It may be that the most unsettling measure of our unsettling times is the way in which today’s Republicans are not only working to undo the progress that Democrats initiated with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Today’s GOP is also searching out and destroying the noble remnants of Richard Nixon’s lamentable presidency. The 37th president was not a good man. He was a crude political careerist who employed racially divisive “Southern strategies,” and engaged in such lawless electioneering and governing that he resigned just ahead of an impeachment vote. For all his flaws, however, Nixon knew which way the political winds blew. So, after millions of Americans celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970, the president turned green. Nixon signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency that year. Then he approved groundbreaking clean air and clean water protections and, finally, in 1973, he signed the Endangered Species Act. With that last stroke of the pen, Nixon put in place what Friends of the Earth Action describes as “bedrock environmental law” and began a process of bipartisan improvements and expansions of the act that would eventually form what historian Kevin Starr referred to as “the Magna Carta of the environmental movement.”
Nixon wasn’t really an environmentalist. He just did what was popular. That was especially true with regard to the Endangered Species Act. Fifty years ago, Republicans generally wanted to be in the forefront of fights to save the planet—some for reasons of politics, like Nixon, but others out of sincere commitment, like Oregon Governor Tom McCall and Pennsylvania Representative and Senator John Heinz. Environmentalism was bipartisan. The Senate voted 92-0 for the measure, while the House approved it 390-12. Democrats were all on board for green legislation, as were almost all Republicans; liberals backed it, and so did conservatives. In the states, Republicans were often even more outspoken on environmental issues. California Governor Ronald Reagan—no liberal he—ruminated in his 1970 State of the State Address about “the absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment.”
Five decades on, another Republican president is all about debauching the environment—so much so that, as we read on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times, “The Trump administration on Monday announced that it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, significantly weakening the nation’s bedrock conservation law and making it harder to protect wildlife from the multiple threats posed by climate change.”
What gives? Why is this more-Nixonian-than-Nixon president hell-bent on undoing Nixon’s environmental legacy? And why are Republicans in the House and Senate going along with him? That’s easy. Unlike the Republicans of the early 1970s, who still fretted about what voters might want, the Republicans of the 2010s—and presumably the 2020s—worry only about what special-interest lobbies want. “We are in the midst of an unprecedented extinction crisis, yet the Trump administration is steamrolling our most effective wildlife protection law,” says Rebecca Riley, the legal director of the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This administration seems set on damaging fragile ecosystems by prioritizing industry interests over science.”
The industry interests did not win the debate. They bought it, by pouring money into electioneering and lobbying that amplified the voices of the climate change skeptics and deniers. “If you kicked out that support, the opposition would fall,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who has sponsored legislation designed to expose dark-money spending on federal elections. It hasn’t gotten far in the Republican-controlled Senate—which recently approved Trump’s nomination of a former oil and gas industry lobbyist, David Bernhardt, to serve as Secretary of the Interior. But the legislation goes to the heart of the matter of why both the legacy of Republican environmentalism and the future of the planet are now in peril.
“The climate change countermovement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act on global warming,” Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle explained several years ago, after completing a study of the billionaire-funded networks that have shifted so much of our political discourse in the direction of what were once thought of as extreme antienvironmental stances.
The latest evidence of that impact is the Trump administration’s move to gut the Endangered Species Act. “If it weren’t for the Endangered Species Act, some of our most iconic species—including the bald eagle, the gray whale, and the grizzly bear—would likely be extinct. For more than 40 years, the ESA has been a pillar of environmental protection in this nation. Its success—and its support among the American people—are undeniable,” says New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Interior Committee. “But this administration’s determination to dismantle bedrock environmental laws, turn a blind eye to science, and roll over for special interests apparently knows no bounds.”
Referring to the approach the administration plans to use to gut the Endangered Species Act, Udall said, “Allowing cost calculations of big polluters to determine whether a species deserves protection—while denying climate science and rolling back protections for habitat—is the absolute wrong approach at a time when we are in the middle of a human-caused sixth mass extinction. We need to strengthen the ESA, not cripple it.”
Fifty years ago, Udall would have had Republican allies. There would have been broad bipartisan support for the New Mexican’s advocacy for “stopping these regulations by any means—including the Congressional Review Act.” (That act broadly empowers Congress to invalidate rule changes of the sort that the Trump administration proposes.)
But he won’t get far in Mitch McConnell’s Republican-controlled Senate. There’s hope that the courts might step up. But don’t expect Republican-controlled legislative chambers to go to bat for the environment. The once common Republican environmentalist is not just endangered. This now rare species has been pretty much wiped out in the Senate that once voted unanimously for the Endangered Species Act. You may hear a dissenting voice from the GOP chorus; former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld has, for instance, positioned himself as an environmentally friendly alternative to Trump in the GOP primaries. But the truth is that the Republican environmentalist has suffered an ugly fate. Consumed by unnatural predators—corporate interests, billionaire campaign donors, and special interests—this creature has been elbowed aside, forced into retirement, and primaried to the point of extinction.
“Name your catalyst—9/11, the 2008 economic crash, or the relentless drumbeat of corporate and ideological greenwashing—but, by the time the 21st Century came along, the two parties developed mirror-image environmental brands. Democrats’ [League of Conservation Voters] numbers were frequently above 90 percent, and with few exceptions, Republicans plummeted to between 10 percent and zero,” explains Environmental Health News editor Peter Dykstra. “With the 2016 elections, those numbers not only ossified but took hold in the White House and key Cabinet positions.”
Now, a Republican president is ripping up environmental policy that was put in place by Republicans. This is jarring evidence of a truism of our times: Our corrupted elections may well be the greatest environmental threat facing the planet. But, of course, if elections pose a threat, they might also present the possibility for progress.