It’s NOT just a flesh wound

I’ve been pondering whether to weigh in on all the noise resulting from two recent studies about the failure of cap and trade policy a few years back. David Roberts nicely sums up his thoughts on the matter here, and, as usual, I largely agree with him.

First, full disclosure: I was there. As director of communications at ClimateWorks during this period, I have a pretty good sense of what went down. But rather than offering my views on what’s in these studies and joining in the mano-a-mano on he said/she said/who’s wrong/who’s right etc., I’d like to draw a sharp focus to what I think is the Real Big Issue that’s NOT being discussed.

A little time machine here: I recall specifically a visit to a funder in the Bay Area, around 2009 or so, where we were asked how a particular strategy (one related to communicating the reality of climate science) would work: How did it support our policy efforts?

For some reason I was in an ornery mood that day, and I remember my ornery answer: Well, what if we don’t live in a Jeffersonian democracy anymore? What if we’ve won the battle for public opinion, but the public has been the victim of a quiet, no-fault divorce from the policymaking process?

At the time, I was laughed at. Probably deserved it as it wasn’t helpful to the conversation; but I meant it, and now I mean it even more.

The fact is, America is not a democracy. We do a great job of fooling ourselves into believing that our national institutions are democratic, but those are illusions. The DC pundit class - the “Very Serious People” - are masters of never actually allowing this to enter our national dialogue. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because our “democratic” institutions are deeply broken. The U.S. Senate is one of the most undemocratic institutions around, where a Senator representing 700,000 Wyomingites has as much power as a Senator representing 35 million Californians. That’s a huge problem for climate policy - Wyoming is the coal capital of the U.S., while California has banned new coal power imports - but it’s a bigger problem for democracy; we grant enormous political power to individuals who are not actually representative of the populace. It’s a problem that extends across all issue areas.

It gets worse. Within this undemocratic institution of the Senate, we actually incentivize power-grabbing behavior through a hostage-taking technique known as the filibuster.

Then there’s the House: Have you seen how district maps are drawn? Yeah, it’s bad. We now have a majority of “Representatives” in the House who were not elected by a majority of the voters in the last election, from districts that were drawn expressly to enable a minority viewpoint to gain power. “Democracy”? I don’t think so.

And finally, of course, is the issue of money in politics. The Supreme Court decisions calling money speech, and corporations people, were pretty predictable, given the rightward tilt of the court in recent times. But this insidious facet of politics is tossed in with the rest of the toxins listed above, and the cynics crack jokes and make fun of those of us who think, hey, wait, is this really what Tom Jefferson and Benny Franklin had in mind?

An acknowledgment of these hurdles faced by the climate community would have been appropriate; better would have been if the movement itself, its funders, and the media establishment had properly diagnosed these ills when they first started to metastasize during the Clinton years. Honestly, I think it would have been perfectly rational to predict the long-term failure of any climate legislation when the Senate unanimously refused to ratify Kyoto in 1997. But that’s Monday morning quarterbacking.

But it’s totally uncool to pretend that the rot at the core of our system is not the systemic cause of not just our failure on climate, but our failure in many policy arenas. We have a philanthropic and movement architecture that assumes functioning democracy and engaged voting populace. What if that assumption is only half right? What if we engage and inform a voting populace, and our elected officials don’t give a hoot because they don’t have to?

I write this now because 1) The issue has popped up again, and 2) I have become aware of a growing movement among certain circles of funders and NGOs to try to tackle these issues. And I want to be the loudest supporter for their cause. I believe that everything we care about as Americans depends upon fixing the broken parts of our civic life, and that everything we do until then amounts to fingers in the dyke.