ith the presidential election less than three months away, how are our nominees doing on climate change? Donald Trump rarely mentions climate. When he does, he mocks it. Hillary Clinton? She’s excited to say that she believes in climate change, while condoning fracking and lauding the deeply flawed Paris agreement. Still, we know that we need Hillary, and we must do everything we can to elect her. Most importantly—our movement must be more powerful than ever to push Hillary into the climate leadership that the earth demands. W
How can the climate movement develop the political power to fight effectively?
To glean a few answers, I looked to what I regard as one of the most successful examples of social change in the modern era: the neoliberal coup. Between 1975 and 2008, an ideological movement called “neoliberalism” evolved from fringe theory into the dominant economic paradigm of our age, with great help from the Republican Party, and then, the Democrats as well.
Although the GOP is currently a global symbol of cynicism and desperation, it was not always so. The party apparatus facilitated a massive historical transformation over the course of several decades. The climate movement has no shortage of profound ideas, so my question is: What can the climate movement learn from the Republicans’ neoliberal coup?
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND
Neoliberalism’s rise is well documented in books like Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, by Philip Mirowski, and A Brief History of Neoliberalism, by David Harvey. What I share here is merely the surface of an incredible story of social change.
Economist Friedrich Hayek convened the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) in 1947 to develop an economic and social vision that would inoculate society from totalitarianism and collectivism. The idea was to make a decisive break from the state-centric regimes and ideologies of the first half of the 20th century. Hayek’s view held that individual freedom depended on replacing the state with the market as the means of economic coordination. The “invisible hand” of the market, he believed, produced more efficient and effective solutions along with more motivated, competitive, and autonomous people. The new body of theory that elaborated these ideas came to be called neoliberalism.
For decades, neoliberal economists were considered fringe theorists and excluded from Washington’s policy elite. The successes of the New Deal, and later the war effort, persuaded Americans that public institutions could meet shared societal challenges. In 1958, 73 percent of Americans trusted their government.
All that changed in the 1970’s. Stagflation—high unemployment, high inflation, and stagnant growth—gripped the US economy. Keynesian policies did little to alleviate the crisis. Many began to criticize government interventions for compounding the problem. Hayek and his American protégé Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974 and 1976 respectively, raising the profile and legitimacy of the neoliberal doctrine that had been developing in the shadows for 30 years. Friedman was accepted into the inner circle of policy-oriented economic advisers, and Washington began to turn to his neoliberal frameworks. As Friedman explained, “when the time came that you had to change…there was an alternative ready there to be picked up.”
The advice was to embrace free markets and deregulation as the solution to stagflation. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter became an aggressive advocate for deregulation. Then came neoliberalism’s true champion, Ronald Reagan, in 1981. He mesmerized the country (and the world) with free market idealism expressed in anti-big government rhetoric, policies, and practices. Reagan’s focus not only produced decades of neoliberal policies in the White House but also birthed a massive ground game to infuse local politics and American culture with neoliberal values.
Something extraordinary happened in the decades that followed. Republicans recruited popular support with what Reagan called an “unswerving commitment to freedom” even as new neoliberal policies actually aimed to protect wealthy individuals and corporations. Reagan slashed the top income tax rate from 74 percent to 38 percent. Deregulation freed companies to ship jobs to low-wage countries. These practices set the stage for the rapid growth of income inequality that now marks our society. Historian David Harvey notes that “the median compensation of workers to the salaries of CEOs increased from just over 30 to 1…to nearly 500 to 1” between 1970 and 2000.
Despite the growing evidence of rising inequality and political manipulation, millions continued to support the neoliberal vision of deregulation and free markets. In 2002, 80 percent of Americans believedthat the free market was the best economic system. The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that “majorities across the globe are willing to accept some inequality to have a free market system.”
Meanwhile, the climate movement marches forward, noble in cause, fighting for the people, committed to protecting everything that we love from chaos. Despite its righteousness, the movement struggles to influence the bones of politics and society. According to Gallup, Americans’ concern for climate change is relatively unchanged since 1989—moving only from 35 percent to 37 percent. Although 63 percent think that global warming is happening, only 48 percent think that humans cause it. We have no political champion in the highest offices. Our leaders avoid bold climate action, settling for weak compromises that allow crisis to grow unchecked.
Neoliberal thinking is now the status quo among Republicans…[Continue the article at The Nation]