If America is going to salvage Obama’s environmental progress, young environmentalists will have to learn a lesson from one of its youngest founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson
In June 1776, a 33-year-young Thomas Jefferson outlined his infamous vision for an Independent Republic dedicated to nothing other than the “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” of its 2.5 million citizens.
Only days before Jefferson put pen to paper, his friend and emancipatory colleague George Mason sent him the preamble to the Constitution of Virginia. In what you could easily confuse as the actual Constitution, it reads that all men have the right to the:
“Enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”
However, you might notice here that Mason’s (small h) “happiness” doesn’t really elicit the same impassioned pursuit and importance as Jefferson’s (big H) equivalent. As a status update, it’s kind of lame.
It doesn’t sing out like the posterised Hollywood dream of Happiness we find ourselves scrolling through social media and self-help bestsellers. But as a government document, it may actually be more logically enforceable.
Instead of framing Happiness as a relative individual pursuit, Mason seemed much more concerned with the role of Government being aligned with simply protecting its citizens from ‘mishaps’.
If Jefferson was tasked with rewriting the Constitution today, I wonder if he would have written it with the same vague, rhythmic poetry that is almost impossible for any government to enforce.
As a modern-day 33 year old, he would have lived through an incredible shift in the corporate assemblage of American Happiness around the world. He would also be writing during a time when his fellow citizens are arguably as “insecure” in their own pursuit as they have ever been.
He may also Tweet about it, outsource the drafting to a unpaid intern, open-source the editing, and announce it while singing Karaoke on a late night talk show.
In less than 18 days, a 70-year-old Donald Trump will be given the power to uphold and reinterpret Jefferson’s 1776 vision of Happiness for 318 million of its citizens.
In many ways this Trump is perfectly equipped to undertake this role. Throughout his life, he has unapologetically done nothing but pursue his own vision of Happiness. His fame throughout the 80’s and 90’s was so great that American Psycho’s author Bret Easton Ellis chose him as the mythic role model of his stockbroking serial killer, Patrick Bateman.
Trump’s own reality-show-fuelled embodiment of “Happiness” inspired bands of new followers across the country. He leveraged his own pursuit of Happiness as a brand in itself, and cleverly linked it directly to the potential “Greatness” of US.
As the self-help gurus and social media analytics tell us, “Greatness” and “Happiness” now go hand-in-hand. If the political victories of Brexit, Duterte and Temer are seen as the gravest victims of the “post-truth” populist era, expect the relative “Happiness” of any nation to soon become the key indicator of it’s relative “Greatness”.
Alongside “experts” in economics and public health publishing “elitist statistics” like a nation’s GDP and life expectancy, prime-time news anchors will now to switch to “everyday people” and their positive and negative Facebook status updates and celebrity Tweets.
As the Commander-in-chief of the national pursuit of Happiness, expect Trump to continue bolstering his decisions to an anecdotal narrative of on his own pursuit and evaluation of Greatness. As the logic follows, Trump is so “Great” that surely he is perfectly placed to decide whether or his corporate empire stands in conflict to his Presidency, or whether or not to appoint his own kids to national leadership positions.
What these shifts highlight may be similar to what David Marr described as a “corruption of public debate” in Australia during the Howard years (basically the Bush years too).
During this time, Australia underwent a series of dramatic political shifts in the rights of workers, gun laws, taxes, protesters, privacy, Euthanasia and even the way we regulated things like smoking and seat belts. Many of these shifts were in stark opposition to public opinion polls. Just like the millions around the US who oppose Trump, Howard saw record levels of opposition protest to his policies around Immigration, Indigenous rights and the Iraq war.
He did so regardless. In response, he refused to contest the ‘science’ or ‘facts’ of his critics, but undermined their legitimacy through scathing attacks against the untrustworthy “political motives”. As Marr wrote in his 2007 Quarterly Essay, Howard’s tactics were in many ways a pre-curser to the post-truth reality we now live in:
“I can’t remember a time when party allegiance – real or imagined – counted for so much in public debate….Howard and his people blast away lefties, greenies, luvvies, unionists and Labor voters who can’t be trusted and need not be listened to.”
While personal attacks are nothing new in any political context, Marr argues that Howard’s use of it “grew savage” while his own objectivity was upheld with a constant refrain of his own “pragmatism”.
This was the political education that bred Tony Abbott, who in his first 100 days as Prime Minister of Australia in 2013, undermined decades of progress on environmental regulation, carbon pricing and public understanding of science. This two-punch political combination he inherited from Howard was far too much for the vast array of ‘scientific facts’ that stood in his way.
Whatsmore, those who oppose Trump and his promised reign of terror on environmental regulations will also have to do so in an era where the media are now also under these same politicised attacks, but has almost universally become addicted to a social media version of Orwell’s groupthink.
In the wake of incredibly fast spreading “fake news” reports around a perceived Russian hack of the US electricity grid, The Intercept’s Glen Greenwald noted that even the Washington Post had fallen victim to the the click-bait media frenzy. In reflection, Greenwald highlights that
“Few things are more dangerous to the journalistic function than groupthink, and few instruments have been invented that foster and reinforce groupthink like social media, particularly Twitter, the platform most used by journalists.”
It is hard to imagine how Jefferson may have rewritten the Constitution had he been given the task as a 33-year-old today. As is it equally hard to imagine how environmentalists at or under 33 years old might oppose Trump’s oncoming onslaught on Climate policy.
But what we possibly can understand is that Jefferson’s vaguely powerful (Big H) view of “Happiness” is far more inspiring than Mason’s.
Less than 3 years ago, Tony Abbott utilised a political legacy of personal attacks against scientists, commentators and critics to pulverise the environmental integrity of a country filled with strategically-oriented environmentalists.
In 18 days, Trump will aim to do the same, all in the pursuit of a Happiness that is synonymously interchanged with “Greatness” and Twitter followers.
If environmentally oriented Americans whose own vision of Happiness includes a safe climate, air and coast line, they may want to rethink their current communications strategy. In an era of anecdotal groupthink, it is the anecdotes that make headlines to remember.
While Trump will have no problem dismissing the claims of “scientists” he will brand as ‘communist’ or media outlets he will call ‘unAmerican’, he will have a much harder time dismissing “everyday Americans” insistent on reimagining his vision of America. His twin missiles of partisan personality attacks and personal Greatness will malfunction in the face of “everyday Americans” who repeatedly oppose his vision of America with their own small town renewable energy businesses and solar savings.
Just as Trump leveraged the universality of Jefferson’s words, so too must his opponents highlight the universality of the environment, and do so through the lens of “everyday Americans”.
Whether they are supported by a few old school facts and figures, may prove as irrelevant as whether or not a Government should or should not be involved in supporting every individual in their “pursuit of Happiness”.