American Politics are Weighted Against Any Candidate “Simultaneously Intelligent and Honest.”

Scott Deshefy


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The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its annual report warning of shrinking timetables in which to slow global warming before crucial, irreversible tipping points are reached. If the U.S. and global community fail to aggressively transition from fossil fuels to green, renewable energy, Earth will become increasingly uninhabitable.

Current dependency on petro-dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, compounded by domestic suppliers’ price-gouging at home, also affect national security. Absence of bold leadership assures worsening stretches of extreme heat, devastating floods, droughts, rising seas, worsening storms, famine, disease, dying forests and ocean acidification. Heightened exposure to wildfires and diseases associated with atmospheric carbon emissions and other pollutants, lung and heart primarily, will also be social costs of a rapidly warming planet.

Economists estimate continued delays and nibbling around the edges of the problem will mean $100 trillion in lost economic activity worldwide by century’s end, impoverishing countless millions and displacing so many people in Latin America, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa by mid-century, current refugee problems will seem small.

Noam Chomsky is usually hailed among the world’s most important intellectuals. His recent assessment we’ve reached “the most dangerous point in human history” (at least since multiple migrations out of Africa 120,000 years ago) is widely shared. Old enough to have lived through the fall of Barcelona (1939) and Hitler’s rise with the Third Reich, Chomsky has experiential wisdom and scholarly clout to speak cogently on existential threats. Everyone should listen.

Understandably, climate change has been his central focus in recent years, particularly the inextricable link between global warming and capitalism, deadly consequences of which become apparent each day, even to the obtuse. Now, 40 years late responding to the problem, the biosphere may be unsalvageable given drops in carbon emissions needed and protracted timeframes capitalist countries may take meeting them.

Adding to Donald Trump’s infamy, Chomsky recently condemned the short-sighted, destructive policies of the former administration. By “maximizing” fossil fuels and cutting back regulations to attenuate climate change, the celebrated linguist and social critic concludes no one in history other than Trump “has done more to drive the human race to extinction.” Trump had his GOP enablers and facilitators, of course, not to mention cultish fanatics supporting him, whom Chomsky likens to Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s. Given the dangers of climate change, looming possibilities of nuclear war, widespread contagion and ever-growing numbers of refugees, what can we do to American politics to weed-out the insensate and miscreants from its ranks?

One partial solution is ranked choice voting (RCV), long a mainstay in Europe and rapidly gaining traction in Maine and other states and cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. A possible offset to gerrymandering, RCV ballots allow voters to rank candidates according to their preferences. A typical congressional election in Connecticut, for instance, has 4 balloted candidates, usually a Green, Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian or Independent. Using RCV, first, second, third and fourth candidate choices are selected by voters. If no candidate wins a majority of first choice votes, the candidate with the least number of first choice votes is eliminated, and voters for that individual have their second choice tallied as a first. The process continues until a candidate has a majority of support. Low-percentage pluralities, which normally decide American elections and disappoint large swaths of voters, are eliminated. Most of the electorate is satisfied their first or second choice for office is representing them, and majority rule is upheld.

Democracies are strongest when more voices, parties and visions of the future expand choice. RCV eradicates the “spoiler” myth, where candidates are marginalized or pressured to stay out of races to prevent splitting votes with like-minded candidates of perhaps lesser qualifications, but bigger, major-party war chests. RCV also eliminates the need for preliminaries and runoff elections. In this context, RCV saves jurisdictions money by combining benefits of multiple voting rounds into a single, more representative, high-turnout election (a.k.a. an “instant runoff”). By eradicating pretexts for so-called strategic voting, RCV promotes reflective representation from a diversity of political viewpoints rather than single, convergent, two-party monoliths on major issues such as military spending and interventionism. Voters should support candidates they actually want in office and not feel compelled to choose a “lesser of two evils” because the media dub their favorite candidate, however exceptional, a dark horse. Also, as a possible cure to America’s political divisions, RCV incentivizes civil campaigning by discouraging negative ads, mudslinging, and toxic, polarizing campaigns. RCV forces candidates to talk about issues rather than attack an ideological opposite in the race, which can benefit other contenders more than themselves.

Another way to improve candidates’ caliber is equally straightforward ─ remove religion from criteria used to judge them. Twenty years ago, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins gave a marvelous TED talk. He wittily criticized America’s hostility, at least outside scientific circles, towards Charles Darwin’s principle of Natural Selection.  Everywhere else in the world, evolution is regarded as a fact. Failure to do so here is a national embarrassment. Dawkins attributes this to creationists who, lacking any coherent scientific basis for their attacks, fall back on popular U.S. phobias against atheists and agnostics, predilections politicians invariably exploit.

George H. W. Bush, for instance, in a highly bigoted ploy to attract conservative voters in both major parties once declared atheists “unpatriotic.” Thomas Jefferson (probably a deist but certainly a patriot) said, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” So, why pander to religious groups? In addition to intense lobbying and campaign money, religions teach voters to be satisfied with “trivial, supernatural non-explanations about the world,” blinding them to the beautifully parsimonious, real explanations provided by science. In backward America, authority, revelation and faith still take precedence over insisting on hard evidence and facts. Yet, seculars, including atheists and agnostics, comprise our second largest “religious” identification group, over 33 million American adults. Despite outnumbering every other non-Christian religious affiliation combined, atheists and agnostics, by virtue of their non-faith status are consigned to pseudo-citizenship in this country, being generally unelectable. This secular, rational, non-religious vote could be powerful if mobilized. Yet, no one in Congress or the Supreme Court, let alone state or federal executive offices, publicly identifies as agnostic or atheist.

Does relegating non-believers to political oblivion weaken candidate pools? Dawkins cited scores of surveys and studies conducted since the 1920s, seeking negative or positive correlations between levels of education and intelligence with religious beliefs. All but 4 showed an inverse correlation. The other 4 showed no correlation at all, one way or the other. That is, the lower the level of education and intelligence, the greater the religiosity. Dawkins also referenced a more thorough analysis of top American scientists conducted by E.J. Larson and L. Witham in 1998. Among that elite sampling, belief in a personal god was 7%, 7.5% for physical scientists; 5% for biologists. This presents what Dawkins called “a grotesque mismatch between American intelligentsia and the American electorate.”

Consensus understanding about the nature of the universe, held by our most knowledgeable citizens (i.e., scientists and other scholars), is so abhorrent to millions of U.S. voters no person seeking political office risks publicly affirming it. They either fail to accept overwhelming evidence against supernatural explanations for origins, teleology and diversities of life or lie about holding such theological beliefs to garner support. Chances of succeeding in American politics are thusly weighted against any candidate “who is simultaneously intelligent and honest.” Given the seriousness of global and national challenges facing us today, this is too shallow a well from which to draw sound leadership. It’s time atheists and agnostics were afforded the same political opportunities as those beseeching support from nonexistent invisible means.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.