On August 15th of this year, 71 years to the date after Japan announced its intention to surrender, author and activist Bill McKibben, writing in the webpages of New Republic, called for a World-War-II-scale effort on climate change.

New Republic cover

Unlike previous calls for a wartime-level mobilization, such as that of Al Gore at the end of An Inconvenient Truth, McKibben’s call was buttressed by a detailed breakdown of the factories, plants, installations, and materials required. He also pointed to a just-published book about America’s mobilization for World War II that carefully documented the federal government’s hands-on management of several key industries.

Together, these two detailed works imply that America both has the means to do what is needed now and that doing what was needed then had been more contentious than we remember. Thus, he argued, Americans just have to muster the will to overcome the current political divide so that we can get down to the business of combatting climate change.


What McKibben’s impassioned essay left out was the profound transformation of the United States in the decades since the war. As this review of recent titles assessing the state of America’s economy and politics will suggest, progress on climate change must begin with the recognition that “the past is a foreign country“: We no longer live in the nation that won World War II.

The backstory

Three books provide the historical, economic, and demographic contexts for this argument.

In Destructive Creation, the book cited by McKibben, historian Mark Wilson argues that our public memory of the original World-War-II-scale effort has been distorted by subsequent public relations campaigns of America’s major national corporations. They spun a story of businesses willingly heeding the call to arms and then managing their own efforts to meet the material demands of the war.

In truth, Wilson says, many business leaders had to be corralled into cooperating and some proved inept at scaling production up to the levels required. In response, the federal government appointed industry overseers, built and managed its own factories, and took significant steps to limit profiteering and wage gouging. With his party controlling both houses of Congress, President Roosevelt was able to take such measures.

The problem for contemporary calls to re-enact this solution is that the corporate PR efforts largely succeeded. The public now perceives corporate leaders to be more effective managers, and the Republican Party, which controls both houses of Congress, is more committed than ever to keeping the federal government out of the economy.

Economic historian Robert J. Gordon points to a deeper problem. The American economy of the post-WWII era was part of a larger historical anomaly, the “special century” from 1870-1970 when a series of discoveries and inventions – including the discovery and widespread use of oil to power several world-changing inventions – significantly increased the health, comfort, productivity, and wealth of Americans. The mobilization for World War II accelerated these developments. But by the 1970s, this miraculous confluence of events and innovations, including the first national broadcasting networks, which had served as unifying forces, was coming to an end. Growth became harder to sustain, and efforts to equitably distribute the benefits of that growth became harder still.

At the end of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Gordon acknowledges that the climate is changing, and he recognizes economic opportunities in efforts to address the problem, but he sees climate change more as a headwind for the economy, slowing growth, than a tailwind.

WW2 poster

The Americans depicted in ads and posters from World War II are overwhelmingly white – and presumed to be Christian.

But this was a false image. African Americans and other people of color had played key roles in American history, from the first settlements to and through World War II.

America is now poised to become a majority minority nation in which whites make up less than 50 percent of the population.

White Christians are already in the minority. According to Robert P. Jones, founding CEO of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), “1993 was the last [year] in which white Protestants constituted a majority of the population. Today, even when Catholics are included, white Christians make up less than half the country.”

In The End of White Christian America, Jones documents this historical development and explains the sense of loss – and anger – this entails for religious groups that see themselves as synonymous with “America.”

And as PRRI has documented in previously published surveys of American public opinion, this religious identity crisis affects how Americans respond (or don’t respond) to climate change.

The loss of trust and the rise of polarization

At the end of World War II, many Americans felt good about their country and their prospects. Fears that the end of war-time production might lead to a downturn in the economy were quickly allayed by the surge in production for the new consumer economy. Because its infrastructure had been built up for the war rather than destroyed by it, for the next two decades the United States enjoyed unprecedented advantages in the world economy. And because of the strong unions and high taxes that continued into the postwar years, the benefits of these advantages were broadly shared, albeit still unequally, especially for African-Americans.

