In this election, the West is lost


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congratulations, Westerners, you only have to live through 10 more months or so of presidential politics. Then Donald Trump, Warren Beatty, Cybil Shepard and other great intellects of our time will be off our television screens, at least masquerading as politicians, and you won't have to think about the presidential election.

What's that? You're already not thinking about it?

Or maybe you're convinced the election isn't thinking about you? It isn't, if one of the following two terms describes you: 1) a resident of the Interior West; 2) a person concerned about the quality of the world's land, air, water, flora and fauna.

Westerners don't count for operational reasons. Under next year's political calendar, only Arizona Republicans will vote before March 7, the date of the New York and California primaries, after which both party nominations are likely to be wrapped up.

Yes, Idaho Democrats - all two or three of them - will hold their caucuses that day, and just three days later - that's right, on a Friday - come primaries in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. If by then either party still has a real contest, voters in those states will be courted. Until then, sorry, but you might as well all live in Pago Pago.

Which is even farther from the mainstream political sensibility than environmental issues, but not much. The first thing environmentally conscious citizens have to realize is that they and their issues have become esoteric. And the issues peculiar to the West - grazing, mining, use or misuse of public land - have become esoteric within the general esoterica of the conservation debate.

Even when politicians mention the subject, the press tends to ignore it, as though reporters and editors know that these are not the topics that arouse the public's passion. When he announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Bradley asked: "Isn't it just common sense that we make sure every child in America is covered by health care? Isn't it just common sense that we protect our natural world from destruction and do what it takes to achieve racial unity?"

Almost every story the next day quoted him about health care and racial unity. If any story mentioned protecting the natural world, I didn't see it. Yes, The New York Times led the paper with the story of Vice President Al Gore saying he would oppose new off-shore oil drilling. But the story's focus wasn't the impact of drilling as much as the strategic jostling between Gore and Bradley for the support of environmental organizations in the niche-marketed world of primary voters.

"It's just not on the radar screen," said one of the more astute political consultants, referring to the subject of conserving the natural world. Being a Democrat, he pronounced this conclusion with sorrow, because vote-counters of both parties understand that the closer the environmental discussion comes to the electorate's radar screen, the better for the Democrats.

Still, when his interlocutor (me) suggested that, as a political consultant, he had the power to put an issue on the radar screen, his only response was a sigh of resignation, as though this had been tried before, and had failed.

Perhaps it has. Despite all the polls showing that people favor more open space, cleaner air and water, and stronger protection of endangered species, the environment remains far less central to the political discussion than taxes, Social Security, schools, health care, crime, abortion, and even some foreign policy issues.

As perhaps it should. The average American knows that his mother's pension, her father's hospital bills, their children's education and their joint tax bill have a more immediate impact on their lives than does the question of how many trees are cut from this or that national forest, or even whether the air and water get cleaner.

Especially because the air and water are cleaner. Popular policies gain political salience when they seem to be in trouble. Simply recall how the abortion-rights cause benefited in the 1980s, when the Supreme Court's Webster decision seemed to threaten it. A ruling that upholds the recent lower court decision threatening enforcement of the Clean Air Act could be the best boost for the environmental movement since James Watt.

Conservation is simply not considered hot stuff by those who establish what hot stuff is. The voters of Maine, for instance, recently considered three referendum questions: on late-term abortions, on medical use of marijuana, and on a bond issue to raise $50 million to protect forest and sea coasts from development. The last of these had more impact on more people than the first two. But the next day, the wire services told the world only that Mainers had refused to ban the abortions and approved the marijuana question, not that they had voted overwhelmingly for the bond issue. Forests and sea coasts ain't hot stuff.

Then, too, environmentalism is off the radar screen because environmentalists keep it off. That's not their intent, or at least not their conscious intent. But it's what they do by being environmentalists instead of ... well, instead of being citizens who care about the natural world, among other things.

In the summer issue of Orion magazine, Peter Sauer tries to answer the question: "Why is the environment always so low on the political agenda?" His answer is that environmentalism has become just another special interest. Indeed it has, indistinguishable to the average voter from all those other special interests - pro- and anti-abortion, anti-smoking activists and the tobacco companies, flat taxers and tax reformers, Social Security savers and privatizers, missile defense system builders and arms controllers, saviors of the public school systems and voucher-lovers.

Sauer, whose approach is unabashedly from the left, claims that "Earth Day ushered in a bio-based environmentalism ... that separated human from natural ecology," and he blames the Vietnam war for dividing "civil rights, environment and peace into separate camps," a division he would like to annul. As political strategy, his is debatable. What is irrefutable is that environmentalism has slipped into today's general political cacophony.

Which seems to suit environmentalists just fine. Otherwise, when a dispute is portrayed as one between them and some polluting industry, one of them, at least once in a while, would say - -Wait a minute; this isn't us against them. We speak for the natural world and the humanity that has to live on it, not for our organization or our faction. We're not getting rich here."

Such rhetoric would be self-serving, perhaps cloying, and at times refutable; some environmentalists are making pretty good money even if they're not "getting rich," as the rich define it. But because such a statement is rarely made, middle-of-the-road voters - the ones who decide elections - can be forgiven if they don't see much distinction between the advocates of open space and the advocates of lower capital-gains taxes.

My friend the consultant is wrong. Long before modern manipulative advertising techniques made it even truer, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that "Men are convertible ... They want awakening." " It is possible to put the environment on the political radar screen, if not at its center. But not until its advocates remember that they, too, are part of the whole thing.

Jon Margolis keeps track for High Country News of those who establish what hot stuff is.

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