THE REPUBLICAN REVERSAL: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump. By James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg. Harvard University Press, 270 pages. $27.95.
The Republican Party once was the more “liberal” of America’s two major political parties. It began life as the party for civil rights. For a time — recall “Teddy” Roosevelt’s conservation accomplishments and Richard Nixon’s creation of the EPA — it was the party that championed environmental protection. That’s not the case today. What happened?
Roanoke native James Morton Turner and co-author Andrew Isenberg provide the answers in “The Republican Reversal,” a timely new book from Harvard University Press.
It zeroes in on the 180-degree change that has taken place in the Republican Party’s policy positions on these matters, exemplified by Trump’s campaign pledge to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and his dismissal of climate science. They note that Trump’s environmental agenda “put him in lockstep with many of his Republican contemporaries.”
Let’s review some history. The Republican Party was organized in 1854 to stop the spread of slavery into new states. Its 1860 candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln, guided the Union to victory in the Civil War and abolished slavery. Republican New York Gov. William H. Seward, who vied with Lincoln for the Republican nomination, called for welcoming immigrants. In his 1861 message to Congress, President Lincoln said the essential reason for preserving the central government was “to lift the artificial weights from all shoulders, elevate the condition of men, and afford all a fair chance in the race of life.” After the Civil War, Republicans in the South formed local clubs to fight the Ku Klux Klan. Republicans fought for minorities’ civil rights.
On the environmental front, progressive “wilderness warrior” Republican President Theodore Roosevelt jump-started the multi-million-acre national park, wildlife refuge and forest systems. Republican New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and like-minded liberal Republican U.S. senators from California and the northeast states — the “Rockefeller Republicans” — were strong environmentalists. When I lobbied on “the Hill” for wilderness- and wildlife-protection legislation on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation and The Wilderness Society in the 1960s, I received as much support from Republican members of Congress as from Democrats. The votes on foundational environmental protection laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and the Endangered Species Act were practically unanimous in support.
In the 1960s and ’70s, strong laws to protect the environment were supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle. It was a non-partisan issue. Publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and college campus teach-ins on Earth Day created an educated public, ready to see that the air it breathed, the water it drank, and the land on which it recreated were made clean and that their good health was protected by strong federal laws.
Much has changed. Today, protecting the environment has become a sharply partisan issue. Daily we read such headlines as “EPA targets Obama-era regulations,” “Trump’s border wall will hurt Texas wildlife,” and “Trump administration resists global climate efforts at home and overseas.”
In “The Republican Reversal,” Turner and Isenberg explain the Republican Party’s turnabout. It began with the emergence of a coalition of pro-business, libertarian and anti-federalist voters who linked the interests of big corporate donors with states’ rights activism and small businessmen’s distrust of federal regulations. Business billionaires funded think tanks to produce studies denouncing federal environmental regulation as economically harmful, constitutionally suspect and unchristian, in line with evangelical views of man’s God-given domination of the Earth.
Turner and Isenberg describe the conservative switcharoo on the environment as one of the most profound turnabouts in modern American political history. It is emblematic, they argue, of Republicans’ unwavering faith in the market, their skepticism of scientific and technocratic elites, and their belief in American exceptionalism, the party’s distinguishing characteristics today.
In narrating this story, Turner and Isenberg strive to be even-handed, noting that “Republicans who came to oppose environmentalists and the policies they advanced saw themselves as common-sense realists unwilling to defer to elite scientists, ready to set aside their emotions, and committed to keeping the nation’s core priorities — for individual freedom, economic growth and international competitiveness — at the forefront of their agenda.” So both sides of the story are told. It’s a clear-eyed overview of an important current political phenomenon that deserves a large audience.
Turner grew up in Roanoke. He attended Patrick Henry High School and Princeton University and is an associate professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College. Isenberg is the Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas and is the author of many books about the American West.