Nixon and Environmentalism

Professor Joy Porter, Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, 2019-22
What Would Nixon Do? The Forgotten Republican Roots of American Environmentalism

The greatest advances in contemporary environmental policy were made not by a Democrat, but by a Republican – Richard M. Nixon. That legacy is now being betrayed by a President consistently compared to Nixon by both sides of the political divide, Donald Trump, who is reversing some of the most important environmental safeguards achieved in the contemporary era. Meanwhile, Trump’s constituency ignores conventional warnings from scientists, environmentalists and policy advisors as ‘fake science’ and ‘fake news’.  Trump’s rise to power was fuelled by two major impulses: a top-down urge to access resources on the 28% of American land that is federally-owned and a bottom-up push for the restoration of blue-collar jobs linked to extractive industries such as coal, oil, and gas. With the recent opening up of the Keystone XL & Dakota pipelines, the loosening of environmental legislation and President Trump’s determination to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement, the stage is now set for a new and very dark chapter in environmental history. Natural scientists and environmentalists are sounding the alarm, but their work has little purchase within an administration keen to reject what it perceives is a ‘pro-China’ scientific climate change consensus. Native tribes are also up in arms and have taken to American courts to prevent planned oil and gas drilling on the millions of acres at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Rather than confront conservative and Republican audiences with evidence it is now well known they routinely reject, this project engages with their own traditions on an interdisciplinary basis. It asks the question conservative themselves ask (it is the tag-line of all the marketing products on sale in the Nixon Library) – ‘What Would Nixon Do?’ and applies it to the Trump administration’s seismic changes in environmental policy. Using Nixon’s innovations in Indian policy as a lens, it sets out to recover the Republican party’s remarkable and positive legacy of environmental leadership, raise the profile of conservative and Republican traditions of stewardship and protection of American land and prompt new discourse on the extent to which the Trump administration is deviating from these ideals. The administration’s stated commitment to ‘clean water and clean air’ provides a platform for examination of new and under-researched archives held in Alaska, California and New Mexico. The research hopes to bridge the divide between environmental groups, indigenous groups and the conservative and Republican base at a time when the need is acute