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Vexation without representation? Vote anyway.

| Thursday, November 1, 2018

An old Election Day joke typically features an upper-crust woman from New England who is asked whether she has cast her ballot yet. She replies loftily, “Oh, I never vote. It only encourages them.”

An unfunny counterpart appeared recently in a New York Times story about non-voters, in which a West Virginia woman explains why she hasn’t voted since 1996: “I just can’t vote for any of them in good conscience.”

I understand the alienation. I think of it as vexation without representation: the sense that most of my elected representatives do not really represent me and that their positions are often vexing or worse.

Not voting, however, is the wrong response to flawed candidates in a flawed system. And heavens yes, the flaws are major: the obscene power of money, scandalous gerrymandering of districts, blatant discrimination in registration practices and voting requirements, to start with. All of these things make it easy to feel that no untainted choices are on offer.

But voting isn’t mainly about feeling good about ourselves, or shoring up our own sense of virtue. It’s about choosing the better, or least dangerous, available alternatives. For young people especially, voting is now about choosing between candidates who give some signs of actually caring about the future and those who don’t.

This criterion means favoring candidates who are “pro-life” and “conservative” in a deeper sense than those terms usually carry. That is, genuinely “pro-life” and “conservative” candidates want to conserve life, a goal that they understand obligates us to preserve the intricate environment in which humans have flourished.

That mission must precede everything else. Environmental stewardship may not itself be an ultimate moral goal — you may have many others — but it is a necessary one. Oberlin political scientist David Orr puts it well: “Whatever your cause, it’s a lost cause on a dying planet.”

We know what not caring about the lives of young people looks like when we see people in power exhibit ethical laziness and cognitive cowardice regarding the largest environmental danger: climate change.

President Trump has recently gone from regarding climate change as fake news from China to considering it something we need not, or cannot, do anything about. In a recent “60 Minutes” interview he told Leslie Stahl, “I don’t think it’s a hoax,” but added this pseudo-clarification: “I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again.”

As several commentators have pointed out, an overheated climate may indeed “change back again” — in a few million years.

Back in the world of human time, President Trump is currently the most conspicuous instance of willful ignorance, but his enablers abound. They are the legions of legislators and recently appointed officials apparently ready to move straight from denial to despair, without bothering to pause in between for maturity, sacrifice or courage.

Their timing, if course, is atrocious. Several recent reports, including the special summary earlier this month from the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stress that the next ten years will be the decisive decade in mitigating climate change. One might expect rational grown-ups to be declaring a state of environmental emergency and leading the way toward a tax on carbon and investment in green jobs.

But instead of a “Green New Deal,” we get rote claims that environmental safeguards are bad for the economy. We get the vexation of inaction or even retreat. We get to hear the Senate majority leader pontificate about a War on Coal when — knowing what we do about coal’s immediate effects on children’s health and its atmospheric legacy — the promotion of coal is a War on Kids.

I am often surprised that college students remain so polite in their political lives. There are times when informed anger can be appropriate, ethical, patriotic.

Surrounded by too many politicians who seem unable to imagine a world after 2040, those who are just starting their adult lives might trade generalized fear for focused indignation. Young people have every right to be angry when their elders behave like children. And they have an obligation to vote in self-defense for the candidates who take most seriously the future of their generation.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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