Indeed, the same dynamic is at work in the world of solar energy, where conservatives—led by the Koch brothers and anti-tax activists—have launched ferocious attacks on states that favor green energy. In Kansas, for instance, the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity has led the effort to dismantle a green energy mandate, which requires the state to obtain 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources. As the Los Angeles Times reports, conservative activists are comparing the energy mandate to the individual mandate in Obamacare.
Obviously, there are material interests at work here. The Koch brothers are oil magnates with a financial stake in stopping the spread of solar technology, which is cheaper and more effective than it’s ever been. At the same time, there’s nothing especially political about solar energy; it’s an issue with wide appeal to a variety of different groups and interests. If you want clean air, you can support solar. If you want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil—a rallying cry of presidential candidates on both sides—you can support solar, too.
But solar is also a tool in the fight against global warming, and to conservative conspiracy-mongers, that’s enough to condemn it as a step on the road to serfdom, hence claims from Fox News that the Bureau of Land Management is going after rancher Cliven Bundy to make space for a solar energy project. Totalitarianism on the march! Or something.
This tribalism is easy to mock, but it has real consequences for our ability to solve problems or do anything constructive, and not just on a national scale. In Nashville, Tenn., local officials wanted to lay the groundwork for a high-speed bus project that would connect neighboring areas and reduce the pressure on roads and existing buses. The $174 million proposal, called “The Amp,” would cut commute times for Nashville residents and had support from business groups and transit advocates. But last week, after sustained activism from the state branch of Americans for Prosperity, the Tennessee Senate passed a bill that—if approved—would kill the project and “prohibit metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government” from constructing a bus rapid transit system.
Treat this as a technocratic dispute, and it doesn’t make any sense. If state lawmakers had a problem with The Amp, they could ask local officials to re-evaluate the proposal and look for ways to reduce costs and improve safety. It goes beyond overkill to block the project and preclude Nashville from considering mass transit.
But if you treat this as a local front in an unending, all-encompassing culture war, then it’s easy to understand. To the right-wing, mass transit is just another liberal attempt to force Americans into a kind of brutalist conformity. “So why is America’s ‘win the future’ administration so fixated on railroads,” wrote conservative commentator George Will in an attack on Obama’s push for new transit infrastructure. “Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.” Tennessee lawmakers weren’t crippling Nashville’s attempt to manage its future growth, it was defending its residents from the creeping socialism of public transit.
At this point, the tribalist hysteria of the conservative movement is a fixture of American politics, and there’s a good chance it gets worse before it gets better. Not only is 2014 an election year, but it’s followed by the official start of the Republican presidential primary, and then—in 2016—a full-fledged presidential contest.
For the next three years, Republican politicians will be fighting to win support from a conservative base that’s rabid for red meat. And if there’s an easy path to the prize, it’s to find something a liberal likes, and denounce it.