The Next Big Thing: An Open Letter to Bill McKibben and Joe Romm About Why Every Environmentalist Should Occupy a Voting Booth

Last week, Joe Romm posted a call for suggestions about what the Next Big Thing should be after the surprising success in stopping, for now, the Keystone XL Pipeline, which really was a done deal until Bill McKibben and others mobilized a protest movement whose message was heard in the West Wing.

Bill, your writing has helped shape my thinking about environmental philosophy and policy ever since  The End of Nature, when we were both much younger and long before came on the scene; and Joe, I learn important things every single day, often several times a day, reading ClimateProgress. I mention this up front with some hope of disarming a quick dismissal of my chutzpah in offering you two, of all people, strongly worded advice.  Also, this post is also aimed at my readers, many of whom are my students, colleagues, and friends, so I want to explain some issues in a way that is clear enough to those whose reaction to the premises of the argument will be “Well, duh!” as well as those who will think I have become some kind of nutwing conspiracy theorist. No easy feat in a few words.

The quick version of the argument’s premises is this: As you both know very well, there is a direct set of lines connecting the following dots: corrupt money in politics, the Koch Brothers extraordinary influence in the congressional assault on the EPA and virtually everything that needs to be done by the government to even minimally protect our air, water, and global climate, and the Koch Brothers other extraordinary success in launching a voter suppression movement in dozens of states that will prevent millions of voters from having a voice in who will be in congress, in the White House, and on the Supreme Court.

So here is my suggestion.  No, my plea. We need to launch a massive voter registration movement to combat the voter suppression movement that is already succeeding in keeping the most dangerous group of elected officials in power, and, indeed, increasing their numbers and their success in ways whose consequences will be genuinely horrific.  There really is a difference, and a big one, between the GOP extremists now running congress, and the democrats whose views are so centrist that, a decade or two ago, they were held by conservative Republicans.  But it is worse: the voter suppression now taking place is a threat to democracy itself. This is not hyperbole, and neither is this: the survival of both the environmental movement and progressive politics more generally depend upon it.

So, by way of background for a wider audience, here are the dots and the lines connecting them, all by way of making a case that respected environmentalists in particular (but also the less environmentally focused 99%-ers) should be taking the lead in something they might consider distastefully “within the broken political system:” voter registration. The Next Big Thing should be a concerted effort aimed at occupying voting booths.

The Dots:
1. How Citizens United has helped Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and others create to the most anti-environmental congress in history.

2. How the changes in voter registration laws in dozens of states across the country that undeniably amount to an intentional, targeted, voter suppression movement intended to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests; and

3. How another Koch-funded organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, has been remarkably successful at the state level in changing voter registration laws — in dozens of states these changes resemble some or all of the changes suggested in the model provided by ALEC.

4.  How this can actually work: Just (yes, “just”) by registering 5 or 10 million voters who would otherwise surrender to a plan by some of the <1% to disenfranchise us from participating in a democracy, so they can succeed in eliminating virtually all the environmental law that has been put in place since the 1960’s. Mobilize college students and others who have been recently drawn to protest how the system is not a functioning democracy that represents the will of the 99%.  Some of the ways that the system is broken can be fixed, or at least mitigated in ways that really do matter, by thinking about voting as active resistance to economic and environmental injustice: if corporations are people, don’t give up on reasserting that people are people, the representatives we elect will not be for sale, nor will we allow profiteering to eliminate clean air, clean water, or mitigation and adaptation of what is quickly becoming an inevitable global catastrophe. (For an earlier post about economic and environmental injustice and democracy, click here.)

The Lines Connecting These Dots:
(1) Since 2010 we have seen what is without any question the most anti-environmental congress in history, and there is a big, bold line connecting money in politics with the assault on the environment.  See this for a somewhat breath-taking summary of just the legislative record compiled by Henry Waxman’s staff.  A central concern of many 99%-ers is how much worse things have become since Citizens United.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is not just about Wall Street per se, but what it represents more broadly about how money in politics has made our representatives beholden to the interests of a small, rich, and powerful group and not anything remotely in touch the common good or, more modestly, what most people think. On the whole, our representatives are out of touch with their own constituencies, yet they continue to get elected. How is that possible? A big part of the answer: most people do not vote.

2)  The connection between (1) and what is going on at the state level is that the changes in voter registration laws in dozens of states across the country undeniably amounts to an intentional, targeted, voter suppression movement that is intended to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests by making sure the GOP congressmen and senators who are in their pocket remain in office. Targeted at making it very hard or impossible for at least 5 million people who voted in 2008 to vote in 2012.  Three of the main reasons people should be screaming about this a lot more, but also doing something about it.

(a) Of these 5 million voters, there is a very disproportionate effect on the poor, the disabled, and also, as it turns out, college students, the, elderly, blacks and Hispanics. Obviously these are traditionally Democratic voters, the ones who were mobilized to elect Obama in 2008.

