Governor Jay Inslee enjoyed some national publicity this week, when The New York Times published an article about the governor’s climate change policies in the wake of recent deaths of baby oysters in Washington. Mr. Inslee and others attribute the oyster mortality to rising acidification in the Pacific Ocean, which feeds the Puget Sound, caused by a worldwide growth in carbon emissions. Comparing oyster deaths to the proverbial canary in a coal mine, Mr. Inslee has taken to the road to promote aggressive climate change policies and his vision of a low carbon economy in Washington. His is not a lone quest. Not only does Inslee’s roadshow feature oyster farmers affected by ocean acidification, but he also seems poised to become a substantial beneficiary of well-heeled conservation action groups, including NextGen Climate and the Washington League of Conservation Voters. These groups plan to pour money into Washington’s upcoming elections in order to oust targeted State Senators who do not support Mr. Inslee’s environmental agenda, in favor of those who will.
Mr. Inslee has long been known as a leading proponent of responsible climate change policies, and his support for carbon emissions reduction is well chronicled. What caught my attention about this particular effort by Mr. Inslee is that some of those who support him have a great deal of money, and they are brazenly public about their intention to use that money to “take out” undesirable legislators. Former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and his NextGen Climate group have pledged $100 million to help elect conservationist legislators this year. Whether the effort will succeed, and whether success is ultimately positive for the environment, is not the point of this post. Rather, the point is how this aspect of big money buying American elections has become so commonplace that most of the public no longer even give it a second thought.
Perhaps campaigns like Mr. Steyer’s are an inevitable and even necessary sequel to competing programs on the other end of the political spectrum. For example, the billionaire Koch brothers, through their Americans for Prosperity organization, have poured tens of millions of dollars into recent elections to support, among other things, a far more conservative environmental agenda than the one proposed by Governor Inslee. By their nature, these organizations tend to reside on one or the other end of the political spectrum, rather than the middle. The ironic result is that, as our political discourse is increasingly dominated by Titans such as Steyer or the Kochs, their ideologies threaten to marginalize the voices of those in the middle. Nevertheless, in the case of big campaign investors, the public at large seems to have accepted the influence of their money with little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
Few would argue with the importance of Washington’s oyster industry, or oppose legitimate efforts to protect it. But whatever your perspective on environmental conservation, we should all be wary of permitting our democracy to be manipulated by narrow issues backed by big dollars. If we allow this practice to become the norm, we can expect the current polarization and dysfunction in our government to become even more entrenched. May we all savor Washington grown oysters for years to come, but also keep a watchful eye on the man behind the curtain.