As nearly two dozen Democrats vie for the right to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 American election, the party decides to skip a discussion of climate change. Youth are outraged by the Democratic National Committee’s 17-8 vote against a single-issue debate, according to outraged journalists. But everybody else seems happy enough to do without the usual bwa bwa bwa spend spend spend panic panic panic. How strange.
Supposedly there’s this big old consensus on climate. The science is a lock, the planet is on fire, and everybody is rushing to join the bucket brigade. But the Democrat who made climate the centrepiece of his campaign, Washington State governor Jay Inslee, was first out of the race. (At least among candidates you’ve heard of; when Seth Moulton dropped out it recalled Rodney Dangerfield’s line that the first time he quit show business, his career was going so badly he was the only one who knew he’d quit. CNN called Inslee “the third major Democratic candidate to drop out” but couldn’t remember who the others were.) Yes, the same Gov. Inslee who couldn’t convince his own Deep Blue state’s voters to adopt a carbon tax.
In a way it’s not surprising. The Democratic core faithful hold views that worry the public, and hold them with an intensity that worries the public. In that regard they are not unusual among political parties, although it does seem the long-standing pull to the centre in American politics has weakened in recent years. There’s often a struggle in all sorts of parties in all sorts of countries to keep the “base” happy without scaring mainstream voters. But as with the strident feminism of Kirsten Gillibrand, next out of the race (at least among contenders you might have heard of), Inslee championed a cause the Democratic party and the conventional press believed was overwhelmingly popular with ordinary people, when it seemed more to be the case that it was popular with everyone but ordinary people.
Of course it could be argued that it’s so popular that Inslee’s candidacy was unnecessary, that everyone in the party is committed to the same things he is. But not perhaps committed in the sense of wanting to defend them in public or do them so much as wanting to use them to fundraise among the base.
At least some candidates vented against the decision in the sort of purple prose that might have got the DNC worried in the first place. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic hero for beating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz except he didn’t, tweeted "Our planet is burning— the least we can do as a party is debate what to do about it." And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic hero for the aboriginal heritage she awkwardly lacks, tweeted “Climate change is an existential crisis that threatens all of us—and we need to take bold action now to stop it before it's too late. That's why we need to have a #ClimateDebate."
Or why they don’t. Bernie Sanders may want to spend $16 trillion fighting climate change and creating 20 million new jobs. But there seems to be limited appetite for spending the entire GDP on it (and nationalizing the U.S. energy industry and prosecuting executives under non-existent laws) outside the primaries, caucuses and newsrooms. Or even inside the former.
It’s not obvious that the party would be better off running someone like Joe Biden, a Democratic hero for making stuff up from FDR going on television after the 1929 stock market crash to heroes trying to refuse medals from him, who told Greenpeace this summer that “I’m all in” on a climate debate, only to have one of his senior advisors urge the DNC to vote the proposal down, calling it “dangerous territory in the middle of a Democratic primary process.” But the spectacle of angry youth holding sit-ins and demanding total decarbonization in a decade, while accusing the adults of having childish tantrums (a spokesperson for the “Sunrise Movement” whined that “Climate change is an emergency, but [DNC chair] Tom Perez isn’t acting like it. We have just over ten years to completely transform our economy to avert catastrophe, but instead of being the adult in the room, Tom Perez is throwing procedural temper tantrums.”), understandably doesn’t appeal either.
Strange when something is so popular you can’t mention it. Unless you’ve been bullying people into surly silence on the subject, only to have them take revenge in the voting booth.