Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Yglesias Edition
Not how I planned to begin substacking, but I have some *thoughts* to share about climate activism
Look, I generally like Matt Yglesias. I’m basically the target demographic for his podcast, The Weeds. I enjoy long explainers of why policy-is-more-complicated-than-you-think the way other people enjoy a fine wine. Politically, I’m the type of progressive who gets called a “corporate shill” for leading the Oberlin-for-Gore organizing efforts in the 2000 election. As an internet politics researcher, I also have a soft spot of old bloggers returning to their hot-take roots of yore.
But oof, Yglesias’s latest post, “What is the climate left doing?” doesn’t sit well with me. Yglesias really doesn’t like the Sunrise Movement (he mentions that on the podcast frequently) and it is driving him to sound way too much like No Labels. Yglesias knows that climate change is an existential threat, but he doesn’t know how to act like it is. I’m not sure if the climate movement’s current tactics are going to work (it’s unfortunately possible that nothing will!), but I am quite confident that Yglesias’s suggestions will fail. And that’s because I’m both a political scientist and an old environmental activist. Yglesias doesn’t seem to grapple with how we got here, and what the climate movement learned along the way.
Yglesias’s post is around 3,000 words. It boils down to a two main themes, though:
-Sunrise Movement = bad.
“Climate groups seem to be operating in a reality where there is massive public support for much more dramatic action on climate change and the only thing standing in their way is a need to sweep aside the power of corrupt and timid moderate Democrats.”
He doesn’t like the political tactics of the Sunrise Movement, or the broader “climate left.” They pressure Democrats more than Republicans. They seem focused on outsider tactics instead of cultivating an inside game. They go off-message way too frequently, weighing in on issues like Defund the Police that also, in Yglesias’s view, hurt Democrats. He thinks they just fundamentally don’t understand how politics works.
-Bipartisan infrastructure framework = good.
“Is it the most amazing bill in the universe? Of course not. But it’s a good bill. And if passing it on a bipartisan basis makes moderate senators feel happy, that’s great. And if Republicans tank a bipartisan bill and that makes moderate senators feel angry at Republicans, that’s great. But instead, climate groups seem to have decided they want to try to sink the bill from the left, on the theory that Biden is a “coward” and the bill doesn’t address climate issues.”
He thinks passing the scaled-back bipartisan infrastructure bill would be a big win for the Democrats. And given the preferences of moderate Senators (read: Manchin and Sinema), he thinks Biden’s hands are pretty much tied. So he thinks progressive advocacy groups attacking the bill from the left is political malpractice.
I understand his reasoning here. Passing major legislation is hard. It rarely happened in the olden days, before Gingrich/Rove/Tea Party/Trump/QAnon rendered our system of government increasingly unworkable. Politics is the art of the possible. The Green Lantern theory of the presidency is bad. Electing more Democrats in 2022 is good, and will be hard. Progressives ought to get what they can today, then help elect more Democrats so they can accomplish more tomorrow. (…Like I said, I am an attentive Weeds listener!)
That said, it’s a little difficult to square Yglesias with climate reporter Emily Atkins’s depiction of the current state of the climate movement.
“The massive infrastructure bill making its way through Congress is also a big opportunity to ensure meaningful climate investments in the energy sector—and may in fact be the last chance to pass meaningful climate legislation during Biden’s presidency. But the latest version was recently stripped of most of its significant climate provisions, including a Clean Energy Standard, tax credits for renewable energy, and a new civilian climate corps.”
The theme in Atkins’s work is that we are already in a climate emergency. “The scientific case for urgency has never been clearer.” The infrastructure bill isn’t the only place to focus activism — there’s a to-do list that spans powerful institutions across the globe — but it is a unique and rare opportunity, and one that is unlikely to be replicated any time soon.
We’ve had a moment like this before. In 2009, Barack Obama took the presidency and Democrats held strong majorities in both houses of Congress. We had a rare opportunity for action. And we blew it. Yglesias thinks that climate activists learned the wrong lessons from that failure. But his understanding of movement history isn’t deep enough.
A Few Notes on the History of the Movement
Before there was a climate movement, there was the environmental movement. (And before the environmental movement, there was the conservation movement. But I’ll spare you the digression into the fascinating and contentious history of protecting wild places from the 1890s through the 1980s…) When I joined the Sierra Club in 1996, climate was part of the portfolio of issues that environmentalists worried about. When I was National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition in 1999, we ran a national climate campaign, but it was hardly the center of our attention. Climate did not become the dominant issue within the movement until the mid-2000s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the environmental movement was in an awkward political bind. Our issues — clean air, clean water, protecting public spaces, etc — were overwhelmingly popular with the mass public. But they were second-tier issues. People agreed with us, but they did not prioritize us. No politician risked their job by casting an anti-environmental vote.
