The Republican Party seems to be slowly moving back to rational, pragmatic Republicanism. But until the Republican Party acknowledges that global warming is real and that there is a need for the federal government to help ensure clean air and water, the process won’t be complete.
Historically the pragmatic, rational wing of the party has strongly supported conservation and protecting our environment against pollution. A Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt, established our national parks system, and President Nixon signed the executive order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Yes, it was a Republican President that created the EPA.
Republicans recognized that while we should be cautious of government power, federal environmental protection laws satisfied two of the most basic roles of government: protecting individuals from harm due to the actions of others and protecting the interests of future generations. Keeping factories from discharging polluted water into streams and rivers protected the health and well-being of people living downstream. Requiring factories to clean their smokestack emissions ensured that people living in surrounding neighborhoods and communities could breathe without choking on toxic gasses. In some ways, pollution control is a very basic form of conservatism – leave it the way you found it.
Support for federal environmental protection was an extension of a broader belief in a pragmatic, rational role for the federal government that goes back to the founding of the Republican Party. Rational Republicans believed that a strong federal government was necessary to insure a strong nation and that government, just like business, could be rationalized using the scientific method to make it more efficient and effective. Historically, the Republican Party supported a role for the Federal Government that while limited was still robust and capable.
Now unfortunately, the Republican Party has become the anti-government party. Instead of believing that we can rationalize government using the scientific process, Republicans argue that the federal government is inherently incompetent and inefficient, not to be trusted with even the most basic of tasks. Instead of seeing a robust if limited role for the federal government, the Party has come to view almost every action of government as a step towards creeping Socialism.
The specter of Socialism also turned the Party away from its support of federal environmental protection. Republicans came to view the EPA as doubly dangerous. Not only was it effective at cleaning up our environment, a dangerous example of government competence, but it was also an intrusion of the federal government into management of the means of production, our factories. Republicans feared it was a short step from the government telling companies how they must produce to telling companies what they must produce. Republicans came to view the EPA as the Trojan Horse that would open the gates to an eventual government takeover of industry. And global warming, with its implicit call for global action, was a path to a socialist One World government.
The Republican Party began to portray the EPA as incompetent and inefficient, even a threat to our way of life. The Party backed away from the support for federal anti-pollution laws, instead arguing that the states were better positioned to respond to local pollution issues and that the free market – letting neighbors sue polluters – would keep our environment clean. Unable to point to a free market solution to global warming, the Party instead began to suggest it was a fraud, something made up by a scientific community intent on expanding the power of government – global warming was a socialist plot.
A great many people are trying to pull the party back to the Rational Republicanism of its past. But the process can’t be complete until the Party returns to a rational environmental policy. The free market approach was tried and failed before the EPA was formed– we are still cleaning up polluted Superfund sites from decades ago. The EPA has done a good job for our country; it is possible to pass and enforce federal anti-pollution laws without moving towards socialism. It is also possible to accept the science of global warming without supporting the current proposed remedy of shipping billions of dollars to third world countries. Until the Party acknowledges that yes, the federal government does need to play a role in keeping our country clean voters will continue to be skeptical that the Party is returning to its rational, pragmatic roots.