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Today’s Republicans see environmental problems, and those raising the alarm, differently than their predecessors

The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump

James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg
Harvard University Press
280 pp.
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During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump suggested that, if elected, he would roll back environmental regulations, open public lands up for natural resource extraction, and pull the United States out of the Paris Accord, calling global warming a “hoax.” Once in office, he followed through on this campaign rhetoric with a speed and intensity that was greeted with cheers by most Republicans in congress.

The irony is that the major environmental laws that today’s Republican party seeks to weaken were widely championed by Republicans of an earlier era. Although not himself an environmentalist, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and led the push for several laws that form the foundation of the modern environmental state. Astonishing as it may seem today, the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and Endangered Species Act (1973) were each passed without a single dissenting vote in the Senate. Even ardent conservatives supported a government role in environmental protection; Senator Barry Goldwater, for instance, cosponsored the bill that became the Clean Air Act.

What caused the shift? In The Republican Reversal, James Turner and Andrew Isenberg focus on three characteristics of the Republican Party that changed over time: (i) a shift from viewing environmental issues as urgent to viewing them as alarmist and exaggerated; (ii) a shift from relying on scientific research and expertise to viewing these entities with suspicion; and (iii) a shift from embracing a central role of government in addressing environmental problems to viewing regulations as a threat to economic growth, individual freedom, and free enterprise.

The most original portion of the book juxtaposes the conservative and environmental movements in the 1960s, offering new insights into their coevolution. The remainder traverses ground that has largely been covered elsewhere, most notably in Judith Layzer’s excellent Open for Business. However, Turner and Isenberg deliver a sure-handed account, deftly distilling a complex array of political motives and actions into a lucid narrative.

The Republican Reversal posits three broad reasons for the sharp shift in Republican sentiment. The first is the ascendance of conservative ideology in the Republican Party, which, as it relates to the environment, marries the “dominion theology” of some evangelical Christian churches with technological optimism, a suspicion of scientific elites, and a strong pro–free market/antigovernment orientation. Over time, conservatives espousing this ideology have replaced moderate Republicans in Congress, many of whom had advanced environmental legislation.

Second, and relatedly, the authors argue that the Republican reversal reflects the growing importance of conservative interest groups in shaping the party’s agenda. In addition to corporations and trade associations, these include law firms, think tanks, and other organizations that often act in concert to constrain the regulatory state.

The final factor pertains to the way environmental problems themselves have changed since the 1970s. This theme, which is less fully articulated than the other two, focuses on how environmental protection issues have been transformed from immediate, observable problems to problems that are more abstract and global and whose effects may not be fully felt for some time.

The Republican Reversal is a well-written account of the Republican Party’s dramatic transformation on environmental policy over the past 40 years. Although there will inevitably be topics that readers will wish had received greater attention—my list would include the role of conservative ideas [such as the cornucopian ideas of Julian Simon (1) and the development of market-driven alternatives to traditional regulation]—the book does an excellent job of weaving the important facets into a clear, compelling narrative.


  1. J. Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton Univ. Press, 1981).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Political Science and the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, USA.