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Sierra Magazine

Why Vote?

This November all three branches of government are up for grabs. We could win this time.

By Carl Pope and Paul Rauber

Here it is, the bright new millennium, but many environmentalists are sunk in gloom. Even though the Democratic presidential nominee is famous eco-wonk Al Gore, author of the (newly reissued) call to action Earth in the Balance and chief lobbyist for environmental issues in the Clinton White House, many green voters are in a sulk, recalling every dashed hope and disappointment of the last eight years.

Some are lured by the call of the Green Party candidate, legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who promises to out-green Gore. Many of Nader's positions, after all, directly mirror those of the Sierra Club. For example, says Nader, "I don't believe there should be any logging in the federal forests, period." He speaks out against corporate power, for strong automobile fuel-economy standards, and promises that he wouldn't sign any international trade agreements without strong protections for labor and the environment.

Sounds great. One small problem: no one-least of all Nader-thinks he's going to get elected. His campaign would be a success, he says, if he wins 5 percent of the popular vote, which would qualify the Green Party for $5 million in federal matching funds, making it better able to compete in 2004. Polls show Nader hovering near that 5 percent figure, winning as much as 10 percent in some western states. According to pollster John Zogby, two out of three voters who are likely to vote for Nader would otherwise vote for Gore. (The other third probably wouldn't vote at all.)

That's good news for the Green Party, but bad news for the environment. Because even should he fall short of 5 percent, if Nader takes enough votes away from Gore in a few closely contested states, it's hail to the chief, George W. Bush.

If environmental voters throw the election to Bush, they will be casting away the opportunity of a lifetime. This November, the electoral planets have aligned themselves so as to make major change possible, with all three branches of government in play as they have not been since 1952.

Despite the symbolic importance of the presidency, it is only one-third of our government structure. Even a President Nader, faced with a recalcitrant Congress and querulous Supreme Court, would find it impossible to implement his environmental dreams. But a shift of as few as a dozen seats could rid us of the anti-environmental Republican leadership in the House and Senate. With a new leadership that would work with environmentalists of both parties, Congress could once again pass desperately needed landmark legislation. And with a sympathetic president and Congress, we might finally get some environmental advocates on the Supreme Court. Sierra Club members could play an important role in making it happen-or not.

When power is divided, as it has been since 1994, the checks and balances of government make for legislative stalemate. President Clinton, for example, was able to veto or block the worst anti-environmental excesses of recent congresses, but visionary proposals remained bogged down in hostile committees. Clinton and Gore have often been criticized by environmentalists who complain that they didn't accomplish more. But faced with the most anti-environmental Congress in decades, the only way they could have implemented their good intentions would have been by mimicking Boris Yeltsin, abolishing Congress, and ruling by decree. Absent a Green Czar who would ban clearcutting, internal combustion, and baconburgers by fiat, change will come at its customary incremental pace.

This year, however, given the narrow balance of power in Congress, the possibilities for change are far greater than usual. A green president working with a greener Congress could, for example, move on long-delayed wilderness designations, end commercial logging in the national forests, bring down antiquated dams before historic salmon runs go extinct, stop the production of deadly dioxins, and slow the sprawl of our cities (see "Thinking Big," January/February). It wouldn't all happen at once, but at least we could finally see what progress looked like.

The next president and Congress will also determine the future direction of the Supreme Court. At present, the court is divided between conservatives and moderates. (There hasn't been an environmental champion on the bench since William O. Douglas stepped down in 1975.) Three of the nine justices are now over 70, two of them in ill health. The next president will stamp the legal future for a generation, making as many as four high-court appointments. If Bush wins, Chief Justice William Rehnquist is likely to retire, leaving Justice Antonin Scalia-the most anti-environmental voice on the court-likely to fill his shoes. On the other hand, should Gore win, Scalia has hinted that he may step down from the bench and return to private life.

The prospect of a Bush presidency and a Scalia Supreme Court doesn't bother Ralph Nader, who purports to see little practical difference between Gore and Bush. Both parties, he says, "are so marinated in big-business money they can't be internally reformed." A Bush presidency, Nader says, would be a salutary "cold shower" for the Democratic Party. The implication is that it would either force the Democratic Party to the left or precipitate its decline and fall, whereupon it would be superseded by the insurgent Greens.

