Why don’t environmentalists vote?

We don’t know yet how many people who identify as environmentalist voted in last November’s election, but if recent data is a guide, a lot of them stayed home.

In a lecture to Boston College, reprinted on WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog today, Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder and CEO of the Environmental Voter Project, says only one in five voted in the mid-term elections of 2014. He thinks the 2016 turnout will be even worse, an odd phenomenon considering the environmental issues have seemingly grown more urgent.

But he says politicians tailor their message to people who vote and if environmentalists aren’t voting, politicians aren’t going to make it much of a priority.

There’s an old adage that policy is not made on Election Day, it’s made in the time between election days. Politicians are already fielding new polls to determine their legislative priorities for 2017 and 2018, but their pollsters only survey voters, which means that most environmentalists won’t be heard until we start voting.

Whom you vote for is secret, but how often you vote is a public record. Rolls of active voters are the lifeblood of campaign strategy. Simply by voting, environmentalists can appear on a campaign’s radar and become the focus of all polling, messaging and spending. Despite adages that disparage the impact of a single vote, the individual voter is a more potent political force than ever before.

With politicians already focusing on the next election, the challenge to the environmental movement is to identify our non-voting environmentalists and mobilize them to do just one thing on one day: vote.

  • Gary F

    Couldn’t be the DNC screwing Bernie.
    Couldn’t be that the DNC ran/coronated a totally flawed candidate.

    I don’t know why they didn’t vote.

  • Kassie

    I don’t think this makes a lot of sense, at least not for Minnesota. If only 20% of environmentalists voted, and something like 75% of eligible voter in Minneapolis voted, that would mean most people in Minneapolis are not environmentalists. Since there has been a big push in Minneapolis for things like organics recycling and cleaning rivers and lakes, I don’t believe that most people in Minneapolis aren’t environmentalists. I think this may have to do more with definitions and not actual voting patterns.

    • John

      I assume he’s speaking on a national basis though, and MN is consistently at the top (or close) in eligible turnout – certainly well above the median turnout. We are an anomaly in that respect, and I don’t think representative of the country as a whole at all.

      You could certainly be right (or at least partly right) though – I don’t know of anyone for whom the environment is the only issue that matters – if he’s trying to define environmentalists as single issue voters, then his starting premise is pretty narrow.

  • Robert Moffitt

    I’m a self-described environmentalist, and I haven’t a clue why anyone concerned with such issues would choose not to vote.

  • lindsayinMPLS

    To paraphrase Audre Lorde, people do not live single issue lives. I care about the environment and I voted. I also care about civil liberties and immigration and health care. Everyone has a lot of issues they care about, and for the most part, voting comes down to prioritizing what issues matter the most to any individual person. That’s why you can have two people with similar demographics, backgrounds, and interest areas and still vote for two different candidates. That’s why you can have Planned Parenthood supporters that voted for Trump. It’s too simplistic to say that environmentalists stayed home, although it’s easier fodder for a lecture by the head of an environmentalist voting group.

  • kennedy

    If the polls leading up to the election were wrong, why should this poll be assumed accurate? I understand the voting records would be accurate (though some may even debate that). But polls linking voters to issues, maybe not so much.

  • Zachary

    It really comes down to what you define as an “environmentalist”. I consider myself to be someone who cares about environmental issues – clean air and water, green spaces, energy conservation and recycling. I donate to the Loon on my tax form and try not to let my backyard tire/used paint fire spread too much (kidding!). However, I’m not out there chaining myself to redwoods or firebombing housing developments, so does that not make me a “real environmentalist”? I am in favor of wind, solar, hydro and nuclear energy, (the last one would get me kicked out of a ‘green club’ meeting). But I also think we should use the resources we have easily available, and if that means clean coal and natural gas and oil, then go for it. Just do it in an “environmentally friendly” way, (which is possible). I’m not out there driving a car that burns my own waste, so really, who am I to judge?

    Most people don’t fit into a specific category or slot when it comes to issues. Unfortunately, we have lumped issues into the “left/right” spectrum, and assumed that if you are FOR this issue, then you MUST be FOR that (often unrelated) issue. We are a lot more nuanced than that. Once the pollsters and pundits realize that, I think a more accurate picture will be painted.

    Of course, that would mean they can’t lump people together in “sound-bite” friendly categories and we can’t let that happen, now can we?

    Oh – and I vote.

    • en·vi·ron·men·tal·ist
      a person who is concerned with or advocates the protection of the environment.
      synonyms: conservationist, preservationist, ecologist, nature lover; More

      • Zachary

        I guess that does define “environmentalist”. But how does the pollster define it as? Did anyone surveyed NOT identify as that definition of an “environmentalist”? or did they use a narrow brush definition?

        • Kassie

          I’m sure it was “are you an environmentalist?” Which most people probably say no. Same with the feminist questions. Ask someone if they are a feminist and they will say no. Ask them if they believe in equal rights and pay for women and they will say yes.

          • Khatti

            When people are asked to think in terms of someone being and environmentalist or a feminist they think of the (I’ll be charitable here) eccentrics. You can be in favor of equal rights and pay for women and still wonder what was really going on with Andrea Dworkin.

      • LifebloodMN

        As an ecologist, I detest most environmentalists. In my experience a majority of environmentalists have been activist types that do not use good data nor do they use proper science. This does damage to the reputable work that a lot of environmental scientists work diligently on.

  • Rob

    This almost sounds like a fake news story; it’s hard to imagine that anyone who is passionate about protecting the environment would choose not to vote, especially in light of the knowledge that, aside from Nixon, the Repubs environmental track record has been abysmal.

    • Postal Customer

      Here’s a possible reason.

      It is just an anecdote, but…I know a self-described environmentalist. One time she put a sealed empty jar in the toilet tank to save water and save the earth. The only thing she accomplished was that the toilet didn’t flush properly.

      She was a huge Ralph Nader supporter. But you knew that.

      • Rob

        It’s not easy being green.

  • Khatti

    I can’t help but wonder how much self-proclaimed environmentalists are concerned with their own purity. Sullying themselves with vulgar politics is bound to be beneath a substantial percentage of them.

    • A lot of people who care about an inhabitable planet just want an inhabitable planet. Why? Maybe a future for their grandchildren.

      The mystery is why people want to sort people by politics, which makes saying, “me too” seem like a weakness To by t hose who may not have a political party in common.

      They don’t allow for the possibility of having something in common.

      I don’t see the logic o f those who don’t see that as self destructive.

      • Khatti

        Twenty years ago, before 9/11, I read a book called “American Extremists” by John George and Laird Wilcox. Most of the book was comprised of short histories of various characters and groups that inhabited the fringes of politics from the fifties to the seventies. But one of the early chapters deal with why people become extremists.

        This particular chapter should be required reading for every political scientist in America. It looks at the psychological underpinnings of, not only political extremism, but politics itself. Since I read this work twenty years ago I’ve never been able to take any activist’s claims at face value. As an example I worry very much about global warming, but I also worry to what extent the activists want to do something about global warming, and to what extent they want to “…make the bastards do the right thing for once in their misbegotten lives!!!!!”

        Sorry, anyway another point that George and Wilcox made is that extremists–and I tend to view activists as extremists-lite–often have disdain for normal political activity. They often view such behavior as the sheep being sheep.

        • There’s more to the environment than climate change but that’s what people want to focus on because our instinct is to divide ourselves into tribes. Again, the larger question is whether people care about a livable planet, clean water, and the sustainability of the characteristics of earth our biological beings require and if not, why not?

          Someone wrote a book to further define the “good people” from the “bad people” for those readers who continually require such things? How good for them.