2018 Is the Year to Find Out What We Stand For
A New Year’s Resolution for a Political Revolution
This is Not Normal
“This is not normal”. I hear that everywhere I go, in the voices of those frightened they will lose the world to which they have grown accustomed.
“This is not normal”. We are watching the degradation of the norms we are so used to, norms we cannot imagine the world without. But our imaginations are too poor. Our memory of history, too shallow.
“This is not normal”. For us, perhaps. We have been born on a mountain trail our parents climbed, and our parents’ parents, and a long line of ancestors stretching back hundreds or thousands of years. Their path was not always straight. It was not always clear. It was not even always uphill. Sometimes they struggled, sometimes they stumbled, and sometimes, they lost their way.
We are nowhere near the mountaintop that MLK envisioned but we are on the mountain and we can climb.
And so when I hear people say “this is not normal”, I am worried. So many who invoke that phrase do not realize how precarious our position is. We said it in 2016 to gird ourselves against what was to come. We said it throughout 2017 as a reminder of what we were losing. What will it mean in 2018? At what point will we be saying it in denial? When does it become normal?
While the historical hike to where we were was slow and arduous, the fall is swift and covered in jagged rocks. Now we are headed straight for a cliff. If we fall, there will be no reset. Humanity as we know it — civilization as we know it — will be lost to us.
Too many envision us in the midst of an aberration in history, one that will soon acquiesce to normality. They think — as long as we remember this is not normal — it can’t *really* happen. They could not be more wrong.
This is just the beginning — Trump’s election, the slandering of our free press and the dismantling of our institutions, the plundering of our bank accounts and the pillaging of our planet. It is all too easy to take for granted the many progresses we have made in building civilization. After all, we were all born on the mountain. But none of it was inevitable, and we can lose it. We are losing it.
We take our environment for granted, but it was once uninhabitable to human beings.
We take the potential for prosperity for granted, but the world has known Dark Ages and feudalism.
We take mass democracy for granted, but it is scarcely a modern blip in humanity’s history.
We take our commitment to equality for granted, but there are black Americans alive today who knew people who once had been slaves.
No political movement can be taken seriously unless it proposes solutions to each of these four threats, and seeks to protect us from humanity’s worst impulses.
Existential Crisis #1 — The Uninhabitability of Planet Earth
It is no longer enough to say that climate change threatens to change life as we know it; it has already begun doing so. The planet is warming, disrupting weather patterns, worsening droughts, and melting glaciers (as a result, the seas are warming, rising, and acidifying). This year’s hurricane season was disastrous, and we shall see worse in coming years. Pollutants in our water, air, and soil are poisoning people and leading to health complications.
If we continue on our current track, these problems will increase exponentially. Even if we meet agreements like the Paris Accords, they will worsen. At this rate, before the turn of the century, a number of regions in the world will become so hot that it will be impossible to go outside for prolonged periods without dying from heat exhaustion. A quarter of the world’s population will live in areas with smog levels beyond the levels the World Health Organization deems “safe”. Arable land will decrease — while fish die off in the warming seas — and food shortages will run rampant.
Our planet is over 4 billion years old, and human life has only been around for 200 thousand years, less than half of a percent of a percent. We are a rounding error in the history of the planet. Our continued existence — especially in the numbers we currently sustain on the planet — is not guaranteed. When it comes to climate change, we have created this rise in temperatures in a mere 200 years, a tenth of a percent of our tenure on the planet. 200 years from industrialization to the precipice we are now perched upon. By the turn of the century, large swaths of the earth will be uninhabitable by humans. From there, the whole planet.
Now is the time when decisive action is critical. We must reduce our consumption of already-extracted fossil fuels and transition to renewable energies immediately. Critically, we must cease all extraction of fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, powerful actors like Exxon-Mobil and Chevron or Putin and Trump are deliberately fighting to roll back regulations on fossil fuel extraction and consumption. Why? The answer is pretty simple. Perhaps some of them really don’t believe the considerable scientific consensus that climate change is real. But more importantly, they stand to make a lot of money from fossil fuels, those in their refineries and those in the ground.
