I’ve been arguing now for a year and a half that the enactment of bold new climate policies—bold enough to quickly drive US greenhouse-gas emissions down to zero—can succeed only if we defeat the looming threat of far-right authoritarianism. And today, the nation’s anti-democracy, fossil-fuel-loving political minority appears more determined than ever to gain enough power to turn us into a sweltering autocracy. We have just 11 months left to stop them.
But now, suppose for a moment that do succeed and thwart MAGA extremists’ attempt to gain power over the federal government’s three branches. The road from there to bold climate policies, and many other urgently needed measures, will remain as rough and twisty as ever. Groundswells of public pressure will still be required to convince the timid souls on Capitol Hill to defy corporate resistance and enact strong, effective policies. And even then, it will be a long, hard struggle.
And it won’t be a one-and-done victory. Especially with a goal like eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions, laws will have to be protected from repeal for decades, and policies pursued with little or no interruption. That will require defeating anti-climate, anti-democracy forces in the Electoral College every four years while relegating them, through fair-and-square elections, to a permanent minority role in Congress. With that, we would essentially be living in a one-party state. Would we still be calling ourselves a democracy?
Before addressing that question, let’s step back and have a look at why sweeping governmental intervention in the national economy is necessary in this greenhouse century, and what it will take to achieve it.
In the books The Green New Deal and Beyond and The Path to a Livable Future, I discussed in some detail the policies I believe will be essential to rapidly reducing carbon emissions while ensuring that society adapts well to diminishing inputs of fossil fuels. Reducing emissions will require ever lower caps on the extraction and use of oil, gas, and coal, along with deep transformation of our built environment and transportation systems. The phaseout of fossil fuels will have to be so rapid that the buildup of renewable energy capacity won’t be able to keep up: the country will have to operate on a much leaner energy diet. Therefore, adaptation will require the allocation of energy and material resources toward meeting society’s basic needs, rationing of fuels and electricity, provision of universal basic services, and other policies.
Needless to say, such an array of policies would constitute a dramatic intervention of federal power into the economy and society—dramatic, but not unprecedented. From 1933 through 1945, Washington took actions just as drastic, and on a similar scale. Such steps were widely viewed as necessary in the face of the tandem existential emergencies the nation faced during those years: the Great Depression and World War II.
The United States was able to enact and implement those policies partly because the government was under one-party control. Throughout those dozen years, President Franklin Roosevelt and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress generally accepted that drastic measures were necessary and carried them out. (Exceptions occurred on those occasions when Democrats representing states in the Jim Crow South killed labor and civil-rights bills that they felt would weaken their ability to oppress Black people. Most notorious were the numerous House and Senate votes on anti-lynching legislation in 1934–35, in which southern Democrats killed every bill.)
The New Deal and wartime policies of the 1940s demonstrated the possibility of sweeping federal action under one-party governance. Today’s predicament is more . . . shall we say . . . complicated. In 2022, even with full control of the White House and Congress, Democratic lawmakers struggled to pass even the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act with its tepid provisions for a Green New Deal Lite (while shoring up voting rights was simply not possible). Passage of much bolder climate legislation, such as a fossil-fuel phaseout and planned resource allocation, will be possible only with stronger climate-friendly majorities in Congress, backed by a president who is prepared to take down the fossil-fuel industries once and for all. Even then, success is far from guaranteed.
(Here, a caveat is needed. The New Deal years marked the US government’s last attempt to pursue social and environmental policies while enjoying freedom from the fiscal and moral constraints that come with being a military and imperialist superpower. In the 80 years that followed, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, militarism and imperialism have sapped our domestic resources and wreaked incalculable suffering abroad. Now we have bipartisan US endorsement of Israel’s war on Palestine, which, as of November 19, had killed almost 15,000 civilians (including more than 6,000 children). The New York Times finds that “the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century”; 34 UN experts have labeled the war a “genocide in the making.” With its complicity in this catastrophe, Washington’s moral standing has reached a new low. Whatever our government claims, both its history and the $3 billion in warmaking funds that it continues to send Israel each year show that any support US officials may express for democracy and justice is only partial and applies only within the 50 states. The pursuit of pluralistic democracy, whether in the United States or worldwide, will continue to be left up to “We the People.”)
Teetering Between Democracy and Autocracy
Far too many Americans remain actively opposed to acting on climate change. Approximately 30 percent of respondents to a recently published Pew Research Center poll oppose US efforts to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and would instead give priority to the expansion of US oil, gas, and coal production. Though far from a majority, they speak for tens of millions of people, and one of the two major political parties is enthusiastically advancing their cause. They would probably consider themselves disenfranchised under any future government that carries out a multi-decade, irreversible phaseout of fossil fuels. I confess that my heart wouldn’t bleed for them at all. Minorities who advocate regressive policies that have been rejected by the national majority do not and should not get their way. For example, I suspect that millions of Americans also would like to return to the days of racial segregation, but that’s not going to happen.
That said, there’s the additional problem that we don’t live in the realm of individual issues anymore. In recent times, climate denial, Covid-19 denial, election denial, racial bigotry, attraction to authoritarian forms of power, and other dangerous stands are all closely aligned. If you buy into one, you probably buy into the whole package; you don’t want just the three-dollar burger; you get the $5.79 combo.
Constituents and elected leaders who would work for an economy dedicated to controlling and eventually eliminating greenhouse gases would also promulgate lots of other policies that are anathema to the MAGA right—and, by extension, to the economic, social, and political segments of society that it dominates. In a way, the federal government under ecologically sound majority rule would become a photographic negative of notorious state governments like those in Florida and Texas that have come under one-party MAGA control. Where would such a government lie, then, along the spectrum from pluralistic democracy to autocracy? It’s not an easy question.
