Seven Projects with Potential to Talk to the Trump Voter: Part 4

“It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong!”

— John Godfrey Saxe

Efforts to shrink the divide between each side of the Trump “Wall” (the one with the huge voting divide; not the one for which no one has agreed to pay) do exist. Besides the work of the 1990’s era President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), discussed in Part 3, to bring business, government, and environmental groups together, as well as Republicans and Democrats, there are at seven more recent or current efforts that are trying to connect both sides.

Education and Climate Change: How Did Pete Dixon Make It Look So Easy?

James Sutter, a high school science teacher in Ohio, had difficulty teaching Gwen Beatty, a very religious and “straight ‘A’ high school student,” about climate change. According to journalist Amy Harmon, Beatty felt that Sutter was “explicitly (trying) to provoke her.” So “she provoked him back” by “bolting out” of class during a documentary. He responded by calling the office to report “a runner.” In turn, he “occasionally fell short of his goal of providing (her) with calm, evidence-based responses.” Beatty said “he acts like he’s God’s gift to Wellston (referring to her high school).” So this was not “Room 222,” the television show from long ago, as the mythical perfect high school teacher, Pete Dixon, had long retired.

Still, after multiple failures and “largely winging it,” Sutter’s persistence, including a field trip that directly showed increased problems from insect infestation due to warmer winter weather, flooding, and unnaturally acidic water quality, partially paid off. Beatty’s also-skeptical friend, Jacynda Patton, “realized she had failed to grasp the damage done to her immediate environment.” Patton said: “I’m not going to lie. I did a 180.” “This is happening, and we have to fix it.” As for Beatty, Sutton has “regrets,” stating “That’s one student I feel I failed a little bit.” Beatty does recognize that most of her fellow-doubting classmates have come around to accepting that “the world was dangerously warming, and that humans were to blame.”

Politics and the Green Tea Party

Debbie Dooley, a “Green Tea Coalition” co-founder, strongly supports solar energy because it supports “freedom,” “individual liberty,” and is anti-monopolistic. She has worked with environmental groups and Al Gore (picking her spots), and led a political defeat of two Koch brother-supported Amendments in Florida that would have hurt the solar industry.

Government with Partisanship Not Welcome

Dan Kahan, of Yale University’s Cultural Cognition Project, writes of a “political breakthrough” in Southeast Florida. The South Florida Regional Climate Action Plan developed 110 bi-partisan action items to address common concerns about sea level rise and storm surges, including resiliency measures and carbon mitigation (two complimentary approaches often, inappropriately, seen as one or the other). There reportedly was no polarization, an acceptance that “the well-being of all of them demands making appropriate use of…science…”, use of a “highly participatory process,” with recognition of the protective role of government a given, and “aggressive” and “instinctive repulsion” of partisanship. Instead, according to Mayor Kristin Jacob, they focus on “what the problems are and (how to) fix them…”

Job Training in “Silicon Holler”

Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna visited Kentucky coal miners who were “excited” about paid Federal re-training for high tech jobs. He worked with local Republicans, including Governor Matt Bevin, “with whom (he) disagrees on so many (other) things.” Khanna favors more vision on all sides; and showing that he maintains progressive positions, supports a comprehensive approach to the problems of the area, including: more Federal training aid, aiming for the right skills that will lead to jobs, extending the Earned Income Credit, locating Federal research in the region, comprehensive health care, and more push from Silicon Valley companies to hire in the area.

Rare Bi-Partisanship in the Congress

Speaking of Bi-partisanship, Sam Daley-Harris, whom I mentioned in Part 3, counseled the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) to catalyze the Bi-Partisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus. The Caucus currently has 38 members, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. Its Republican leader, Congressman Carlos Curbelo, says “One of our main goals is to depoliticize environmental policy in the U.S.” He has criticized U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as “reckless’ for his dismissal of climate science…” Danny Richer of CCL says that “environmental groups also need to move beyond their entrenched position of attacking Republicans and instead applaud and encourage those willing to speak out…”

However, the Republican members of the Caucus have been criticized for “lukewarm support for far-reaching, aggressive efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions…” Only four Republicans spoke up to support the U.S. staying in the Paris Climate Agreement.

A lesson is that even positive developments are going to have to accomplish something substantive and take chances to become legitimate examples of Bi-partisanship and better relations, or they will go “Pfff” and, like the PCSD, be remembered wistfully by just a few of us academics years later as another what could have been.

