I haven’t yet cast my ballots in this year’s election, but I will, and here’s who I’ll have voted for: For president, I will choose Bill McKibben, environmental activist and organizer of the climate change organization, 350.org. For vice president, I’ll go with Edward Snowden, the all-time whistleblower who exposed the National Security Agency’s vast programs of illegal and unconstitutional surveillance, ramped up by George W. Bush and vastly expanded by Barack Obama.
McKibben’s an easy choice for me. For nearly thirty years, he has been beating the drums on climate change, a.k.a. global warming, a.k.a. planetary disaster for many if not most of Earth’s species, including our own. Climate change isn’t an “issue” on the menu of specious political choices we’re routinely offered every four years; it’s the life-or-death crisis that the fossil fuel-driven Industrial Revolution has brought upon us with frightening speed and, at this point, certain irreversibility. A few years ago, the crisis was framed in terms of averting it, and then, as we crossed the threshold of inevitability, of managing it. We will in short order be presented with the issue of surviving it, socially and biologically.
McKibben has written with passion and eloquence about the climate crisis in many books and articles, and also with reason and precision. His 350.org group is named for the number of parts of carbon dioxide per million the atmosphere can absorb without triggering significant climate change; we have recently passed 400 and are headed up. 400 means that we are in for it, and that it is no longer a question of averting climate disaster but of coping with it. We failed the first test, and we are well on the way to botching the second. Our level of engagement is summed up in the current standoff on the North Dakota oil pipeline, which has been posed in terms of property rights and sacred ground. Ladies and gentlemen, if we don’t hold all our ground sacred, and not for Native Americans only, we’ll soon be left with precious little of any kind to stand on. There are many other questions our politics must deal with—social and economic justice, nuclear disarmament, and control of the runaway capitalism that is ravaging our world in every conceivable way, climate crisis being only the most urgent and evident—but climate, at this historical moment, dwarfs all else. When people look back at the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, if there are any who can or care to, the one figure they may well remember is Bill McKibben. Whether they’ll remember him as only a failed prophet is up to us.
As far as I know, McKibben has no political ambitions; in fact, he has urged his supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton as the least horrific option in this most horrible of election years. It’s the only thing I differ with him about, but in a spirit of charity. As the canny political operative he also is, he knows that pushing Clinton on climate will be a lot easier than pushing Trump. But, and with regret, I do not see Hillary Clinton as anything but the agent of the very forces McKibben and the rest of us must combat. I respect McKibben’s position as a thoughtful and principled one, but I cannot imagine him, deep down, as anything but despairing in having to take it. My position is different. I’m not a lobbyist or an activist, but simply an educator and citizen, doing what I personally can. And what I can do is to vote for Bill McKibben, and announce the fact.
You might ask why, if I wanted to make a statement, I didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders instead. Sanders was a presidential candidate, and therefore his active support for Clinton has a different valence. He has been telling us directly not to vote for him, and, out of the respect I have for him, I have honored that request. Besides that, he did not make climate change the centerpiece of his campaign, and, although he takes the crisis seriously, he has offered few specifics for dealing with it and no particular vision for the future we must work toward if we are to have one at all. To my mind, the overriding subject of this election, and the next, and the next, is climate change and how we are going to deal with it. A vote for Bernie Sanders would not have made that statement, although I would likely have voted for him had his name appeared on the ballot. A vote for Bill McKibben does, at least for me.
My vice presidential vote went to Edward Snowden, the patriot who, in exposing a sinister, secret, and entirely illegal surveillance program carried out against the electronic communications of every American by the National Security Agency (NSA) under the aegis of a president sworn to uphold and enforce the laws of the land, constituted (and still in essence does constitute) an existential threat to Constitutional guarantees of freedom and hence to the country itself. Simply put, the Fourth Amendment affirms the privacy of all communications, papers, and memoranda not intended for public circulation from search or seizure by any agency or representative of government absent a duly sworn judicial warrant. This means you can’t see my stuff, unless a judge, on offer of proof or reasonable suspicion, thinks it material to an actual or intended crime. This is a no less important guarantee of personal freedom than the right to free speech or assembly, without which public utterance or demonstration is sharply curtailed where not rendered impossible. That the NSA was poking around in our mail was not a secret, but the totality of its surveillance over every recorded aspect of our lives and the unfettered access it had gained through search engines that advertised themselves as guaranteeing their users’ privacy and confidentiality, was only brought to public focus by the vast trove of documents released by Snowden, including espionage conducted against our closest allies. For this, Snowden received not a tickertape parade and the Congressional Medal of Freedom—for which he would probably have been the worthiest recipient since Tom Paine—but an arrest warrant, revocation of his passport, and condemnation by the very Congressional bodies tasked with preventing the abuses he’d disclosed as a traitor.
If Edward Snowden is a traitor, then Benedict Arnold was a patriot.
So, a vote for Snowden is easy. And let it signify not merely the profound threat to our laws and values he documented in such thorough and irrefutable detail, but all the other issues pertaining to liberty and the rule of law that threaten our country: illegal wars and targeted assassinations; war crimes and the licensed criminals who commit them with impunity; the contraction of our public discourse and the suppression of dissent.
It’s true, electing Snowden would have posed a couple of problems. First, he is currently the guest of the Kremlin. It’s a rather odd place for a champion of American liberties to be; but then, these are unusual times. I’m guessing a dismissal of charges could have been arranged, though. Second, the Constitution requires that candidates for vice president be at least thirty-five years of age, and Snowden is thirty-three. But that’s a bit of antiquated ageism. Alexander the Great was in his twenties when he conquered half the known world, and Britain’s prime minister, William Pitt, all of twenty-eight the year the Constitution was framed, and already in office for five years. Under the worst case scenario, Snowden could have played golf until he turned of age. That’s what Barack Obama has spent most of this year doing anyway, and the presidency was supposed to be a bigger job—at least until Obama stepped into it.
One more point. For the past several months friends of mine, as well as people I respect and even the man I voted for, have been telling me to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. One friend even told my wife she would never speak to her again if she didn’t vote for Clinton. Well, I didn’t, and I don’t like being told there’s anybody it’s my duty to vote for. My vote belongs to me, to do with as I choose, and to exercise or not. If I can’t find a qualified candidate to vote for—and there certainly wasn’t one this time around—I will make my own free choice, or none at all. It isn’t that I wouldn’t vote for an imperfect candidate; human beings come only in varying degrees of imperfection. There are minimum standards for integrity and competence, though, and when you don’t find them you can only vote for the person you’d actually prefer in office, or no one at all. The most famous modern ethical imperative is that proposed by Immanuel Kant, namely, that you should act only in a way you would be willing to see everyone else act in as well. If everyone had voted as I did, Bill McKibben would be our president-elect. If I and everyone else had chosen not to vote, then nobody would have been elected. Either result would have been preferable to what we’ve got now.