Political Animal


June 07, 2012 3:53 PM Could Climate Hawks Replace Labor?

By Ryan Cooper

The big discussion today is the long, seemingly unstoppable death of the labor movement. We seem to be faced with an insurmountable concentration of influence in corporations and the very wealthy. Plutocrats use their influence to swing elections, and then use the power there obtained to further eviscerate countervailing interest groups, so they can strip even more of the country’s wealth into their own pockets. Rinse and repeat. Ordinary middle class non-unionized workers seem to resent public sector unions and covet their benefits, instead of realizing that their lives could be easier if they were so organized. (I also think it’s important to recognize that public unions played no small part in their own downfall through greed and overreach.)

In any case, it seems unlikely that labor is going to rise from the dead. It took the Great Depression to break the power of the plutocratic elite last time around, and with this financial crisis elites have managed to keep the system from completely collapsing, though only just.

So what could possibly take the place of labor as a source of organizational muscle? One answer that springs to mind is environmentalism. The problem there is, as Dave Roberts wrote awhile back, traditional environmentalism can never address climate change:

“Environmentalism” is simply not equipped to transform the basis of human culture. It grew up to address a specific, bounded set of issues. For 50 years, American environmental politics has been about restraining the amount of damage industries can do. Environmental campaigners have developed a set of strategies for that purpose, designed to overcome the resistance of industries and politicians to such restraints. And they’ve been successful in a number of areas. So when climate change entered American politics via environmentalism, that is the model into which it was slotted. Environmental campaigners set about restraining the amount of greenhouse gases industry can emit, and industry set about resisting. Greens and industry fought ferociously, but in the wake of the victories of the’70s, the public largely watched with indifference, barring a few episodes where support swung one way or another (usually as much due to economic circumstances as anything).

If we could get a climate movement going on the scale that Roberts suggests, it would be a force to be reckoned with. One would think this would be a no-brainer. Back in the day environmentalists managed to win huge fights over comparatively small things like dams in the Grand Canyon, while climate change literally threatens our entire civilization. The trouble is that the very scale of the problem seems to inspire despair rather than action.

But think of how much organizational oomph the right got out of the Tea Party, described best by Matt Taibbi:

This is a party that in 2008 was not just beaten but obliterated, with nearly every one of its recognizable leaders reduced to historical-footnote status and pinned with blame for some ghastly political catastrophe. There were literally no healthy bodies left on the bench, but the Republicans managed to get back in the game anyway by plucking an assortment of nativist freaks, village idiots and Internet Hitlers out of thin air and training them into a giant ball of incoherent resentment just in time for the 2010 midterms. They returned to prominence by outdoing Barack Obama at his own game: turning out masses of energized and disciplined supporters on the streets and overwhelming the ballot box with sheer enthusiasm.

If that’s possible, then surely something with the economic and moral gravity of climate change should be able to inspire action. Where are our climate prophets?

(Image via)

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • T2 on June 07, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Firstly, the Tea Party would have gotten NO WHERE without FOX news and the rest of the Media giving them airtime and excusing their clearly racist leadership. Twenty years ago the Media would have called them kooks and wackos and dismissed them.
    Secondly, the same Media will now repel any "Climate prophets" as kooks and wackos out of fear of being called Librul Media on the top side, and because they are owned by Conservative interests on the bottom side. Conservatives don't like climate change because 1) it costs money to prevent it 2) God controls the climate, not man.

  • Mimikatz on June 07, 2012 5:15 PM:

    Problem #1 is the muscle provided to the Tea Party by those who profited from the issues it pushed. Unfortunately they also profit fro. Fossil fuels, so the Tea Partiers are global warming deniers.

    The only comparable motivator is people's concern for their children. If more people realized how awful a future today's young people will face in another 20 or so years from climate change and allied problems they might act. Young people and their a lies are the ones with the biggest stake, and they will have to be the key.

