washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: ‘Greenlash’ Is Here

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

The results from the recent European parliament elections were quite something. Right populists did very well indeed while the European Greens took big losses. They lost 18 of their 72 seats in the European parliament and their performance was particularly bad in the E.U.’s two largest states, Germany and France. In Germany, the core country of the European green movement, support for the Greens plunged from 20.5 percent in 2019 to 12 percent. Shockingly, among voters under 25, the German Greens actually did worse than the hard right Alternative for Germany (AfD). That contrasts with the 2019 elections, when the Greens did seven times better than the AfD among these young voters.

And in France, Green support crashed from 13.5 percent to 5.5 percent. The latter figure is barely above the required threshold for party representation in the French delegation.

The Greens’ overall poor performance means they are now behind not only the traditionally largest party groupings—the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the social-democratic Socialists and Democrats group and the liberal Renew Europe group, but also both right-populist groupings—the European Conservatives and Reformists (which includes Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy) and the Identity and Democracy group (which includes Marine LePen’s National Rally group)—and even the non-affiliated group (which includes Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Hungary’s Fidesz party).

There’s a reason for this. While there’s no doubt that concerns about immigration were key to the right populist surge in these elections, the role of backlash against green policies (call it “greenlash”) should not be underestimated. And the fattest target for this greenlash was naturally the Greens, the most fervent proponents of the European “Green Deal” and associated policies. The implications of this are huge. As Adam Tooze, himself a strong supporter of green policies, admits:

The elections have tilted the European political balance against the green agenda which has served as an important reference point for politics in Brussels for the last five years….Even if Ursula von der Leyen succeeds in her bid for a second term as Commission President, she will not be pursuing the full-throated green-forward policy that launched the Green Deal in 2019 and Next Gen EU in 2020….There is a groundswell of opinion in Europe that is preoccupied with the cost of living, wants to keep its internal combustion-engined cars and sympathizes with farmers in their opposition to green regulation.

Speaking of von der Leyen, Manfred Weber, the leader of her EPP party—still the largest grouping in the new parliament—has declared that the 2035 ban on the sale of combustion engine cars was a “mistake.” Peter Liese, lead climate policymaker of the EPP, said the election results indicated support for a less restrictive Green Deal and that, “The ban on combustion engines—that needs to go”.

Greenlash, in short, is for real. A summary article in The New York Times puts the situation well:

There is no sugarcoating it: losing one-third of their seats in the European Parliament elections last week, the Greens tanked.

The European Union has in recent years emerged as the world’s most ambitious frontier in fighting climate change. It did so through major policy shifts like setting high targets to cut emissions, preparing to ditch combustion engines, pushing for nature restoration and curbing the effect of farming on the environment. Green parties across the 27 E.U. member states have successfully driven that agenda.

But over the past few years, something has clearly snapped in much of the European electorate…A backlash against climate change policies as part of broader culture wars has gained momentum.

In many places, the nationalist agendas of far-right parties have been augmented by populist appeals to economically strained citizens. The right surged among voters by targeting the Greens specifically, painting them as unfit to protect poorer working people in rapidly changing societies.

For many voters, Green parties failed to show that their proposals were not just expensive, anti-growth policies that would hurt the poorest the most. And some view them as elitist urbanites who brush aside the costs of the transition to a less climate-harming way of life.

Some may look at these results and say, “Well, that’s Europe—couldn’t happen here”. But not only could it happen here it is happening here. Trump is running aggressively against Biden on exactly the same climate/energy issues and in exactly the same way as the right populists in Europe. And he’s getting traction. Voters really don’t want to be forced, directly or indirectly, to get an electric vehicle when they’re perfectly happy with their internal combustion car. Voters really do care, above all, about cheap energy prices, not the provenance of that energy. And fundamentally most voters simply do not care that much about climate change as an issue relative to other issues like the cost-of-living.

Recent polling by Impact Research for Third Way vividly demonstrates these realities. Just 4 percent of voters attach enough priority to climate change issues to be described as “climate-first” voters, dwarfed by the ranks of voters most concerned about lowering costs and reducing inflation. This mighty 4 percent of voters supports Biden by 96 points (!), a margin that would have made a Soviet Politburo candidate happy back in the day. Doesn’t seem like these voters, unlike the economy-first voters, are really in play.

