“Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne…” – James Russel Lowell in his poem The Present Crisis
I used to think that the turning point in the battle against climate change wouldn’t come until the impacts were too obvious to ignore. My fear was that, by this point, it would be too late to forestall the worst outcomes, but at least humanity would wake up to and deal with this existential crisis. The Trump era in general, and America’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic in particular, have disabused me of that notion. After all, if a sizable percentage of the population refuses to believe in, or at least take seriously, a virus that has killed nearly 500,000 Americans, how are they going to get behind taking action on climate change—a more dangerous phenomenon, but one whose effects are harder to understand and directly feel? More worryingly, one of our two political parties has decided to turn mask wearing, social distancing, and other restrictions into a political wedge issue: looking for political gain at the cost of misery and suffering. Moreover, the past few years have been replete with ominous, easy-to-see signs of the climate crisis, especially in the form of massive wildfires in California, Australia, the Amazon, and even Siberia. Yet we’ve taken no meaningful action; in fact, what we’ve done has made things worse!
We were told by those who are now billionaires thanks to the Internet that the digital age would bring unheard-of levels of freedom, democratizing access to information and making it easier for humans to connect to one another across borders. What they didn’t tell us was that the algorithms that would make them rich would, almost by design, amplify hate speech and disinformation. Now we find ourselves in a bizarro world: a simple Google search can lead one to learn the truth, as best we understand it, about anything; but it can also take one down a rabbit hole of lies, racism, and lunacy. Trump has had a symbiotic relationship with this new paradigm: it’s hard to imagine him winning the presidency without Twitter, but he also fed much of the garbage into the algorithms that then polluted so many minds. Consider his Big Lie: 75% of Republicans don’t believe that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. (Spoiler alert: he did.)
If many Americans–though to be clear, online disinformation is a global phenomenon weaponized by nations like China and Russia and nonstate actors like ISIS–can’t agree that the sky is blue, how are we to effect change? The problem is worse than not agreeing on the color of the sky, of course: several members of Congress and 17% of Americans believe in QAnon, which, among other things, claims that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
The answer is unsatisfying, perhaps, but it’s also simple. We don’t have time to reach out to or find common cause with people who are only barely hanging on to a sliver of shared reality. The nature of the challenges we face is such that our only course of action is to ram through good public policy that addresses these challenges. Fortunately, it turns out that many of these policies–raising the minimum wage; increasing taxes on the wealthy so as to fund more social services; massive investments in a green economy and affordable housing–will benefit everyone. Perhaps the time to persuade the American electorate is not before a policy battle but after the fact; what better way to rally people to our cause than to give them cleaner air, better jobs, and higher-quality schools? Also of note is that we know how to solve the interlocking crises we face; what we’ve lacked is the political will and power to do something about them.
We are living in a political moment during which one party, when in power, has unilaterally pushed through anti-democratic policies, such as slashing corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy and curtailing voting rates; and when that party is out of power, they talk of nothing but unity and bi-partisanship. The Trump era was shocking in the brutality with which the his party abandoned any pretense of interest in the general welfare, instead unabashedly pursuing power for its own sake, power for the powerful. It’s time to be unabashed in the pursuit of justice for all.
But there’s something else we must keep in mind. Doing good is neither flashy, nor sexy, nor easy. There is no politician, celebrity, or even piece of legislation that will get us to where we need and want to be; we musn’t repeat the error of November 4, 2008, which was to act as if, by virtue of Obama’s decisive victory and his inspirational rhetoric, things would automatically get better.
When I was starting Capital Good Fund, back in 2008-2009, I thought that the solutions to poverty were all big and bold. Having run a nonprofit for twelve years, I now see that justice is a long slog rife with setbacks and micro-innovations / micro-victories that, taken together, move the needle. Big business and the Right understand this. For over forty years they have played the long game, investing in local politics, reshaping the judiciary, and weakening voting rights and campaign finance laws. Want to do something about mass incarceration and racial injustice? You better know the names, not only of your U.S. Representative and Senators, but also your state reps, city council members, school board members, and so on. The keys to power are in the hands of many people whose names you may not know but who are, or can be, responsive to the handful of voters that do engage with them.
Which do you think is more important for tackling climate change: recycling, buying organic food, and putting up solar panels; or eliminating the filibuster? While the former are what we think about when we imagine “going green,” a green economy is impossible without the latter. We simply cannot recycle our way out of this crisis, and in fact it was oil companies and plastics manufacturers that popularized anti-litter and recycling campaigns as a way to distract from the mountains of garbage their products were causing. Only legislation can enact a carbon tax, create a green bank, allocate funds for R&D in green technology and carbon capture, and otherwise create the funding and policy landscape for a green revolution.
Amazingly, I had never heard about the filibuster until Republicans got rid of it to confirm Neil Gorsuch to what should have been Merrick Garland’s seat on the Supreme Court. (They eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court seats, but it still exists for most legislation.) It turns out that the filibuster is a tool that has been used for decades to block civil rights, voting rights, and other progressive legislation. You can read a detailed overview of the filibuster here, but the basic idea is that it allows the minority party to block anything that doesn’t have 60 votes; in a 50-50 Senate, as we have now, this means that Republicans can grind the Senate to a halt. Focusing our efforts on eliminating this arcane Senate tool matters far more than anything else we can do for democracy or the planet.
In other words, while a good percentage of the electorate doesn’t recognize that the sky is blue–or finds political advantage in pretending otherwise–we don’t have to convince them or even love them to do good. Rather, it falls on us to be bold; to understand the parliamentary tricks and marketing campaigns that prevent justice; to recognize and counter how Big Tech facilitates the spread of disinformation; and to deliver programs and policies that benefit everyone–even those who seem to live in another world.
If, after reading this, you feel inspired to fight against the filibuster, you can get informed by reading this guide. Then, get in the habit of regularly contacting your Members of Congress to advocate for issues you care about–not just this but also critical things like voting rights and D.C. statehood and criminal justice reform. Lastly, below is a haiku–yes, a haiku!–I wrote on the topic:
Eliminate the Filibuster
Flowers cuffed mid-bloom
haven’t time to be unfree.
The key glimmers gold.