Being a second-tier issue was an agenda-setting nightmare. In the 103rd Congress (1993-94), newly-elected Bill Clinton and a Democratic House and Senate spent two years completely ignoring environmental legislation. We had broad-but-soft public support, and that meant our issues weren’t a right-now priority.
Then came Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. Republicans took the House and tried to undercut the bedrock environmental laws that had been passed in the early 1970s (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, etc). We were able to galvanize sufficient public attention to protect the status quo ante. But we were playing defense, not offense.
And then there was Bush v Gore v Nader. I was at Oberlin then, shouting loudly that I’d rather spend 4-8 years as an organizer pushing Al Gore to be better than spend 4-8 years stopping the worst parts of George W. Bush’s environmental agenda. Progressives like me did not convince quite enough Nader-progressives in swing states like Ohio and Florida. So we spent the next eight years playing more defense.
2009 looked like a fresh start. President Barack Obama! Hope and change! Big majorities in the House and the Senate! Climate had, by that point, become the dominant concern for the environmental movement. We had serious climate legislation that (if you believed Lindsey Graham) might attract bipartisan support!
I was on the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors during those years (2004-2010). I can tell you that we took our best shot. Yglesias points to Theda Skocpol’s criticism of the environmental movement for playing too much of an “inside game” during those years, instead of building a real movement of grassroots support. That’s a fair critique of one subset of well-funded environmental groups, but I’ve always thought it painted an incomplete picture. The Sierra Club was doing exactly the type of work that Skocpol calls for. We tried the things she says the environmental movement should have tried. We could have used more funding sure, but we were the oldest and largest environmental organization in the country, with chapters in every state. We were hardly some scrappy upstart.
A big part of the problem in 2009/2010 was, once again, an agenda-setting problem. The Obama Administration had a decision to make: which comes first — climate legislation or Obamacare. They chose Obamacare as the more pressing issue, the one that they had been elected to get right, and that history would judge them on. It’s possible in an alternate universe that Obama could have gotten them both accomplished if (a) he moved quicker on health care reform, understanding that the potential bipartisan deals were all bullshit designed to run out the clock, and/or (b) Ted Kennedy stayed alive/Dems managed to win the special election to replace him. But it’s also very possible that the Obama Administration had a narrow window and had to pick which bold proposal would be the priority.
Dwell on that for a minute. If you had to choose one in 2009 — Obamacare or Cap and Trade — which would you choose? Keep in mind, by the way, that the Supreme Court absolutely would have found a way to undermine Cap and Trade, given how they made up reasons out of whole cloth to undermine Obamacare. Is climate legislation a higher priority in 2009 than the tens of millions of people trapped in a broken health care system? If you only get one, which one do you choose? Even for climate activists, it was fundamentally a choice we would rather not make.
And That Brings Us to Today
When the bipartisan infrastructure framework was announced a few weeks ago, I despondently tweeted the following:
Matt Yglesias’s post is basically trying to make the case that yes they are going to do this and it is somehow a good thing. That’s a #slatepitch masquerading as a substack deep dive.
Yglesias doesn’t like that climate activists today go “off-message” by voicing solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other movements for justice. Back in my day, he’s right that we “stayed in our lane.” And that left us as a second-tier issue with not enough allies going to bat for us when it mattered. Today’s climate movement is focused on being better progressive allies than the environmental movement of decades past.
Will that work better? I don’t know. Neither does Yglesias. But I at least understand where it comes from. It’s a reaction to past failures, and a deeply-theorized commitment to try something new and see if it works better. It is far from, in Yglesias’s words “a left wing mish mash.”
Yglesias is also confident — too confident — that climate groups need to be better cheerleaders for Biden and the democrats. He is sure that the way to win climate victories in 2021 and beyond is to celebrate partial gains today, work hard to elect more allies tomorrow, and then push for larger gains in the next congress.
That’s generally how big legislation gets passed, when it gets passed at all. You work slowly, you build power, you wait for a window of opportunity, you get part of what you want, you keep working, you get more many years down the line, when another opportunity presents itself. It’s a decent depiction of how American legislative politics works in normal times.
That’s a model I would have subscribed to and advocated for in 2009, or in 1998, or in 1993. Those were years when we still had some time. The climate crisis was an emergency, but we still had time.
We don’t have time anymore. This is an existential threat. Our political system does not respond well to existential threats. We can attempt to bend the political system or we can succumb to an ever-worsening series of climate catastrophes.
I don’t know if the current generation of climate activists will do better than my generation did. I suffer from heavy pessimism of the intellect and mild optimism of the soul.
Watching their tactics today, I frequently feel my age. “That isn’t how we would have done it,” I think. I’m not sure that this will work.
But I at least have confidence that these climate activists have learned from our failures. They are trying something new. Something that is in keeping with the current moment. They are trying to bend politics, because it has to be bent in order for us to survive.
Yglesias is too confident in normie politics still working just fine. For other issues — issues without a ticking clock — he might have a point.
But for climate activism, he doesn’t seem to recognize the moment we are in.