Are Public Lands for Sale?

by James R. Skillen, UPK author of Federal Ecosystem Management; Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife (2015)

The 115th Congress began with housecleaning. After battling the Obama administration for years, the Republican majority anticipated a fast-moving legislative agenda supported by President Trump. They started by brushing aside rules they felt hindered legislative work and by wielding the Congressional Review Act against President Obama’s late regulations. Voters looked on with a sense of relief or consternation.

us_federal_land_agencies_svgPublic lands are certainly part of the Republican agenda, both as a target for deregulation and as a resource for increasing oil, gas, and coal development. But could there be something even more significant in the works? Could Republicans be planning a campaign to sell or give away millions of acres of federally owned land? One Guardian article warned on January 19 that “Republican lawmakers have quietly laid the foundation to give away Americans’ birthright.” Specifically, they revised House rules so that public land sales and transfers will be treated as “cost free” actions that do not require budgetary review or offsets. This means one less hurdle for wholesale public land disposal. Elevating these fears, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced H.R. 621 on January 24 to sell 3.3 million acres of federal land to the states.

Has Chaffetz opened the floodgate of public land sales? If so, it would hardly constitute a political 9780700621279surprise. Western Republicans have criticized federal land ownership and management for decades, most famously in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Republicans took control of Congress is 1995, they proposed selling public lands to balance the budget. A number of state governments in the West repeatedly challenged the constitutionality of federal land ownership during the Obama administration. The occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 was only an extreme example of private opposition to federal land ownership. Republicans even made public land disposal part of the platform for the Republican National Convention, writing “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.” Republicans have long called for public land sales, and their control of both Congress and the White House has given them an unparalleled opportunity to act.

While the possibility of large-scale public land sales is real, history suggests that it remains unlikely. While Republicans have shown unified frustration with federal land management, they do not have a unified alternative. Some, particularly Tea Party Republicans, genuinely want to see large areas of public lands transferred to the Western states, which would manage them for a higher rate of economic return. Others, including many currently calling for public land sales, are not actually interested in land ownership; they are interested in land use. Members of Congress will likely find that steps to shift power away from environmental organizations and toward resource development interests will please both groups of Republicans, while proposals to sell large areas of federal lands will divide their constituencies and undermine their support.

Mr. Chaffetz found this when he proposed selling 3.3 million acres of federal land and faced immediate, bipartisan opposition. And he should not have been surprised. Last summer President Trump’s nominee to head the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, resigned from the committee drafting the Republican National Convention platform over its position on public land sales, and Donald Trump, Jr. has been outspoken in support of public lands remaining public. Zinke and Trump, Jr. represent millions of Republican outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen who benefit from and support federal land ownership. And their opposition to H.R. 621 is particularly striking when one considers that it focused primarily on scattered tracts, rather than large, contiguous units of public lands, and that the Clinton administration initially selected these lands. Indeed, opposition reflects the remarkable level of distrust that Democrats and Republicans alike have in Congress to serve the national interest through land sales and exchanges.

So it seems unlikely that Congress will liquidate federal land holdings. It is far more likely that the Republican majority will make significant changes in public land planning and management to reduce environmental regulation and increase resource production, striking down administrative processes and requirements that stand in their way. For example, Republicans in the House voted to repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s new planning rules, Planning 2.0, which were finalized at the end of the Obama administration. The new rules were driven, in part, by frustration with the cost and length of land use planning and the additional financial and temporal costs of subsequent litigation. To address these problems, the rules require greater public participation, including earlier and more frequent participation; they emphasize landscape-scale planning issues that transcend public land boundaries; they require BLM to take scientific measurements of resource baselines that will be used to assess management actions in the future; etc. These rules, the BLM hoped, would produce more robust plans that stand a better chance of surviving legal challenge and give land managers better footing when they make subsequent decisions.

As Republican critics understand correctly, though, Planning 2.0 will impact the current balance of power in public land planning. Though it is difficult to predict the exact impacts of Planning 2.0, two things seem clear. First, it would likely make participation more accurately reflective of diverse interests in the public lands, giving environmentalists and resource developers, local citizens and national organizations, a place at the table. Second, it would shift the focus of planning from land uses to land and resource conditions, and this is a shift that environmentalists have sought for decades. Because of these and other potential impacts, the Western Governors Association, the oil and gas industry, and the livestock industry all opposed Planning 2.0, arguing that it would unfairly privilege environmental protection and the voice of national organizations over economic development and the voice of local communities. As congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) put it, Planning 2.0 “represents a federal power grab that ignores expert knowledge and undermines the ability of state and local governments to effectively manage resources and land use inside their own districts.”

