Monday, November 21, 2011

Culture, Policy and Ideology

There are a number of factors that influence a person's political orientation. I would argue that in the day-to-day horse race coverage of political campaigns, we lose sight of the importance of cultural factors and how they shape people's ideological orientation; regardless and sometimes even in contrary to policy preferences. As a specific example of this, I would like to point to this Berkes and Harris piece published by

The article itself is about a regulatory loophole in that the EPA has given to cement kilns that run on hazardous waste. The basics are these plants are legally allowed “to emit greater amounts of some toxic chemicals into the air than the hazardous-waste incinerators specially designed to burn the very same chemicals—including industrial solvents, aluminum-plant waste, and other toxic leftovers from the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and oil.” The reasoning for this allowance is unclear in the article. The EPA spokesperson quoted in the article simply states that the regulations are “set with a margin of public health and safety.”

One such plant: Ash Grove Cement Co, is located in deep red Chanute, Kansas, is causing concern among some locals. One of these locals, Jeff Galemore and his five middle-aged siblings decided take action on their concerns and organize a “Chanute Environmental Rights Group.”

The Galemores describe themselves as conservative Republicans and they align with candidates and causes not considered sympathetic to tough environmental regulation. Jeff Galemore, who works with his dad in the family oil business, recently posted a sign on his front lawn announcing a meeting of a local Tea Party group. His sister, Selene Hummer, 51, owns a home-decorating store and proudly displays a “Sarah Palin 2012” bumper sticker on the rear window of her pickup.

We're not really tree-hugging liberals,” said Hummer. “But when your environment becomes damaged or you feel that you're being contaminated—I don't care what party you're in—this is your human life.” (Emphasis mine - JMG)

Now I am quite sympathetic to the Galemore's concern for their environmental safety, and I find it a failure of government when citizens are forced to question the safety of the air they breathe or the water they drink. That being said, the Galemore's inability to draw the line from their―and their neighbors―political choices to the policy outcomes that shape their community is a crucial failure of self-awareness. Participation in a representative government has both rewards and responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to consider the possible outcomes of your choices in representatives; and that includes how much environment degradation is tolerated in the name of being “pro-business.”

This is where I think culturally factors come into play. The phrase “pro-business” is a catch-all for low-tax, low-regulation ideology that allows candidates to elide by policy specifics. This also allows voters to avoid confrontation with policy outcomes as well. What being pro- or anti-business means in terms of tax levels or regulatory regime is less important than picking a side.

To illustrate this point: the key action of the Galemore's environmental organization was to hire an independent expert, “a former inspector for the Texas Air Control Board and an adviser to the Sierra Club,” to make his own analysis of pollution levels in Chanute. At an event the Galemore's organized, the “park pavilion teeming with dozens of people, filling most of the folding chairs and lining the room’s perimeter.”

Most were not there to listen. Their T-shirts read “We are Chanute” and “Real Families, Kansas Jobs.” Some were Ash Grove employees and their families. Others were community supporters of the plant.

There was heckling when the Galemores or a few allies criticized Ash Grove and voiced concern for their health and the environment. (emphasis mine-JMG)

I think this furnishes my point. The conservative, pro-business politics of Chanute is culturally mediated. The Galemore's attempts to raise legitimate policy questions as to what being “pro-business” entails has earned them a scarlet letter.

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