Existential Crisis #2 — Mass Economic Inequality
Industrialization may be the root of our current environmental woes, but it also created one of the greatest developments of mankind’s history: economic prosperity that extended beyond a select few. Since the industrial revolution, we have increased humanity’s productivity far beyond the subsistence levels we occupied for millennia. For the first time in our existence, it no longer takes the majority of the species working for most of their lives just to survive. Of course, there have always been a few prosperous individuals, but the industrial revolution expanded the opportunity for prosperity and leisure time to far more people than ever before.
As productivity increased, so did wages. From 1950–1970, for example, wages increased about 95% as quickly as productivity. Since then, those two have decoupled, with wages increasing at around 15% the speed of productivity. As a result, economic inequality has skyrocketed over the last several decades, to the point where the EIGHT wealthiest men in the world control more wealth than the bottom 3.5 BILLION people.
Seen as a whole, the economy has grown over that period, but most of that growth has gone to the very wealthiest people. Meanwhile, the median wage in America has stagnated, while the cost of goods has risen. In other words, we can afford less now than we used to be able to, all while the wealthiest among us continue to grow disproportionately wealthy.
This will be disastrous for those who are already struggling first. Median wealth for black people is projected to dip below 0 by 2050. The problem is that markets can only function when people are able to buy anything in them. We are at risk of becoming a nation — or a world — where corporations can produce and produce and produce, and very few people can afford to purchase what is being made.
Climate change will only escalate these problems. A hotter world will drive all of our costs up. Every degree of warming (Celsius) drops productivity by 1–3 percent, meaning as our world heats up, our economy will tank. As food productivity decreases, the cost of food will rise. Global poverty will increase, and as a result we will see more and more wars break out.
The end result? A surprisingly true-to-the-movies dystopia where a small group of people control all of our natural resources, and everybody else must scramble to serve them in return for survival. Of course, we used to call that slavery, or feudalism, and it was the way the world worked for nearly a millennium in Europe.
Existential Crisis #3 — The Erosion of Mass Democracy
Democracy has existed for a long time, from small towns gathering to determine their laws, to ancient Athens, to the Republic of Rome. The history of modern democracy has been the expansion of the vote to more people: nonwhites, women, those who did not own property, and so on. However, there are those who would reverse the process, and take away the right to vote from many.
Most obviously, the right to vote has been eroded legally, whether that’s by making it harder to register to vote, decreasing the number of polling places available, or depriving ex-felons of the right to vote. Voter ID laws have been a key weapon in the fight to disenfranchise.
But much more subtly, and at the same time probably much more far-reaching, the impact of a vote has been decreased. Gerrymandering has increasingly created safe districts where no shift in turnout could reasonably switch which party wins. In Alabama, Jones won the overall state, but would only have won one of the 8 congressional districts, thanks to gerrymandering.
Uncapped corporate donations through SuperPACs have overwhelmed our elections with money and made them susceptible to significant monetary tampering. Moreover, it has ensured that only those with the mandate of a party (or massive personal bank accounts) can run for office.
Political donations by fossil fuels companies and wealthy special interests have escalated The Uninhabitability of Planet Earth and Mass Economic Inequality, but those are far from the only drawbacks.
It’s important to see the ties here: wealth inequality impairs democracy,, and as mass democracy weakens, it becomes harder to gird against wealth inequality by political means. As a result, both are growing worse in tandem. We cannot solve one problem without solving the other, and leaving both unchecked means that they amplify each other.
How much impact do the opinions of the poorest 90% of Americans have on the way our government functions? The answer may already be “pretty minimal”. We obviously have political power — after all, we could vote in all new politicians with even 30% of Americans (given that half of Americans don’t vote). But we haven’t successfully exercised that power in some time, and as inequality increases and attacks on voting rights continue, we could easily find ourselves in a world where we no longer possess it.
If this seems hyperbolic, let us remember that modern democracy has only existed for ~250 years, a tenth of a percent of humanity’s existence.
Existential Crisis #4 — The Attack on Multiculturalism
For much of human history, people with different skin tones were kept apart by the size of our planet. Without convenient transit over mountains, across the seas, or through the air, we were isolated. As a result, nations and ethnic groups went hand-in-hand, and ethno-nationalism was the default status.
