Conservatives Before and After Earth Day

Not long ago, Republicans could take pride in their party’s tradition of environmental leadership. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the GOP helped to create the Environmental Protection Agency, extend the Clean Air Act, and protect endangered species. Today, as Republicans denounce climate change as a “hoax” and seek to dismantle the environmental regulatory state they worked to build, we are left to wonder: What happened? In The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg show that the party’s transformation began in the late 1970s, with the emergence of a new alliance of pro-business, libertarian, and anti-federalist voters. This coalition came about through a concerted effort by politicians and business leaders, abetted by intellectuals and policy experts, to link the commercial interests of big corporate donors with states’-rights activism and Main Street regulatory distrust. Fiscal conservatives embraced cost-benefit analysis to counter earlier models of environmental policy making, and business tycoons funded think tanks to denounce federal environmental regulation as economically harmful, constitutionally suspect, and unchristian, thereby appealing to evangelical views of man’s God-given dominion of the Earth. Here is a brief excerpt looking at the origins of conservatism and environmentalism and the passing of The Wilderness Act.

Few movements in recent American political history have been as consequential as either conservatism or environmentalism, and few have such muddled origins. When environmentalists narrate the beginning of their movement, they variously point to moments dispersed from the early 1950s to the early 1970s. Some locate the origins of environmentalism in the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society’s fight, waged between 1950 and 1955, to prevent the federal government from building a dam on the Green River within the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. Still more believe that the movement started in 1962, with the publication of Silent Spring, the biologist Rachel Carson’s blockbuster exposé of chemical pesticides. To others, the movement did not begin in earnest until the first Earth Day in 1970, which drew 20 million participants to a “teach-in” at hundreds of locations across the United States.

The first important legislative success for the environmental movement — and, as such, another foundational moment of environmentalism — was the Wilderness Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on September 3, 1964. The act was neither the first environmental law nor the most important. Yet the scope and ambitions of the Wilderness Act were strikingly new. The law immediately set aside 9.1 million acres of federal land as part of a new National Wilderness Preservation System. Defining wilderness as places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” the law largely barred industries such as mining and logging from the newly designated wilderness areas. Over the next decade, environmental policymakers would amplify this approach into what would become a defining quality of environmental laws: a “legal trump,” that prioritized environmental quality over economic interests. Congress would create wide-ranging legal trumps in environmental laws it enacted in the early 1970s, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Moreover, the Wilderness Act mandated that the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior review other roadless areas in the national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges to assess their suitability for inclusion in the wilderness system. Before the secretaries could submit such recommendations to Congress, the law, in what would become another defining quality of environmental regulations, required the agencies to provide public notice and hold hearings, setting an important precedent for citizen involvement in environmental decision making.

The Wilderness Act, like most environmental laws in the 1960s and early 1970s, enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Representative John Saylor (R-Pennsylvania) introduced the bill in the House; Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) introduced the Senate version of the bill. Its staunchest foe was a Democrat, Representative Wayne Aspinall of Colorado, who worried about the law’s consequences for economic development in the West, where much of the land proposed as wilderness was located. Saylor’s support for wilderness protection was entirely in keeping with the traditions of the Republican Party. From the time of its founding in 1854, the Republican Party had favored industry, championing legislation liberalizing access to natural resources — largely in the West — in order to stimulate industrial development. Yet the first Republican in the White House, Abraham Lincoln, deeded Yosemite Valley to the state of California for “public use, resort, and recreation.” In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park. In 1891, Benjamin Harrison created the first national forest reserves — later re- named the National Forests. Theodore Roosevelt dwarfed his predecessors in protecting public lands: he created 150 national forests, fifty-one bird preserves, four game preserves, and five national parks. Altogether, he set aside roughly 230 million acres of land, more than any president, Republican or Democrat, before or since. In short, in the century preceding the passage of the Wilderness Act, the Republican Party had a stronger claim to be the party of environmental protection than the Democrats. In 1964, both parties supported the Wilderness Act enthusiastically. The House of Representatives voted in favor of the law 373–1. In the Senate, the vote was 73–12.

One of the twelve senators to vote against the law was the Republican Party’s leading conservative, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. He had risen rapidly from being an outspoken conservative critic of the New Deal in the 1930s, to a member of the Phoenix city council at the head of a nominally nonpartisan party of business leaders in the late 1940s, to the U.S Senate in the early 1950s. Because the Wilderness Act empowered officials in the Interior and Agriculture departments to identify public lands for review, Goldwater feared that the law concentrated power in the executive branch. Perhaps more importantly, like the Democrat and fellow westerner Aspinall, he believed that the legal trumps embedded in the law would slow economic growth by withdrawing land — notably mineral resources and timberland in the western United States — from development. In the summer of 1964, Goldwater had a prominent public platform from which to articulate these conservative principles. Exactly seven weeks before Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, Goldwater accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for president of the United States, delivering an acceptance speech that has become infamous for its invocation of what would become a refrain of conservatism: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” In that speech, Goldwater argued that the state was not the protector of American liberty but its enemy: “Those who seek to live your lives for you . . . who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen . . . who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good . . . are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies.” Whether the state was Johnson’s Great Society or Soviet Communism (and Goldwater viewed the former as merely a milder version of the latter), the only antidote to the expanding power of liberty-and-soul-destroying statism was capitalism. “We see, in private property and in economy based upon and fostering private property, the one way to make government a durable ally of the whole man, rather than his determined enemy. We see in the sanctity of private property the only durable foundation for constitutional government in a free society.” Although Johnson trounced Goldwater in the 1964 election, winning 43 million votes to Goldwater’s 27 million, conservatives looked to Goldwater’s nomination in 1964, as many environmentalists looked to the Wilderness Act that same summer, as a foundational moment in their movement.

