Theda Skocpol, the prominent Harvard political scientist and historian of the U.S. social welfare state, makes at least two really dead-on observations in a wide-ranging interview with Brad Plumer of Wonkbook on the politics of cap-and-trade. The first is on the nature of the Republican coalition, and why environmental activists and corporate lobbyists failed to understand it:
BP: So around 2007, Republicans were becoming more skeptical of climate policy. Yet the main climate strategy in D.C. was to craft a complex cap-and-trade bill amenable to businesses like BP and DuPont in the hopes that those companies would bring in Republican votes.
TS: I think a lot of environmental groups were under the impression that the Republican Party is a creature of business, and that if you can make business allies, you can get Republicans to do something. But I don’t think the Republican Party right now is mainly influenced by business. In the House in particular, ideological groups and grassroots pressure are much more influential. And in the research we’ve done, the two big issues that really revved up primary voters were immigration and the EPA. [Emphasis added]
Climate-change denial had been an elite industry for a long time, but it finally penetrated down to conservative Republican identified voters around this time.
A better way to think about this is that climate change was a low-salience issue until it was associated with the prospect of taxes on carbon-intensive energy, at which point the issue was politicized for the obvious reason that it became a live pocketbook issue. Skocpol’s mental model appears to be that in the absence of elite “climate-change denial,” to use her term, rank-and-file voters would have happily embraced steep taxes on carbon-intensive energy on the grounds that it might reduce U.S. carbon emissions even as it had no appreciable impact on, for example, Chinese or Indian emissions. That doesn’t strike me as plausible.
Second, Skocpol makes an observation regarding the importance of giving people “a link to their lives,” something that I tried to emphasize in my recent column on “demand-side conservatism.”
BP: So is there any hope for climate policy? You spend a lot of time dissecting the failures of this pro-corporate USCAP strategy that tried and failed to woo Republicans. But you’re also skeptical of proposals from the environmental left that building grassroots pressure for climate action is sufficient in itself.
TS: At the end I talk about cap-and-dividend as a promising policy approach [i.e., a cap on emissions in which the proceeds are directly refunded to all Americans]. But I’m not endorsing any bills.
I think of that policy as tool for building a certain political coalition, one that unites around carbon controls that also have payoffs for ordinary Americans. I don’t agree that average Americans can’t grasp big issues. I’m a little different from a lot of scholars on that. But you do need to give people a link to their lives. But big insider deals are just going to turn people off. [Emphasis added]
It is important to give voters a vested interest in the success of ambitious reform proposals. If your goal is to achieve system-wide savings, be sure that the beneficiaries of an existing program capture some of the savings in the form of a tangible benefit. As we’ve discussed, this has been the big deficiency of the conservative education reform agenda, which tends to focus on choice in urban school districts while neglecting initiatives like course-level choice that would tangibly benefit middle-income school districts as well.