As political posturing, Nader's position is perfectly understandable. As a strategy for dealing with critical environmental problems, it is pure fantasy. Suppose that Nader's dream comes true and he wins enough environmentalist votes to teach the Democrats a lesson. Just how cold will that shower be for the next four (or possibly eight) years? Consider that when asked by pollsters, four out of five Americans call themselves "environmentalists." Yet George W. can't bear to let the e-word pass his lips; he will only go so far as to say that he is "someone who cares deeply about clean air and clean water." If so, he has a funny way of showing it. The air quality of Houston is now the worst in the nation, and Bush's Texas appointees are actively lobbying to weaken federal enforcement of the Clean Air Act. As president, Bush says that he would reverse President Clinton's wild-forest initiative and open up the last roadless areas in our national forests to logging. He's already raised a million dollars after meeting with timber industry executives in Oregon. ("Industry officials say the meeting shows how much the industry fears Vice President Gore," the Portland Oregonian noted.)

Bush also opposes the new national monuments approved in the Clinton-Gore years, and since their management plans are still unwritten, his administration could undermine the new designations. During his stint as governor, not one square foot of new parkland was purchased in Texas, and the state ranked 49th in per capita spending on state parks. One of his advisors, economist Terry Anderson, has even proposed privatizing and selling off the national parks-including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon. ("Why should the crown jewels be different?" asks Anderson.)

The cold shower would also wash away the inland West's wild salmon, since Bush adamantly opposes removing the four Snake River dams. (He opposes, in fact, removing any dams anywhere.) He also wants to eliminate polluters' responsibility to clean up toxic waste sites, and lower the bar for whoever ultimately does the dirty work. In short, Bush could be expected to manage the nation's environment much as he has managed that of Texas, which leads the nation in industrial toxic air pollution and in the number of facilities that violate clean-water standards.

In addition, should hostile Republicans retain control of Congress, Bush would have a freedom not experienced by a Republican president since Eisenhower. How might he use it? Already this March, Representative John Doolittle (R-Calif.) was sending a letter around to conservative think tanks and industry associations soliciting items that "a new president can enact immediately upon taking office to go on the offensive against the 'extreme environmentalists.' "

"What I'm looking to do," wrote Doolittle, "is not merely reverse the damage done but to enable the executive branch to counter that entire movement." He refused to release the responses to his little survey, but it's not hard to imagine the elements of such an "offensive": oil rigs covering the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; no more new national monument designations, and challenges to old ones; replacement of tough pollution regulations with "voluntary" standards, and an end to U.S. participation in efforts to curb global warming.

Governors who become president carry their state with them like an overstuffed suitcase. Franklin Roosevelt brought from Albany the sense of empowerment and grandeur that infused his first inaugural in the depths of the Depression, a sense that government was important and effective and should aspire to large things. Ronald Reagan imported from Hollywood the primacy of image over substance, pioneering the scenic photo-op while simultaneously planning to sell off public lands.

And George W.? In Texas, big corporations (especially Big Oil) are the unchallenged kings. ("You can't be too close to the oil industry," Bush once said.) Government, on the other hand, is an irritating imposition, like speed limits, that holds people back. The prevailing political culture in Texas is so antagonistic toward government power that few expect it to do anything about poverty, health care, or pollution. (One can argue whether this political culture made government in Texas ineffective, or a century and a half of ineffectiveness has created the culture, but they now reinforce each other.)

As a consequence, in addition to the worst air pollution, Texas also has the nation's highest rate of toxic waste production, the most odious factory farms and feedlots, and some of the worst public health and public educational systems. In The New York Times, Bush's environmental spokesperson Andrew Sansom explained that "Texas is not California. . . . There's no groundswell of support for environmental issues." When we point out the dismal state of the environment in Texas, Bush only whines that the Sierra Club should "stop polluting my record."

Bush's slogan, "compassionate conservatism," echoes his father's "kinder, gentler America." Both are attitudes, not programs. Bush doesn't celebrate polluted streams and asthmatic children; he may wish things were different, but he does not think it is the job of government to make them so. The Dallas Morning News reported that out of 461 polluting plants in Texas that didn't face mandatory state or federal emission cuts, only 30 responded to his vaunted voluntary program to clean up the state's air, a sorry result that flows logically from compassionate conservatism. The compassion may be real-it simply doesn't conserve anything.

