Salting the Earth

Salting the Earth
Illustration:Jim Cooke

I was on my way home from a camping trip on an unusually cool summer day when I learned that John McCain had died. I saw that George H.W. Bush had died, at age 94, while standing in my kitchen, whacking a pomegranate with a wooden spoon to shake the seeds loose. I had to wipe my hands clean to read the news on my phone.

These were quiet deaths of very old men, but the spectacle created around them—the eulogies, the media hagiography delivered on a loop during an endless news cycle—gave them the weight of living through history. Their passing was seared into the memories of ordinary people like me, who had never even met them. That’s power, I guess.

In the coming years, more older politicians will die and we will again go through the same tiresome exercises that followed McCain and Bush’s deaths: it will be asked whether it is polite to remember a man’s dangerous policies in death, whether qualities like interpersonal kindness mean anything in the face of their outwardly destructive political legacies, whether younger politicians fit the mold of these departed statesman. I cringe thinking of the tributes yet to be written for men like Chuck Grassley, who is 85, and Orrin Hatch, who is 84—men who sat long enough in the Senate to hear, and disregard, testimony from both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford. Or for Mitch McConnell, 76, whose career spanned enough time for him to use a filibuster to stymie campaign finance reform almost 25 years ago and also block a Democratic Supreme Court nominee in order to hand Donald Trump not one, but two, lifetime appointments.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter how we remember these individual men. Their legacies will be felt, in ways both mundane and grotesque, as the rest of us live our lives in the country we’ve inherited from them. And on that account, their collective impact is clear: the world that they’ve left behind for us will soon be mercilessly uninhabitable. It’s hard to state the facts in front of us without starting to sounding Mad Max-ian, but routine catastrophe is a new kind of normal: wildfires rage, burning everything in their path. Hurricanes relentlessly displace entire populations. Rising sea levels are literally shrinking our terrain.

Most of the men and women making these policies will be long dead before the worst of their decisions, a legacy of salting the earth, come down on the rest of us.

The effects of climate change are only going to worsen for the young people who still have the majority of their lives left to live, and for the generations yet to be born. But even today, with the more catastrophic impacts of climate change still abstracted in an increasingly near future, life is already punishing now. These men led us to the present day, setting down policies like stones on a walkway: migrant children forcibly separated from their parents at the Southern border, millions of black children separated every day from parents swept up in a system of mass incarceration, students across the country confronted with the gun violence threat that comes with walking into the classroom, mass poverty at a time of unprecedented wealth.

It doesn’t get any easier when these children enter adulthood. Young adults have the highest uninsurance rate in the country and people are turning to crowdfunding websites just to afford medical care. Many of them still can’t, and die. America is the only country among its industrialized peers with a rising maternal mortality rate: mothers today have a higher chance of dying during pregnancy than they did 15 years ago. A Brookings report found in 2014 that young black high school dropouts had a higher chance of being in prison than employed. And materially, we have less, overall, than our parents when they were our ages. A new study released in November by Federal Reserve economists found that in the wake of the Great Recession, “millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.” In the now routine coverage of the things that millennials are supposedly killing—cars, the housing market, retirement—it turned out that we were the ones getting killed.

And the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court will spend the rest of their lives handing down decisions that will ravage ordinary people even further: dismantling abortion rights, expanding the power of corporations at the expense of workers, weakening the political power of labor unions, worsening climate change.

Most of the men and women making these policies or handing these judges their lifetime appointments will be long dead before the worst of their decisions, a legacy of salting the earth, come down on the rest of us.

So many moments of 2018 felt like extreme breaks in trust with the old order if that trust had ever been earned in the first place. As the Trump administration tear-gassed migrant children seeking asylum outside Tijuana, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered up $1.6 billion to ramp up enforcement at an already grossly militarized border. Even after Republicans passed a monumentally regressive tax bill last year, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that she would back “pay-go” rules if Democrats won back the House, which would only allow deficit-neutral legislation to pass, crippling her party’s own agenda.

