Does the President matter? Presidential environmental performance in the USA and its impact on green groups

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

29 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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Table of Contents

1. General Introduction
1.1 Introduction and problem identification
1.2 Assumptions
1.3 Other factors and influences

2. The two variables – facts and backgrounds
2.1 Green organisations in the states
2.2 US-Presidencies and their green record

3. Results: organisations and the presidencies
3.1 Membership of the groups
3.2 Number of groups
3.3 Radicalisation of the groups
3.4 Support and Green giving

4. Conclusions

5. Bibliography

When the national environmental groups irritated Ronald Reagan by criticizing his policies, he blurted out, „I do not think they will be happy until the White House looks like a bird's nest“ (Steve Weisman, „Reagan, Assailing Critics, Defends his Environmental Policies as Sound,“ The New York Times, June 12, 1983, cited in Shabecoff: 202)

“the environmental movement prospered in a benign political climate assured by a succession of White House occupants tolerant, if not always sympathetic, to its objectives. All this changed with the advent of the Reagan administration“

(Rosenbaum: 12)

1. General Introduction

1.1 Introduction and problem identification

Preservation in all its facets in the United States stretches back over more than hundred years and over large parts of this period has enjoyed considerable support by public and politics. However, two decades after World War II, „as the nation shifted from an industrial to a postindustrial (or postmaterialist) society“ (Vig and Kraft: 9), national environmental groups have redefined their societal position. Organisations that had started as sometimes lose associations of anglers, hikers or birdwatchers, like the Sierra Club or the National Audobon Society, now formulated political stances taking into account a globalising world; after sometimes narrow-minded “Not in my backyard” projects and local initiatives of all kinds now consciousness for global issues like rain forest deforestation and climate warming arose. Preservation became environmentalism.

This has – mostly – translated into Federal politics; though environmental issues were addressed and supported by governments going back to Theodore Roosevelt, it was only in 1970 when Richard Nixon proclaimed the “Green Decade” and with the support of a Democratic congress passed an unprecedented number of environmental legislation; the topic suddenly was political and the movement politicised itself. Environmental issues fared well in these years, numerous groups were formed also on a grassroots basis and the more influential organisations preached to the converted. However, dark clouds should gather over the movement – in Ronald Reagans administration the US-Americans elected a government in 1980 that was“openly hostile to environmentalism and it set out to reverse years of progress in promoting environmental protection” (Daynes and Sussman: 7).

The movement feared for the worst, as Reagan's victory could have indicated a falling sense for environmental topics in the society – the result could have been a slump in membership and financial support and finally the dissolution of many groups. Their fears proved to be unfounded.

“Paradoxically, Reagan actually strengthened environmental forces in the nation. Through his lax enforcement of pollution laws and prodevelopment resource policies, he created political issues around which national and grassroots environmental groups could organize” (Vig and Kraft: 14).

Also the scholar Rik Scarce reports skyrocketing membership figures in the environmental organisations during the Reagan years, a fact that will be highlighted later in this paper (22). It now could seem reasonable to argue that these new conditions were ideal for the movement – a clear enemy, topics that were neglected by the government and a seemingly consistent support from the public – but is that so easy?

This term paper wants to find out if patterns of relationships between environmental groups and presidents in the United States exist. The points I will elaborate on in the body of my paper will include membership of the groups, foundation of new groups, radicalisation of the movement and public and financial support. I am basing my research on several assumptions – if a Presidency X fulfils the requirements Y, Z will happen to environmental groups. In the first part I will introduce some of the major organisations and their profiles, also some of the radical associations will be addressed. Also the presidencies and their environmental achievements will be part of my study, however only stretching back until the 1970s. Not all of the presidents will be scrutinised the same way; my focus will be especially on those administrations, whose elections marked clear turning points as to the environmental policies, politics and polities of the United States.

