This is the third and final part of my review of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard, a seminal book about the real political boundaries of the continent. The last installment delved into the divide on climate and global warming between progressive and recalcitrant regions. This piece looks at how to break through politically in the latter. For basics on what distinguishes the 11 "American Nations" see part 1.
The gargantuan visage of Idaho Senator Larry Craig pours out from the movie theater-size screen at Boise’s conference center. It is 2003, long before Senator Wide Ride became famous for other encounters. This day, fortunately for us boys in the men's room, he is coming in by satellite from DC. Craig is talking about Idaho’s opportunities to prosper with clean energy sources such as wind and biodiesel.
The event was the third annual conference of a Northwest-based program I helped create called Harvesting Clean Energy. The program was founded on the idea that farmers and rural communities have an economic interest in clean energy. Even if they didn’t believe in global warming they could be enlisted in the solutions. Over the years we moved the conference all over the Northwest. We always made sure to invite the hosting state’s governor and congressional delegation, whatever the party affiliation. We worked with all kinds of folks, even climate skeptics.
With a couple of exceptions all the conferences took place east of the Cascade Mountains, the part Colin Woodard dubs Far West in American Nations. It didn’t take Woodard to tell us East of the Mountains is a different country culturally. In the Northwest you have to go east to get to the real west. We knew global warming was as a tough a sell on the other side of the Cascade Curtain as clean energy opportunity was attractive. So we focused Harvesting Clean Energy on the opportunity. This is how you work on climate in the Far West, by crossing political divides and looking for common ground. Even if you don’t talk much about global warming you’re focusing the solutions.
The concept proved a stunning success. The previous 2002 conference in Pasco, Washington inspired Idaho Republican Senator Mike Crapo to sponsor the first ever Energy Title of the Farm Bill. Crapo’s engagement was vital to passage. Over $2.6 billion has been appropriated to farm clean energy under the title. From 2003-12 just one piece of the Energy Title, the Renewable Energy for America Program, put nearly $400 million into farm energy efficiency, manure biodigesters, wind, solar and other clean energy projects. That leveraged over $1 billion in private investment from 2008-12 alone. Even in these harshly partisan times, the Energy Title was renewed again this year with bipartisan support.
That contrasts sharply with the partisan divide over climate. The federal climate bill failure in 2010 has left the only possibility for federal-level climate action with the Executive Branch, as Obama has done with vehicle fuel efficiency and coal plant emissions regulations. The current deadlock in Congress shows no signs of breaking, and may indeed harden with unfavorable results for Democrats in the 2014 U.S. Senate races. It seems that the summer Arctic Ocean will be ice-free and covered by blue water before Congress gets around to passing a bill to limit carbon pollution. The 2020s or something like that.
The contrast illustrates how to make progress reducing carbon pollution even in regions which resist seeing carbon as a problem. Find common ground around common values and interests. In the case of carbon and climate, build common ground on renewable energy. We may not converge on climate, but we can all agree that we like the jobs and energy independence generated by wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.
This is one of those backdoors where political opposites can meet and make alliances, even create some friendships by actually talking to one another (a declining tendency in our centrifugal politics). John Aziz’s article, “How the Tea Party came to love solar energy,” calls out, “Tea Party-leaning conservatives who like the idea of decentralized energy independent of big corporations and government. The Tea Party group supporting Barry Goldwater Jr. — a former California congressman and son of the presidential candidate of the same name — founded the lobbying organization Tell Utilities Solar won't be Killed (TUSK), which started off by fighting solar fees in Arizona, but has since expanded to Oklahoma and the rest of the United States.”
Republican Gov. Mary Fallin ultimately signed the Oklahoma solar fees bill. But she also issued an unanticipated executive order revealing the group’s influence. Fees should only be imposed as a last resort and solar expansion should be a continued priority, the governor told the state energy commission.
Could renewable energy be a keystone for a broader grassroots populist alliance in regions of the country resistant to climate action? Consider that the three “American Nations” Woodard cites as the most recalcitrant on climate were also the homeground of the 1890s Populist Party, the most vigorous movement against concentrated corporate power in U.S. history. Take a look at the two maps below.
The first map depicts Woodard’s “American Nations.” As noted in part 2 of this series, Congressional representatives from Deep South, Greater Appalachia and Far West were lined up hard against the federal climate bill when it came up in 2009.
The second map shows the electoral geography of the 1896 election when Democrat-Populist William Jennings Bryan ran against Republican William McKinley. In an almost complete flip between today's blue and red states, support for Bryan and progressive change centered in those same three Southern and Western regions.
