This November, voters stood up and rejected a host of anti-democratic candidates all across America. Although the GOP eked out a victory in the House of Representatives, dimming prospects for further progress on climate and other issues for at least a couple of years, the nation managed to avoid a much worse fate.
In Part 1 of “In Real Time” last April, I included a quote from the historian Thomas Zimmer in which he described our precarious, knife-edge political situation: “America will either slide into authoritarianism or make the leap to multiracial, pluralistic democracy.” Since he wrote that, our political situation has been sliding, not leaping. Much remains to be done if we’re to manage a leap toward real democracy—nevertheless, we’ve kept alive our prospects for achieving an ecologically livable future while fending off a host of power grabs by would-be autocrats.
The stakes are higher than ever
In the other national crisis that’s coming to a head, the climate emergency, the good times definitely aren’t rolling. A couple of weeks before US elections ended and the COP27 global climate conference got underway in Egypt, two global climate-related agencies explained clearly that nations are making little or no headway on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and that time is running out.
The World Meteorological Organization issued a report showing that from 2020 to 2021, the yearly increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration accelerated, exceeding the average annual increase during the 2010s. Scientists also observed that the concentration of methane, another greenhouse gas, experienced “the biggest year-on-year jump . . . since systematic measurements began almost 40 years ago.”
Meanwhile, the UN’s Emissions Gap Report for 2022, ominously titled “The Closing Window,” concluded that current plans by the world’s nations, taken together, will “make a negligible difference” in emissions by 2030. Even if all nations fulfill the pledges they made at last year’s global climate summit in Glasgow, says the report, the Earth will undergo a catastrophic 2.5°C temperature rise by the end of the century. And governments are not keeping up with even those weak pledges. If they continue following their current policies, says the UN, the temperature rise may reach 2.8°C or higher.
These reports followed a September 2022 article in the journal Science that vividly described the bleak consequences of our failure to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. It showed that the Earth may have already undergone enough warming to reach several “tipping points”—changes that “lead to abrupt, irreversible, and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity”—and will cross several more such one-way bridges in coming decades, even if all emissions-reductions pledges under the Paris climate agreement are fulfilled. Tipping points include disasters such as melting of permafrost, collapse of ice sheets, and dieback of rain forests.
Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a co-author of the Science study, told The Guardian that the world is “very, very close to irreversible changes. . . . [T]ime is really running out very, very fast.” He added, “It’s a really bleak moment,” because “we’re not delivering on either the Paris or Glasgow climate agreements,” even as emissions keep rising. And there is no good reason to expect that the high-emitting nations will pledge adequately ambitious phaseouts of fossil fuels at COP27 and live up to them. Now there’s no time left to wait around for the rest of the world to start deeply cutting emissions; the United States needs to start phasing out oil, gas, and coal immediately. But can we?
Consequences for climate policy
Writing for Scientific American the day after the midterms, while correctly assuming a GOP win in the House but not yet knowing the margin, Adam Aton and Scott Waldman listed several ways in which the results could impact US climate policy. The new House GOP caucus will include even more far-right extremists than the current one, but won’t be able to get climate-hostile bills passed into law, thanks to its narrow majority, a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, and President Biden’s veto power. These extremists can cause plenty of trouble, nonetheless. For example, Republican-controlled House committees might hold hearings to attack the Interior Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Forest Service, the Council on Environmental Quality, and other agencies that deal with environmental issues, while the chamber’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis might be completely dissolved.
The MAGA House contingent is determined to disrupt implementation of even loosely climate-related laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. However, the GOPers’ failure to gain an advantage of more than a few House seats, alongside their losses in critical governors’ races, will limit their ability to create havoc.
This election also removed or loosened the GOP grip on governments in a number of states, reducing the risk of chicanery in the next presidential election. Michigan and Minnesota will be under unified Democratic control in both legislative chambers plus the governor’s mansion—in Michigan’s case, for the first time in 38 years. Crucially, all of the election-denier liars running for secretary of state positions in swing states were defeated. As I write this, only one, Mark Finchem in Arizona, is contesting his defeat, and he will fail. Secretaries of state will play a central role in the presidential election in two years, so keeping those positions secure was crucial to preventing a rerun of the 2020 assault on the electoral system.
