Theda Skocpol on How Not to Sell Reform Initiatives

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]

The trouble is that this comes after Skocpol made the following claim:

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.

Indeed, Skocpol’s own analysis suggests that elite interests (e.g., BP and DuPont) were quite happy to live with a cap-and-trade regime. The elites that opposed the taxation of carbon-intensive energy were a mix of other energy firms, climate skeptics, people who weren’t climate skeptics but rather skeptics about the utility of carbon pricing, and political entrepreneurs who recognized that voters would likely object to carbon taxes on cost-of-living grounds. This is why investing time and energy in getting Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to back carbon pricing was a waste of time and effort: as long as middle-income voters didn’t like the idea of paying more for coal-fired electricity, advocates of carbon pricing were going to face a challenging political environment. Regardless, Skocpol’s recognition of the importance of ideological commitment among Republicans is to her credit.

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. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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