Unfortunately, as Yuval Levin notes in The Fractured Republic, Americans came to mistake these exceptional circumstances for the norm. When their former allies and enemies recovered, with the considerable assistance of U.S. foreign aid, American companies and workers were surprised by the stiff competition. (For this reason, he cautions against nostalgia for the post-war period, on the part of the left, and against nostalgia, on the part of the right, for the tax-cuts and de-regulations of the Reagan era, which mistakes a one-time fix for a general cure-all.)

These economic headwinds built up just as the country began to address the deeply embedded inequalities of racism. People who were all but invisible in the iconography of the mobilization, African-Americans, now claimed their due for their services during the war. At the same time, a new war in Vietnam consumed American resources and blood – and sparked further unrest.

One can see the impact of these developments on Americans’ trust in government in survey data annually updated by Pew Research.

Trust in government figure

Although the variations in the red and blue lines lines show that Americans typically trust government more when “their” party is in the White House, the graph as a whole documents an overall decline from 1958 to the present. The drop begins just after Lyndon Johnson got the first of his big civil rights bills through Congress following the assassination of President Kennedy. Thereafter the only time since the presidency of Richard Nixon that the average for both parties topped 50 percent was just after 9/11.

Two points should be stressed here.

First, the decline in trust began when the illusion of racially homogenous national solidarity was broken. White Southerners felt betrayed by the federal government. The way of life they fought for in World War II, with its presumption of white privilege, was challenged by African-Americans who, having fought to preserve freedom for all Americans, refused to accept less than full citizenship for themselves. And through the nonviolent civil resistance advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, the federal government was pressured into supporting their just cause. Add in the economic headwinds, a stalled war in Vietnam, student protests, assassinations, race riots, and Watergate and the 50-point drop in trust does not seem altogether surprising.

Second, Southern white anger over Civil Rights profoundly transformed – and polarized – the two parties. White Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party and became Republicans. African-Americans consolidated their shift from the party of Lincoln to the party of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. With the loss of conservative white Southerners, the Democratic Party became more liberal. And as liberal Republicans in the Northeast and on the West Coast either changed their allegiance or lost their primary contests, the Republican Party became more conservative. The two parties are now perfectly sorted ideologically: the most conservative Democratic representative in the House is more liberal than the most liberal Republican.

It is to these developments that political scientists Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph point in Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis. Working with data from American National Election Studies and their own experimental surveys, Hetherington and Rudolph found that the public’s trust in government varies with the economy and international affairs. Trust goes up when the economy is good, but trust declines, to a greater degree, when the economy falters. And when Americans perceive that the country is threatened by foreign powers or actors, trust in government also rises.

Hetherington and Rudolph further found that Americans trust different parts of government, even EPA, more than they trust the government as a whole. One might elicit broader public support for a policy, they hypothesize, by talking about what it will empower the specific agency involved to do rather than what it will empower “the government” to do.

Overall, however, they are disturbed by the extraordinarily low levels of trust in government recorded since 2001 and by the deepening partisan divide. As the graph shows, in 2015 only 10 percent of Republicans said they “trust the federal government to do what is right just about always or most of the time.” Hetherington and Rudolph see no sure ways to reverse this trend.

Partisan tactics

But the partisan political divide is not just the result of demographic, economic, or social factors. The pursuit of partisan political advantage also played a role. To succeed, political efforts to address climate change must find ways to counter these moves.

Contract With America cover

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia deserves special mention here. He perfected the tactic of running for government by running against government. He learned that one could block and obstruct responsive action in Congress and then campaign on the failure of Congress to act.

At first Gingrich’s hardball tactics were limited to the House, where he advised incoming representatives not to move their families to Washington. With fewer social bonds between them – because they and their families did not share schools, churches or recreational activities with their counterparts – representatives felt fewer compunctions when battling their opponents. But as Sean Theriault recounts in The Gingrich Senators, when some of Gingrich’s first congressional recruits were later elected to the Senate, they brought those partisan hostilities and tactics with them. As a result, the Senate is now about as polarized and as partisan as the House.

