01/02/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

The Low Expectations of the Conservatism of Denial

Climate disruption, broadband access and crumbling bridges and roads have an odd thing in common: they have entered the never-never land of conservative denialism -- where they are simply not problems for which the right feels obliged to offer solutions.

On the new ideological fault line in American politics all three of these issues now elicit a common -- and remarkable response -- from the right. They don't really matter.

This is new. Historically conservatives and liberals argued about values and value laden issues -- abortion, gay marriage, inequality -- not technology. The two sides also offered clashing solutions to basic societal challenges -- vouchers vs. tenure for schools, health care accounts vs. Medicare for hospitals -- but they agreed that these were needs.

Sadly, today's conservatism simply pretends that however bad things may be, they don't require solutions -- even conservative ones.

Climate is more complicated, so I'll get to it last. But look at broadband. The U.S. invented the Internet, but in a recent study "the World Economic Forum ranked the United States 35th out of 148 countries in Internet bandwidth, a measure of available capacity."

"Thirty-fifth out of 148! Behind, among other global leaders, Moldova, Barbados, and Bulgaria. I don't have a precise personal perspective on how to solve this shortfall -- but I think it is easily identifiable as a problem -- it makes it harder for American citizens to access information and American business to compete. I can easily imagine that Democrats and Republicans might have competing ideas about how to get us up at the head of the pack -- in fact I think it would be a good idea if they did. But it's difficult to imagine that wanting America to lead would divide progressives and conservatives.

Instead, we have the Competitive Enterprise Institute opining that there really isn't a problem at all, because "there aren't any countries ahead of us that have a comparable population distribution... " It's hard to rebut that statement. There is nothing on the CEI website explaining why their expert, Richard Bennett, thinks the U.S. is somehow disadvantaged by its population distribution, or is "catching up" as he also asserts. (Note that Australia, with its vast empty spaces, is one of the countries well ahead of us.) In fact, reading the entire CEI website you would think we are in very bad trouble indeed. CEI elsewhere laments that "a useful starting point is to appreciate that most customers have no real broadband today: cable and DSL are a trickle compared to the Niagara needed tomorrow." Exactly.

So how does "no real broadband" equate to no real problem? And does CEI go on to offer a solution to ensure getting "the Niagara needed" across the country? No. It simply reflexively attacks every proposal to expand access, saying they "amount to economically destructive wealth-redistribution schemes that divert resources from productive uses to unproductive ones."

Take infrastructure -- one of the biggest concerns and priorities of American business and even the Chamber of Commerce. Movement conservatives and Tea Party Republicans don't explicitly say that they think gridlocked roads, substandard ports and crumbling bridges are perfectly OK. They too decry our D+ infrastructure. Conservative rhetoric focuses on who should rebuild America, claiming that federal funding makes new girders a form of governmental overreach and intrusion. Listen to Senator Mike Lee, discuss the nation's crumbling infrastructure: "Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached. Instead, states and cities could plan, finance, and build better-designed and more affordable projects."

Lee's solution: a bill to transfer the federal highways program back to the states, but without the funds needed to maintain the interstate roads being transferred -- an almost perfect example of an "unfunded mandate", something ostensibly strongly opposed by Tea Party Conservatives.

Lee and his co-sponsor Ted Cruze argue that it's fine to eliminate the federal gas tax -- states can simply adopt their own to fill the revenue void. But when Virginia's outgoing Republican Governor, Bob McDonnell, put forward a bill to fund improvements to Virgina's desperately crowded highways with state funds, the Tea Party and Americans for Tax Reform, blasted him for not finding a way to build new roads without new money.

Climate, of course, is a perfect storm for the new conservatism -- there are so many strands of resistance. First, oil and coal producers, who would be the direct losers of a clean energy economy, have become major financial backbones of the right, beginning with the oil heavy Koch Brothers. Second, for the religious right, accepting that climate change is caused by human intervention is almost as theologically suspect as evolution. Third, tackling a problem as big, global and complex as climate disruption inevitably raises demand for international, governmental and democratic (majoritarian) solutions -- all things the Tea Party and libertarians hate.

But as late as 2008 there were still many prominent Republicans and conservatives leaders, if not libertarians, who called for climate action. Today, in public life at least, they are gone -- to the point where in a recent study of Republicans pollster Stan Greenberg reported that "Climate change is poised to replace health care reform among Republicans" as a tribal definer, but also one that divides Tea Party Republicans and the Religious Right from traditional business GOP'ers.

Today, there is broad acceptance on the right that a dislike of the plausible climate solutions is an adequate justification for denying the existence of the problem. As one evangelical commented in one of Greenberg's focus groups, "I think we waste a lot of time arguing with the science. I think we would all agree that it's the policy that we don't agree with... So that seems to be where we're -- we're losing the fight because we're fighting the science. And you can't fight the science." But solid science, to him, was no reason to accept effective policy.

Both liberalism and conservatism have particular problems that stump them. Liberalism is prone to ignore the problem of free-riders. Conservatives don't quite know what to do with common resources -- whether those are highways, the internet or the climate.

But that conservatives would aspire to robust proposals to improve transportation and access to the internet was absolutely the norm as late as 2010. And up through the election of George W. Bush, conservatives competed with liberals to offer better solutions even to climate -- rather than defaulting to denial. (Bush himself, it is often forgotten, ran promising to act on climate change -- a stance held as late as 2008 by most of the leading recent candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination -- McCain, Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Huckabee, Gingrich.)

There was until recently a serious conservative dialogue on how to deal with the problem of common resources, whether natural or social. For example, Lynn Scarlett, then the editor of the libertarian Reason magazine, and later Bush's Assistant Secretary of the Interior, pushed hard in her 1996 essay Evolutionary Ecology to offer conservative solutions to the problems of managing ecological commons for environmental protection.

The pivot paragraph in Scarlett's essay was a full-out confession that markets don't solve everything:

"Markets work for jackets and, with a little work, for elk because these goods have certain characteristics that make transactions relatively simple... In other cases, however, things aren't so clearly defined. There are frictions: hard-to-divide goods, parties too numerous or scattered to be identified, vital information that isn't easily shared or easily known, blurry property lines. Institutions must evolve to deal with these hard cases."

That paragraph could not, I suspect, be published in most right-wing journals today -- at least not without unleashing howls of protest and a virtual heresy trial of the author for challenging market fundamentalism. How did American conservatism embrace so unequivocally the phenomenon that George Bush himself decried "the soft bigotry of low expectations"?

If climate alone had been singled out for denial, you could point to the influence of fossil fuel finance, or the linkage of global warming with evolution for the Religious right. But when right-wing denialism extends from climate to highways and broadband, something bigger is at work. Perhaps this loss of ambition, the lowering of standards, the acceptance of D+ infrastructure and Internet speeds slower than Moldova's, came as part of a package with the demonetization of the federal government -- a conservative instinct kept in check by the Cold War, but ironically unleashed by the closing triumph of the American Century.

Whatever the cause, raising the bar again for both sides of our political spectrum's is a major and urgent national project. Collapsed conservative ambition hurts Progressives as well as the nation.

When Denialism leads the Right to lower its expectations, to accept D+ infrastructure, third-world communications capacity and even the disruption of the rains that farmers depend upon, Progressives become slothful. It's easy to point at the problems and the conservative vacuum. It's much tougher to lead, identify, and implement solutions bold enough to matter.

When the Obama Administration's rhetorical response to "Drill Baby, Drill" is "All of the Above" the collapse of ambition is beginning to spread.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."