Moreover, nonwhite and young voters—among whom Democrats have been bleeding support—are disproportionately economy-first voters. And who are the climate-first voters? According to the Third Way report they:

…tend to hold a college degree or higher…They are also far more likely than Economy-First voters to be financially comfortable and to believe the economy is in good shape, by a margin of 35 and 47 points, respectively….

It’s simple: if you’re prioritizing climate change this election, you’re financially comfortable. For everyone else, it remains a fringe issue, and cost-of-living concerns take center stage.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs anyone?

No wonder Trump thinks he can effectively slam Biden and the Democrats on their climate change approach. They are leaning into an issue and devoting considerable resources to a cause that is fundamentally boutique in nature. Sentiment about electric vehicles has been trending negative and most in the working class now say they would not even consider buying one. Voters are strongly opposed to measures and regulations that would limit the future availability of gasoline-powered cars. And somewhat cluelessly the Biden administration has recently doubled down on doing just that.

Voters of course hate being told what car they must drive, how they must heat their homes, cook their food, etc. And they really, really hate high prices. Rather than fighting climate change, their strong preference is for cheap, reliable, abundant energy. No wonder that, when asked whether they would support paying something extra on their monthly utility bill to combat climate change, working-class voters opposed even paying an extra one dollar. And if the toll was raised to $10, these voters were opposed by a massive 38 points.

This makes it a problem, to say the least, that voters trust Trump more than Biden to address these issues. In an earlier Third Way poll, voters preferred Trump to Biden by 15 points on increasing domestic energy production and by 17 points on reducing the cost of energy and gas. Clearly a different approach is called for in this area other than emphasizing the importance of climate change, as dear to the hearts of liberal activists as this issue may be.

Above all, Democrats should keep in mind the “iron law of climate policy” as originally articulated by Roger Pielke Jr: When policies focused on economic growth and the cost-of-living confront policies focused on emissions reductions, it is economic growth and the cost-of-living that will win out every time.

The funny thing is that the experience of the Biden administration has been quite consistent with the iron law even though they’re loath to admit it. When Biden swept into office, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, blocking oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and stopping oil and gas leasing on public lands, it seemed like his administration was going to fulfill the dreams of climate activists and dramatically ratchet down fossil fuel production. But economic imperatives soon put paid to those dreams and the Biden administration has presided instead over historic highs in oil and gas production.

The U.S. is an all-of-the-above energy superpower! But Biden and the Democrats never talk about that. Maybe they should. Greenlash is here and coming for them, unless they change course and unapologetically connect to the concerns of ordinary voters, rather than to the tiny group of climate-first voters. Carrying those voters by 96 points will be cold comfort if Trump rides the massive group of economy-first voters into the White House. And right now that looks very possible.

2 comments on “Teixeira: ‘Greenlash’ Is Here

  1. Gerald M Turkel on

    Another possible explanation for the loss suffered by Greens: Other parties, including center left and center right parties, have adopted much of the green agenda. Perhaps it is getting harder for Greens to articulate the contrast between themselves and other parties. This is worth exploring.

    • Victor on

      In Europe Agriculture/Food became an important issue due to the broad left (socialdemocrats, greens and liberals) failing to respond quickly enough to the opposing pressures farmers and consumers were receiving due to rising energy prices and rising imports from Ukraine. Before that there were already problems due to the European Union implementing World Trade Organization policies to make agriculture more market reliant.

      Making agriculture mostly market reliant is simply stupid. Yes there were problems with the previous system of subsidizing things like butter and wine. But agriculture is too exposed to factors not under the direct control of farmers. Mainly the weather, but also including some pests and the general problem of international production not being coordinated by anyone.

      The European Union needs to return to and devise a stronger safety net for smaller farmers. It worked in the past to defuse their euroscepticism.

      The same must be done in the United States if Democrats are ever going to make any sort of inroads in rural areas again, starting with avoiding at all costs the notions that agricultural production must come down or be subordinated to vague climate or environmental objectives.

      In Europe there were also smaller backlashes against the suppresion of fossil boilers and internal combustion engines, but these didn’t have as much inroads for a variety of reasons. Most of them seem astroturfed. If unions in general turned wholly against decarbonization then the left would face a much bigger problem.

      Biden has generally take the right approach with the Inflation Reduction Act mostly acting via incentives. Incentives like those for electric vehicles are targeted at the wrong public and will probably not work well enough, but other than that and some issues surrounding liquified natural gas exports, Biden has acted pragmatically.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.