Can Kennedy and Shanahan Heal the Environmental-Political Divide?

Can Kennedy and Shanahan Heal the Environmental-Political Divide?
American Values 2024 | June 5, 2024

By Gary Wockner, Special to The Kennedy Beacon

I grew up in a house on a riverbank in a small town in rural Illinois. Along with my dad and granddad, I hunted and fished and generally lived outdoors. Not far from my house, the Iroquois River met with Sugar Creek, and along their banks and the watershed they drained, there were still some untamed woods and swamps for a young kid to explore, learn, run wild and feel free.

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I often thought of myself as like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn – those muddy rivers seemed alluring and tempestuous, and we often put canoes in and floated downstream. Although I did fine in school, I also longed for escape from the structure and conformity of society. If my canoe just floated past the last bridge, I thought, I could disappear and live free forever.

Later in life, I started to understand more of the urban-rural divide in American environmental politics from looking back at my childhood in rural Illinois. The longing to escape and live free on the landscape is a piece of the liberty-centered worldview of rural people and part of the founding of our nation. The so-called flyover country between the two coasts – and especially the blank spots on the map – has an intrigue that still draws me to it. Those places draw a lot of people who don’t accept urban life as a necessity, let alone as preferable.

As a career environmentalist, I’ve struggled with these urban and rural mindsets for decades in my work. Of course, much of the left-leaning political establishment is in urban America, which is generally far more interested in policies and laws to protect the environment. At the same time, many rural Americans have special connections to natural landscapes and want to keep those landscapes intact for hunting, fishing, and other recreational or resource-extraction activities. It would be wrong to valorize either viewpoint, because they both have pluses and minuses, but I’ve long thought that there needs to be a way to join them together for greater success in ensuring the health of both.

Such thoughts enter my mind again as I consider the presidential aspirations of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the prospects of the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket, which is speaking directly to healing that political-environmental divide for the good of all Americans and the landscape we depend on for survival.

Kennedy, of course, has a long and storied career as an environmentalist. Indeed, he’s easily one of the most renowned environmentalists in American history. A book could be written, and a few already have, about his environmental career and accomplishments. A new chapter of that book is being written now, as this former partisan warrior casts himself as an independent thinker and healer of the environmental-political divide.

As he states on his website,“Kennedy is inviting the American people to look beyond the failed and divisive environmental policies of the past, and meet on common ground.” A few weeks ago, he was here in the Denver area, speaking at a rally to over a thousand supporters, again discussing how he will heal the environmental-political divide, especially in regard to the climate debate. Further, he used words like “habitat” and “soil,” the kind of language and concepts you never hear in most American elections.

For her part, Kennedy’s running mate, Nicole Shanahan, has much less of a history championing the environment. That said, I note one big issue where she has stood out – as an executive producer of the film Kiss the Ground, which is now a full-fledged organization and movement. Both the film and the movement, which champion regenerative agriculture, have been increasingly embraced by farmers and ranchers of many stripes, from rural Western ranchers to urban organic farmers. As such, Kiss the Ground promotes healing of the divide and solutions to some of what ails America’s health, landscapes, and environment, including climate change.

I see hope in the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket, that it might do more than talk about healing the divide. If successful, it could actually change policies so that we end up with better environmental protections for people and the rest of the natural world we share this country and planet with. What we mostly get now is eternal partisan bickering, fights, and environmental losses that degrade both people and places.

And so, I watched with much frustration as several environmental groups and leaders – all colleagues of mine – recently called on Kennedy to drop out of the race. Some have even gone hard negative against him, attacking his environmental statements and record.

I used to do elections for a living, and election years are called the “silly season” because anything is said about anybody and facts and history are irrelevant. If you run for public office, these attacks are expected, but I would argue that attacking RFK Jr.’s environmental record is like attacking Bernie Sanders’ progressive record – not only silly, but absurd and embarrassing.

From an environmentalist perspective, is it legitimate to ask Kennedy to drop out if he can’t win and if his presence helps Trump get reelected? I’ve argued elsewhere that Trump was the worst environmental president in modern US history – and he appears ready to further ramp up his anti-environmental policies if elected again – and so I can certainly see why stopping Trump is foremost in environmentalists’ minds.

Importantly, less than a week after the environmentalists’ call for Kennedy to drop out, the polls turned around, suggesting that Kennedy could actually pull more voters from Trump than from Biden. It seems possible that if Kennedy stays in the race, he could actually help Biden get elected. Further, one poll by the Kennedy campaign argued that if Biden dropped out, Kennedy could beat Trump, whereas if Kennedy dropped out, Trump would still beat Biden.

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that Kennedy has been going hard negative against Trump, and so maybe there is a “pro-environment calculus” behind the whole thing? I don’t know.

But I do know two things. One is that it’s still early in this election and anything could happen. Trump’s legal challenges continue to complicate and confuse the race, while Biden’s age, health, and terrible poll numbers continue to drag him down. If I were advising Kennedy, I’d tell him to keep working hard, keep telling his story to voters, and see what happens over the next couple months.

The second thing I know is that the economic lure of crowded and congested urban life, and the commodification and corporate takeover of Nature and our entire lives, are now greater than at any time in history.

Also greater are the cultural divisions in America, the poor health outcomes of Americans, and the difficulty of escaping the structure and conformity of this commodified and corporatized society. A liberty-centered view of a world where kids hunt and fish with their parents and grandparents – and also respect and protect the natural landscape around them – offers hope, while the status quo offers little. Worse still, the silliness and extreme political division of this election season offers no hope at all.

Can Kennedy and Shanahan heal the environmental-political divide? Stay in the race, Bobby, and let’s find out.

Gary Wockner is an environmental activist based in Colorado.

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