mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Unified Field Theory

Who says George W. Bush never did anything for the great outdoors? His
running for reelection could be the best thing to happen to the U.S.
environmental movement in years. The threat of four more years of Bush
has provoked a significant rethinking of the movement’s tactics,
according to interviews with movement leaders, their financial
supporters, and political advisers. Not only has it energized
activists like never before, it has also produced unprecedented
expressions of unity within the movement and beyond — specifically
with labor unions, feminist organizations, and civil rights groups.


While the short-term goal is a new president in 2004, some
environmental leaders hope the Beat Bush campaign will help these
groups build working relationships that could give rise to a
broad-based progressive movement in the United States.

George W. Bush said when he was running for president that he would
be the great unifier, not the divider, and damned if he hasn’t been
the greatest unifier of the environmental movement since I’ve been in
it, says John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace
USA. And that’s true within the entire progressive movement and
beyond. From tongue-studded anarchists to business-oriented think
tanks, we’ve all come to realize that Bush represents the greatest
threat to all that we hold dear.

One manifestation of this new unity is America Votes, an alliance of
20 citizens groups that was organized earlier this year by leaders
from environmental, labor, and women’s organizations. Members include
the AFL-CIO and other unions, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and The
environmental movement is represented in the coalition by the Sierra
Club and League of Conservation Voters.

America Votes will exercise electoral clout through a so-called 527
group named America Coming Together. (Organizations registered under
section 527 of the federal tax code are permitted to engage in voter
education and turnout work but not outright advocacy for candidates.)
ACT has raised $35 million to spend on the 2004 campaign, $10 million
of which was donated by George Soros, the currency trader and
philanthropist. The group hopes eventually to raise $75 million.

It’s actually easier for us to work together on elections than on
policy work, Deb Callahan, the executive director of LCV, says of her
allies within ACT. On a policy issue like logging or mining, we might
be on the opposite side of the fence from, say, a labor union. But an
election puts those kinds of differences in the background, because it
presents a simple choice: Do you elect this candidate or not? And we
all agree that four more years of Bush would be a disaster.

The environmental movement traditionally hasn’t focused many
resources on electoral work, observes one prominent funder of
environmental organizations who declined to be named. The Sierra Club
and LCV spent $16 million during the two-year cycle leading up to the
2000 election. But that’s dwarfed by the annual budgets of groups who
do public education and policy work, such as the National Wildlife
Federation [$100 million per year] and Natural Resources Defense
Council [$50 million per year]. America Coming Together gives
environmentalists the prospect of real electoral impact and, for the
first time, real coordination with other progressive groups.

Exactly what this new progressive unity will mean on the ground
remains to be seen. The ACT groups are only beginning to find their
way, cautions the funder quoted above: To borrow a scientific
analogy, this collaboration began in a gaseous state and has now
progressed to a liquefied state, but it is still far from a solid
state. But the groups’ leaders talk about coordinating messages and
communication schedules — for example, to make sure that a given
household doesn’t get deluged with five pieces of anti-Bush mail on a
single day and then receive nothing during the next two weeks — and
dividing up outreach responsibility for certain battleground states to
assure the most efficient use of all groups’ electoral resources.

And those resources, they promise, will be unprecedented. The scale
of the commitment is phenomenal, says Carl Pope, executive director
of the Sierra Club. Over the next 13 months, we are committed to
doubling the number of volunteer activists we have in the field and
the number of households we contact, and my sense is that the other
organizations in America Votes are doing the same.

Not only are enviros and other progressives spending more on the 2004
election, they are also spending differently. Thirty-second television
ads, whose astronomical costs devoured budgets in the past, are being
abandoned as ineffectual because voters are no longer moved by them.
Instead, says Pope, electoral strategists of all ideological
persuasions recognize that what works is talking to people one on
one, and especially having them hear your message from their friends
and neighbors.

Unions showed in 2000 that grassroots organizing led to a higher
turnout of their members, which made the difference in a number of key
races, Callahan says. The Republicans applied that lesson
successfully in 2002, and I expect the White House will do the same in
2004. Our movement’s focus traditionally has been grassroots
organizing, and we’ve got to get back to that. Two-thirds of my 2004
budget is for grassroots organizing. In 2002, it was only 20 percent.

Grassroots organizing is critical; if environmental groups simply get
their own members to vote, it could make all the difference in 2004.
Some 11 million Americans belong to environmental organizations. Yet
surveys reveal that in recent elections, those members have voted in
no greater proportion than other Americans. In the 17 states expected
to be the decisive battlegrounds in 2004, the Sierra Club alone boasts
more members than the margins of victory in the 2000 election. Had
every Sierra Club member voted in 2000, not only would Al Gore be
president but Tom Daschle would be Senate majority leader and Dick
Gephardt would be speaker of the House, says Pope.