1.2 Assumptions

I am basing my assumptions on the quotation in 1.1, i.e. “paradoxically, Reagan strengthened the environmental forces in the nation” by Norman Vig and Michael Kraft. It is not their assessment alone - scholarly literature about the Reagan administration and environmental associations is relatively unanimous in this respect. Following this statement, the environment for green groups in the United States when the president in the White House has a green record tending to zero would be as follows:

Assumption 1. Membership of the groups: Such a president would stimulate environmentally concerned citizens to join a environmental interest group. If for example Glen Sussman and Byron Daynes report that George W. Bush, being two months in office, “renounced the Kyoto Protocol, weakening the efforts of other nations to address greenhouse gas emissions” (18) – it would ensue that in early 2001 membership of green groups jumped, especially those dealing with Climate Change. It should work the other way round as well: An environmentally friendly president would give citizens the feeling that the environment would be cared for by him. The numbers of members of green organisations would slump again. Results can be expected on the fringes of presidential terms – particularly on those with a pronounced environmental or a pro-development agenda.

What I am not aiming at is a political evaluation of presidencies from the perspective of environmental interest groups, neither is it my intent to give recommendations like: “Environmental organisations should be happy about a president with a poor green record” - if my assumptions prove to be true. Two levels have to be distinguished here:

“At the organizational level, group interests are primarily motivated by mobilization and maintenance requirements (Olson 1965, Salisbury 1969, Walker 1991). As Wilson (1995) put it, “Whatever else organizations seek, they seek to survive.”(Young: 6)

So on a organisational level, such circumstances might be favourable for the groups, however on a political level, successful lobbying is indispensable. Environmental organisations that lack political access and leverage as a result of an anti-environmental administration might rapidly lose the membership that they have gained before. So such a statement would be daring and thus cannot be the aim of a scientific paper. Rather it will be my task to establish a pattern that describes relationships – alliances or enmity – between the political players.

Assumption 2. Number of groups: Similar to assumption 1. Governmental neglect of a topic which is considered important by many citizens, calls for becoming active oneself. The theory underlying these two assumptions is close to David B. Truman's “Disturbance Theory” - people find a “disturbance”, here in the form of carelessness towards a topic they attribute importance to, and as a consequence, react. This also entails a counter-reaction, which in the United States would be pro-development groups such as the Wise Use movement.

“Interest group development occurs as grand debates over political freedom, economic fairness, and social justice divide and subdivide the polity. Waves of mobilization, political realignments, and cycles of disharmony provoke interest group activity and empower interest group leaders” (Young: 5).

McGee Young describes how the Sierra Club became a major player in environmental politics in the United States of the 1950s:

“When the federal government began to adopt a course of action that threatened the existence of vast acres of protected parkland, conservation minded individuals collaborated on preservation strategies. The Sierra Club came to play a central role in wilderness protection during the 1950s because new threats facing the National Park system transcended the narrow parochial concerns that had previously occupied the Club” (2).

The picture might be a little distorted as not every foundation of an environmental group is actually “new” - some might just have have changed their name, chosen a new organisational form or structure. It might also blur a clear conclusion to assumption 1 as groups that break away from major organisations mean a falling membership of the major organisations, but not an overall decrease in the movement. A consideration of all the results might yield a pattern, however it will be a rough pattern, as will be further explained in 1.3

Assumption 3: An anti-conservation president fosters the radicalisation of the groups. While a declared environmentalist in the White House supports the professionalisation of the organisations, his/her counterpart means that the groups look for new ways of dealing with politics and public. It is important to mention that when researching this assumption I am concentrating on the movement as a whole – I am not distinguishing between membership, new foundation of groups or the radicalisation of the respective group profiles. The reason for this is that the number of well-known radical groups is low and it is almost impossible to research and measure the ideological change of the movement as a whole at a given time. Yet the analysis of the literature available has yielded results as well that will be discussed later on.

