The Revolt of the
Range Rover Republicans:
by Steve Sailer
UPI, June 10, 2001
This is first in a three part series on the appeal of environmental restrictions to affluent homeowners:
The public's high regard for the environment has proven one of the larger political obstacles for former Texas oilman George W. Bush.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll on June 5 found the president with a 55 percent overall approval rating. Yet, only 41 percent of the public favored his handling of environmental issues. An earlier Los Angeles Times poll found Bush's environmental stances even less popular in the megastate of California.
These are not just Democrats who are pro-conservation. Republican voters often go green too. A 1999 poll of probable GOP primary voters by Zogby International found 93 percent endorsed "protect environment" as a goal for the president, the same number as said he should "encourage family values."
Yet conservative Republican intellectuals long have denounced the ecology movement for appealing primarily to the upper middle class. Attacking this pet cause of the well-to-do, however, can be self-destructive for the GOP, because affluent property owners traditionally have been a key part of any conservative party's voter base.
For example, many conservative pundits have declared Californian suburbanites who objected to the building of new power plants near their homes to be "NIMBY's" (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) who deserve to swelter in the dark during their state's power crisis. Yet it can be self-defeating for Republicans to make fun of homeowners who worry about protecting from pollution their investments in their expensive backyards. One might think that the GOP would see itself as the natural party for voters with expensive backyards.
Not surprisingly, in the 2000 election Bush did not do particularly well among America's better-off voters, winning only about half their votes in his battle with Al Gore, author of "Earth in the Balance," a staunchly environmentalist best-seller. According to the Voter News Service exit poll, he won only 54 percent of the voters who make more than $100,000 annually. He also received just 54 percent from those who call themselves "upper-middle class." Among the 4 percent who consider themselves "upper class," Bush took only 39 percent. And he won only 44 percent of those with post-graduate degrees.
What's behind this Revolt of the Range Rover Republicans? Why do the propertied classes now so often favor conservationism over the GOP's anti-environmental brand of conservatism?
One answer that the Bush administration appears to have had a hard time grasping is that homeowners often use environmental laws to thwart new developments in order preserve their investments in their own property.
Conservative activists like to think of themselves as preserving property rights from meddling environmentalists, but other property owners are often among those most intent on having the government meddle.
Say you invest a large fraction of your life savings in a hilltop home blessed with what might literally be a "million-dollar view." Then, the owner of the undeveloped property down in the valley below your house announces he's selling his land to a power company so it can build an enormous generating plant right in your line of sight. This could reduce the market value of your million-dollar view to about $1.98. No matter how rock-ribbed a Republican you might be normally, this threat to your net worth could well induce you to give a donation to the Sierra Club and ask them if they could please go find some rare weed or bug on your neighbor's land so that you can then sue under the Endangered Species Act to block this unsightly development.
Economists call this an "externality" or "spillover effect." What someone does on his own property often affects the well being of other property owners. Pollution is an obvious example. Yet, even just building new homes on farmland can drive down the price of nearby existing homes by increasing the total supply of homes available.
What property owners think of laissez-faire property rights tends to depend on their self-interest, which generally varies with the degree of existing development.
Owners of undeveloped land generally oppose restrictions on their freedom to build on it.
Homeowners in the middle of nowhere frequently find it in their interest to let their neighbors have fairly free rein in developing their land. That's because higher population densities would raise their own property values by making it economically feasible to bring to their district such amenities as paved roads, sewer lines, and shopping.
As density increases, however, a turning point is typically reached. After a certain point, adding more housing density would hurt the property values of current homeowners. Then, homeowners often start to try to impose development restrictions on the owners of nearby empty land.
This logic suggests that support for environmentalist candidates like Al Gore would be greater in heavily developed suburbs than in rural areas.
Judging from the famous "Red vs. Blue" map of 2000 election results, that turned out to be true last November. Although Al Gore won a narrow plurality of the popular vote, George W. Bush won counties covering about four-fifths of the land area in the lower 48 states. Bush, with his anti-environmentalist views, did much better in counties where the typical landowner would benefit from new developments. In contrast, the staunchly green Gore did best in already crowded regions. Gore's counties have about five times the population density of Bush's counties.
Exit polls showed the GOP candidate's vote development levels increased. Bush won 59 percent of vote in rural areas and small towns, but only 49 percent of the suburbs. In small cities, Bush took 40 percent of the vote, and in big cities just 26 percent.
This is not to suggest that support for the ecology movement stems solely from cynical and self-serving motivations. Still, people often find themselves emotionally favoring what is in their financial self-interest.
To flesh out this rather theoretical perspective, upcoming articles in this series will consist of a tale of three golf courses. The first will tell of the 30-year struggle between a family of real estate developers wanting to build an oceanside golf and housing project on Southern California's exclusive Palos Verde Peninsula and their wealthy neighbors who have used environmental laws to try to maintain the exclusivity of their homes.
The second article will portray a mirror image struggle by homeowners in Studio City, Calif., hoping to use conservation laws to keep an existing golf and tennis facility from being turned into an old folks home.
The third will depict the construction of a new golf course built without any environmental restrictions whatsoever on an Indian reservation outside San Diego. This will show how much cheaper and less elitist golf, like housing, could be without so many conservation lawsuits. Of course, the wealthy find expensive golf and housing much less of a burden than the non-wealthy, which helps explain Bush's mediocre performance among the affluent.