Last night was the first presidential debate. I’m not going to go into political commentary here overall, but a few things stand out.
Mr. Trump’s aggression, for example. I’ve watched many debates over the years, and this was the first I’ve ever seen with such unrelenting bullying. Unfortunately, such tactics have a certain amount of political power. More relevant here is what didn’t come up for discussion–climate change. I wasn’t surprised. While the candidates are beginning to treat the issue as politically important, debate moderators, interviewers, and the news media still generally treat the environment as a niche issue. That has to stop, and should have stopped already.
Curiously, the most pro-environment statement the entire night came from Donald Trump, when he denied being a climate denier. Secretary Clinton made a jab at him for claiming that climate change is a plot by the Chinese, and he insisted he never said that. He was lying, he did tweet about China inventing climate change, and while he claims that was a joke, he has a long and consistent history of calling climate change a hoax benefiting the Chinese. What I find interesting that he’s feeling the need to disavow that particular statement. It means we’re making some progress.
If we can just get a climate-sane person into the Oval Office, we might be able to save the world.
At present, that person has to be Mrs. Clinton. No one else is in striking range. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Mrs. Clinton is an insider, that her commitment to the environment (and other issues beyond the scope of this article) is not as radical or as unambiguous as we need, that the political system that she serves and perpetuates is itself our problem. Personally, I like Mrs. Clinton. I usually don’t say this sort of thing here, but I am excited for her presidency. I don’t support her merely by default. But there are those who want more than she can give, and they are not foolish to want that.
The presidential race just isn’t the most effective place to fight for third parties.
Presidential races are, by definition, national. That means that you need a huge amount of money and organizational support just to get noticed, let alone win, and you have to be able to assemble a huge and varied coalition of constituents. While there are occasional exceptions–among which I do count Bernie Sanders–the game belongs to insiders who can cozy up to the elites and appeal to the lowest common denominator of the masses. Great presidents are those who can do so and genuinely serve our country. There have been a few.
But when you’re looking to change a system, you need to look at the part of the system that is ripe for change–the first domino, so to speak. You look for a critical place where a small amount of effort can flip a switch and ultimately cause widespread change. Trying to attack the American political duopoly at the presidency is just the opposite of that strategy, and it doesn’t work. The presidency is where revolutions finish, not where they begin.
Then, too, the American President, by design, has very little independent power. Executive action without Congress is sharply curtailed by law and politically dicey. Let’s say that Jill Stein were elected President; either she would find a way to compromise and work with others just like other politicians do, or she would remain ideologically pure and totally ineffective because Congress would ignore her and the states would fight her executive actions tooth and nail in the courts. How would that help anybody?
You want a revolution? You need to go after Congress and you need to go after state legislatures.
Legislative districts, both State and Federal, are relatively small. Unless a national organization gets involved and starts pouring in money, they can be won relatively cheaply by people who have a good record of community service and little else. A much smaller electorate means much less political inertia and a much greater chance of radical sentiment gaining ground. There is much more political (and demographic) diversity in Congress than among high-level candidates for the Presidency because each Congressional district can reflect the particular politics of its residents, whereas a national campaign inevitably takes a sort of average of the nation. Bernie Sanders is a perfect example of this principle–in his district, an independent Democratic Socialist can have a relatively safe seat. That he even got close to a national nomination is a political miracle.
So, legislatures are easier to get into, and potentially they are the more powerful positions.
The Federal legislature, of course, crafts the laws which the President executes, creates the national budget, and approves, or decides not to approve, many of the President’s decisions. As we have seen, the legislative leadership can effectively block the President from making appointments to the Supreme Court. While Congressmembers must act collectively, an individual can become hugely influential within the group through political skill and seniority, and any seat in either chamber has the potential to rise to prominence that way.
And of course, from Congress, the White House becomes much more accessible.
State legislatures are similar, with the added power that these are the bodies who draw district maps–they gerrymander, for better or worse, and can and do shape national policy indirectly for generations that way. And those constituencies are even smaller, so those seats are even easier to win.
A vote for a third party or independent presidential candidate is symbolic, but it’s not more than that. Your candidate will not get elected. You may or may not become morally responsible for the election of a climate-denier, but the best that can be said is you’ll do nothing. If you want to do something, look at the presidential candidates who have a real shot of winning and vote for the better one. And, and this part is important, vote for radical candidates for the State and Federal legislatures, or run for those offices yourself (and vote).
That’s how you can change the world.