I Am the 70 Percent!


Say what you will about the Occupy Wall Street movement, but one thing for which it deserves credit is the suggestion that there are issues on which the vast majority of Americans can find common ground. 

Any movement that claims to represent “the 99 percent” (and hopes to pass the laugh test) must, by definition, include folks of all political parties and ideologies. A recent segment I heard on NPR, for example, quoted a man identifying himself to the crowd at Occupy Wall Street as an “original Tea Party person” – receiving polite applause from many who likely toiled to get Barack Obama elected in 2008.

In a political era in which partisan divides appear sharper and more unbridgeable than ever, it is refreshing to be talking for a change about what people might have in common.

Consider the environment. I am old enough to remember when environmental protection was a bipartisan issue. It was Richard Nixon who signed the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws, Ronald Reagan who signed the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting gases, and George H.W. Bush who signed the landmark 1990 update to the Clean Air Act. It was Republican legislators – led by environmental stalwarts such as Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (NY) and Sen. John Chafee (RI) – who helped craft key environmental laws and exhibited the courage to defend those laws from repeal drives in the mid-1990s led from within their own party.

At the leadership level, the Republican Party has largely turned its back on that legacy. But among ordinary people at the grassroots – Democrats and Republicans – support for environmental protection remains strong. 

For example:

  • An October poll found that two-thirds of Americans – including a majority of Republicans – oppose congressional efforts to delay implementation of EPA air pollution standards.
  • A January 2011 Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Americans wanted Congress to “pass an energy bill that provides incentives for using solar and other alternative energy sources.”
  • A June 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 71 percent of Americans – again including a majority of Republicans – supported regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, cars and factories.

Keep in mind that these polls were taken in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a time when environmental issues often take a back seat to day-to-day economic concerns.

Why are the desires of what we might call (conservatively) “the 70 percent” of Americans who consistently support stronger environmental protections so often marginalized?

It is not because of the efforts of "Republicans" or "Democrats" - rather, it is because of the pervasive power of special interests who benefit financially from their ability to pollute without consequence. It is these powerful interests who poison the atmosphere for environmental progress with a toxic mix of campaign spending, revolving door lobbying, public relations spin, and support for fake research and ersatz grassroots activism.

Thankfully, the history of the environmental movement is replete with examples of against-the-odds victories against powerful opposition. Those victories have almost always come when the 70 percent has made its presence felt – whether at the Earth Day events of 1970 or 1990 or in the flowering of grassroots work on global warming that took place in the last decade. As our recent report, The Way Forward on Global Warming, argues, the only way we will meet the immense challenge of global warming is by waging policy campaigns that not only reduce emissions now, but also help marshal and build the strength of the environmental movement.

The environmental movement has had its share of dispiriting defeats lately – from the failure of the comprehensive energy and climate bill in the last Congress to President Obama’s decision to pull the plug on stronger ozone standards. But those defeats should not distract from the core reality that the vast majority of the American people are "with us" in support of a cleaner environment.

We are the 70 percent. And that, in and of itself, is enough to provide hope for the future.