I’ve recently had the good fortune to contribute a chapter to Democracy in a Hotter Time, a volume edited by David Orr that was published in September by MIT Press. In the book, a wide range of authors propose policies for strengthening and expanding US democracy in the face of multiplying threats, while both curbing and adapting to climate change. But in Chapter 5, Ann Florini, Gordon LaForge, and Anne-Marie Slaughter provide a reality check, stressing the uphill battle that decisive climate action would face:
Even a healthy US democracy would struggle mightily to respond effectively to the
“wicked” problem of climate change. As humans, we would have to overcome innate cognitive limitations to accept the connection between everyday actions like driving and attenuated effects on climate. As voters, we would have to appreciate the importance of addressing a problem with limited immediate salience primarily for the benefit of future generations. Politicians would need the courage to fight for policies that would yield no visible benefits for voters in their political lifetimes. Change would have to occur over the tooth-and-nail opposition of the fossil fuel companies.
Given those obstacles, authors of several chapters acknowledge that ambitious climate mitigation policies could be implemented more easily by an authoritarian state than by a pluralistic democracy. But all seem to agree that a healthy, multiparty democracy is necessary if we’re to build a society that operates within critical ecological limits while also guaranteeing justice, equity, and sufficiency to all people.
Fascism’s Back in Fashion
There are precious few ideas today on which there’s broad agreement among politicians, media, and voters across the political spectrum. One of those rare points of bipartisan concurrence is the belief that democracy is at risk in the 2024 presidential election. And it’s not just a social media meme. Our political system indeed appears to be teetering at the midpoint between democracy and fascism, and it could tip either way in coming years.
Since 2017, the organization Protect Democracy has been tracking the ups and downs of the American polity with its Authoritarian Threat Index. The index, defined as a “score from 1 (healthy democracy) to 5 (total dictatorship),” is derived from surveys of academic scholars who study political institutions or democratic decline in countries around the world. In May 2017, the index stood at around 2, on the borderline between “low threat” and “significant threat” of authoritarianism or worse. It then increased steadily, month by month, until it rose above 3—into the “severe threat” zone—in September 2020. In February 2021, after a semi-peaceful transfer of presidential power, it fell back into the “significant threat” zone, but ominously, the index has once again been rising over the past year, threatening a return to “severe.”
It’s not only among right-wing officeholders and candidates that repudiation of democracy is endemic; it is also being expressed by a significant minority of voters. In a 2022 Ipsos survey of more than 8,600 US adults, 19 percent agreed either “strongly” or “very strongly” with the following statement: “Having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.” Another 23 percent agreed “somewhat” with that statement. Those results, the authors noted, suggest that more than 100 million adults in this country would consider giving up on democracy and accepting authoritarian or even fascist rule—a petrifying prospect.
Regarding a couple of one-word terms often applied to Trump’s and his followers’ vision, former US secretary of labor Robert Reich recently argued that “‘Authoritarianism’ isn’t adequate. It is fascism.” He pointed to five widely accepted core elements of fascism: rage against cultural elites; racist nationalism; subjugation of women and LGBTQ people; rejection of democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights in favor of a strongman; and glorification of brute strength and violence. All of these elements permeate MAGA politics.
Evidence of that last item in the list—what political philosopher Mark Reiff describes as fascism’s “commitment to a destructive and bloody rebirth of society”—is unfolding right now, day by day. A poll released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute found 23 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”—a frightening increase over the 15 percent agreement expressed just two years earlier.
The real-world impacts of these inflamed attitudes are evident in a trend that Reuters has reported as “the biggest and most sustained increase in political violence since the 1970s” in the US. Robert Pape, the director of the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, told Slate last month, “What our data and analysis shows is that 2024 is going to be a very, very volatile year. That is, there is serious reason to be concerned about rising political violence in 2024.”
I agree with my fellow authors of Democracy in a Hotter Time that we need to achieve both pluralistic democracy and strong measures against greenhouse-gas emissions if we’re to have a livable future. But on both counts, trends are running against us. Reich’s five features of fascism essentially constitute the Republican Party platform. And climate action has become a casualty of the battle over the nation’s political future. To keep the hard right out of power by lawful means requires defeating it at the polls, soundly and consistently, into the long future—in effect, ensuring that the party they control becomes noncompetitive in national elections.
Paradoxically, such total victory over an anti-democratic political movement would not necessarily be a triumph of democracy. So argue Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their recent book Tyranny of the Minority. Citing many historical precedents, they write, “Democracy at its heart is about competition, so short-circuiting it for too long can be self-defeating.” While accepting that conclusive defeat of malignant political forces is urgently necessary in emergencies like the one we face today, they argue that non-competitive democracy can’t be sustained for the long term. In this view, for example, the US would need a new party to emerge in the coming years, one committed to multiracial democracy and capable of competing with the Democratic Party in national elections.
What does all this mean for the perfectly reasonable proposition that anti-democratic movements must be defeated if we are to preserve prospects for a livable Earth? I believe it’s more urgent than ever to prevail over the would-be autocrats. But how we should proceed if, sometime in, say, 2025, we see US democracy, warts and all, survive to fight another round? I have no answer to that question; I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, should we be so lucky.
By then, we’ll be almost halfway through the 2020s, the very decade in which we were supposed to make dramatic progress in purging fossil fuels from US society but have not. Intense grassroots activism will be required if we’re to finally drag the federal government across the climate starting line—especially if we’re locked, politically, in a rearguard action to keep the fascists at bay for decades to come.