What environmentalists haven’t done is endorse a particular candidate
for president. Partly that’s for legal reasons: Only so-called (c)(4)
groups (registered under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code), like LCV
and Sierra Club, are allowed to advocate voting for or against
candidates, using funds garnered from non-tax-deductible donations.
But America Votes, as a 527, is precluded from such advocacy. So are
the 501(c)(3) groups that comprise the majority of the U.S.
environmental movement. (c)(3)s are restricted to public education and
policy work, giving them access to tax-deductible donations (which is
why their annual budgets are typically much larger than those of
(c)(4) groups).

We can’t take part in the 2004 electoral work, but our public
education efforts will inform that work, says Rodger Schlickeisen,
the chair of Save Our Environment, a coalition of 20 (c)(3) and (c)(4)
groups that have pooled resources and coordinated strategies to resist
Bush administration policies. SOE members include Defenders of
Wildlife (where Schlickeisen is president), Friends of the Earth,
Environmental Defense, the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, NRDC, LCV,
and Sierra Club.

A second reason no candidate endorsement is imminent is that
environmentalists want to unite behind whoever emerges from the
Democratic primaries to challenge Bush. Any of these Democrats is
better than Bush on the environment, so we’re not going to endorse any
one of them yet, says Callahan, whose organization awarded Bush the
first-ever F on its annual report card on environmental voting
records. Instead, we’re building on-the-ground infrastructure that
will kick into gear for the nominee once the general election begins.
But in their zeal to get rid of Bush, will environmentalists let
Democrats off easy?

It’s important not only to make Bush’s and the Republicans’ stand on
environmental issues clear, but also to hold Democratic candidates to
a much higher standard than Bill Clinton and Al Gore were, says
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, another
(c)(3) group precluded from electoral activities. For a long time,
Democrats have talked a good game on the environment and then failed
once in office to put their political capital on the line for it. …
A campaign that simply reiterates horror stories about Bush’s policies
won’t accomplish its goals. Americans want to see a vision of what
needs doing over the next four years to extend 30 years of
environmental progress. That’s the bar environmentalists should hold
all the candidates to.

All this, insiders admit, is a marked shift from the infighting that
has often afflicted the environmental movement in recent years.
The various groups used to scuffle over who would be the one quoted
in media reports about whatever the environmental rollback of the week
was, says Passacantando of Greenpeace. How dumb is that — fighting
to get credit for a battle we’re losing! The new unity, Passacantando
argues, stems not only from the Bush threat but from the decline in
donations groups have suffered in the face of a recession and a weak
stock market. Having less money has forced each group to focus on
what it does best. So now you see the grassroots groups doing
grassroots organizing, the lobbyists doing lobbying, and so forth.
We’re stronger for it.

Environmentalists also take heart from the knowledge that, as leading
Republican strategist Frank Luntz wrote in a memo that was leaked to
the New York Times earlier this year, the environment is probably the
single issue on which Republicans in general — and President Bush in
particular — are most vulnerable. With Bush’s poll numbers dropping
thanks to a faltering economy and growing unease about Iraq,
environmentalists are convinced that he can be defeated in 2004 and
that their issue can help make it happen.

There is no question that the president and all of the Democratic
candidates have spotlighted the environmental issue as key to reaching
certain constituencies, says Clapp. The environment is an issue that
matters in the swing states that each side wants: Oregon, Washington,
Florida, the industrial Midwest. The president left his ranch in
Crawford three times this summer to do events to promote his Clear
Skies rollback of the Clean Air Act. And for Democrats, the
environment is one of the three or four issues each candidate lists as
a key difference between him or her and the president.

Questions remain, however, about what kind of practical results all
this high-minded talk will produce in 2004. After all, the
environmental movement is relatively inexperienced in electoral work,
and it is gearing up operations very fast. Can the Sierra Club, in a
mere 13 months, really double the number of activists it has on the
ground (to 20,000) and the number of households these activists will
reach (to 800,000)? Can Save Our Environment groups that remain
largely focused on inside-the-Beltway concerns shift to talking in
plain-spoken terms to the millions of ordinary Americans whose votes
will decide the outcome on Election Day? And after years of internal
bickering and distance from other progressive groups and issues, can
environmentalists really walk the walk of unity and cooperation?

It’s nice people are working more together now, but the old ego and
turf battles haven’t gone away, says one movement insider. All the
old incentives against collaboration remain in place; groups still
have to get media coverage and other forms of credit for their
accomplishments in order to maintain funders’ support and survive.

On the other hand, the environmental movement’s motivation is growing
stronger by the day, fueled by the Bush administration’s continued
assault on ecosystems and the laws meant to protect them. And looking
toward the long term, some environmental leaders say the Bush threat
may finally force environmentalists and other progressive
organizations to learn how to work together and thus begin building
the kind of broad-based movement that could yield real change in

It’s self-interest that’s bringing us together, says Callahan of
LCV. If we don’t cooperate, we’ll certainly fail to put a progressive
in the White House in 2004. But if we succeed, we can build relations
and trust that will continue beyond the election and result in
something much larger than ourselves. Look at how the right wing took
power in this country — by following a long-term vision of building a
movement of like-minded organizations. It’s been my dream for a long
time, and we’re now finally doing the same.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.