A Tax that Gives You Your Carbon Reduction and Cake, Too

Relatedly, there is a proposal by the Climate Leadership Council, called The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends, to address climate change. This has begun as an effort supported by very high level Republicans, such as former cabinet secretaries James Baker, George Schultz, and Henry Paulson, and economists Martin Feldstein and N. Gregory Mankiw. It could turn out to be Bi-partisan.

It continues many economists’ favorite policy towards environmental problems, a tax on the pollutant, in this case, carbon; packages that with a similar proposal CCL made for total return of the revenues raised by the tax back to taxpayers; along with what appears to be a near-total removal of Federal regulations in the climate change area.

It takes advantage of its Republican pedigree “to promote a climate plan that showcases the full power of enduring conservative convictions,” and is noteworthy for the non-trivial size of its tax (“a sensible carbon tax might begin at $40 a ton and increase steadily over time…”). This is actually large enough to start to reduce some emissions, which the Council knows would be needed “to build and sustain a Bi-partisan consensus for a regulatory rollback…” Its authors are shooting for Bi-partisanship and understand they have to offer something to Democrats. The Council sees its approach as “helping working-class Americans,” and also “promoting national security.” A $40 per ton tax would lead to a $2000 rebate for “a family of four” “in the first year,” as well as “disproportionately help those struggling to make ends meet.” It would help “redirect (the) populist energy” from “voters’ feeling that the American political and economic system is rigged against their interests.”

So there is some potential for this approach to appeal to the Trump voter — as well as others. Still, it’s difficult to see this policy making its way through the Congress, and getting signed into law in the current political environment. But due to its creators and content, and by removing key obstacles to a tax, such as not wanting “to increase government,” it offers the rare possibility of political feasibility that alternative approaches do not. So while unlikely, if political conditions do start to shift, we conceivably could see carbon dividends debated in the Congress.

This proposal implicitly rejects using some of the revenues to support federal research and development, which will hurt our climate change efforts by reducing support for technologies that we may never know we could have had. So it is not perfect. Nor is it clear how a Federal agency without a source of funding for administering such a tax and rebate program could ensure it is working as planned.

Expecting More from the Citizen: Learning from Outside the U.S.

A very different approach, looking outside the country, a new political party in Denmark, “The Alternative,” is making an innovative attempt to actually re-build democracy. It “stresses sustainability,” and according to Uffe Elbaek, who helped found it, is trying to “change the political culture.” It invites members of the public to “read policy papers, meet with experts,” discuss and listen, and, according to journalist Molly Worthen, “seek consensus.” They explicitly are trying to “restore trust in the democratic process,” “…mend the alienation between policy makers and voters — to persuade the experts and the common people not to give up on one another,” while hoping people become “better citizens.”

Expecting More from the Individual: A Project for the Soul

David Leonhardt, in “A Summer Project to Nourish Your Political Soul,” also proposes something different, this one to be implemented at the personal level. To un-coarsen “our discourse” “in these polarized times,” alongside the “fighting,” he invites us to “grapple” with “an issue (we) find complicated,” one for which we’re “legitimately torn or harbor secret doubts. Read up on it. Don’t rush to explain away inconvenient evidence. Then do something truly radical: consider changing your mind, at least partially.” We “may discover a better answer.” One of his own issues about which he has doubts is charter schools versus public education. He’s “confident (through such a process) we could learn from each other…”

This is a lot more challenging than the usual message to vote as the major way to support democracy. Leonhardt says that this process “will remind (us) that democracy…also depends on inquiry and open-mindedness,” adding, “the only way the country is going to make progress on hard issues is if a substantial number of people change their minds.”

He also sends the meta-message that while some issues are black-&-white, which is the way both sides tend to treat them, others might be gray enough that the opposition may have valid points. Leonhardt is choosing to focus his own grappling on the latter, also selecting abortion instead of climate change. While his particular choices of which issues are clear-cut, and which are not, could be debated in themselves, it shows a recognition that his side doesn’t have all the answers, like those men of Indostan — at least for the harder ones.

Could We Really Exceed Ourselves?

So others are trying, too, and we’re starting to see some bridge-building! Some of the people behind these initiatives seem to believe that we’re more capable of personally stretching and connecting than common wisdom would have it. Perhaps some readers will make their own attempts, and will report connections coming back their way from Trump voters!

In Part 5 I discuss guidance offered by others and some of my own ideas on how to have this conversation, and a few other processes that have potential to address the walls between us.

Long time sustainability change-agent. Ph.D. student Erasmus University’s Program in Sustainability. Columnist for Sustainable Brands.