After the 2008 election, when Obama received 53 percent of the votes cast and decisively won over African-Americans and Latinos, GOP strategists recognized the demographic future described by Jones in The End of White Christian America. If they could not win the votes of the emerging minority majority, they had to find a way to blunt the effect of their votes.

In the crudely named Ratf**ked, Salon political analyst David Daley chronicles the GOP’s campaign to win control of state legislatures in 2010 so that those Republican-controlled bodies could decide how to use the 2010 census data to redraw their state’s congressional districts. The GOP was extraordinarily successful in implementing this plan, with the result that in several states Democratic candidates for Congress received more votes than Republican candidates but won fewer seats. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democratic candidates received 50.7 percent of the total votes cast but won only 5 of the state’s 18 congressional races.

These tactics enabled Republicans in 2012 to hold on to most of their gains in the 2010 midterms and then expand those gains in 2014, when they also regained control of the Senate. Although Republican Senate leaders put some limits on their colleagues in the House – attempts to shut down the government were thwarted – the GOP continued to block Obama administration efforts, including its efforts on climate change, in every way possible.

In their 2016 update for their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks Was, congressional historians and analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein review the extra-constitutional measures – such as filibusters and holds on executive appointments – that Republicans used to gridlock government in 2014 and 2015. Republicans have adopted the no-holds-barred stance of an opposition party in a parliamentary system, while using every procedural tactic provided by America’s very different system of divided government. Much more so than Democrats, Mann and Ornstein continue to argue, “Republicans are the problem.”

Franklin Roosevelt never encountered this level of opposition and obstruction when he mobilized America for World War II. But this level of opposition has already been mobilized to obstruct action on climate change.

Book collage

Personal political stories and social solutions

The new and confounding figure in this story is Donald Trump. The billionaire’s success in winning over blue-collar and small-business white males with his anti-immigration, anti-trade, and anti-Muslim riffs suggests that the conservative anger fanned and channeled by Newt Gingrich has slipped its ideological moorings. Personal grievances, whether actual or perceived, now seem to fuel the opposition to “the government” rather than any policy framework or vision for the future.

Trump was not in the picture when Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at one of the major universities on the Left Coast, first set out to understand conservative rage, especially Southern Tea Party anger. What she found were white Christian Americans who felt, as Robert Jones has predicted, that their country had left them behind.

In Strangers in Their Own Land, Hochschild provides moving portraits of individuals and families living in the bayou country of Louisiana. All of them mourn the despoliation of the environment – with its magnificent cypress trees and once-bountiful fish and game – by the oil and chemical companies for which most of them now work. But they vote for Tea Party candidates who promise to shut down EPA and to rein in the federal government – the federal government that provides 44 percent of Louisiana’s state budget. And now, Hochschild found by the end of her study, they plan to vote for Trump.

Beneath these contradictory responses, Hochschild finds a “deep story” of loss and resentment:

You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill . . . to the American Dream. . . . You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. [But] you have shown your moral character through trial by fire. [Then] you see people cutting in line ahead of you! Some are black. [Others] are women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers. . . . Unbelievably, standing ahead of you in line is a brown pelican, fluttering its long, oil-drenched wings.

To these Bayou conservatives, Barack Obama is another one of those cutting in line. Despite his youth and inexperience, blue-state cosmopolitans had chosen Obama over McCain, the experienced, red-state American war hero. And once in office, Obama’s policies, in the minds of Hochschild’s interviewees, clearly favored minorities.

Yet as cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson documents in The Black Presidency, it was precisely to avoid this perception, especially during his first term, that Barack Obama tried to minimize his connections with the African-American community. So that he could represent all of America, Obama resisted reduction to a particular, hyphenated identity. But because Obama could not control how others saw him, Dyson argues, race began to color areas of policy he had tried to segregate from the issue – including climate change.

In Louisiana, for example, climate change – which Hochschild includes among the factors weighing on the Bayou’s future – is viewed as yet another liberal (and northern) cause slipping ahead of white Americans in line.

