Thirty years ago, as I prepared to head to graduate school with the intention of studying environmental politics, my undergraduate mentor asked me, “Do you think environmentalism can continue to progress and the country remain democratic?”

Brimming with youthful idealism, I answered, “Yes, of course,” to which he just nodded, but with a skeptical look that suggested I hadn’t thought deeply enough about the question. Knowing him as a long-time and thoughtful observer of politics, I couldn’t shake his skepticism, and the question bothered me throughout graduate school. My disquiet was only increased by the substantial number of my grad school colleagues who were far-left, even communist, and not shy about voicing their dislike of liberal democracy. After all, democracy allowed people with bad political values to have a say in policy; some even held political office. 

Thirty years later, my answer is only a partial yes, and comes with a big qualifier. On the yes side, I think that there’s no way to reasonably deny that American environmentalism has continued to advance with the support of a majority of the public. For example, the general public largely supports protections for public lands through presidents designating national monuments (even if local publics are often more conflicted), most people support the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and surveys indicate that a substantial majority believe the US needs to take serious action to combat climate change (at least in the abstract, if not when costs are considered).

The big qualifier is that the most dedicated environmentalists must always separate themselves from the masses, always forging ahead of where current public agreement currently exists. As a consequence, they are always inherently anti-democratic, defined by their opposition to the demos. And if this is not enough risk to democracy, they may potentially spur populist opposition that itself has only a tenuous respect for democratic process.

Opposition to the demos is probably a general principle applicable to all narrowly focused political movements, particularly those that have a sense that a moment of crisis is looming. Whether it is the old intellectual vanguard of the communists or the contemporary vanguard of the environmental movement, they have one important factor in common, which is a need to forge their identity as elites who are distinct from and ahead of the masses.

This need is, I think, essentially psychological. It’s about identity and the need for a cause to give meaning to one’s life. This may be especially attractive in a capitalist, consumer-oriented, society. Despite bringing vast material gains, critics of capitalism are correct to note that consumerism can be spiritually empty, leaving people without a compelling sense of purpose in life. But anti-consumerist environmentalism promises to rescue both the earth and humanity from the destructive and spiritually corrosive influences of capitalism. It’s a form of spiritual warfare, and you either choose to be among the few elect saints or remain among the spiritually fallen.

The need to gain identity, however, by separating oneself from the masses creates a problem–every time the masses catch up, the self-identified member of the vanguard comparatively sinks back to his level, threatening his sense of identity. The masses by definition are retrograde, the fallen, so to be no more advanced than them is to no longer be a saint.

This means past success in democratic policymaking can never provide satisfaction–the very fact that the masses, the demos, have come to agreement with the vanguard necessarily erodes the vanguard’s identity as the elect. They can no longer see themselves as leading the masses if they are one of them. And because they have disdain for the retrograde masses, they must have disdain for themselves as long as they remain at their level. Success, ironically, inevitably breeds discontent, so a new challenge must be sought, always forging ahead in a process of psychological self-protection.

But for any vanguard, the good of humanity is a goal, however abstractly they conceive of it. So while despising the masses, they reassure themselves that they are in fact looking out for the masses’ true interests, which those masses themselves are too stupid to be left to do on their own.

True democracy, then, in the vanguardists’ perspective, is achieved in meeting the true needs of the demos, as identified by the elect who are properly qualified to understand it. That means true democracy can require ignoring the masses’ expressed wishes, what economists would call their revealed preferences, but which is really, according to the vanguardist, false consciousness. True democracy gives the masses what, if they weren’t so benighted, they would recognize as their true need. To force it on them, if necessary, is to grant them a blessing. 

Thus, one grad school colleague of mine could be a fervent believer in Chinese communism under the guise of real democracy, even as he despaired that the current leaders would never, as he said, “get it right.” It was those particular political leaders’ choices that were wrong, in his mind, but he saw nothing wrong in general with the idea of political leaders making all the choices without input from the demos. Once the right leaders were put in place, he was sure, all the best choices for the people would be made for them.

What, then does the political vanguard in a liberal democracy do when the masses refuse to follow? The masses eventually must balk, because however far they go along, the vanguard is psychologically driven to demand further movement. At some point, the masses become emotionally exhausted by the perpetual demands for change, or satisfied with the progress made, or disgruntled with the increasing marginal costs and decreasing marginal benefits of further progress.

The environmental vanguard has a specific costs and benefits challenge that they will soon face. While opinion surveys show strong support for action against climate change, they also show very limited willingness to pay for it. So as long as the promises seem vibrant and the costs are abstract, the public is willing to follow along. But with these policies, the costs will be felt long before any benefits will. And those costs will be felt directly, hitting people right in the wallet, while the benefits, consisting primarily of harms that never come to pass, will be very abstract, and perhaps not actually “felt,” in any personally meaningful way.

But if the public hesitates, the vanguard–any vanguard–cannot. For them, politics is not the art of compromise. Compromise entails abandoning their identity and falling back with the masses, so every policy issue becomes a sort of existential battle that requires nothing short of total victory. 

