It’s hard not to feel politically impotent these days. Nearly a month ago, half a million people in New York sent a clear message to the Bush administration, and the only response was Condoleezza Rice’s statement that we should all “pull together and send a very strong message to the Iraqis” that America will not back down. It was a master example of stonewalling, but then again did anyone ever really think this administration would listen?
For every person who protested in New York, there was someone in a “red state” supporting the war. If every person in America were against the war, Bush probably would not be able to disregard the voice of the people. But just as I can understand a crime without condoning it, I can understand Bush’s unyielding stance on such a controversial issue. What I can’t understand is why Bush is taking an unyielding stance, against the opinion of the American people, on the issue of environmental protection.
Americans in blue states and red states, on both coasts and in between, are increasingly identifying protection of the environment as something they care deeply about. In the past year, the number of Americans who consider environmental protection to be the most pressing issue for the federal government has decreased as issues like terrorism and the troubled economy have taken a more central place in people’s minds. But the percentage of Americans who think that the environment is in bad shape has gone up.
A Jan. 23 Gallup poll shows that only 55 percent of Americans are “satisfied” with the state of the environment. This statistic is startling when one considers that of the eight broad categories that people were questioned about, Americans are only more dissatisfied with our “security from terrorism,” at 54 percent.
Just imagine how this opinion poll would look if Christie Whitman pulled a Tom Ridge and released “brown alerts” every time bad air blanketed a region or a chemical plant polluted a major waterway. And if anyone is tempted to think that these ratings have remained constant since the Clinton years, the polls show that there has been a slow and constant decline in environmental satisfaction since 2001.
The only reason the drop hasn’t been greater is that Bush has skillfully hidden some of his most flagrant rollbacks of environmental regulations from a public and media that is busy thinking about Osama, Saddam, Kim Jong Il, et al. It also helps that Bush releases information about some of his more controversial environmental orders at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoons, when the media is not likely to pick up on them. This tactic is infamous in the environmental NGO community.
How can we expect the American public to rally against rollbacks that they aren’t even aware of or fully understand?
Yet even if 90 percent of Americans thought Bush was not sustainably managing our environment, would it make any difference? Even if every person “dissatisfied” with the environment went to New York to protest, would we not also be patently ignored? These questions are almost irrelevant because at this point many of those “dissatisfied” Americans are not prioritizing environmental concerns to such a degree that mass protests, petitions, and letter writing campaigns are possible.
But a new kind of environmental movement is growing — a movement that sees the poll numbers and realizes that the environment may very well be the issue that can create a wedge between President Bush and a second term in office. Bush’s whole strategy for winning an election involves keeping his far-right base happy and co-opting central Democratic issues like health care and education. That way next year any Democratic candidate will have no substantive platform to distinguish himself from Bush, outside of the foreign policy arena. However, Bush will never own the environment issue, and this is a source of anxiety within his party for those Republicans who have been supportive of environmental regulations. A recent New York Times article highlighted the efforts of grass-roots Republican environmental groups and their concern that the president is shooting himself in the foot with his blatant trampling of every environmental regulation that exists.
“The administration is playing to a base of hard-core ideologues who have this bizarre notion that conservation and environmental protection are left-wing plots against the American way of life,” the article quotes Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, as saying. When the presidential election campaign swings into high gear next summer, Bush’s pandering to “hard-core ideologues” in the environmental sphere will come back to haunt him from two different directions.
Influential Northeastern senators like Lincoln Chafee, who have made environmental protection one of their core concerns, will have to push the President to modify his stance or risk losing centrist voters. And on the Democratic side, the candidates will be able to attack Bush on an issue that Americans care about and on which his performance has been inarguably horrendous. Behind the Democrats will stand a growing number of Americans who may not yet be protesting in the streets, but who will pay attention to the issue of environmental policy when it is one of the few major ways to differentiate between candidates who are increasingly agreeing on everything else.
Jack Dafoe is a junior in Morse College.