  • LJL on June 07, 2012 5:25 PM:

    Your average denizen of the American Middle Class exemplifies the adage, "Misery loves company." Because most of them threw away their chance at security by abandoning Labor Unions to vote Republican. So the bastards now are getting their comeuppance and they want to spread the misery to their neighbors who were smarter and more prudent.

  • g on June 07, 2012 5:44 PM:

    I'm sorry, this doesn't really make sense. I appreciate the thinking behind it, but there is really no parallel between a labor union, which is a self-governing body of workers joining together to collectively bargain working conditions and compensation, and "environmentalists" - which are a wide assortment of organizations covering a huge spectrum of interests and specialties. Environmental organizations' primary job is usually raising awareness or education - for which "get out the vote" is an adjunct.

    You are trivializing what unions do. Getting out the vote is the side issue to what unions do.

    yes they get out the vote, but they work on actually codifying laws, organizing other workplaces, and advocating for workers' rights. There is also a self-governance component - Union members actively set the course that their unions take - legally.

    "Heal the Bay" as a modern counterpart to the IBEW? Will "Heal the Bay" engage in Civil Rights activism, workplace issues, provide representation for unfairly treated workers, negotiate for actual workers' conditions and compensation?

  • c u n d gulag on June 07, 2012 5:54 PM:

    A "Climate Movement?"

    Too late, too late, too FECKIN' LATE!

    We should have started it in the 70's-90's, when the evidence kept rolling on in.

    I remember when, in the early-mid 70's, scientists realized that the global cooling they were observing on and off for over a century, when they were predicting "New Ice Ages," yet seeing the high's spike higher, and realized that they hadn't quite accommodated for the rise of overall global temperatures since late 17th Century, and the rise of the Industrial Revolution - and that it was "wierding," more than overall 'warming.'

    I'm afraid that it's too late.v

  • sick -n-effin-tired on June 07, 2012 6:07 PM:

    Well in your fucking dreams boyo. Look at the ratings for Faux nooze. Climate change HAW! that's a hoot The brainwashing is complete with other news and information outlets versions of Faux lite .
    When I heard NPR tell me the other day "some people say" when describing actual events I knew it was over .
    The plutocracy bought Walker a governorship.
    Rachel Maddow noted the other night that Big Tobacco and 50 million dollars turned a 67% pluracy for the cigarette tax in California to a defeat within 2 months .
    You can sell anything if you have enough money and democracy is going to the highest bidder

  • Doug on June 07, 2012 8:01 PM:

    Have you asked yourself WHY public unions, especially firefighters and police unions, ensure good medical benefits for their retirees? Have you TRIED to purchase HCI at the age of 55? As for the retired pay, I probably should first admit I'm retired military and receive 50% of my active duty pay, which seems to me to be a fair amount. And, as in the military, should someone be permanently injured while performing their duties, they should receive just compensation for THAT as well; including an increase in retiree pay.
    If a Mayor or a Town Board feels that the requested retiree pay is too much, you know what? They can turn it down. If it's that much of a burden on the community, maybe the politician in question should, oh, I dunno, INFORM the public? Of course that may mean they'll lose the NEXT election, and as that's NOT a valid option we know where said politician(s) interests really are.
    I particularly liked the way the writer of that article noted that some of the firefighters, being so over-paid and all, could actually AFFORD to live in the same town they protected. The gall! What, they think their labor ranks equally with who sits behind a desk? I mean, really!
    I also noticed retiree pay and retiree medical benefits were lumped together. Why? What's the ratio of retiree pay to medical benefits? Then there's the fact that the article quotes events that occurred a decade ago; you know, back when HCI corporations were free to cancel policies for failing to dot an "i". THAT period of retirement "benefits"? If THAT happened, one would need much more than 90% of one's income just to pay the insurance premiums!
    As long as greed exists and is exalted as it is in this country; as long as there are people who consider human beings merely a "cost" of doing business, we'll need unions. And as long as there are people who, whether simply short-sighted or pathetically stupid, will complain about the rare union excesses; while either remaining silent or, worse still, cheer on those in business who earn millions as they stiff their employees, their shareholders (if any), and the general public.
    I have no idea why you seem in such a hurry to preside over the obsequies of the labor movement and I do hope you'll pardon me if I don't join you in your (premature) interment of the labor movement...

