Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Democracy, partisanship and the environment

James Crabtree has a piece in openDemocracy concerning the, to him, curious lack of impact environmental issues are likely to have in the forthcoming mid-term Congressional elections.

He argues that partisanship is a contributing factor.

Only around a quarter of Republicans believe the environment is a pressing issue, falling behind obsessions such as gay marriage, abortion and the other preoccupations of those presently engaged in the 'culture war'.

Since the Republicans in this form appear to be able to win elections on an agenda that appeals only to Republicans, Crabtree argues, the Democrats push to the right and lose the environment in the process:
"And there is a sense in which Democrats have become so electorally cautious that they fear the consequences of speaking up. One Capitol Hill staffer told me: "If you're a Democrat, the first half of every sentence you speak has to convince people you aren't a pussy. Once you've got past being tough on terrorists, or whatever, the issue you care about is always an after thought.""
There is no question that partisanship seriously disfigures the American political system so have no difficulty in believing that it gravely distorts this issue too.

However, I thought Crabtree was avoiding a more fundamental problem here. He notes that European politicians, whilst public in their piety where environmental issue are concerned, rarely deliver anything of substance to match their lofty rhetoric. The environment doesn't play significantly in elections either side of the Atlantic.

But this may be because our representative democracies are intrinsically ill-suited to issues such as these that require a view that is longer than the normal electoral cycle.

Because environmental measures such as stopping melting glaciers by reducing carbon emissions are an economic public good in the sense that no-one can be excluded from their benefits. But it is a public good which is to be deferred for some considerable time and the benefits are therefore bound to seem less tangible than more immediate ones they could be taxed for, or indeed the option of being taxed less.

In other words, environmental issues suffer from the 'Hague effect'. It wasn't that people didn't agree with him when he based his election campaign around banging on about the Euro and asylum seekers; it was just that they didn't care about them that much. Not compared to the key issues of the economy, health, education and crime.

Is environmentalism in some ways a 'post-materialist' value in the sense that people tend to worry about where their food came from or where their t-shirts came from only after they have both in abundance? And this is why it can't be sold to the electorate as the most important - or even the fifth or sixth most important - issue of the day?

Are our representatives right to assume we would always prefer to pay tax for more health care staff we could see within the lifetime of a Parliament rather than one on environmental 'bads', the benefits of which we might not see in our own lifetime?

If so, how can this problem be overcome? Not by diluting democracy - but would a system that incorporated more direct democracy be more or less able to deal with the difficulties that stem from the need for immediate electoral gratification?

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