The Populists brought together farmers, small business people and grassroots progressives to fight the power of railroads and banks. Though not immediately successful the Populist Movement laid the foundation for the reforms of the early 20thcentury Progressive Movement. Regulation of railroads, antitrust actions against monopolies, popular election of U.S. senators, progressive income taxation, popular initiative and referendum, are signature changes the Populists forwarded and the Progressives implemented. The 1890s movement created the political space that made change in the 1900s and 1910s possible.
In at least one critical aspect the grassroots right is resonant with the 1890s movement. It is suspicious of the concentrated financial power of Wall Street, and of concentrated corporate power in general. In fact 2010 election polls shows that most voters who blamed Wall Street for the economic mess voted Republican – 57% to 41%. They thought the Democrats were too close to Wall Street. It is easy to point to the many ways these same powers manipulate the grassroots to do their bidding. Completely true. But nonetheless the grassroots right doesn’t have it wrong when they see the Democrats in bed with finance capital.
As historian Judith Stein documents in her book, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, “Beginning in the 1980s, the financial services industry found a home in FDR’s party.” She recalls that under the Clinton Administration, the barrier in place between commercial and investment banking was breached with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act on the books since 1933. Financial derivatives trading was deregulated. These changes substantially created the 2008 meltdown. The fire was set by Bill Clinton. George Bush only threw gasoline on it.
Then Obama’s economic team appointments of Tim Geitner and Larry Summers, with uber-Wall Streeter Robert Rubin in the background, underscored the closeness of the Democrats to the financial industry. Arguably the architects of the meltdown were called in to put out the fire, which they did with trillions of dollars in cheap capital fed to the banks. That disproportionately benefitted the top income classes of coastal regions and left most of the heartland behind, stuck with a stagnant industrial and agricultural base. The 2010 Republican sweep was a vote against these economics, as much as anything.
The Republicans can ride neo-populist anger against elites, but they ultimately serve the same. What is needed is a new progressive populist force on the ground, not only in the old populist regions but in all regions of the U.S. including the climate-swing regions of The Midlands and Tidewater. This new progressive populism must be centered on economic issues. Like the 1890s movement it must focus on wealth inequality and how to narrow the gap.
Left to the devices of Wall Street and the corporate economy, many regions of the U.S. will be consigned to economic decay and abandonment. Wide swathes of the U.S. are in this condition, including much of the Southern and Western geography where the grassroots right is strong. Common ground might be found in an economic vision rooted in restored self-reliance based on local and regional initiatives and institutions.
A broad vision for local and regional economic renewal starts with renewable energy. Energy is the foundation of economic prosperity. Economic self-reliance based on regionally produced renewable energy clearly follows. A new populism can focus the message by forwarding rapid transition to 100% renewable energy. The solar panel, wind turbine and electric vehicle can become icons for an independent path to economic prosperity.
The map below demonstrates the broad ground for renewable energy in the U.S. It shows states with Renewable Electricity Standards covering most of the country. The major reason the South is blank is because wind power has been the primary means of meeting standards, and the South is wind poor. With the coming of cheap solar panels the local energy richness of the South will come to the fore.
Focus on 100% renewable energy leads to a broader issue that is at the heart of regional economic renewal. Fundamentally, it is all about capital, about investing money in building a new economic base, one that holds money at home and plugs leakage to Wall Street and fossil fuel corporations. To accomplish this we need to develop a series of new local and regional institutions that make up what Gar Alperowitz calls the Pluralist Commonwealth in his book, America Beyond Capitalism; Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy.
The book calls to a kind of post-capitalist entrepreneurialism rooted in organizations such as employee-owned businesses, community development corporations, state banks and public investment funds. It is a profoundly decentralist vision that calls for the de-concentration of economic power and development of new wealth-creating institutions on local and regional economic landscapes. Not an abstract theorization, the book is rich with examples of where this is already happening, from the State Bank of North Dakota to employee-owned Parametrix, an environmental consulting firm based in Sumner, Washington.
The concept of local and regional economic renewal based on the development of democracy-based institutions could build a new common ground. This hearkens to the original Populist Movement, which originated the idea of farmer cooperatives. They are now a major force in American agriculture. Progressive populist movements that forward transformatory economic visions for their own regions can open new political space.
This is not an overnight project. Much as the 1890s Populists opened the way for the early 20th century Progressives, so a rooted progressive populist movement can build the ground for change in the 2020s and beyond. And focusing a 100% renewable energy message can immediately begin to move the ball on the most vital climate solution, even in regions and among people where climate change is denied.