Fighting Back: Narrow Issues vs Core Values

In ‘I Have a Nightmare’, Nicholas Kristoff writes about the essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” seemingly without having read it to the end. Kristoff writes that the environmental movement lost credibility by making alarming claims that haven’t come true. He writes,

“The Death of Environmentalism” notes that a poll in 2000 found that 41 percent of Americans considered environmental activists to be “extremists.” There are many sensible environmentalists, of course, but overzealous ones have tarred the entire field.”

Is Kristoff unaware that there is a well-funded right-wing movement in this country that uses lies, smears and humiliation as a primary tactic to sway public opinion? “Extremist” is the wording the Right uses to discredit environmentalists, and Rush Limbaugh uses to describe environmentalists on his 20-some-million-listener radio show. No wonder 41 percent of Americans use the word! But Kristoff unintentionally echoes the “conventional wisdom” of the Right’s smear campaign — it’s environmentalists’ fault people think they’re “extremists” because they scream “the sky is falling” like Chicken Littles. It’s like saying “if only Jews [blacks, gays, women, etc.] didn’t act that way people wouldn’t hate them.”

What I took from the “The Death of Environmentalism” was that the authors think money spent promoting environmental issues might be better spent, in the current climate of public attitudes, on fighting the Right at a deeper level, promoting core Progressive values to the general public, to foster development of a sustainable political coalition to elect candidates who support environmentalism.

Read the essay, judge for yourself. From its conclusions:

While it’s obvious that conservatives control all three branches of government and the terms of most political debates, it’s not obvious why. This is because environmentalists and other liberals have convinced themselves that, in politics, “the issues” matter and that the public is with us on categories such as “the environment” and “jobs” and “heath care.” What explains how we can simultaneously be “winning on the issues” and losing so badly politically?

[. . .] Conservative foundations and think tanks have spent 40 years getting clear about what they want (their vision) and what they stand for (their values).

[. . .] Environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defining themselves against conservative values like cost-benefit accounting, smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade, without ever articulating a coherent morality we can call our own. Most of the intellectuals who staff environmental groups are so repelled by the right’s values that we have assiduously avoided examining our own in a serious way. Environmentalists and other liberals tend to see values as a distraction from “the real issues” — environmental problems like global warming.

[. . .] If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics. Doing so is crucial if we are to build the political momentum — a sustaining movement — to pass and implement the legislation that will achieve action on global warming and other issues.

Read the entire essay. It represents an important turning point in Progressive thinking about promoting narrow-interest issues v.s. core values.