Polls predicting a blue wave in United States elections turned out to be wrong. Instead of a sweeping win, Democrats appear to be on the edge of narrowly winning the presidency, losing seats in the House, and not getting control of the Senate.
If we want clean energy to succeed in the upcoming Biden administration, we have to (a) be realistic, and (b) fight like hell to keep him focused on it as much as possible. Political capital is scarce, and the threats to our future from climate change are real, so allowing the various Democratic lobbies to suck all of the oxygen out of the room is not an option.
Here’s a quick rundown of the problem and some ideas on what we can do to help clean energy win.
It’s All About Political Capital
In short, political capital is a way to think about political power in democratic countries. Yes, winning elections does give some political power, but you can’t effectively use it unless you have coalitions, alliances, trust, goodwill, and influence. Your earned trust and connections are like money (capital). You can work hard to earn it and build it up, but it’s easy to spend it and even waste it, just like money.
If you get power from an election and then quickly spend all of the political capital impressing loyalists, you’ll get to the point where you can’t win future elections (Trump is a great example of this), can’t get votes together for legislation, and can’t get people to help you in a variety of other ways. At worst, a political leader who has run completely out of political capital might not even be able to get normal citizens to follow laws. As the consent of the governed is withdrawn, you see protests, riots, violence, terrorism, and even war.
For better or worse, Biden won’t start out with much political capital to begin with. After a narrowly won election, not taking the Senate (because many voters rejected Trump but voted for Republicans further down the ballot), and then extended accusations of cheating, it’s not going to be easy to get things done.
Earning More Political Capital Is Essential
To get more political capital, Biden will need to find ways to heal the rifts after the election. This is true after any election, but the job is going to be that much harder in 2021. While there’s a segment of the population that will never accept a president of the opposite party, there are still plenty of reasonable people who will need to be won over (at least a little).
If we want Biden to succeed, we need to not take part in divisive politics. Don’t rub Trump fans’ faces in it, as tempting as that can be. Be nice to people on social media, even if they’re hurt or feeling pain over the loss of an election. Try to understand that people have whipped up many people into fear of a Democratic president, and cut them some slack. Do anything you can to discourage “sore winners” next year.
Don’t Encourage The Don Quixotes To Waste It On The Impossible
There are things that simply aren’t possible with a Democratic president and a Republican Senate. No matter how badly people might want an expansive Green New Deal, gun control, high taxes on the rich, and other such things, it’s just not going to happen. Like Don Quixote, a fictional senile old man who tried to fight imaginary monsters (who were, in reality, windmills), there are people in the Democratic Party who would gladly waste what little political capital is available on their quixotic quests.
If it’s not going to happen, it’s not harmless to try anyway, or even to make a bunch of noise about it. Everything has a cost, and the cost of pushing these policies is that policies you could get passed into law don’t happen.
Executive Power Is Expensive
While Trump abused executive power frequently, don’t be tempted by calls for Biden to take revenge and do the same thing. The short term gains may be enticing, but the longer term costs are much bigger than they might appear to be at first. Trump found out the hard way that pushing for things like the border wall, fights against LGBT rights, and attempts to prop up the failing coal industry alienates reasonable people. It’s easy to say “Trump did it! We can too!”, but don’t forget that was part of his undoing.
The worst thing a President Biden could do is use unconstitutional executive orders for something divisive like gun control. Yes, Trump actually did this, because he thought it would make him look good after the Las Vegas shooting, but it divided his own supporters. Loyalists made excuses or claimed it was part of some elaborate game to “beat the libs,” while people who really believed in gun rights deeply lost trust in Trump. Make no mistake, a Democratic president doing this would quickly earn the hostilities of both camps and suffer a deeper cost than Trump did.
That’s just one example. There are many other little regulatory things a President Biden could do to put the screws to Republicans, but in most cases it simply isn’t worth it when we need real legislation to get the job done.
Focus On The Possible!
The best way to make actual progress on clean energy is to look for ways to find common ground with part of the Republican Party.
Libertarian-leaning Republicans are big on free markets, and don’t like things like tariffs and subsidies. One way to put renewable energy on better footing would be to cut fossil fuel subsidies, and that’s something you’d find Republican supporters for. Tariffs that drive up the cost of solar panels are another target that you’d find Republican allies against.
Another possible source of Republican support comes from Republicans concerned with national preparedness and energy security. American cars (e.g., Tesla vehicles, the Nissan LEAF, the Chevy Bolt, the Ford Mustang Mach-E) that run on American fuel (electricity) would have been a Republican dream in 2005, and definitely could be today. Add in that you can generate the fuel at home, store it safely, and enable broad swaths of the public’s homes and most key facilities to run uninterrupted when the power goes out, and you have an emergency preparedness winner. Solar roofs and Powerwalls are also great for preppers and homesteaders, many of whom are Republicans.
I’m sure with some creativity we can come up with many other ways to make real progress on renewable energy, but it’s going to take goodwill, trust, and lots of healing to get there. Be sure to be part of that solution.