Article: The Political Divide on Climate Change: Partisan Polarization Widens in the U.S.

Climate Change, Political Science/Policy // 10 mins

The November 2008 election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States created great optimism among supporters of many progressive causes, including environmental protection and action on climate change. Obama’s victory marked the end of the George W. Bush Administration, widely viewed as the most anti-environmental administration in our nation’s history,1 based in part on its record of denying the significance of human-caused climate change and blocking federal action to deal with it.2 It also coincided with growing societal attention to climate change.

Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, released in 2006 and published in book form the following year, received considerable attention, and its message was buttressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 Fourth Assessment Report proclaiming that the evidence for global warming was “unequivocal” and that it is “very likely” due to human activities. The impact of both was heightened in 2007 when An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, and Gore and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize. By the following year public concern about global warming rose to levels not seen since the late 1990s— prior to 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s “war on terror.”3

Political scientists Deborah Lynn Guber and Christopher J. Bosso capture the situation when stating, “The year 2007—with its unlikely fusion of science, politics and old-fashioned Hollywood glamour—had seemed to mark a long-awaited tipping point for climate change,” a window of opportunity reinforced by growing corporate acceptance of the necessity of limiting greenhouse gas emissions and a multitude of climate actions plans passed at the regional, state, and local levels.4 They continue, “Thus it was, for a fleeting moment that American environmentalism stood at a crossroads, burning with the momentum needed to enact change in U.S. energy and climate policies. And, yet, two short years later, the pendulum had swung back with stunning speed and brutal force.”5 Similarly, after also noting the optimism prompted by Obama’s election, another political scientist, the late Judith Layzer, noted, “Almost immediately after Obama’s election … the prospects for climate change legislation began to deteriorate.”6

Many autopsies of the death of federal legislation aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions have been written, highlighting the Obama Administration’s initial failure to prioritize it, national environmental organizations’ reliance on partnering with corporate leaders rather than building grass-roots support, an upsurge in organized climate change denial, and of course the declining salience of climate change and most other issues in the face of our nation’s severe economic recession.7 But another critical factor was the growing degree of partisan polarization in the United States, a phenomenon that escalated significantly in response to Obama’s election.8 Indeed, we now know that during the evening of Obama’s inauguration, Republican leaders were strategizing over dinner about how best to undermine his administration, in retrospect making his early overtures for bipartisanship both futile and naive.9

The Escalation of Partisan Polarization in the United States

Partisan polarization had been building in recent decades, leading Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole to argue, “Even the most casual observer of American politics cannot help but notice that partisan conflict has grown sharper, unrelenting, and more ideological over recent decades.”10 This has resulted from both political elites and—to a lesser but noticeable degree—much of the public viewing a growing number of issues along a single liberal-conservative continuum, and from this ideological axis becoming increasingly aligned with partisan identification.11 While political scholars are debating the degree to which this is a top-down process, in which elites provide cues that party followers adopt, or a bottom-up process, in which party activists and primary voters push candidates and elected officials to adopt more extreme views, the result has clearly been increased “party sorting” in which voters are falling into ever-more-distinct partisan camps.12

Lilliana Mason recently suggested that partisan polarization has been strengthened by the growing tendency of individual Americans to treat party identification as a “social identity,” whereby being Republican or Democrat is increasingly important in how they see themselves.13 As partisan and ideological identities become aligned (producing conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats), the effect of political identity becomes stronger. “Partisans … do not need to hold wildly extreme issue positions in order to be biased against and angry with their opponents,” notes Mason, “They simply need to hold aligned partisan identities.”14 This line of argument is complemented by the notion of “negative partisanship” put forth by Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven Webster, who argue that “supporters of each party have come to perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics, political beliefs and values and to view opposing partisans with growing suspicion and hostility.”15 The result is that “the greatest concern of party supporters is preventing the opposing party from gaining power.”16

The political scientists just described and other analysts indicate that the Republican (GOP) shift to the right has exceeded the Democratic shift leftward, and thus contributed disproportionately to this polarization.17 This tendency became especially apparent as the Tea Party-led anti-Obama backlash, funded by conservative elites such as Charles and David Koch, helped push Republicans further rightward.18 Indeed, Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez document how a network of conservative mega-donors (led by the Koch brothers) has created a shadow GOP, reducing the influence of the Republican National Committee by funding a wide array of organizations (including Americans for Prosperity, a major force behind the Tea Party) that both support Republican candidates and push them to endorse extremely conservative views.19

Regardless of the specific mechanisms responsible, it is clear that the Republican Party has moved significantly to the right, and its recent electoral victories in Congress and state legislatures have enabled successful opposition to the fleeting Democratic command of Congress in 2009 and most Obama Administration policies since then. In the process the GOP has quashed the optimism that backers of progressive causes held at the end of 2008, including the hope for federal action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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