The Return of the Grassroots

It should mystify even the most impartial observer of American politics that a Democratic president, blessed with a Congress dominated by Democrats and elected in part on his environmental stances, would be unable to oversee the passage of a moderately robust law on climate and the environment. It certainly bothers Columbia University’s Nicholas Lemann, and in the pages of The New Yorker he goes searching for the reasons for The Big Fail.

This is well-trod ground, even for The New Yorker: Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza won deserved plaudits for his 2010 story describing how the White House and the Senate committed a series of errors that led to the failure of a bipartisan bill backed by Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, and John Kerry. (“As the World Burns.”) Lemann, for his part, wants to compare the success of the environmental movement in the 1970s with its modern failure.

In “When the Earth Moved,” Lemann suggests that the failure has come from a change in tactics:

Even as the environmental movement has become an established presence in Washington, it has become less able to win legislative victories. It has concentrated on the inside game, at the expense of efforts at broad-based organizing.

Lehmann describes the efforts of the environmental movement to play the Washington Game, depending on lobbying, contributions, and corporate alliances. For whatever reason, the movement has failed in this effort. There is only one place it is likely to go: back to the grassroots.

Lehmann’s conclusions should serve as a wake-up call to all who shepherd political initiatives through the Washington maze, even if the left has discovered it first. The winners of future political contests in a nation increasingly fed-up with moneyball politics will not those best able to gin up some ersatz populism, but those who concentrate on getting people to care enough to act.

Regardless of your political stripes, you should regard this as a good thing. Change through the empowerment and activation of the individual is, after all, at the heart of democracy. The only people likely to hate this are Bill Gates, George Soros, David Axelrod, and the Koch Brothers.

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