Some people, particularly those at the ideological poles of each party, reject the idea that congressional majorities are built by winning the ideological middle. They see engaging the dwindling set of potentially-persuadable voters as a largely futile exercise. Instead, they imagine a silent majority of like-minded-but-alienated nonvoters — often members of low-turout demographic groups — who can be rallied to the cause. Among some who seek strong climate policy, then, rallying the Democratic Party base is the key to defeating enemies of the energy transition.

But “rallying the base” is a flawed strategy because (1) it misunderstands the ideological heterogeneity of that base, and (2) rallying our base — particularly on “culture war” issues — simultaneously mobilizes their base.  Democratic Party efforts to increase turnout among Black and Hispanic voters in 2020 mobilized  Republican voters within those demographics who might have stayed home. And the messaging that excited the progressive base – especially “defund the police” – excited the GOP base just as much or moreso.

(For evidence in support of these points see post-mortem analyses of the 2020 election congressional here, here, here, and here, and of the 2022 congressional elections here, here, here, and here.)

Others see economic self-interest as the key to creating a climate policy congressional majority.  The idea here is that when people see economic benefits in a government program, they tend to support that program (or at least, oppose its abolition). According to this view, generous job-creating Inflation Reduction Act subsidies will create a mass of voters who will come to see their economic fortunes tied to the energy transition — and will then vote for politicians who advance the transition.

UCSB political scientist Leah Stokes has articulated one of the clearest and most persuasive version of this argument, both in her academic writings and podcasts. Environmental journalist David Roberts is another articulate advocate of this view, as is Senator Ed Markey.* And it may turn out to be correct.

But there are two big reasons to suspect that it may not.

The first reason is that while IRA’s incentives will certainly excite investors, its ultimate job-creating effects will depend on economic projections and regulatory processes that introduce considerable uncertainty into the probability that energy projects will be brought to fruition. For these reasons we don’t yet know how many of the kinds of IRA-subsidized facilities that create good, permanent jobs in one location – things like hydrogen production, carbon sequestration (CS), electric vehicle plants and other green energy manufacturing plants – will actually be built.

Will green hydrogen or CS be economically competitive, even with IRA incentives? Will offshore wind? EV or solar panel manufacturing? How much will the statute’s domestic content and other strings counteract the cost-reducing effects of IRA subsidies? That is, will  IRA-subsidized EVs or solar panels made in the U.S., paying higher wages and prices for domestically-produced raw materials, cost more or less than imported Chinese EVs or panels? And how many clean energy projects made cost-effective by the IRA will be able to overcome legal and political objections raised by local opponents who don’t want it in their neighborhoods?

Second, even if the IRA creates a clean energy workforce of significant size in red states or districts, how much of that work force will “vote their wallets”? For how many will self-interest override their partisan identity when they vote? How many will insist (with their votes) that their existing representative further the transition? And will that group be big enough to change the results of congressional elections?

We already see congressional Republicans claiming credit for bringing IRA economic benefits in their districts, despite having voted against the bill. Indeed, most would vote to repeal it given the opportunity. This may look like hypocrisy, but it reflects the simple truth that for these Republicans, taking policy positions contrary to the economic self-interest of their constituents just doesn’t pose electoral risk.

Red state politicians and regulators seem increasingly hostile to clean energy projects. For example, one wonders how they will react to the recent designation by the Department of Energy (DOE) of proposed “national interest electricity transmission corridors” (NIETCs) within their borders. The Federal Power Act authorizes the DOE to designate NIETCs as a way of overcoming state regulatory barriers to building new transmission where it is most needed. In these corridors FERC can license lines where states refuse to do so.

The proposed corridors tend to be located in areas with  severe congestion or reliability problems and/or massive pent up investor demand for cheap renewable energy. Both types of investments would lower power prices for the average customer. And according to yet-to-be published research by my University of Texas collegue David Adelman, add sizable sums to the coffers of local governments.

Some of the proposed corridors are in red states like Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. What will drive these states’ response to these NIETCs — the opportunity to capture these economic benefits, or the national GOP’s growing ideological hostility to clean energy investments? If President Biden is reelected in November we are likely to find out.[1]

My book describes research showing that, increasingly, it is affective, negative partisanship that drives voting behavior, fed by the modern media environment and the decline of party competition in most jurisdictions. Members of Congress representing safe seats need not worry about electoral repercussions for opposing the IRA. More than that, they actually protect their reelection prospects by opposing Democrats, including Democratic Party initiatives (like the IRA) that benefit their constituents.

I hope my best guess turns out to be wrong. Maybe the IRA will create large numbers of jobs in purple (contested) districts. Maybe that will create pressure on Republicans representing those districts. And since Congress is evenly divided, it only takes a small number of flipped seats to make a difference. After 2030, if Democrats gains control of more state legislatures and statehouses, redistricting could increase the leverage of voters in the new clean energy workforce.

But for reasons more fully laid out in Climate of Contempt, there are reasons to be skeptical of that argument. And because none of us know what the future holds, there is value in following the prescription descibed in chapter 6 of the book: namely, respecting and protecting our pluralist institutions, and engaging our fellow citizens on climate and energy issues, especially those fellow citizens with whom we disagree. – David Spence


*POSTSCRIPT 6/14/24:  For another easily-digestible articulation of the idea that cheap clean energy will transform climate politics quickly, see the latter part of this entry in Hannah Ritchie’s substack blog.

[1] A Republican president is likely to rescind any NIETC designations made by the Biden DOE. For more on why this is so, browse the GOP’s plans for DOE in chapter 12 of its “Project 2025” plans.