The first American presidential election I experienced was the 2008 election, about a year after I moved to the US. The day after, I happened to have a news reporting class, so the professor sent us out to interview fellow students (instead of writing fake stories while he pretended to read a press release, which we sometimes did during class). Like many things that happened in the aughts, the historic election of 2008 was something I lived through and didn’t really grapple with. Yet even as a clueless international student frantically googling “what is electoral college” in order to complete a homework assignment, I sensed the pride, optimism, and joy on the street – expressed to me in tears and incoherent quotes that day – and felt a tingly and nervous “everything is possible” energy.
Then like many millennials, I grew up during the Obama years. I watched the Occupy movement, the Tea Party’s rise, the tumultuous passing of the ACA, the failed DREAM Act, and the number of immigrants in detention skyrocketing, all while my cohorts graduated and found themselves in a lingering recession. The years of “what could have been” culminated in 2016, an election that broke me and so many others. In the gloomy and weepy weeks following the election, I remember posting something vague on Facebook about wanting to “listen better and learn more about this country with a constructive spirit.” And learned I did.
I learned that the America I thought I knew was just the liberal bubble of waspy, costal New England. I realized (rather painfully) that my research (at the time, modeling grand policy ideas like a national soda tax or fruit and vegetable subsidy for Medicaid recipients) was just that – grand ideas that were never going to happen, as we watched the administration destroying the little healthcare safety net and nutrition regulations we had even to begin with. I dug into the historic trauma the US was built upon, and I understood that this country has truly only been “great” to the privileged few. Most importantly, I learned that democracy is not to be taken for granted, and that it is a fragile thing that needs to be protected and nurtured, despite all its flaws.
So all of last week, I avoided the news like the plague (pun intended) because I didn’t think I could handle the same play-by-play I sat through on election night in 2016 again. And when the good news did arrive on Saturday (in the form of honking and cheering in the streets), what I felt was relief. It wasn’t the same sense of hope and promise that I felt in 2008, just a deep relief that we barely dodged the worst possible outcome.
So what now?
There are a million thoughts swirling in my head, but the most pressing one is that as citizens, constituents, and residents, we need to do this whole politics thing better. And by that, I mean getting more people to commit real actions that bring change and hold elected leaders accountable – not some vague gestures of “being engaged” through obsessively consuming the latest political drama and ranting on social media. That, which is actually what most of us are doing on a daily basis – is what political scientist Eitan Hersh calls “political hobbyism”, and it does nothing to acquire power or effect the change we want to see. These last 4 years, we saw more folks voting, donating, and organizing than years past, and I really hope that we keep riding on this energy built up around this election.
Second, I hope more people realize that presidential elections are not the be-all-and-end-all. Under an administration that actively undermined climate science and rolled back environmental regulations, so many states and cities have led the way in curbing emissions, promoting renewable energy, and championing smart growth. For example, California’s recent announcement to phase out gas-powered cars by 2035 is going to be a hugely important catalyzing force in the electric car market. Opportunities are all around us, whether or not we live in progressive states like California, and we need more folks activated everywhere, on every level of government and non-public institution, on a lot of different environmental issues.
That brings me to my final thought…which can be elegantly phrased as umm…we need all hands on deck, throwing a lot of things at the wall and see what sticks? (Yes, thank you, I’m always this quotable.) I used to believe that some issues are more important than others, and some reasons to care are more valid than others. For instance, I thought our hyper focus on reducing plastic packaging is stupid, and that “protecting mother earth” (rather than “ensuring the survival of the next generation”) is a laughable rhetoric to get people excited about the environment. In fact, I took a lot of pride in persuading others why my way of thinking is the “right” way, and it’s actually one of the reasons why I started this blog in the first place. But as I reflected more on what we should take away from 2016, “the election result that nobody saw coming”, I think humility should be high on that list.
In practice, this means recognizing that “I don’t know everything”, and I have neither the moral or intellectual authority to discredit others’ efforts or decide what the right motivation is to do something. And it means that in the face of a crisis that manifests in so many ways, as long as we stay outcome-oriented, I should want a movement that welcomes anyone who is passionate about any environmental issues and a movement that encourages everyone to act in ways that they feel most empowered to.
In short: outside-the-system activism is important, so is making changes from within. Caring about global emissions is good, so is caring about littering in your own community. System change is necessary, so is individual action. Whether you decide to switch to a reusable coffee mug because you worry about the disproportionate impact of our trash on communities of color or because you saw the video of a plastic straw getting pulled out of a turtle’s nose, hey – I’m just happy that you made the switch.