If history is at all predictive, the most important battles waged by the Republican majority in Congress and the White House will not be over selling public land; they will be battles over public land planning and management. And it is here that they are most likely to build their legacy of reduced regulation and increased resource development.

pensiveskillenJames R. Skillen is assistant professor of environmental studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Intellectual Conservatism Cannot Save the Mainstream American Right

Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, has been busy. Of course, when you start this election year publishing a book about the troubles plaguing the American Conservative movement, it’s hard to stay silent. Dr. Hawley has been closely monitoring the presidential campaign and possible fallout from the Republican’s internal bickering…

By Dr. George Hawley

9780700621934As Donald Trump rampaged through the already fragile infrastructure of the American conservative movement, we saw justified panic on the mainstream right and Schadenfreude on the left. Superficially, at least, the Trump campaign seemed to undermine what little intellectual respectability the right possessed, returning us the days when Lionel Trilling could reasonably state that conservatives do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” It makes sense that those laboring to foster and maintain a high-brow, literate conservatism would distance themselves from Trump’s brash, populist nationalism. Unfortunately for the #NeverTrump conservatives, the intellectual wing of the American conservative movement is simply not a plausible alternative to Trumpism.

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyConservatives are always quick to declare that “ideas have consequences” – a rallying cry taken from the title of Richard Weaver’s most important book. They argue that, although the left is a collection of interest groups expressing a litany of grievances, conservatism is based on principles. Conservatism officially rejects identity politics; as Ramesh Ponnuru once wrote in National Review, conservatives “hoist their ideas on flagpoles and see who salutes.”  Trump, in contrast, is a pure identity politics candidate, and one with little interest in abstract principles.

Progressives may roll their eyes at the suggestion that conservatives are deeply invested in political theory or that the conservative movement has a long history of rejecting identity politics. But intellectually serious conservatives do view political and economic theory as important, and they try to frame their arguments using universal principles rather than the language of interest-groups.

More so than liberals, conservatives are deeply concerned about their own movement’s intellectual pedigree. This has been true since Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind. Scouring the internet, it is easy to find lists of sites explaining which books all conservatives should read. Conservatives believe reading books by the founding conservatives is more than important; it is indispensable. As conservatives shudder at Trump’s position at the top of the GOP ticket, they regularly declare that the conservative movement has lost its way, that is must return to its roots, to the conservatism of William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer and the other icons of the right. Just re-read back issues of National Review, the thinking goes; they will tell you what you need to know. Columnist Matt Lewis made an argument like this in his new book, Too Dumb to Fail.

When looking for a usable model for the American right, conservatives point to their own movement’s canon – those books written between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s. From The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek to The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater, a small number of books forged the heart of America’s post-war conservative political philosophy. For a discussion of the importance of these books and their authors, I recommend Michael Lee’s excellent work, Creating Conservatism. Among these books written by the founding fathers of conservatism, we can find flashes of genuine brilliance. Today’s conservatives are right to admire what was produced by Weaver, Kirk, Meyer, Hayek, Friedman, Burnham and the other journalists and scholars that created the intellectual foundation for the conservative movement.

Unfortunately for conservatives, the intellectual wing of the conservative movement is not actually an alternative to the populist nationalism represented by Donald Trump. Aside from a few stale talking points, these conservatives have little to offer 21st century America. The arguments made in the conservative classics are completely disconnected from contemporary problems and can provide little guidance for today’s policymakers. For all their virtues (and they had many), Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, and Richard Weaver are now largely irrelevant. A policymaker formulating solutions to growing economic inequality, terrorism, a broken immigration system, and all the other salient issues of 2016 will find little guidance from the conservative canon.

Many of the most important works from the early conservative movement were focused almost single-mindedly on the Cold War or on the folly of planned economies. Yet those battles are over. On these issues, the conservatives won, and won decisively. The Soviet Union is not coming back, and the mainstream left has lost interest in state-directed economics. Conservatives can justifiably boast about this victory, but the conversation has since moved on. Contemporary conservatives that insist their future leaders understand the problems with central planning would be equivalent to 1887 Republicans demanding their leaders study the case against slavery. They are building up an arsenal for a battle that is already won.

