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Children in Pakistan face flood waters

A man along with a youth use a satellite dish to move children across a flooded area after heavy monsoon rainfalls in Jaffarabad district, Balochistan province, on August 26, 2022. (Photo: Fida Hussain/AFP via Getty Images)

More Money, More Problems (for Our Democracy and Our Planet)

We're on a slippery slope of complete democratic collapse—and corresponding planetary collapse due to inaction on climate change—if we don't act fast.

Young people—as revealed in poll after poll and conversation after conversation—despair of our democracy. Older people share some of that despair; until it happened, it was impossible for many of us to imagine American citizens trying to stage a coup. And yet, despite months of inaction, legislative packages now passing through Congress give those of us in college a glimmer of hope for a Washington that works for change, one that we’ve rarely seen in our lifetimes.

Dysfunction in our democracy creates a dangerous feedback cycle...

We older people have a gift to provide: the memory of a far more responsive political system, one we must rebuild again. When we were young, 20 million people marched on the first Earth Day in 1970—and the next year the Clean Air Act was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency formed. This is how politics is supposed to work, and it can again. It should not take catastrophic wildfires, fatal floods, and increasingly dire reports from scientists about the gravity of the climate crisis for legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act to pass. But a truly responsive and representative democracy will not be reborn without both corporations and politicians acting with courage, and without voters demanding that their representatives proactively work to fix our broken system rather than just maintaining the dysfunctional status quo.

The climate crisis and its ever abundant reality demonstrate this point in devastating and depressing ways. Our politicians have known about the reality of man-made climate change since the 1950s—but fossil fuel corporations have been working hard to deny this reality and spread misinformation for almost as long. Crucially, that hard work has involved cumulatively billions of dollars in spending on our politicians to block the will to pass climate policy. The result? A federal government that has gone the past 50 years without passing any federal climate policy despite America's unparalleled contribution to carbon emissions and corresponding responsibility for action.

Even older Americans who still believe strongly in the promise of democracy would agree that dysfunction in our political system has gotten worse in our lifetimes. The multi-headed monster attacking our democracy—exorbitantly expensive campaign cycles, insufficient regulation on political spending and lobbying, partisan gerrymandering, and voter suppression—has grown several powerful teeth since 2010 with the demise of Citizens United. This decision by the Supreme Court to equate money with speech and remove limits to PAC and Super PAC spending was a major blow to the will of the people winning out over corporate influence. The consequences have been drastic: in 2008, the election cycle prior to Citizens United being overturned, the financial activity for all Senate candidates came in at $499,354,330, and $1,741,970,535 for all Presidential candidates. Twelve years later, in 2020, financial activity for all Senate candidates was a whopping $2,005,771,999, and $3,977,441,987 for all presidential candidates. These 400% and 230% increases respectively have corresponded in equally dramatic disillusionment and loss of faith in the system by American voters, especially by young voters. Federal lobbying numbers have followed a similarly unsettling but unsurprising trend, as this graph based on OpenSecrets.org data shows:

Graph of political giving

Dysfunction in our democracy creates a dangerous feedback cycle: young people increasingly don't believe in or care about democracy as a political system, leading to less and less engagement, which further allows the corporate special interests and lobbying forces hard at work in DC and state legislatures across the country to erode public trust. We're on a slippery slope of complete democratic collapse—and corresponding planetary collapse due to inaction on climate change—if we don't act fast. 

And yet, at the final hour before the midterm election season is fully upon us, there are reasons to be hopeful. Congress very recently passed a bill that would include the most ambitious climate change legislation that America has considered in decades. Is it enough to reduce emissions to our pledged 50% by 2030 and keep global warming below the international goal of 2°C by 2050? Not quite. But is it an important step forward, and an indication that where there’s a will, our democracy does have a way of passing policies that will improve the lives of millions and help save the planet of billions? Yes. 

The system has been broken, but it worked better in recent history, and can work again.

If we are to pave the way to sufficient action on climate change, action on all the other issues we care about, and prevent another January 6th-like event and the collapse of American democracy, however, several more important steps forward must be taken, and soon.

First and foremost, entrenched interests benefit and celebrate when we don’t vote—especially us young people—and we should disappoint them every chance we get. Those of us with the means and motivation to vote in the midterms should do so, and encourage our friends and family to do the same. Second, if there’s anti-democratic legislation under consideration in your state, make sure to do your part to vote out the irresponsible legislators who are endeavoring to subvert our democracy for their own corrupt political gains. Instead, vote for candidates who have democracy reform in their platforms, especially campaign finance and lobbying reform, and reward politicians who vote to get rid of gerrymandering and dark money. You can find a list of candidates who have pledged not to accept any corporate PAC or Super PAC money here. Third, keep your eye on the horizon for federal democracy reform like the Freedom To Vote Act, which almost passed earlier this year, and which could still pass Congress if sufficient political will existed. Fourth, companies, universities, and all institutions with lobbying clout should be using that clout to support pro-democracy bills at the federal and state levels. And finally, get involved with organizations like Un-PAC (for young people) and Third Act (for older folks) as we strive to create a truly representative and functional democracy!

Our democratic house is on fire (probably caused by a wildfire worsened by climate change!) and it is incumbent on all of us to help put it out. The system has been broken, but it worked better in recent history, and can work again. The fate of young Americans, and of the entire planet, depends on us refinding our path and salvaging the promise of the world's greatest democracy.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org and ThirdAct.org. His most recent book is "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?." He also authored "The End of Nature," "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," and "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future."

Shana Gallagher

Shana Gallagher

Shana Gallagher is co-founder of the organization Un-PAC, a nonpartisan youth group that works on democracy reform.

Joseline Garcia

Joseline Garcia

Joseline Garcia is co-founder and executive director of the organization Un-PAC, a nonpartisan youth group that works on democracy reform.

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