The election of 2000 is about two profoundly different visions of the role of government. Bush's view is that it has little role at all. Gore, on the other hand, is heir to the tradition of progressive Southern Democrats who left the statehouses, went to Washington, and learned to see government as a powerful instrument to transform the South economically and racially. (The opposite impulse among Southern Democrats was to pander to the lowest instincts of their states. To be a senator from the South in the civil-rights era was to face moral choices with great real-world consequences.)

Gore is also painfully aware of the fate of those who got too far in front of their constituents. His own father, Albert Gore, Sr., lost his seat in the Senate because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. The harrowing experience of watching his father's political destruction instilled in Gore the caution that may be his greatest political liability. While Americans are not always ready to go along with bold new proposals, they admire strongly held beliefs. No one doubts the sincerity of Gore's environmental credo, Earth in the Balance, but his bold declaration that protecting the environment should be "the central organizing principle for civilization" made the Clinton-Gore administration's compromises and half-measures all the more glaring. Now Nader and other Gore critics are laboring to construct an image of him as the pandering type of Southern politician, hoping that his support for global free trade and reluctance to push for automobile fuel-economy standards will loom larger than his bold positions, like full protection for America's wild national forests (including Alaska's vast Tongass), a permanent moratorium on oil leases for offshore drilling in California and Florida, and serious campaign-finance reform.

Despite some significant victories in the last eight years in protecting public lands and improving air quality, we all know that change is not happening fast enough. Global temperatures continue to rise, corporations exercise ever-greater dominance over our lives, habitat for endangered species continues to shrink before advancing walls of suburban houses and malls. No wonder, then, that some frustrated environmentalists are tempted to take a "pox on both your houses" attitude and pin their hopes instead on a third party.

If voting is viewed strictly as a mirror of personal preference, then third parties-and fourth, fifth, and twenty-seventh parties-are well and good. But voting is also about selecting a government that will make a practical difference in the world, and the reality of third-party candidates in national winner-take-all systems like those in the United States or Britain is that they strengthen their enemies at the expense of their friends. Margaret Thatcher, for example, dominated British politics for 11 years, dismantling the country's traditionally strong labor unions and welfare state, without once achieving a popular majority. How? Because an alliance of two moderate parties, the Liberals and the Social Democrats, pulled enough votes from Labour to elect-and twice re-elect-the Conservative Iron Lady. In this country, centrist outsider John Anderson helped Ronald Reagan defeat Jimmy Carter in 1980, and wacky conservative Ross Perot helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992. In fact, the last U.S. third party that didn't either backfire or dwindle to irrelevance was the GOP itself, which supplanted the Whigs in the 1840s.

If taking a cold shower with Ralph Nader were the only available way to open up the two parties to new ideas, or to end their thralldom to old corruptions, it might be worth the chance. But America's political parties change all the time. In the '50s, the Republicans were more supportive of civil rights than the southern-dominated Democrats; over the next 20 years, a complete reversal took place. By 1978, the liberal GOP (the original home of environmentalism in California) had pretty much ceased to exist. In the '90s, Clinton moved the Democrats away from their traditional liberal consensus.

These transformations were not the result of, or even reactions to, third-party challenges. Rather, highly motivated constituencies inside the parties worked to change them. Late environmental hero Edmund Muskie built the Maine Democratic Party one district at a time. Ronald Reagan's operatives systematically out-organized Republican moderates in California for a decade, eventually routing them entirely. And in state after state, the religious right began its takeover of the Republican Party with local school boards. In American politics, revolution comes from within.

When Clinton and Gore were elected eight years ago, many environmentalists thought that internal revolution would be handed to them. It was not, and frustrated hopes have left many in a grumpy mood, as pessimistic about the possibilities of enlightened governance as any libertarian Texan. But past disappointments should not blind us to the historic opportunity before us to clean up our air and water, heal our cities, and protect our natural treasures. Real people, forests, and wild creatures will be significantly better or worse off depending on what happens November 7. The responsibility isn't with far-off politicians or bureaucrats; it's with each of us in the voting booth.

Follow the Money

Ralph Nader insists that there is no essential difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Funny, the folks who finance the political campaigns don't have any trouble identifying which candidate is most likely to serve their interests. Campaign contributions as of June 1 were:

Bush    $2,148,624
Gore    240,350
Bush    1,463,799
Gore    95,460
Bush    3,472,821
Gore    920,938
Bush    3,661,372
Gore    1,213,310
Bush    1,019,581
Gore    79,085
Bush    17,750
Gore    78,800

Environmental Track Records: Gore and Bush

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club and Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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