We have met the enemy, and s/he is us.[i]
For much of the decade of the 2010s, I’ve spoken and written about climate change—calling it the greatest threat facing the nation. I was wrong.
The greatest threat is our collective unwillingness to bridge the gaping and deepening divide that separates Republicans and Democrats. As our nation’s climate has grown warmer, our politics have turned colder. (See Figure 1) Where the federal government was once considered a part—albeit an imperfect one—of needed solutions, it is now considered a primary problem.
There is no national policy issue on the table today that does not reflect and suffer from the increasingly hardened differences between the nation’s major political parties.
The political division reflects two opposing Americas—of almost equal electoral strength. The federal government remains in gridlock at a time when concerted action is needed to address climate change and other of the nation’s pressing problems.
As we begin the 2020s, it is critical for Americans—all Americans—to step back for a moment and take stock of what the national body politic has become. As Lee Drutman writes--
National politics (in the US) has transformed from a compromise-oriented squabble over govern-ment spending into a zero-sum moral conflict over national culture and identity.
We no longer trust each other or our institutions, and our collective mistrust is playing out in ways that undermine and upset the balance between the branches of government and the regard paid to them by the governed.
If the past quarter-century is a prologue to the future, then the political pendulum will continue to swing wildly between two political parties that are moving further left and right of their respective centers. As long as Congressional gridlock endures, power will continue shifting towards the executive branch via presidential orders and implementing regulations--creating something akin to an imperial presidency.
Congress’s ceding its legislative authority and responsibility to the president opens the door to executive overreach. Presidential orders bypass the procedural restraints imposed on other forms of lawmaking—often putting in place unstable national policies and programs impacting the lives and welfare of millions of people, e.g., Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
No less frustrated by Congressional gridlock than his predecessor, President Trump has used his authority to make good on his campaign promises to deregulate the environment, tighten immigration laws, and undermine the rights of federal workers. The Trump administration has had a particularly difficult time defending its actions in court. The administration has found itself on the losing end of over 70 percent of the environmental law cases brought against it to date.
Congressional dalliance and executive efforts to compensate for it has forced the judicial branch to take on a role for which it is constitutionally ill-suited. Liberal or conservative, judges understand their role is to interpret laws—not make them. Moreover, the judicial process is slow, and the remedies available are limited. Should the US Supreme Court ever declare the right to a habitable environment a constitutionally protected right of citizens, for example, it would be up to the Congress to enact implementing laws.
Judicial appointments have become a major spoil of the partisan wars that began in earnest in 2013 when Senate Democrats first banned the use of the filibuster preventing President Obama’s judicial nominees from being confirmed. The rule change allowed a Republican-controlled Senate in 2016 to defer action on Judge Garland’s nomination to the US Supreme Court and to confirm 187 federal judgeships since Trump took office.
President Trump has now appointed one in four of the total number of federal judgeships. It is fair to say that there is a distinctly partisan tilt to the selection and confirmation of federal judges. Nominees are not only being asked for their judicial philosophies but if they might not wish to overrule specific cases, e.g., the abortion rights case Roe v. Wade. One conservative nominee was even asked if they thought the 1954 school desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education was settled law.
Notwithstanding Chief Justice Roberts’ denial of there being Obama and Trump judges, the general perception is otherwise. It is a perception supported by Trump with partisan pride:
The partisanship of federal judges may not be true, but it is today’s perception. As Jung notes the near absence of cross-party voting, and the tendency to vote exclusively in ideological coalitions, suggest that the justices have emerged as proxy voices for their nominating presidents’ party. What is it that's said about perception being a political reality?
George Washington warned a young nation of the threat to democracy posed by an imbalance between the branches of government fostered by hyper-partisanship.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
The figures below are offered as a visual shorthand of the deeply divergent interests of Republicans and Democrats that are at work in the nation today. They not only reflect differen-ces of opinion on matters like climate, gun control, healthcare, and immigration. They speak to the none too favorably way Democrats and Republicans view each other as people, e.g., closed-minded.
