions about how we helped create the mess we're in. And we need to follow up this soul-searching not with big, amorphous happy dreams but with the pragmatic idealism of Machievelli's skillful archer, who
seeing that the object he would hit is distant, and knowing the range of his bow, takes aim much above the destined mark; not intending that his arrow should strike that high, but, in flying high, it may land at the point intended.Happy Holidays! Here's to fighting the good fight -- with our enemies and amongst ourselves -- and uniting to win in the new year.
Posted by RalphTaylor at December 24, 2004 10:12 AM