At the crisis point, minority rule must become the preferred method of the vanguard. Their mission cannot be allowed to fail due to the idiocies of the public. Minority rule will not be remotely distasteful to them, because it is, after all, true democracy, meeting the true needs of the demos by any means necessary. (If climate change is seen as an existential threat to humanity’s very existence, mass impoverishment or the heads of a few thousand capitalists is an acceptable cost.)

And so back to my mentor’s question. With California’s struggle with high energy prices and rolling blackouts, New York’s predicted 10 percent shortfall in energy supply by 2040, demands that people shift to expensive electric cars without sufficient infrastructure to support them, threats to ban gas appliances (which, however silly the environmental vanguard thinks the concerns are, deeply bothers those idiot masses who, shamefully, still have political influence), and the tremendous costs of recently passed federal environmental policies (misnamed as “investments”), the environmental movement may be at a crossroads. If the masses rebel, can the vanguard accept the constraints of majority democracy, or will they increasingly push for minority rule?

My guess is the latter, with the primary question being how they can attain it. And the answer to that–given the republican constraints of the Constitution, and the brute political fact that American political geography currently makes elected minority governance by conservatives considerably more likely than by progressives–is most likely to be through the federal bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is poorly constrained by Presidents, who are their titular bosses, or even Congress, which has the explicit constitutional authority to draft the laws to which the bureaucracy is ostensibly supposed to limit their enforcement reach. 

The resulting technocracy is naturally attractive to the vanguard. Considering themselves experts, they are comfortable with rule by other like-minded experts. And the technocrats in the bureaucracy of any agency are often in sympathy with the vanguard: the military likes advocates of a strong military, the CIA appreciates cold warriors, and agencies like the EPA and the Department of Energy are not at all opposed to supporters of ever-more stringent environmental regulations.

We got a recent taste of this with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Environmental Protection Agency’s wetlands protections, Sackett v. EPA. The Court ruled that the EPA had gone beyond the bounds of its congressionally granted authority in regulating wetlands, and ruled that some of those wetlands fell outside the scope of the agency’s congressionally granted jurisdiction. Although only a bare majority joined the legal argument of the official opinion, the judgment itself was unanimous–liberal and conservative alike, the justices thought the EPA did not have legislative authority for the scope of its regulatory action.

Environmentalists were outraged. But the most prominent argument was not that the Court had misinterpreted the authorizing statute, but that it had ignored the environmental havoc its ruling would unleash, that it had not been deferential enough to the experts in the EPA, and that it had ignored the claims of scientists about the importance of wetlands. Abiding by the policy created by the elected representatives of the masses was not a relevant consideration to them; they demanded submission to the views of unelected and unaccountable experts.

While this case demonstrates the environmental vanguard’s hostility to democracy, it is only one case and does not establish any surety that the courts will be reliable defenders of democratic policymaking. So if the masses rebel, it’s not clear they will have any reliable means for pushing back effectively against the environmental vanguard and those in the bureaucratic and scientific communities who share their disdain for the retrograde masses.

It may take another vanguard to lead them, and a would-be counter-vanguard is already developing, drawing on a growing anti-elitist, anti-technocratic urge among the demos as the foundation for a dangerous nationalist-populist agenda.

Unfortunately, this counter-vanguard is even more explicit in its disdain for democratic processes. It also claims to know the wants of the people, but for them, “we, the people” is a limited subset of the population; only those who share their vision for the country. Those who disagree are not part of we, the people, but internal enemies to whom no quarter must be given. Because the political system allows those enemies to participate, political outcomes are not legitimated by democratic process; instead, democratic processes are legitimated only by producing the “correct” political outcomes. If necessary, then, overthrowing democratic norms and processes can be justified to ensure the real needs of the real we, the people, are achieved.

I don’t think this particular outcome was any part of my mentor’s thinking. Thirty years ago, the progenitors of this movement, such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, were just beginning to come into their own and to mobilize their own slice of the demos. My mentor, a Gerald Ford Republican through and through, despised the populism of these ranters, but I doubt he foresaw the political realignment that is currently underway.

But that seems to be where we’re heading, and although wholly unintentionally, the environmentalist vanguard has played a substantial role in the ascendancy of this ugly nationalist-populism by disdaining the personal interests of millions of individuals. These individuals are tired of being treated like children and told by a self-anointed elite that the vanguardists really know better than the masses what their interests are, and that the masses will eventually catch on and thank them. Even if the masses are in fact idiots, they don’t like being told so, and they will always outnumber the vanguard that demands their obesiance.

Coincidentally, I now have roughly as many years of political observation under my belt as my mentor had back then. My views have changed considerably over the years, from optimism about the potential of politics to create a better world, through a growing skepticism about the state’s capacity to do more good than harm (even if well-intentioned), and ultimately to a deep pessimism about the very nature of the state and state-oriented politics. And as much as any other factor, this evolution stems from that one simple question, my answer to which he chose not to dispute, leaving me to stew over it for many years.

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