Aton and Waldman cited six gubernatorial and congressional election results that could be especially consequential for climate policy. Democratic candidates won or are leading in all of those races, and if that holds, some modest progress could result. On the other hand, the victory of one Democrat, oil-and-gas-friendly Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas (who narrowly defeated a climate-friendly opponent in the party primary), did not help the climate cause.
I continue to worry that passage of the IRA in August has reduced pressure to pass much more ambitious climate legislation in coming years. Similarly, the evaporation of this year’s predicted “red wave” increases my concern that our society will again become complacent about the anti-democratic threats that hamper our ability to adequately address climate change, systemic racism, and a host of other issues. When the networks announced five days after the election ended that the Democrats had retained their majority in the Senate, majority leader Chuck Schumer proclaimed, “We were on the edge of autocracy, and thank God the American people pulled us back!” Let’s all be glad of that, while also realizing we’re still close enough to that edge that we can peer into the abyss.
There’s no shortage of red flags. Donald Trump has announced a third run for the White House, and the broader threats to the will of the majority and the rule of law have not gone away. In this election, more than 80 percent of victorious GOP House candidates, almost half of those who won Senate seats, and 25 candidates who won governor, secretary-of-state, or attorney general races out in the states have questioned or denied the 2020 election results. Writing for The Atlantic a week after the election, Elaine Godfrey warned, “Election denial is now a chronic wound in America’s body politic, only partially healed, and ready to reopen—red and raw—whenever circumstances permit.”
If we now sit back and relax, it’s still possible that a MAGA regime, with or without Trump, with or without cheating, could gain control of both Congress and the White House in 2024. Were that to happen, we’d see a mass repeal of environmental legislation, including the IRA. Congress would likely pass into law sweeping measures that increasingly normalize racist anti-woke laws, book bans, anti-trans repression, forced-birth laws, intolerance for immigration, and protections for the fossil fuel business. And to keep itself in power the MAGA right could be expected to gleefully take a sledgehammer to voting rights and election administration.
In an October 20 article titled “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives,” John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor at the arch-far-right outlet The Federalist, made MAGA goals crystal clear. He wrote that conservatives “should stop thinking of themselves as conservatives (much less as Republicans) and start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries.” He continued,
Put bluntly, if conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild, and in a sense, re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. . . . conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government.’ The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.
This sort of language was casually mainstream in GOP circles before the election, and there’s no reason to expect far-right lawmakers and governors to be chastened by the November 8 results. Even if Team MAGA is prevented from taking long-term one-party control of the federal government, we face a rough road ahead. A nation having one of two major parties dominated by leaders hostile to democracy is at risk of experiencing lasting damage.
We don’t know what we’ll be facing in 2025
Pro-democracy observers who had been bracing for an election-night horror show are of course delighted that the forces of authoritarianism have been thwarted, at least for now. Those results were consistent with research by Jason Brownlee, a professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, showing that affluent countries such as ours tend to oscillate up and down the political spectrum without plunging into long-term autocracy. Two weeks before the election, Brownlee told me he believed that the likelihood of an autocratic takeover of the US government “is very, very low,” and that even the kind of “competitive authoritarianism,” that we see in Hungary under strongman Viktor Orban (a MAGA hero) is unlikely to succeed in this country.
Because the US has an entrenched two-party system and the federal government’s executive and legislative branches are separate—a division that doesn’t exist in Hungary— Brownlee says, “It’s much more difficult for one of the two parties in the US system to take complete control for any protracted period.” Even if that were to occur, he believes, “it will be exceedingly difficult to make radical changes to the Constitution,” as was done in Orban’s Hungary. His research has shown that over the past century, the majority of countries that went through a spell of democratic backsliding, as the US has been doing over the past decade or so, recovered without descending into autocracy. Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to remember (as investment brokers always warn) that past performance may not be indicative of future results. We’d better not assume that this year’s election has eradicated the threat for good.