Several other titles published for this election offer comparable accounts of mostly working-class whites in the culture wars. This includes J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a first-person account of a young man growing up in Appalachia. But most of these books are written by women, including the first attempt to understand the new right-wing populism of the Tea Party, written by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. This may be happenstance, but some research suggests that women can negotiate political divides more easily than men, in part because they speak to and listen for different things.

Whoever is elected in November will inherit the divided, partisan, and gridlocked government described above. But if, for the first time in American history, the new president is a woman, there is some chance that her gender will enable her to make connections with the increasing number of women working in every branch and at most levels of government. Whether more women in government will actually change the way it works is the question taken up by journalist Jay Newton-Small in Broad Influence.

Remembering how things once worked

American Amnesia cover

Ultimately, however, for the federal government to play the role envisioned by Bill McKibben, severed economic, political, and social bonds must be re-connected and re-activated. To use the metaphor in the title of the new book by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Amnesia, Americans must remember that the “mixed economy” in which the public and private sector cooperated to achieve national objectives was once the norm rather than the exception. (Yuval Levin might accuse Hacker and Pierson of nostalgia for the post-war era, but they document examples of the mixed economy from the Colonial Era to the present.)

It is the current conservative hostility toward the mixed economy that is the historical anomaly, argue Hacker and Pierson. So much so that the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that forbids its federal government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for better drug prices for its healthcare programs.

This protected status for corporate America, at least in its dealings with the federal government, might be seen as the final manifestation of the PR campaign Wilson described in Destructive Creation. As Hacker and Pierson point out, both because of corporate donations to political campaigns and legislative cuts to the federal budget, many agencies can no longer monitor effectively the industries they are supposed to regulate.

But there may be an upside to the anti-establishment populisms of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The deepening suspicion of multi-national corporations and globalism may create an opening for the critical conversation about economics, with its assumption of perpetual “growth,” sought by climate activists, like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, and social scientists. Thus although a WWII-scale effort is not in the cards yet, effective action on climate change might be used to transform the economy in ways that also make it more fair for everyone, including working class, white, Christian Americans.

Re-establishing a bi-partisan vision with partisan tactics

In the near term, however, the several books discussed in this review imply the need for short-term partisan tactics and long-term bi-partisan thinking.

  • Climate activists must accept the fact that in the U.S., for the foreseeable future, federal action on climate change depends on action by Democrats.
  • Securing the election of Hillary Clinton will make it much more likely that the executive branch will continue to promote action on climate change through its regulatory authority.
  • A Hillary Clinton presidency will also likely result in a Supreme Court more inclined to approve these regulatory frameworks as constitutional. (See this climate simulator to understand how the November 8 election could affect climate policy.)
  • But to retain control of the agenda, Democrats must get serious about mid-term elections.
  • In particular, Democrats must mobilize to contest Republican control of the state legislatures that will use the 2020 census data to re-draw congressional districts.
  • Efforts to revise the procedural rules of Congress should continue.
  • To reap the benefits of the demographic shift described by Robert Jones, Democrats must deepen their ties with millennial voters. (Books that explicitly address the implications of climate change for millennials – such as Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet (2016) – may prove useful in this regard.)
  • But at the same time, both parties must recognize the tolls that globalization, free trade, and innovation have levied on the lives of middle- and working-class Americans, especially older Americans in the Midwest and South.
  • Climate activists should be open to working across party lines on innovative proposals, like the carbon tax, which has been embraced by several conservative think tanks. But effective, “mixed economy” solutions should not be abandoned for “bi-partisan” chimeras masking as  “solutions.”
  • Women in government should seize the opportunity afforded by a Hillary Clinton presidency to show that by working together, they can build bridges across partisan political divides.
  • But conditions and places must be recreated to enable the two parties to compromise. As Jonathan Rauch recently argued in The Atlantic, this may mean making government less rather than more transparent so that representatives can move beyond the partisan anger of their most extreme supporters.
  • Until such places are recreated, activists and politicians should recognize that in the age of the internet and social media, nothing is “off the record,” no matter how “deplorable.”

As stressed by Hetherington and Rudolph, however, the overarching goal must be to restore trust in government. Without that trust, the first WWII-scale effort itself would not have succeeded.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...