On an almost existential level, freshman women in the incoming Congress have an active, personal investment in preserving the future. There are actual stakes.

For so many young people, the last two years have been marked by a general sense of despair. Since the 2016 election, I keep finding myself coming back to a line in Jia Tolentino’s review of the movie Arrival that came out days after Trump won: “What a fantasy to imagine that we’ll be around to help anyone in three thousand years.”

This is, in part, why this year, newly-elected politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, Lauren Underwood, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, have felt so electrifying. Yes, they are breaking barriers as progressive women of color, but they are also younger than so many of the people currently in Congress—a novelty. It means, on an almost existential level, that they will have an active, personal investment in preserving the future. There are actual stakes.

The incoming freshman class offers a stark contrast, not only to the men who died this year,but to many of our current policymakers, even those on the Democratic side. Right now, 25 percent of the Senate and nearly 20 percent of the House is 70 or older. If old (mainly white, male) Republican politicians are leaving behind a scorched earth legacy, Democrats over the past few decades have often failed to offer a robust progressive alternative. Under Barack Obama’s presidency, climate change took a backseat, despite the clear, pressing need to address it. Much of Trump’s immigration policy today builds upon the framework set by both Bill Clinton and Obama. And 2016 saw the lowest point in Democratic power at the state level since 1920.

This isn’t to say that older politicians can’t understand or legislate for the needs of younger people, or that they don’t have important experience to draw upon themselves. (Bernie Sanders, one of the oldest members of Congress, is easily among one of its most progressive.) But the fact remains that they simply won’t have to deal with the consequences of their policies and younger people will.

The age and experience of the freshman class is also likely to inform their policymaking. Younger parents, who are raising younger children, will need family leave and child care while they’re in Congress. As young adults, some members will still be paying off student loans. They are more likely to be renting their homes than owning them. And they come from generations that are becoming successively more diverse. None of this on its own necessarily leads to good policy—Paul Ryan was just 28 when he first joined Congress—but the growing contingent of progressive policymakers building power and empowering a new base in the Democratic Party can be an engine for these kinds of changes. You are already seeing some of these priorities reflected in the platforms that got many of them elected in the first place: free college, universal healthcare, abolishing ICE, paid family leave, climate change.

Speaking to and connecting with young people will also be essential for Democrats if they want to win back power. Back in 2000, Al Gore and George Bush got the same proportion of young voters. Today, this population makes up an increasingly important share of the Democratic electorate. According to the the progressive think tank Data for Progress, in the 2018 midterms, young people between 18-29 preferred Democrats by 44 points, up from 25 points in 2016.

But perhaps the most consequential thing that young politicians have offered up in the last few months is a sense of urgency. Take, for example, Ocasio-Cortez’s sweeping Green New Deal plan, which she has cast as a matter of life-and-death, because, well, it is. “It’s not enough to think it’s ‘Important,’” Ocasio-Cortez declared. “We must make it urgent.” Her chief of staff put the fight this way: “If we’re not pushing our chips in every time we have the chance, then we’re not going to get the change we need fast enough to solve our problems.”

As recently as October, Democrats were playing down their plans to tackle climate change in the incoming session, suggesting piecemeal, incremental approaches. Now, just two months later, with the support of new politicians soon-to-be inside Capitol Hill like Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, millennial Sunrise Movement activists have made climate change one of the biggest items on the Democrats’ agenda. Jeremy Ornstein, an 18-year-old, told Vice News of his decision to join the Sunrise Movement rather than go to college, “When I graduated from high school, I knew our time was running out. Our bodies are on the line.” This may feel like hyperbole until you read the United Nations report warning that we only have 12 more years to head off a climate change catastrophe.

The idea that we’ll be around in 3,000 years still feels like a fantasy. There is so much to undo, so many years powerful men working to legislate themselves a permanent majority that, even in death, would preserve their legacies and power. They tried to foreclose the future. We’re trying to imagine one worth fighting for.

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