Election Day 2018 marked a turn away from fear and an embrace of hope. Prompting the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in over a century, multitudes went out to talk to their fellow citizens, knocking on doors in the warmth of summer and the chill of fall.
After horrible incidents these last two years — a shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man who despises those who help refugees and the Charlottesville march of neo-Nazis leading to a racist running over a young woman who was standing up for a more inclusive America — people could have easily felt discouraged and despondent.
Add a president who lies constantly while claiming that facts and news are fake, who tries to delegitimize the independent judiciary and use the Department of Justice to attack political opponents, and who treats the murder and dismembering of a journalist as secondary to profit. Given all this, one might want to throw up one’s hands and do nothing.
Yet people didn’t sit at home. Instead there’s another, more optimistic story, of a populace that’s choosing to act rather than disengaging, that’s rejecting a climate of lies and hate.
While 2018 candidates made dueling claims, fact checking mattered and misleading didn’t work. With health care the top issue for most voters, Americans figured out who really supported maintaining Obamacare’s coverage guarantee for pre-existing conditions, and who didn’t.
Should it continue, this heightened civic scrutiny and engagement has further political implications.
First, it matters that turnout among younger voters soared and favored Democrats because voting is a habit that once started tends to continue, and initial views toward political parties tend to persist.
Second, close scrutiny of elected officials makes it harder for them to say one thing and do another. After a political career as a pro-choice politician, Sen. Susan Collins faced intense criticism from supporters of reproductive rights for voting for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Any Kavanaugh votes to limit women’s abortion rights will reflect on Collins.
Third, in a world where facts matter, candidates who avoid scrutiny and seem phony won’t do well. When there is an authenticity gap, the most straightforward candidate will do the best.
Fourth, commitments to seeking and acting on evidence and actuality can help us understand problems and squarely face them.
For example, US House Democrats plan to begin problem-solving with HR1, a package of reforms protecting voting rights and adopting automatic voter registration, restricting campaign giving by big donors and improving financial disclosure, and limiting the ability for interest groups to exert undue influence on elected officials and people with administrative positions. These policies could further fuel a revived civic life.
Policies in many other areas demand attention, but our greatest danger today is confronting climate change.
Drawing from high quality scientific studies, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, presents a grim view, all the more grim given its degree of detail.
The Climate Assessment’s discussion of the Northeast could be applied to Maine alone. As one section reads, “The region’s oceans and coasts support a rich maritime heritage and provide an iconic landscape, as well as economic and ecological services. Highly productive marshes, fisheries, ecosystems, and coastal infrastructure are sensitive to changing environmental conditions, including shifts in temperature, ocean acidification, sea level, storm surge, flooding, and erosion. Many of these changes are already affecting coastal and marine ecosystems, posing increasing risks to people, traditions, infrastructure, and economies.”
And it’s not just Maine’s coasts and fisheries at risk. Urban areas, small towns, forests, farms and ski areas face their own threats from the changing climates, with impacts on everything from the economy to health to a sense of place.
Given today’s intense polarization, it would be naive to believe all will come together across party lines and tackle this historic threat.
But if the mobilization we’ve seen since January 2017 is a prologue, Americans will continue to insist on facing many issues, including our climate crisis. Given the stakes, active citizenship is needed more than ever.