Populists and greens are a political alliance in waiting

US Politics: Mistrust of capitalism is a clear bond between populist and environmentalist

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg: The greenest greens equate economic and even demographic growth with the depletion of the planet.  Photograph:  Eric Baradat

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg: The greenest greens equate economic and even demographic growth with the depletion of the planet. Photograph: Eric Baradat

 

The first photographs of our planet from the moon made it look as finite and delicate as a glass ball. The images are credited in some quarters for the battery of environmental laws that passed the US Congress after 1969. Another theory behind the shift in consciousness cites a spate of earthlier events in the same year: an oil spill near Santa Barbara, a river fire in Ohio.

Whatever the emotional prodding for the green reforms, we can at least be sure of their formal enacter. It was Richard Nixon who founded the Environmental Protection Agency. It was Nixon who signed the Ocean Dumping Act and the Endangered Species Act. Elected as a populist, he authorised a tremendous growth in federal power. And he did it for a cause that even then (the era of Greenpeace’s founding and the first Earth Day) had liberal connotations.

This was incongruous enough half a century ago. It is unthinkable now. On the face of it, populists and environmentalists are the two least reconcilable movements in world politics. One defines itself against transnational governance and the other counts on it to abate climate change. One electrifies the middle-aged and older while the other mobilises the young. The crossfire between US president Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg on Twitter last month captured the acrimony in miniature.

Such is the surface tension that we miss what unites the two sides. At the core of both movements is a mistrust of capitalism. For the populist, it undermines nationhood. For the green, it imperils all life. Their lines of approach are different, but both converge on a position that is recognisably Malthusian. Populists assume that immigrants leave less of the (presumably fixed) national wealth for native-born citizens. The greenest greens equate economic and even demographic growth with the depletion of the planet. There is a measure of hokum in each claim. But it is compatible hokum. Given time, the intellectual overlap might be the stuff of a political coalition.

‘Open vs closed’

We are said to have lived through a realignment in recent years, from left versus right to former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s glib but yet-to-be-bettered “open versus closed”. The sorting process is incomplete, though. Like citizens of a hastily partitioned country, there are people stranded on the wrong side of the new line.

US president Donald Trump: Corporate Republicans swallow their qualms about his tariffs for the sake of tax cuts. Photograph: Chris Kleponis
US president Donald Trump: Corporate Republicans swallow their qualms about his tariffs for the sake of tax cuts. Photograph: Chris Kleponis

Corporate Republicans swallow their qualms about Trump’s tariffs for the sake of tax cuts. The Grand Old Party is still a union of the most pro-market people in America and the most nostalgic authoritarians. This is not – if Thunberg will excuse the phrase – sustainable. Time is likely to bring about a more coherent delineation, between those who are at ease with modernity and those who would like to unwind it some. If so, populists and environmentalists could find themselves on the same side.

In France, some of the gilets jaunes, who once howled at fuel taxes, are marching with greens. In Britain, there is a fad for agricultural autarky among your dig-for-victory kind of Brexiter.

It is natural to see this romantic conservatism as an Old World thing. But it has been a part of American thought since Thomas Jefferson envisioned an agrarian republic. Woodrow Wilson, no less than Nixon, paired backward social views with an environmental conscience. The diaries of George Kennan, the great diplomat, and a conservative if not a Republican, teem with grumbles about minorities and modern women – but also about the motor car and the despoliation of nature. To equate American conservatism with the free market is to fall foul of recency bias. The movement predates Ronald Reagan.

Beyond growth

“There is more to life than economic growth.” What stands out about this line, beyond its smarminess, is that it could come from a traditionalist as easily as from a young green. Because these tribes are so outwardly different, their collaboration seems fanciful. But then electoral coalitions are often jarring. Segregationist southerners helped to vote through the New Deal. The GOP has long reconciled rich capitalists and workers who hate trade.

If anything, an alliance of greens and populists would be more coherent, at least in substance, and perhaps even in style. Both spit the word “liberal” (or “neoliberal”) as slander. Both have what we might delicately call an extra-parliamentary wing.

No one is suggesting eyeball-to-eyeball teamwork here. Trump rallies and Extinction Rebellion marches will never blend. But each side can vote against the market without having much to do with the other. What they lack in fellow-feeling they can make up for in decisive numbers. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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