Do we focus on local things because we can’t stand to think about the big picture? What’s really going on in our heads? This week we learned that an upcoming U.N. report based on 15,000 scientific studies will say one million living species are faced with extinction, some within decades, all caused by human activity. Surely we know what that means.
It means that life on earth is faced with extinction. The world that we will leave to children is faced with extinction.
“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said Robert Watson, chairperson of the intergovernmental body issuing the report.
Why would we care who the next mayor of Dallas will be or who will serve on the City Council if life itself is coming to an end in the visible future? Do we worry about these smaller things because we can reach them? We can touch them. We think we can exercise some effect. The trouble with that notion is that we don’t worry all that much about even the things we can reach.
Less than 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in last week’s city elections, and that was a significant improvement over previous elections. So, wait. Is it that people think in the backs of their minds that local elections don’t make much difference in the bigger picture? But that’s simply not true. The local picture is hard-wired to the big one.
Last Saturday’s indecisive mayoral vote left us with a runoff next month between two candidates whose profiles could not be more different on the big-picture issues. One, City Council member Scott Griggs, joined fellow council member Philip Kingston in preventing a massive giveaway of city parks to frackers. The other, State Rep. Eric Johnson, has voted to allow oil and gas drillers to dump used fracking water into streams and lakes, a measure the Sierra Club had called “a no-brainer,” urging that, “The Texas Legislature needs to say no to this.”
Johnson also voted recently to impose 10-year prison sentences on people deemed to have interfered with oil and gas construction projects, a measure The Texas Observer and others have characterized as a crackdown on pipeline protesters.
Those votes may or may not have anything to do with the obvious enthusiasm for Johnson’s candidacy among Dallas’ oil-rich Hunt family, whose members have been making the maximum $5,000 personal contributions apiece to Johnson’s campaign. I asked Johnson if the Hunt money had influenced his votes. He wrote back, "The House journal shows that I and several other legislators were recorded voting yes but intended to vote no on the bills you asked about, which passed by wide margins."
OK. Yea meant nay. And it doesn't matter, he suggests, because the bill would have passed anyway. Well, we can know this much without wondering: Griggs’ effective advocacy against fracking in parks cannot have been well-received by the city’s powerful and deep-pocketed energy titans. Johnson’s legislative votes, on the other hand, must have warmed their hearts, at least until he took them back.
But who cares? If someone does care deeply about climate change, who is it? Well, mainly, if we’re going to simplify, it’s young people, not that old people can’t care, too. As an old person myself, I would hate to think my age group doesn’t care that much because we think we will all have shuffled off to Buffalo already by the time the guillotine falls. But if there is any urgency building out there, it doesn’t appear to be among the geezers. Recent polling suggests, in fact, a growing generational divide that may even bisect party affiliation.
Numbers published by the Pew Research Center last month show roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans believing in and concerned about climate change caused by human activity, but within those numbers a striking trend shows younger Republicans moving over markedly toward the Democratic side of the page on climate issues. Pew polling found that millennial Republicans are twice as likely as boomer Republicans to believe human beings are causing global warming and government is doing too little about it.
So this is easy. Just leave it to the young people. People my age can take a nap, right? Well, gosh, I don’t mean the big one. Little naps for now. The young people will fix everything while we snooze.
But not here. Here in this city, young people aren’t going to take care of anything, because, so far at least, they stubbornly do not vote. Almost nobody votes here, but young people especially don’t. A national research project sponsored by Portland State University and the Knight Foundation, called “Who Votes for Mayor,” takes deep dives into voting patterns in 30 major American cities — a consistent source of humiliation for Dallas. Our city ranks at the very bottom of that list in terms of total voter turnout in municipal elections.
It’s worth taking a closer look at that research to see what it says about generational voting in Dallas. Due to the huge offset in voting behavior, a voter who is over 65 in Dallas has 22 times more clout, 22 times more power to determine the course of the city, than voters aged 18 to 34. The research shows that 17.7 percent of registered voters over 65 actually vote, compared with 1.7 percent of registered voters aged 18 to 34. Voters who vote are an average of 21.2 years older than the average age for all registered voters.
I’m not sure how finely we can parse all of that to match voting patterns in our non-partisan municipal elections, except to say this: to the extent younger registered voters are less likely to vote, the very different environmental records of the two candidates in June’s election will have less importance. If more young voters were suddenly motivated to show up at the polls, then climate change and a million extinctions might make a difference.
It is a core assumption of the Dallas political establishment that voting patterns here will never change much and that young voters will never emerge suddenly as some kind of deciding factor. The regular suspects, people like veteran political consultant Carol Reed and gadfly lawyer Mark Melton, already are saying things like “stick a fork in it” for next month’s election. They are predicting a big win for Johnson based on his strong money advantage, his support among older establishment voters in North Dallas and his base in Southern Dallas, which is the land of voters on walkers.
Many of those same people didn’t think Griggs would even make the runoff. Their belief was that the establishment had outfoxed him by mounting so many adversaries in the general election, assuming the crowded field would splinter Griggs’ base. If anything, the field seems to have splintered its own base, while Griggs’ base held. But now that it’s just the two of them and mano a mano, the establishment is already taking victory laps.
I know a little about younger voters and people who could be voters, because I live among some of them, and we talk. It’s clear that a certain ceiling was set over their expectations and interests, first by 9/11 and then by the economic collapse of 2008. A good many people in that 18-34 age range have their hands full trying to survive. They really do not see an enormous difference between Hillary Democrats and George W. Republicans on issues like climate change. They don’t see a good way into any of it. And everything about City Hall sounds like a gotcha question on a civics exam.
One of the most evolved and intriguing views of all this that I have run into in Dallas in recent years is from Dallas School Board Trustee Miguel Solis, one of the many candidates in last week’s election who did not make the runoff. Solis happens to be a young person.
Solis has tried to get the school district to inject itself into social issues that normally would be thought of as way outside its proper bailiwick. When the district decided to sell its old headquarters in East Dallas, Solis tried unsuccessfully to persuade the school board to develop the property as low-income housing. Most of the board wanted to sell to the highest bidder, take the money and run. And they did. But Solis had argued that soaring rents and gentrification in East Dallas were driving poor families out of town and putting public schools out of business. To survive as a public school district, he said, the district needed to take some initiative and responsibility for improving and protecting the lives of the public.
He also made a more universal case in discussing the headquarters sale with me — something that struck a bell. He said we are becoming a nation of city-states. Cities, Solis said, are becoming the only level of life and community where we can get things done. National government is pretty much gone, utterly lost to the limbo of lunacy, and, in Texas anyway, state government was never there for us much anyway.
If we lift up our eyes and look, we can see that the other side certainly sees the same things coming that Solis does. The forces of reaction, the fracking money and the polluters are already hard at work in Austin to shut down the power of cities to determine their own destinies on even the most intrinsically local of issues. As we speak, the Legislature is moving forward on a new law to make it illegal for cities to take down their own Confederate monuments. What next? Austin renames all our streets for the biggest slave-holders?
But I also see something positive in all that, a rallying cry. The fact that the other side is so threatened by cities means that Solis must be right. The city really is the next great battleground. The city is where the good fights will occur. It is where the million extinctions will be stopped. First. And as that reality emerges and becomes more obvious, voting patterns will change.