Regarding the consequences for climate policy if a MAGA regime does manage to grab power in 2024, Brownlee said,
In modern history, when responding to the climate crisis and other environmental challenges, authoritarian governments have, in some cases, outperformed democratically elected governments. But I wouldn’t bet on authoritarianism. I think what it comes down to—whether the government is authoritarian or democratically elected—is this: Are there organized movements that can compel a policy change? In authoritarian systems, it is generally harder to have that type of broad-based organizing and political movement building.
Like Brownlee, I can’t imagine betting on a far-right authoritarian regime to pursue climate mitigation in this country; in fact, such a regime would surely work to undo environmental legislation across the board, starting with repeal of the Inflation Reduction Act. And we have solid reporting that if re-elected, legitimately or not, Trump would pursue a wholesale purge of career federal officials and replace them with MAGA acolytes. I would expect any alternative MAGA president to do the same, transforming the EPA, the Interior Department, the Justice Department, and all other agencies that administer environmental laws and regulations into weapons of mass ecological destruction.
Organizing Against Autocracy
Kicking or keeping would-be autocrats out of office can have a big ecological payoff. Consider Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory over the authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s recent presidential election (solidified by the latter’s decision not to respond with a Trumpian-style insurrection attempt). One study predicted that an area of rain forest the size of the nation of Panama can be spared destruction in this decade if Lula keeps his pledge to end the rampant deforestation that the Bolsonaro administration allowed. That, accompanied by strong reforestation policies, would deeply reduce Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In an October 2022 working paper titled “Pro-democracy Organizing against Autocracy in the United States,” Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks of the Harvard Kennedy School propose a set of strategies that could form the basis of “a broad-based pro-democracy struggle” in the event that “the U.S. began to careen more precipitously toward authoritarianism at the national level.” What effective actions can communities and broader networks of people take if we find ourselves living under a regime in which elections occur on schedule, but, as they write, “rule of law, separation of powers, press freedom, and civil rights are weak or nonexistent”? They suggest four broad strategies.
Because “elections remain crucial focal points for mobilizing robust collective action in electoral autocracies,” Chenoweth and Marks write, a good first step is to establish a big, multiracial, cross-class united front that continues to vie for power at the ballot box, even if victory is highly unlikely. They have found that nonviolent protests against such regimes “are strongly associated with the defeat of authoritarian incumbents and the ushering in of democratic transitions.”
Secondly, they write, we should build nongovernmental institutions to serve community needs and keep the struggle for multiracial, pluralistic democracy alive: “The more opposition groups are able to establish and maintain political autonomy, prevent the local enforcement of unjust laws and policies, and provide services directly to their communities, the more obsolete authoritarian forces will become relative to pro-democratic ones.” They cite possibilities such as economic cooperatives, food and public health services, mutual aid, community safety, and strike funds.
Thirdly, we should work to divide and unravel the regime “by inducing defections within its pillars of support” through nonviolent tactics “that can build pressure without increasing risk, especially toward minority populations and targeted groups.”
Finally, agile adaptation is required: “Movements can be more resilient when they find ways to make repressive episodes backfire—that is, when they are able to exploit the moment to demonstrate the autocrat’s weakness or hypocrisy.”
In looking through Chenoweth and Marks’s list, it occurred to me that these strategies could be just as effective in heading off autocracy as they would be in coping with it. They seem especially relevant in several southern and midwestern states that are sliding briskly toward authoritarian one-party control. With the midterm election now behind us, I’m hoping for a surge in what Brownlee called “organized movements that can compel a policy change,” a surge aimed at both building multiracial, pluralistic democracy and preventing climate meltdown.
The original version of this article was published by City Lights Books as part of their ‘In Real Time’ series.