Just as environmentalism did not spring into being with the signing of the Wilderness Act in 1964, conservatism did not simply begin with Goldwater’s nomination that same summer. Republican conservatism first emerged in the 1930s alongside and in opposition to the liberal consensus of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Capitalism, according to the New Dealers, aggregated economic power to itself, and it thus fell to the federal state to protect the economic liberties of ordinary people from the power of capitalists. Roosevelt’s liberalism aimed to position the federal government as, according to one of the early historians of the New Deal, a “broker state” that would insulate workers, farmers, and consumers from the vicissitudes of capitalism, and thus prevent not only another economic collapse like the one that began in 1929, but the attendant social chaos that had fueled the rise of fascism in Europe. By contrast, the conservatives who emerged in the 1930s saw the state’s aggregation of power as the real problem, and they looked to capitalism to protect ordinary people’s economic and political liberties. Running for a U.S. Senate seat from Ohio in 1938, Robert Taft, the son of the progressive Republican president William Howard Taft, used, for the first time in American politics, the term “conservative” to describe his opposition to Roosevelt. The planned economy of the New Deal, Taft argued, “violated every constitutional principle.” By imperiling property rights, Taft believed, the New Deal threatened fundamental American liberties.

By the time Taft declared himself to be a conservative, business leaders had been stirring up opposition to the New Deal for several years, providing funds to found organizations that, while nominally nonpartisan, promoted the interests of business against New Deal regulation. In 1934, the wealthy du Pont family helped to create one such group, the American Liberty League, an organization committed to protecting what it saw as constitutional guarantees of private property in the face of the New Deal state. In 1938, Lewis H. Brown, the president of the asbestos manufacturer Johns-Manville, founded the American Enterprise Association (renamed the American Enterprise Institute in 1962), a think tank devoted to limited government and free enterprise. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and the du Ponts contributed funds to the AEA in its early years; Phyllis Schlafly, who became a prominent anti-feminist in the 1970s, was a staffer; the Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist Milton Friedman eventually served on the advisory board. Older business organizations, notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which initially supported Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, be- came increasingly opposed to New Deal regulations. During his 1932 campaign, Roosevelt had inveighed against privately owned electrical utilities, which controlled 80 percent of the electricity market, for the high rates they charged consumers. In 1933, electric utilities joined together to form the Edison Electric Institute to combat regulation. In 1943, Leonard Read, the head of the Western Division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, founded a journal, the Economic Sentinel, in which pro-capitalist critics of the New Deal could publish their work. Altogether, it was, according to the historian Kim Phillips-Fein, “the start of a new kind of ideological mobilization.”

Ironically, although conservative Republicans such as Taft and Goldwater saw themselves as exemplifying intrinsic American values, much of the new conservative ideology that business interests sought to mobilize was a European import. The foundational text of American conservatism was The Road to Serfdom, by the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek argued that when a state undertakes central economic planning, however well meaning it may be at the outset, it inevitably erodes individual liberties. In the wake of the Nazis’ election to power and the ascendance of other authoritarians in Europe in the 1930s, Hayek and his mentor, Ludwig von Mises, scorned the idea that democratic government could protect freedoms; Hayek dismissed faith in democracy as a “fashionable concentration.” Choices one made in the marketplace, however, unlike those one made in the voting booth, were hard-earned, and thus reflected what one truly valued. For Hayek, a government, even a democratically elected one, imposed on the liberties that the market made possible when it meddled in the economy. The free market, Hayek therefore argued, was not merely a guarantor of economic freedom but more importantly political freedom. “The substitution of central planning for competition” not only constrains economic choices, Hayek argued, but “could not stop at what we regard as our economic activities,” leading the state inevitably to totalitarianism.

Hayek wrote the book in 1944 while teaching at the London School of Economics as an exile from Hitler’s Anschluss. The book was popular in the United States; Reader’s Digest published an abridged edition in April 1945. In 1950, Hayek moved to the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he taught until 1962. His salary, however, was paid not by the university but by the William Volker Fund, a Kansas City-based charity that promoted free market values. Hayek was by no means averse to courting the support of wealthy business elites. In 1947, he and a group of like-minded economists who believed that a competitive free market was the foundation of a free society founded the Mont Pèlerin Society in Switzerland. Jasper Crane, an executive vice-president at DuPont Chemical, convinced Hayek to invite American corporate leaders to join his society. By the mid-1950s, J. Howard Pew, the president of Sun Oil (later Sunoco), and George Koether of U.S. Steel, among others, had joined. Hayek’s teaching and writings influenced generations of conservative economists and policymakers, notably his fellow University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who served not only on the advisory board of the American Enterprise Institute but on Ronald Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board, and David Stockman, Reagan’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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