  • gdb on June 07, 2012 8:32 PM:

    Could be the best and fastest way for Progressives to triumph is for BHO to lose in 2012 (a reasonable probability)-- especially if the economy declines or collapses between now and November. If BHO wins in Nov, he is highly unlikely to have Dem majorities in the House and Senate. What exactly is he going to accomplish?? Not much-- if anything and Dems get blamed for a generation for the extended Great Recession -- or possible Second Great Depression..

    Best that Mittens and the Repubs are held responsible in 2013-2014 for the economic problems they have played a major role to produce... Just like voters will toss out BHO if the economy declines or does not recover further, Repubs would suffer badly in 2014. And a BHO loss will almost certainly produce major rejection of the current Dem leadership of BHO, Reed, and the Clinton Crowd. It's by far the best and quickest chance for a Progressive revival.

  • DJ on June 07, 2012 9:27 PM:

    Could be the best and fastest way for Progressives to triumph is for BHO to lose in 2012

    Dunce. Ralph Nader had the same mindset in 2000 -- don't vote for the "fake progressive" Al Gore, and after four years of Republican misrule, people will FLOCK to a "real" progressive. That worked out quite well, didn't it?

  • angler on June 07, 2012 11:25 PM:

    Echoing g and Doug, since Kevin Drum used to have this spot, perhaps Ryan is trying to copy him in the "hate to admit it but megan McCardle and Conner Freisdoorf and the other assbags at the Atlantic have a point, and now for something completely stupid."

    San Jose fire fighters have (present tense for now) around $55k as their median salary, not bad, not millions by any stretch but not bad. in fact, about $10k above the national median. But guess, what? San Jose has a cost of living about 50% above the national average so the extra pay evens out. The city gov't in San Jose admitted that tax revenues were down but they couldn't get a tax hike passed, so public employees were the easy target. That's all it is, and linking to Friesdorf's b.s. about knowing a so-and-so on the public payrolls who had it made is pathetic. Then go off on climate change as the new thing? J F Christ! No base for liberalism no climate change politics.

  • Robb on June 08, 2012 11:44 AM:

    As a proud Tea Partier, I am disheartened that many of you project such reprehensible motives on us. The vast majority of us are adults who simply want to go about our daily business. More specifically, we are parents and grand-parents (I am both).

    We believe first and foremost that America is the shining city on the hill and we are worried that President Obama and the liberal Democrats are hurting the country we love so much. Very few of us were politically active until we saw that this President was committed to an ideology that would cause permanent damage to America.

    Our over-riding goal is to preserve the country and it's greatness for our children and grand-children. In general, we believe the best way to do so is to minimize the role of government in their lives and to give them the opportunity to excel, based on their God given gifts and hard work.

    You really do miss the boat, if you try to find some deeper meaning. We will happily tell exactly what we think and why.


  • hornblower on June 08, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Sir, like you I am a father and grandfather and I certainly hope for a wonderful future for them. But it seems odd to me that the rise of the Tea Party came about so quickly after Mr. Obama's election. With a depression approaching the government put a floor under the economy and saved us from the its worst effects. To my lights that was a smart thing to do.
    As far as a "city on a hill" goes I think it would be prudent to ponder the difference between patriotism and nationalism. One is a noble virtue and the other a temptation to nativism and arrogence.

  • Pronghorn on June 10, 2012 8:35 PM:

    The Tea Party is about responsible, sustainable government. Cooper and Taibbi are delusional.