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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

September/October 2008

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A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change

Historically, support for environmental protection in the United States has been relatively nonpartisan. Republicans have pointed with pride to Theodore Roosevelt’s crucial role in promoting the conservation of natural resources by establishing national parks and forests, and Democrats have applauded Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to include conservation as part of the New Deal via the Soil Conservation Service and related programs. Especially notable was how Richard Nixon collaborated with a Democratic Congress by signing several of the United States’ most important pieces of environmental legislation into law in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The situation began to change in the early 1980s, as the Reagan administration labeled environmental regulations a burden on the economy and tried to weaken them and reduce their enforcement. While this stimulated a temporary backlash from environmentalists and much of the public during Reagan’s first term, the “Reagan Revolution,” based on the theme that “government is the problem, not the solution,” provided electoral success for the Republican Party for a quarter century. The antienvironmental orientation of the Republican Party became salient again following the Newt Gingrich–led Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, sparking a modest negative reaction from the public, and has been greatly amplified during the George W. Bush administration but with little discernible political cost—probably because the war on terror and the Iraq war have until recently dominated the policy agenda. A consequence of these trends has been a growing divide along party lines over environmental protection, among other government programs.

The divide has been most noticeable among political elites, such as members of Congress, who tend to be more ideologically polarized than the general public. What had been a modest, but significant, difference in Republican and Democratic levels of pro-environmental voting in Congress since 1970 has grown over time, especially after the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. In the past decade, it has become a chasm in both the House and Senate, as reflected in recent voting scorecards issued by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV).

Nonetheless, partisan differences in support for environmental protection among the general public remained relatively modest until recently. For example, from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s, support for increased spending on environmental protection by self-identified Democrats was typically only around 10 percent higher than for self-identified Republicans. The gap began to widen in the late 1990s, likely reflecting voters’ tendency to follow cues from party leaders and political pundits. Nowhere is the partisan gap on environmental issues more apparent than on climate change.

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