Assumption 4: overall support and financial support for the environmental movement under such a presidency increases. Tested will be the general mood under a number of administrations and “green giving” - the financial support for the groups. Overall issue support is expected to be at least stable, as certainly convictions do not change with the presidencies; a person who is disinterested in conservation will certainly not become an environmentalist because of a newly elected president no matter what he stands for. Possible indeed is a slight “countermood” against pronounced pro-development presidents. Financial support is subject to many factors, especially to socioeconomic conditions like unemployment or poverty, but also issue dependent. Jerrell Richer in his study “Green Giving” (1995) has examined the financial support for 29 environmental organisations between 1980 and 1994 – though this period spans just two complete presidential terms – namely those of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and the first two years of the Clinton administration, its results will be certainly addressed in this paper.

1.3 Other factors and influences

As mentioned before, the pattern that will be established, will be a rough pattern. Concerning membership and group foundation for example: the factors that influence the personal decision of individuals to join or respectively found an environmental advocacy group are diverse and impossible to systematise in their variety. Besides the presidency issue saliency is probably one major aspect; so for some the 1989 oil spill of the Exxon Valdez, for others the Chernobyl disaster or the Earth days might have been an incentive to become active. This also applies to radicalisation of the movement: For some a certain event, for others personal frustration about the complexity of political structures and the lengthiness of consensus building and negotiation might have provided a stimulation to try new and radical means. Charitable donations and financial support, as mentioned before, are definitely subject to the individual economic situation. And of course the presidency is not the only institution that shapes politics – for example a Republican-dominated Congress, pushing an anti-environmental agenda against the president, might evoke a feeling of resistance among environmentally-concerned citizens.

Yet it is worth a try. The presidencies are, in the United States even more than in other western countries, the leading political denominator. The president's means to frame and communicate politics determines how the citizens of the United States - and most of the times people in other countries as well – perceive the image of the country. The isolation of the above-mentioned variables – the temporal isolation of the presidential terms and the figures of the environmental organisations – might yield results, however there is a possibility that the picture is ambiguous and not easy to interpret. Still then it can be viewed as a result that the presidency is not the most important aspect for the environmental organisations. The next chapters will serve to introduce some of the most important groups as well as the presidencies and their green records.

2. The two variables – facts and backgrounds

2.1 Green organisations in the states

As multifaceted as the United States are in their social make-up, as diverse are the environmental groups. A rough distinction would see the mainstream in the centre of the political spectrum, “crafted by pragmatic reformers” (Rosenbaum: 30), with some offshoots tending to the moderate right, and the radical groups, mostly on the left side of the divide. The most prominent organisations are the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society, the first with around 700 000 members, the second with more than 4000 0000, the third with around 300 000 members and supporters. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society “have been engaged in efforts to protect wild and public lands” (Sussman, Daynes and West: 110) while the NWF covers all kinds of topics, among them “air and water quality, toxic waste cleanup,...biodiversity, endangered species” (110) and many more.

Though all of them “emphasize political action through government, traditional styles of politics such as bargaining and coalition” (Rosenbaum: 30), still there are differences.

“One important factional conflict divides “preservationist” groups, such as the Sierra Club or Wilderness Society, which emphasize the preservation of resources rather than their economic or recreational exploitation, against such groups as the Izaak Walton League or National Wildlife Federation, which favor prudent resource development for public use and economic growth”(Rosenbaum: 31)

Other groups are concentrating on certain issues, such as the National Audubon Society, with a focus on wildlife and especially birds, or the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which “was established in 1967 as a result of concerns raised about DDT” - so “pollution and the threat posed by toxic and chemical waste” is at the core of their activity (Sussman, Daynes and West: 111).

29 of 29 pages


Does the President matter? Presidential environmental performance in the USA and its impact on green groups
University of Potsdam  (Wirtschafts- und sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät)
Interessenverbände in den USA
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ISBN (Book)
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Does, President, Presidential, Interessenverbände
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Lars Dittmer (Author), 2008, Does the President matter? Presidential environmental performance in the USA and its impact on green groups , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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