In a moment of crisis, we must fight like Churchill, not give in like Chamberlain
Last Friday, Congress went on winter recess without having passed voting rights legislation. Then, this morning, Joe Manchin appeared on Fox News to announce that he cannot support the Build Back Better Act. At the same time, as more data comes in about the Omicron variant, it’s clear that America and the world are in for many more months, if not years, of death and suffering from the pandemic. Nor is the news on the climate front any better: last week we learned that “An Antarctic ice shelf could crack and disintegrate within the next decade, allowing a Florida-size glacier to slide into the ocean and raising sea levels by feet.”
Defeatism is not an acceptable response to the despair of the moment, however. Tell the billions of people experiencing the life-and-death impacts of a climate crisis they didn’t create that you give up on climate. Tell them you give up on the pandemic. Tell them you give up on democracy. Tell the tens of millions of poor and low-income Americans you give up on universal pre-k, on better child and health care, on the enhanced child tax credit. Can’t do it? Good. Here’s my five-step plan for acting on democracy and climate in 2022.
One: Keep fighting
When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of England, in May of 1940, Hitler had control of virtually all of Europe; his forces had just barely escaped disaster at the Miracle of Dunkirk; the U.S. had yet to enter the war; Hitler was poised to relentlessly attack the British homeland; and he was, in a real sense, fighting on alone. If ever there has been a moment for despair, that was it. And yet in his first speech as Prime Minister he told the terrified people of the free world that:
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
We are now engaged in a battle for democracy and a stable climate no less severe than that which Churchill faced down. We do not give in because one contemptible Senator from a tiny state won’t go along with us. We keep the pressure on. We negotiate and compromise where we can. We bribe, beg, steal, and threaten. We march in the streets. We boycott. We call in favors. We hunger strike. We never surrender.
Two: Elect more Democrats
It’s easy to whine that because Democrats haven’t delivered on their entire agenda, both parties are more-or-less the same, and so what’s the point of fighting to elect more Democrats. Wrong. First of all, they have delivered a lot this year. And second, the answer is to fight harder to elect more Democrats at the local, state, and federal level. Remember 98% of Democrats have supported voting rights, immigration reform, the Build Back Better Act, and more. But for two Senators, we would have passed dozens of pieces of transformational legislation, and not just the three that we did get done. If we want to pass this agenda, we need to have a greater majority in the House and Senate after the 2022 mid-terms.
Of course, I understand that gerrymandering and voter suppression is going to make it hard for Democrats to hold the House and Senate. And the ongoing pandemic, combined with inflation and the lack of progress on Biden’s agenda, will depress voter turnout and enthusiasm. Okay, it’s a challenge. But we’re not just working for a progressive agenda; we’re battling to hold back the dam of authoritarianism. Not only do we need to win the mid-terms to pass good legislation, but we also need to keep Republicans out of power so that it’ll be harder for them to steal the 2024 presidential election.
So, donate to and volunteer for groups like Swing Left, Indivisible, Fair Fight Action, Mijente, Faith in Action, The Poor People’s Campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Vote Forward, Black Voters Matter, and NexGen America. Make sure you and your friends are registered to vote and that you vote in every single election. And consider running for office: local school board, city council, or statewide or even federal office! (Check out Run for Something: https://runforsomething.net/)
Three: Take the fight to the states
A lot of good can happen at the state level. Absent federal action, it’s the next-best thing. Take Illinois, which recently passed a climate justice bill that is considered “one of the most environmentally ambitious, worker-friendly, justice-focused energy bills of any state in the country.” Democrat-led states must follow Illinois’ lead on climate and also make progress on voting rights, immigration and criminal justice reform, and more. There’s no shortage of good that can be done at the state-level, such as creating incentives for clean energy; enabling undocumented immigrants to have drivers licenses and access to in-state tuition; making it easier to vote; and more equitably allocating tax dollars for underserved communities.
Another advantage of working in a state is that it’s often easier to build a coalition that can move the needle. In Illinois, for instance, the Predatory Loan Prevention Coalition that Capital Good Fund was a part of successfully passed a 36% APR rate cap on all loans. We will be working to do the same in Rhode Island next year. California’s governor just announced a bill that mimics Texas’ anti-choice legislation but, in this case, tries to prevent gun violence. We must be bold, fearless, and act with urgency.
Four: Unlock the private sector
Absent good federal policy, the private sector—nonprofits, philanthropy, and businesses—cannot solve the climate and democracy crises we face. But they can do a lot. It’s time for massive investments–to the tune of trillions of dollars–from family, community, corporate foundations, and impact investors–in the form of both unrestricted grants and low-interest loans. And it’s time for corporations to stop with the high-falutin talk about climate and justice and put their money where their mouths are; banks, for example, have to stop financing fossil fuels, period.
There are so many organizations doing good work, in America and abroad. GRID Alternatives puts solar panels on low-income homes, and trains workers to get good-paying jobs in the sector. Give Directly provides unconditional cash grants to poor families in America and abroad. Capital Good Fund makes affordable loans to lower-income Americans for electrifying their homes, covering security deposits, paying for immigration expenses, and other key needs. Solar Sister trains women in Tanzania and elsewhere to sell solar products in villages. I could go on and on, but the point is that these organizations need capital to scale their models.
What has always saddened me about the climate crisis in particular is how much fun and joy we could be bringing to the work. We have an opportunity to remake our world for the better. Imagine solar panels on rooftops, providing shade to crops—creating clean power and local food. Imagine more walkable cities with less pollution. Imagine large-scale efforts to remove pollution from the land and sea; re-plant marshes and forests and woods; build beautiful, green affordable housing; and bring clean energy to billions of people who presently lack safe, reliable electricity. If the federal government isn’t going to pony up the cash and policies to make this possible, then we’ll have to do it ourselves, as best we can.
Five: Do more personally
To be clear, personal actions cannot solve these crises. Nevertheless, now’s the time to reduce your meat consumption; put solar panels on your home; walk and bike more; donate to good causes; make sure your investment portfolio is aligned with your values; open a bank account with a credit union or bank that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels (I recommend Amalgamated Bank!); and work with friends, family, and other people of good-will to create the beautiful world our children deserve to inherit.
Yes, a lot of these suggestions are necessarily vague. I don’t have easy answers. I’ve personally spent the last half-year advocating for provisions within the Build Back Better Act. I am gutted and tired. But in my exhaustion, I recall that for years, Churchill warned his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, to take the threat of Hitler more seriously. He of course did not—he chose the path of appeasement, with predictably disastrous results. Had Chamberlain remained in power, or been replaced by someone other than Churchill, who knows how the course of World War II would’ve turned out.
People matter. The narratives they tell, the decisions they make, the actions the take, shape history. I choose to make a stand on the beaches even as the waters rise and the sun bears down hotter than ever. And I choose to do so with a spirit of love, joy, righteous anger, and deep sadness.