My emphasis on what divides us isn’t meant to suggest that our democracy is caught in a partisan riptide that can only end badly. And, unlike Bernie Sanders, I am not telling readers these things to make them either nervous or depressed. Any sound battle plan needs to be grounded on an understanding of the landscape and what pitfalls and complexities might await.
As a final note here, I recognize there may be some inconsistencies between the figures below, both in numbers and definitions of terms. Whether the percent of Americans that distrust the federal government is 85 or 72 percent isn’t the issue. In either case, a climate defense plan that heavily relies on the federal government is going to be met with much skepticism. It is always good to remember that politics remains more art than science.
According to Gallup, the federal government now tops the list when Americans are asked to identify the most important problem(s) facing the country today. The 27 percent of Americans who name the government as the top challenge this year exceeds the average of 22 percent in 2018. It is the highest annual average for the problem Gallup has ever recorded. It will likely be eclipsed in 2020 in response to Trump’s impeachment and the national election.
The growing distrust of government likely adds to the belief that the federal government is itself the biggest problem. (Figure 2) According to the Pew Research Center:
When Americans perceive that trust in the federal government has been shrinking, they are right. Long-running surveys show that public confidence in the government fell precipitously in the 1960s and ’70s, recovered somewhat in the ’80s and early 2000s, and is near historic lows today.
Also, according to Pew, public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 17 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3 percent) or even “most of the time” (14 percent). The see-sawing back and forth of Republican and Democratic administrations should be considered a contributing factor.
Productive political debate is impossible in an era when barely a quarter of the population can agree on the basic facts of a situation. (Figure 3) The failure to agree on facts is not limited to climate science. As we see in the current impeachment battle, many people and politicians are willing to take Trump’s word that the House of Representatives is violating the Constitution by impeaching him. Whereas Article I of the Constitution clearly states the House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment--leaving the matter of the grounds for impeachment and what constitutes a high crime or misdemeanor up to the Congress.
Climate change tops the list of partisan disagreements when it comes to identifying significant problems outside the government itself. Figure 4 also suggests that the vast dif-ferences between Republicans and Democrats on matters of economic inequality and social injustice, i.e., racism, bodes poorly for national policies like the Green New Deal that having multiple objectives. The fact that Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez reflect in their offering up their Green New Deal as a series of individual legislative pieces beginning with housing.
Of all the graphs offered here, Figures 5 and 6 are perhaps the most disturbing for the deep disrespect Republicans and Democrats appear to have for each other.
Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes, far surpassing differences by age, race and ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation, or other factors. How quickly the harsh opinions expressed in the Pew surveys can be changed should be a matter of concern to activists on both sides of the aisle. If Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on the facts, does it mean that the willingness to believe each other’s “lies” is the only way to be viewed as more open-minded?
When it comes to climate change, younger Republicans are much more likely to accept the conclusions of climate science and the need to act than older adults. According to a CBS poll two-thirds of Republican voters aged under 45 considering it their duty to address the climate crisis, according to the CBS poll. Just 38 percent of Republicans aged over 45 feel the same.
Interestingly, younger adults in both parties appear to be more likely than older people to claim the country’s ability to change is the primary reason for its success. (Figure 7) Projection may be at work here, i.e., younger people are generally more flexible in their thinking than their older counterparts. Of course, it also raises the question of whether intransigence is a function of age and whether today’s young Americans will become tomorrow’s curmudgeons?
2020 is already promising to be a watershed political year for national climate change policy. A failed UN summit in Madrid, new reports updating and confirming climate science studies, student strikes, a continent on fire, and the prominence of climate in the presidential race will all be in evidence throughout the year. The confluence of so many reminders that climate change is both real and already upon us means there will never be a better opportunity to put the nation on a sustainable path forward.
Finally, consider If Pogo is right and the enemy is us, are we the solution to problems of our own making?
 Walt Kelly, the creator of the Pogo comic strip, first used the now famous phrase on a poster for the first Earth Day in 1970.
Lead image: Royalty-free Shutterstock image 139931374
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Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.