The Only Climate Change Question from MSNBC’s Democratic Debate Was BadPhoto by Alex Wong/Getty Politics Features Democratic Debates
The phrase “climate change” was uttered just 12 times last night (“climate” just a total of 25). You can check the transcript yourself. Bernie Sanders was the first to do so in his opening statement, then Pete Buttigieg acknowledged it in his as well. Andrew Yang subsequently brought it up in defense of Tom Steyer (of all people) while highlighting Steyer’s contributions to the cause, before launching into a diatribe about climate change’s importance to his policy vision. Bernie then brought it back up, followed by Steyer, then Buttigieg. It was not until an hour into the debate that the hosts of the debate bothered to ask any of the candidates clearly itching to talk about their plans to combat the largest existential threat to our existence in recorded human history. So after asking about “lock him up” chants and one or two other superfluous issues, how did MSNBC and their marquee star frame the issue? (emphasis mine)
”The U.N. recently reported that what was once called climate change is now a climate crisis, with drastic results already being felt. Climate is also an issue important to our audience. We received thousands of questions from our viewers, and many of them were about climate.”
”Calista from Minneapolis writes this. Leading the world in resolving the climate crisis will be a multi-decade project, spanning far beyond even a two-term presidency. If you are elected president, how would you ensure that there is secure leadership and bipartisan support to continue this project?”
If we are going to tie our fight against climate change to the whims of the Republican Party, then we will lose this battle and things will get unimaginably worse for billions of people. “Bipartisanship” has become a goal unto itself in Washington these past few decades, as the actual effects of said “bipartisanship” are of secondary concern to politicians who want to convince everyone that they can “reach across the aisle to create common-sense solutions,” but the notion we can currently achieve bipartisan comity on this issue is equally as detached from reality as Joe Biden’s assertion that Republicans will have an “epiphany” when Trump leaves office.
How the hell are we supposed to come to a bipartisan agreement to fight something that a significant majority of Republicans do not believe is a problem?
This is a binary issue. We have about a decade to do something unparalleled in human history, or else the Earth will become more and more hostile to life with every year. That’s it. Those are our choices. If we do nothing like the GOP wants (or not enough like many centrist Dem politicians want), we damn our children and grandchildren to spend their lives on a planet hotter than any human has ever experienced, with dwindling natural resources by the minute doing untold damage to our ecosystem. The stakes quite literally could not be higher, and frankly, if you care about process more than outcome in this fight against climate change, your priorities are completely out of whack.
Let’s also revisit a pernicious little line before Maddow’s question that definitely did not set it up to be emblematic of what is “important to MSNBC’s audience” on the topic of climate change. What is important to most Americans is simply not important to most Republicans. So who is MSNBC’s audience?
— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) November 21, 2019
Roughly two in three Americans want the government to do more on climate change, but a majority of Republicans want to do nothing, and MSNBC is sitting here with a straight face telling us that “bipartisan” support is inherently a key to the longstanding climate fight. The Republican Party is going to have to be dragged into the 21st century on this subject, and the only way to guarantee their future participation in combating the apocalypse is for the overall program to succeed. Good, successful policy creates popular support (imagine telling Republicans from the 1960s that a Republican President would aggressively and successfully campaign on protecting Medicare half a century later), and because most politicians are spineless husks who exist solely to co-opt democracy in favor of the rich and powerful, getting their voters on your side is the most effective way to ensure longstanding cooperation by the parties. We don’t need the GOP’s “bipartisan” cooperation to do this because a majority of Americans already want to do this. The party is in the way, and they have the option to join the rest of us fighting for the survival of society as we know it, but first and foremost, the Republicans must get out of the way.
Now, this is an issue with the messenger more than it is the message since the message could have multiple interpretations. When Calista from Minneapolis asks a question like this, “bipartisanship” is just as likely, if not more, to be thought of as a diverse coalition of climate voters, and not just a union of the two parties. But when a cable news journalist asks this question, the word returns to its definitional roots around “parties,” and this supposed requirement of bipartisanship in order to pass climate legislation fits into the larger narrative that longtime establishment journalist John F. Harris recently wrote about in Politico in regards to the inherent centrist bias of our major media centers:
Meanwhile, a quarter-century covering national politics has convinced me that the more pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike. It is a headwind for Warren, Sanders, the “squad” on Capitol Hill, even for Trump. This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.
A confession: I’ve got it. A pretty strong bout, actually.
Given the realities of public opinion and the Republican Party, here is a more accurate phrasing of Rachel Maddow’s question:
How are you going to do what most Americans want to do and fight climate change, but while also chaining your policy to the support of a party that is wholly owned by the oligarchy which caused this crisis and has created a fervent minority sect of voters who have absolutely, positively zero interest in fighting climate change?
Again, this could be a legitimate question and there certainly is one at the heart of this given how much political power the GOP holds (and honestly, short of “building a national climate coalition to win seats at every level and gain power for Democrats across the country,” I don’t know what the answer is other than the Medicare model of ramming good policy down an intransigent minority’s throat and silencing them with its success). The problem in this instance is that it comes from a medium which has proven itself out of touch with most Americans on the priority and urgency of this issue (not to mention this study which revealed that cable news makes it harder for their viewers to tell fact from opinion). The fact that every Democratic debate has not led off with a climate change question is proof that the people putting these on have been out of step with the party they are supposed to be representing.
Climate change is simply not a priority for those hosting these Democratic debates the way that it is for Democratic voters. Practically every single debate has seen the topic get bumped to the later hours, and the “liberal” cable news network last night devoted just a single question to the crisis that will come to define the rest of our lives on this increasingly warm little rock in the corner of the galaxy. The Democratic National Committee even refused to dedicate a debate to this subject, and the candidates were able to organize a town hall on CNN to meet the demand from the Democratic Party’s voters.
It could not be clearer that those high up in the shadows of the party and in TV infotainment want nothing to do with an existential threat to mankind’s existence whose only solution is the radical reorganization of society as we know it, even when multiple candidates who span the ideological spectrum bring it up on their own volition. Many party elites are failing to even feign interest in the fate of their grandchildren’s futures, and the debates are proof. The Democratic candidates have proven that they are ready and eager to serve their voters and discuss this topic, but much of the central party infrastructure is not, and that is an enlightening window into how the “liberal” party in America helped oversee the slow degradation of our global ecosystem. At least these folks can tell their grandchildren that they scored some amorphous “bipartisan” political points along the apocalyptic way.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.