(b) The pretense for passing these new registration requirements (which includes presenting documents that millions of people do not have, showing up at times and places that are very difficult for people who have jobs but do not have transportation, etc.) is to prevent voter fraud, which it turns out barely exists.  The numbers of contested votes is truly miniscule compared to the number who will be unable to provide documentation or stand in line or even get to where they need to register if they happen to work during the day.

(c) I have always found it deplorable and even frightening when people are called “un-American” by others holding different views. But the voter suppression movement that it is sweeping across the nation is an affront to the very idea of democracy. We are talking about a political party succeeding in an organized effort to make laws that keep citizens from their right to vote because those people are likely to vote against them.

(3) The line connecting the federal and state dots is that both efforts are being funded and organized by the Brothers Koch.  Yes, in addition to what Americans for Prosperity has been doing, their American Legislative Exchange Council has been drafting model legislation about a number of issues at the state level, and ALEC has been remarkably successful.  The changes in voter registration laws in dozens of states resemble some or all of the changes suggested in the model provided by ALEC.  It is attached, with notes from the Center for Media and Democracy.

(4) In an interview with Rachel Maddow the other night (11/16/11), former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich pointed out the Bizzaro World in which we now live, one in which “democratic” representation in government has been turned upside down: corporations are people, but people are not. (See the video here.)

But this is a battle that can be won. If there really is a plan to disenfranchise 5 million voters, and the evidence is looking pretty compelling that there is, then it can be defeated by just registering 5 or 10 million people not inclined to register and vote, to register and vote.  And help others do so who may not be reading this.  Mobilize college students and others who have been drawn into activism because some of the ways that the system is broken can be fixed by thinking about voting as active resistance: if corporations are people, don’t give up on reasserting that people are people and the representative we elect will not be for sale.

Anyone who has given political theory ten minutes of thought realizes how facile and even mistaken it is to claim that “voting doesn’t matter.”  Sure it does.  Not only does voting matter, but not voting matters.  The GOP realizes how much not voting matters, and they are doing something about it.

So, here is the message that needs to be trumpeted by, ClimateProgress, the NRDC, and every environmental organization worth its salt: You don’t have to do much to prevent a real harm. And if you don’t think it is real, you have not been following congress during the past couple of years. Both parties may suck, but one currently owned by a small, powerful, and wealthy group of activists that is encouraging it to eliminate the EPA, has an explicit campaign to de-fund it, repeal the clean air and clean water acts, and does not even “believe in” science.

First, register, and then, in November, occupy a voting booth. Or, instead, you could be complicitous in letting democracy be bought. Or think of it as active resistance, as a form of protest.  Might be an interesting test of that resignation about voting not mattering, in any case.

In, “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” an interesting recent piece in the November 28 issue of The Nation, Naomi Klein argues that the environmental movement will not be rekindled unless it focuses more on economic justice.  The GOP is dismantling as much of our environmental law as it can on the pretext of it being economically beneficial.  Progressives need to take a page out of that book and combat it head-on. If the environmental movement is going to continue its comeback on the heels of the successful (so far, at least) Keystone XL protests, then environmental issues need to move to the front and center of of progressive politics by focusing more on precisely the economic that the Denialists have used to discredit it.  My point is that just cannot be done from the sidelines alone.

Klein’s essay is worth reading, but this paragraph is particularly striking:

“All of this means that the climate movement needs to have one hell of a comeback. For this to happen, the left is going to have to learn from the right. Denialists gained traction by making climate about economics: action will destroy capitalism, they have claimed, killing jobs and sending prices soaring. But at a time when a growing number of people agree with the protesters at Occupy Wall Street, many of whom argue that capitalism-as-usual is itself the cause of lost jobs and debt slavery, there is a unique opportunity to seize the economic terrain from the right. This would require making a persuasive case that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power. It would also require a shift away from the notion that climate action is just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention. Just as climate denialism has become a core identity issue on the right, utterly entwined with defending current systems of power and wealth, the scientific reality of climate change must, for progressives, occupy a central place in a coherent narrative about the perils of unrestrained greed and the need for real alternatives.”

If there is any truth to what Klein is saying here or what I have been arguing, then the call to “Occupy a Voting Booth” cannot dismissed because “voting does not matter,” or because the message is too far afield from a focus on 350 ppm. It is at the heart of preventing a horrible situation from becoming far worse.


About Scott Brophy
Scott Brophy is a philosophy professor whose work is focused on the intersection of philosophy and public policy, especially on environmental issues, law, and education. He has also taught philosophy of science, logic, and the history of philosophy. He has served as a consultant for educational programs and schools throughout the U.S. and abroad, and as an adviser to several philanthropic foundations.

4 Responses to The Next Big Thing: An Open Letter to Bill McKibben and Joe Romm About Why Every Environmentalist Should Occupy a Voting Booth

  1. Scott Mandia says:


    I could not agree with you more. I always urge my college students to not only vote, but to be more politically active by following the news and sending letters to their elected officials. Unfortunately, these students are difficult to motivate because many are Generation Me while we need them to be Generation Us (h/t to Andrew Weaver and his superb short book).

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