When that first changed, it wasn’t pretty. Colonialism, imperialism, slavery, these iniquities mar our history and in many cases continue into the present. Over time, as racial minorities became a larger and larger percentage of the population, the human rights violations inflicted on them could no longer be ignored. In America, we fought a war over slavery, and we’ve been fighting a political war over the rights of black — and other non-white — Americans and immigrants since.
Despite these struggles and some successes, inequality is still a massive problem in America and around the world. For every dollar the median white household in America has, the median black household has just one and a half cents. By 2053, median black household wealth will drop below $0.
As America becomes more non-white, this will be relevant to an increasing number of Americans. America already sees more non-white babies than white babies born yearly, and in a few decades, will be a majority-minority country. It is becoming necessary to acknowledge that “white” will soon no longer the default for America.
We must continue our fight to recognize the humanity of those people who will soon be a majority of Americans. That will require making up for America’s treatment of racial minorities in America. That is not the only step, as colonialism and imperialism abroad wreaked havoc on non-Western countries, and America’s economic growth has been built on the marginalization of non-whites both within America and abroad.
Our progress towards multiculturalism has not been perfect. There have been failures along the way. But by and large we have committed — as a society — to furthering those twin goals of fostering a diverse society at home and a globally connected world abroad. Whether or not we have been succeeding is an entirely different question, but until recently even people who opposed that goal paid lip service to it.
That has all changed dramatically recently. With the rise of economic and democratic instability in America and elsewhere, we have seen a sharp resurgence in ethno-nationalist movements, whether Brexit, Trump and the alt-right, or global white-nationalism. If they have their way, we could swiftly see a return to a world where nationalism and race are intertwined, marginalizing, displacing, or killing many non-whites living in those countries, and banishing them to politically and economically unstable regions.
The Writing on the Wall
It’s important to note that none of these problems are new.
Scientists have been warning of global warming for decades, and internal reports from Exxon-Mobil indicate that even the architects of this crisis were well-informed of the threat it posed 40 years ago.
Increasing economic inequality has been notable for the last 35 years.
Racial tension boiled over in America with Obama’s election, but we’ve been struggling with it since our founding.
And everybody wants to solve those problems, right?
Does anybody want our planet to be uninhabitable — our air and water and soil poisoned and our coastal cities submerged as the shoreline shrinks? Of course not.
Doesn’t everybody wants a shot at prosperity? Don’t we all want good schools and jobs and a fair shot at life? Surely we all want somewhere to live and food to eat and medicine when we’re sick!
Don’t we all want to live in a society where our voice matters in democracy? Aren’t we all fed up with corporations and wealthy interests controlling the direction our society takes?
And doesn’t everybody want to be treated fairly? Is there anybody who wants their kids put in jail for petty crimes or shot for “matching the description”? Of course not! Nobody wants to be hated by their neighbors for the color of their skin or the religion they practice or the language they speak.
So what solutions are we going to bring to the table?
Voices on the right — whether they be Trump or the alt-right — have their own answers to these problems.
Climate change? According to Trump, it’s a hoax, and we don’t have to worry about it. He’s pulled out of the Paris Accords and appointed an EPA adviser who thinks the air is too clean.
Decreasing prosperity? Trump doesn’t care He divides people into “losers” and “winners”, and he promises his followers that they will be among the winners, as long as he’s in power. And he is backed by his party. The recently passed Republican tax plan is a massive handout to the wealthiest and most privileged at the expense of everybody else
Trump’s vision of democracy is much like his vision of prosperity. There are those who deserve it and those who don’t, and we must simply remove all of the undesirable elements and focus on those who “deserve” citizenship, economic success, and human dignity. He has eroded our democratic institutions by attacking the free press, appointed as cabinet leaders those who would see their own cabinets undone and destroyed, and promoted the lie that the left only wins elections on the backs of millions of illegal voters (voters he intends to find and disenfranchise). On top of that, the nepotism of his government allows him and his family to consolidate power, be that through his blood relatives (Ivanka Trump), his in-laws (Jared Kushner), or his friends (Rex Tillerson).