The left is no longer fighting to nationalize industries; for the most part, the left is fighting to strengthen the social safety net and increase economic equity within a capitalist framework. The mainstream left made peace with free enterprise long ago. When the debate is framed in these terms, a strong knowledge of the errors of socialism is not particularly helpful. If the debate has transitioned from being about ownership of the means of production to questions about the role of government in guaranteeing some minimal level of economic welfare for all, certain aspects of the canon may actually be harmful to the conservative cause. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek actually expresses positive sentiments toward welfare policies, stating, for example, that “there is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.”

Although conservatives could justifiably crow about the end of the Cold War, on other issues, the conservatives lost – and lost badly. Unfortunately, the conservative canon does not show a way forward after the left triumphs. Much of the conservative canon was written by authors that viewed the United States as a conservative country, arguing that diligent effort could keep it a conservative country. National Review promised in its first issue to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” Yet history did not stop in 1955. On multiple issues, especially cultural issues, the left was victorious. If history came to a halt right now, it would simply calcify societal developments that conservatives opposed.

Conservatives love to point to Edmund Burke as their inspiration, especially Russell Kirk’s interpretation of Burke. Yet this brand of Burkeanism is similarly futile for conservatives in 2016 America. Many of the left’s most resounding victories on issues of culture and economics occurred a generation or more in the past. To an important degree, progressive egalitarianism, supported and promoted by a large central state, is now an American tradition. Reversing these liberal victories in any substantive way would require revolutionary changes at this point. Where does that leave the traditionalist working from a Burkean framework? According to Russell Kirk, “Conservatism is never more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish this principle.” This brand of conservatism can only lead to a society that moves like a ratchet in a more liberal direction. At most, it can slow the rate of change. Perhaps this is the ideal role for conservatism. But this kind of conservatism surely does not offering an inspiring vision. Who would sign up for such a movement?

It is true that the founding fathers of the post-war American conservative movement were deeper thinkers than the most prominent conservative voices of today. But even the most brilliant conservatives of the 1950s have few valuable insights for current activists and policymakers. This is not a criticism of their work; they were dealing with ephemeral issues of their day, and often discussed them cogently and persuasively. But the world is now very different.

Besides the end of the Cold War, 2016 differs from the 1950s in other important ways that undermine basic conservative assumptions. There may have been a time when big business and cultural traditionalists were natural allies; mainstream conservatism is largely dependent on such an alliance. Is there such alliance today, or even shared interests? Are there any cultural issues where traditionalists can count on support from major industries? The answer is clearly no.

For the most part, big business is not concerned with issues like gay marriage, affirmative action, and abortion. In fact, major corporations frequently align with liberals on these issues. Even corporations that are widely despised by progressives often align themselves with progressive social causes. Walmart, for example, played an important role in killing or weakening religious freedom laws that would have protected businesses that discriminated against the LGBT community. The recent examples of major corporations that fought for more traditional values on questions such as homosexuality and contraception – such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby – are notable precisely because they are so rare. If conservatism is based on a presumed alliance between cultural traditionalists and corporate America, and corporate America actively opposes the traditionalists, what does that say about conservatism?

Conservatives who think Buckley-style conservatism is a legitimate substitute for Trumpism are mistaken. Conservative intellectuals, those who know who Peter Viereck was and subscribe to Modern Age, have failed to generate real, practical solutions to today’s social and economic problems. Keeping the memory of the founding generation of conservatives alive may be a noble undertaking, but it will do nothing to create or sustain a contemporary political movement that both addresses important issues and has a chance at winning.

A few exceptions aside, conservatives stopped generating new ideas long ago, instead focusing on marketing old ones. Unfortunately, the movement is now showing its age. The claim that Trump is killing mainstream American conservatism is mistaken. Mainstream conservatism was already dying.

 

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…

A few weeks ago we posted a new piece from Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, that dissected the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement. Because his great piece is even more timely now, we are re-running it below…

By George Hawley, PhD

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyIn American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.

The 2016 Election and the End of the Conservative Movement

photo courtesy of CNN
photo courtesy of CNN

Every Thursday from now until the election, we will feature a piece by a UPK author that deals with an aspect of American politics. Today, Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, dissects the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement.

By George Hawley, PhD

In American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.