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William Murray: Environmentalism, Trumpism, and the Working Class

William Murray: Environmentalism, Trumpism, and the Working ClassThe Global Warming Policy Forum / by bennypeiser / 5d

There is strong evidence that America’s environmental policies and practices over the past half-century—and their contribution to lower economic growth and rising income inequality—have brought class tensions to a breaking point.

April 2019: President Donald Trump signs an executive order on energy and infrastructure during a campaign event at the International Union of Operating Engineers International Training and Education Center. Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The inauguration of President Biden as the 46th US President hasn’t produced quite the catharsis that Democrats (and others) had hoped for. After only a few months of one-party rule in Washington, DC—and the sputtering finale of impeachment—there should be fear among Democrats that attention will return to the signs of real damage done to the progressive/liberal project in the wake of its collision with the Trump train.

The shifting of both American political parties into one another’s former political spaces has been head-spinning. The trend of Republicans turning into the party of labor and Democrats becoming a party of capital looks to continue in the 2020s—something few people outside of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot would have guessed 30 years ago. And it turns out that the promise of a Democrat-voting bloc made up of well-educated whites, blacks, and the growing Hispanic population delivering a decades-long progressive era in American politics is not coming to pass.

For nearly 20 years, this promised “coalition of the ascendant” has coalesced but failed to ascend. In 2009, with the inauguration of Barack Obama, Democrats in the House of Representatives controlled 256 seats and 58 seats in the Senate. In 2021, Democrats under Biden/Harris hold 221 seats in the House, while the Senate is split 50/50.

To be fair, a major caveat to the “coalition” argument involved keeping white working-class voters in the Democrat column while the promised growing populations of Hispanic and urban singleton voters delivered on its demographic determinism. Instead, the raw numbers from the 2020 general election suggest that Trump’s class rhetoric captured parts of the working classes that the Democratic Party had previously thought were untouchable.

So, what changed in America’s politics that would cause working class Hispanics and black voters to move toward Trump? The most common answer is that Trump’s populist attacks on the status quo of immigration and trade policy broke thorough to the non-white working class in the same way it broke through with important parts of the white working class in 2016. But there is strong evidence that the country’s environmental policies and practices over the past half-century—and their contribution to lower economic growth and rising income inequality—have brought class tensions to a breaking point.

Since the Income Tax Amendment was ratified in 1913, political fights in the US have become largely about the redistribution of wealth and with it, social power. And nothing redistributes wealth more from the real, physical world and into cyber space—away from labor unions and skilled labor and into algorithmic code (where there is no regulation)—than environmental regulation.

As wide as the partisan gaps are concerning illegal immigration and free trade, none can compare to those on environmental protection and global warming. In 2019, Gallup found that 86 percent of Democrats say the government is doing too little in terms of environmental protection, while only 25 percent of Republicans believed the same. A poll by Resources for the Future found it “particularly intriguing” that 76 percent of Democrats believe that unchecked global warming will hurt them personally, but only 26 percent of Republicans believe the same.

Exit polls from the New York Times and others found that roughly 18 percent of black men voted for Trump in 2020, up from 13 percent in 2016. The same poll found 36 percent of Hispanic men voted for Trump in 2020, compared to 32 percent. And in the Midwest, the historical base of industry in the US, one in three black men voted for Trump, according to an NBC Exit Poll taken on November 3rd. Some 26 percent of Republican votes came from non-white voters in 2020, up five percent from 2016 and just below George W. Bush’s 2004 showing of 28 percent—itself the highest since Richard Nixon garnered 32 percent in the knife-edge 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy.

Trump’s populist, anti-progressive rhetoric included a climate skepticism unprecedented in the history of American politics. His climate statements served as an epiphany for many voters, who now believe that the environmental gains in the country from past industrial damage are largely complete, and that undermining job creation through climate-change policies hurts American workers in the future more than it helps.

It turns out that class warfare in America never went dormant; it has been going on for decades. Yet it has remained largely unnoticed, disguised as cultural conflict and cloaked in talk of political correctness and social justice. This would explain why environmental policy is often overlooked and undersold as the independent variable of this country’s underlying cultural battle. Why else would Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Accord, allowing lease activity in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, do no net damage to him at the polls?

It’s worth repeating: A climate skeptic and Arctic driller received 10 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016. And President Biden’s reversal of all three of these policies on his first day in office won’t bring new voters into the party, but will serve as a sustaining policy for true believers. Trumpism has left a mark, and it’s deep. […]

Biden’s campaign platform calls for zero emissions from power plants by 2035 and reaching net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. This action implies a dramatic upending of potentially millions of working-class jobs—not just in manufacturing and energy production, but also in transportation, utilities, and business services as well. By returning to the Obama Administration’s focus on climate regulations that includes carbon markets and cap-and-trade, the Biden White House will simply produce another market for financial speculation and another round of factory reshuffling, leaving American workers poorer and less well employed.

A cynic might even suggest the language of identity politics that drives so much elite political debate in this country is simply a diversion by the winners of the last decades of policy decisions to distract from the legitimate grievances of the losers. It turns out that Trump’s powerful class rhetoric could compete and even win votes against the progressive preoccupation with identity that has grown throughout the past decade.

The next four years will decide whether this shift of working class voters toward Republicans can outlast Trump, and with it a more explicit rejection of the uneven, unfair environmental policies pushed so aggressively by the Left. A “multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition” as described by Senator Marco Rubio and others in the wake of last November’s election would be “narrative changing” to say the least, and of great consequence to the country’s long-term social stability.

That such a new coalition would influence America’s future environmental policy choices is a forgone conclusion, and a weakened saliency of environmental policy would again surprise every determinist pundit in this country over the past 20 years.

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