Rock Paper Scissors

A recent headline in the Atlantic online got on my nerves: “The Democrats Really Are That Dense about Climate Change.” I hadn’t thought much of people being “dense” since junior high. But more important, the idea that Nancy Pelosi was “blowing a once-in-a-decade chance to pass meaningful climate legislation” seemed too facile even for the Atlantic’s hourly collagen shots of news filler.

Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats fully get the do-or-die-ness of climate change. But guess what? Do-or-die-ness encompasses everything in American life right now. Gun legislation and protecting reproductive rights are pretty high up, but preserving our democracy at the polls is still paramount, given that we can already see the switchman in the distance, all set to pull the lever onto permanent minority rule.

Yes, the climate situation is bad. America faces a summer of climate-induced disasters, with the drought in the Southwest the most extreme in 1,200 years. Prices for wheat and other grains have soared partly because of extreme weather in India and Pakistan (helped along by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). Fires in the arctic tundra and boreal forest threaten to release vast stores of carbon but also methane, which is 85 times as dangerous over a 20-year period and more than 25 times as potent over a century.

But as Ro Khanna put it in the recent Frontline series “The Power of Big Oil”: “We won’t solve the climate crisis unless we solve the misinformation crisis.” What struck me from the series is how the goal of the purely evil players in this tragic stretch of history—first ExxonMobil and then the Koch family enterprise—was to sow doubt in science, government, and trusted institutions. This is now the official Republican playbook. They used it to beat down climate legislation for four decades and now they’re using it to beat down democracy.

As I write this, there is faint hope that bipartisan group in the Senate could fix the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make it harder for Congress to reject state-certified electors—something a majority in both houses can currently do without any justification . . . and something Republicans could do if they regain control the House and Senate.

And on June 7, voters in deep red South Dakota surprised pundits by decisively rejecting a constitutional amendment requiring that certain voter-initiated referendums must pass by 60%, rather than a simple majority. This effort was bankrolled by the Koch family’s Americans for Prosperity and pushed by Republican state lawmakers hoping to defeat a November referendum on expanding access to Medicaid.

But there’s also the House select committee on the January 6th attack, which, despite its honorable objective, is dividing Democrats hoping for Watergate-style illumination to sway opinion and Democrats scared to death that this will only divide us further and make maintaining free and fair elections an even more colossal challenge.

Every weeknight, Tucker Carlson crows to millions about “the elite” pulling one over on “us,” the American people. But given that there is no “we” to meet the “them,” it’s hard to imagine any morally necessary legislation (i.e., an assault weapon ban) succeeding for purely moral reasons let alone as a Democratic “win.”

We’re still a shambling mess on the left. I can imagine a time when historians (if there are still such mammals) look back at this era of do-or-die when members of the press went right on résumé-building; when those embedded in academia, think-tanks, and nonprofits continued pushing their signature cause over everything else; when elected officials embellished their repertoire of dithering.

While the “they” on the right are unified by hate and resentment and independents are unified by selfishness, the left has no unifying goal to bust the rock-paper-scissors stalemate. Fairness? Decency? Compassion? We can’t even agree on what we agree on: Which of the seven plagues happening to us all at once is the worst?

Even climate groups have realized that because Democrats will likely lose the midterms without having passed climate legislation, states and cities must take the lead on cutting emissions. But as a resident of one of the bluest states, I am aghast that our Democratic Assembly can’t even implement legislation voted in three years ago that would generate 100% of the state’s power from zero-emission sources by 2040. And that New York City can’t implement the congestion pricing plan we also voted in three years ago.

Bottom line: Don’t convert your cash into crypto and don’t count on states to end-run a Republican Congress on climate legislation.

Ensuring free and fair elections in November or passing climate legislation should not be mutually exclusive, but we have the electorate we have. It is a struggle to get the majority of American voters to do what’s right for everybody in the long-term versus what’s good for their bank accounts in the next six months.

Preserving our democracy is the larger bucket right now. There is no yardage gained by passing climate legislation that gets immediately overturned by a Congress whose members were decided by Republican state legislatures instead of votes cast by the people.

What matters is holding on to our rickety democracy long enough to fix it. The only way to do that is to speak in one voice. Why do we keep ignoring Dr. King? Stay focused and speak the same language. When they say “They’re coming to take your guns,” we say “They’re coming to take your vote.”

And if the reins slip away this fall and again in 2024 and we lose responsible stewardship of this colossal force, then we’re in the same boat as those well-meaning Europeans during the Trump years—a continent full of people with no feasible action but wringing their hands over the fate of the planet. Now that would be pretty dense. §