Environment Picture

President's Column: Troubling partisan gulf threatens environmental protection

A Pew Research Center report issued in June affirms what most of us already sense: Political polarization in this country is growing at an accelerated pace. The big news here is that political identity is now the greatest division among us; more than race, class or sex.

“The average partisan gap has nearly doubled over this 25-year period—from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent in the new study,” says the report. The biggest partisan gaps were on the role and scope of government, the social safety net, and the environment (emphasis mine).

In 1987, the gap between Democrats and Republicans who support stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment was 7 percent; 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans said they supported such laws. Today the gap has widened to 46 percent! Democrats’ support is unchanged at 93 percent but Republican support has dropped for the first time to below 50 percent, to 47 percent. Independents are much closer to Democrats at 75 percent.

The disconnect on the environment is most troubling to me. It’s especially disheartening because MEC works day in and day out to develop nonpartisan solutions to protecting our natural heritage in Michigan.

What is troubling is not which party supports environmental protection more, but the fact that the gap is so big and growing. It helps to explain current efforts to roll back environmental protection in Michigan and across the country. And it has important implications for how we talk about our issues with folks of different political persuasions.

Obviously, from our perspective, more research (both qualitative and quantitative) is needed to flesh out this growing gap and how it impacts the potential for future environmental protections. Does this gap mean Republicans believe we need fewer protections for water, land, air and public health? Or does it reflect a discomfort with government regulation in general? Or some combination of the two?

The answers to those questions require more research and will help determine how best to communicate our issues to audiences who are less receptive than ever before. MEC has started doing some of this research. Last year, we conducted both focus groups and a survey of voters on attitudes about transportation issues and funding (see story, page 9). What we found was interesting:

--More than 90 percent believe we should do a better job at fixing our roads and bridges.
--76 percent think we should ensure that bike lanes, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings should be included in road projects.
--70 percent believe we should improve or fix bus systems. ? More than 60 percent believe we should improve passenger rail.
--64 percent want greater state spending on infrastructure.
--62 percent are willing to pay increased taxes of at least $10 a month or more to fix our transportation systems. That includes majorities of Republicans (56%), independents (60%), and Democrats (77%).
--71 percent would not vote against an elected official for raising taxes for transportation infrastructure.
-72 percent agree with the statement, “Time is running out on gas, we need to invest in a cleaner, better transportation future.”
--84 percent agree with the statement, “We can maintain resources like clean air and water for future generations by making smarter investments in less-polluting transportation options.”

The takeaway from this research project is that Michiganders of all political stripes understand we need to invest in transportation systems that go beyond just roads, highways and bridges. We need to build a cleaner, more diverse transportation network. Also, they are willing to pay for it. While there is still a partisan gap, it appears to be one we can bridge.

I expect that future MEC research projects will also show how we can bridge the partisan gap on other environmental issues. I firmly believe that preserving our natural heritage for future generations is not a partisan issue. We may differ on how to do it, but we all—I hope—want our kids and grandkids to enjoy everything that Pure Michigan represents!
-Chris Kolb, MEC
RELATED TOPICS: legislation
© Copyright Michigan Environmental Council, All rights reserved