Campaign Crawlers

Change We Can’t Believe In

Why voters didn't go green in this election.

By and 11.17.08

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Economists often talk about "revealed preferences." If Uncle Stu says that he wants to watch his weight but continues to gorge himself like a wild boar, it's clear that his preference to eat outweighs any desire to drop a few pounds.

Similarly, although this election was viewed as a victory for the environmental movement, it also revealed an important truth about how most Americans view environmental issues. They may agree that protecting the environment is important in the abstract but when they go into the voting booth they weigh green initiatives against other concerns and often refuse to cast green ballots.

California Propositions 7 and 10 would have pumped resources into renewable energy and natural-gas powered vehicles, respectively. The state's voters, supposedly among the most eco-friendly citizens in the nation, rejected the measures.

Likewise, greenish Colorado voters rejected a tax on the oil and gas industries that would have funneled money to cleaner energy. Why did two of the most exquisitely environmentally sensitive states in nation end up voting against the environmentalists?

It probably boils down to one fairly straightforward explanation. The environmental issues on the ballot cost money and those costs will hit people where it hurts the most -- in their shrinking wallets.

"There are no atheists in foxholes," goes the old saying. Without being quite so categorical, we can say there are remarkably few environmentalists at the ballot box. It turns out that, in the anonymity and quiet of the voting booth, people care more about putting food on the table and covering their kids' college tuition than they do about being "green."

This is nothing new. Californians voted down Proposition 87 in 2006, a tax on oil companies and a special fund for renewable energy. In 2005, they failed to pass proposition 80, which would have required that more of people's electricity needs be supplied by expensive renewable energy.

The timing of the elections doesn't seem to make a difference when it comes to defeating these measures. This year and 2006 were good years for green-leaning Democrats. They captured and increased their majorities in Congress and state houses and won the White House. In 1992 and 1996, voters in Nevada and Massachusetts defeated green initiatives at the same time that Bill Clinton and Al "Earth in the Balance" Gore were having a remarkably good time of it.

This contradiction can fool people, even pollsters. Few predicted that this year's green ballot initiatives would fail as they did, especially given the overwhelming majority that transformed Senator Barack Obama into President-Elect Obama. The weekend before the election, the Sacramento Bee had Proposition 10 favored for passage by 49% to 39% of likely voters. In fact, it got clobbered 40.2% to 59.8%.

One explanation for the victory for green politicians but not green initiatives is that democracy is a blunt instrument. When we vote for politicians, we simply cannot vote on every issue on which they have stated a position. This year, voters were more worried about the economy, the war, the stock market, and the amount of money spent on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's wardrobe, than on whether we'll all be driving Priuses by 2020.

The 2008 elections have been interpreted as a green mandate. Congress now looks set to proceed with green jobs initiatives, renewable portfolio standards, Kyoto II, and cap and trade, among other things. These bills may meet very little resistance and even the ones that fail initially will be retooled and sent back for passage.

Congress will do this because voters are said to be demanding "change" on environmental issues. But many supposedly green voters already had a chance to vote on that kind of change. They said no.

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About the Author

Eric Heidenreich is a writer in Alexandria, Virginia.

About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.