The failure of multiculturalism? The alt-right does not fear it; they intend to bring it about. According to their white nationalist paradigm, multiculturalism is wholly unnatural, and we should return to the ethno-nationalism which defined colonialism and imperialism and created the West Indies slave trade. Trump has echoed their repugnant viewpoint from day one, slandering Muslims as terrorists and Mexicans as rapists, and he arguably kicked off his political aspirations by questioning the very citizenship of the first non-white president.
It would be a mistake to pin any of these answers solely on Trump or the alt-right. Similar ideas have festered in the American right and even in some of the neoliberal policies Democrats have pushed in their last two presidencies. But it would also be a mistake not to recognize how far Trump and the alt-right have pushed the bar in such a short time. His presidency, and how leftist movements — most chiefly the Democratic Party — respond to it, will have a far-reaching impact that could last for decades, if not generations.
Resistance is Not Enough
It is not enough for us to merely oppose Trump and the alt-right. Down that road there is nothing but low voter enthusiasm and the same failed politics which netted us his disastrous presidency.
We have to have a strong vision for the world we wish to see. It is critical that we loudly promote progressive ideas which benefit the majority of people. Only if we do so can we aspire to lead the people whom we claim to represent. If I may sentimentally quote Star Wars: “This is how we win. Not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.”
We must affirm a right to a clean, habitable planet for all, not merely those who can afford to live in unpolluted districts, or who have the means and good fortune to survive, escape, or avoid natural disasters like hurricanes. That means funding research to develop new clean energy technology, investing in the discovery of technology that can scrub CO2 or other pollutants from our atmosphere, water, and soil, and protecting those who are already threatened by natural disasters and pollution.
Where Trump appeals to our basest instinct — be the winner — we must promote a worldview (and an America) in which the “losers” are not abandoned by society and left to wallow in squalor in poverty. We must fight for a collective vision in which our success is judged by how we treat the least well off among us, not the most egregiously successful. We must assert unequivocally that as a society we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and that as a nation (and as a world), we are an extended family that looks out for one another.
We must remember that democracy has never come free or easy, and continue to fight for it. Protecting the vote legally and in the courts is a start, and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is a good example. But in the short term, we also need to work to turnout American voters by helping them overcome the roadblocks in the way. If that means driving them to get a photo ID, helping them fill out voter registration forms, and bringing them directly to the polls, so be it. This worked in Alabama, and we can make it work in more favorable elections, with better candidates!
Finally, we need to stand up for our values of multiculturalism, even where it may be scary. It’s become far too easy for liberal America to say that they support diversity, all while moving to whiter neighborhoods and creating more segregated schools. There is significant evidence to suggest that integrated schools perform better than segregated schools, even for white kids. But even if that weren’t the case, it’s important to ask ourselves if we actually believe in ensuring a fairer America for all of its citizens. For some people, that seems more of a fairy tale they tell to feel better about themselves. We need to start realizing that ideal by acting on it, and dismantling racial inequalities in schooling, housing, and more. While Trump and the alt-right would have us believe strength comes from splitting off and taking advantage of those who are different, we have to find our strength in unity.
Ultimately, this all comes down to political engagement. Climate change, economic inequality, racial equity, these are all political issues we can win at the ballot box. Mass democracy holds the key to this all, and we must act while we still can. Already in 2017, we have won small victories in Alabama and Virginia and Georgia and Washington. In 2017, we won victories against Trump. Now, it’s time we start winning victories for something.
So here’s a 2018 New Year’s Resolution we should all get behind. Get engaged, get informed, and get involved, even if it’s on just one issue. Become an evangelist on that issue. Have water-cooler conversations about it at work. Tell people what you stand for. Talk more and smile less.
I get it, Facebook is for memes and photos of kittens and the news is too depressing to look at. But if you can’t bear to look at the news in 2018, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself when the news in 2021 is even worse.
Talking is just the first step. Find other people who are talking about the same things — or better yet, working to improve them — and see what you can do together to make a difference.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity in the next few years: the chance to shape what history books about the 21st century will look like. Will we slide into climate disaster, oligarchy, and racism? Or will we stand up for the future we want to see, one where wealth and power aren’t a mandate to trample on the rest of us?