If you ask Americans what they care about, the results aren’t too surprising. Over decades of opinion polling, the same combination of issues tends to occupy the most mindshare: jobs, education, crime, health care. The order shifts with the ebbs and flows of the economy, but it’s generally stable.
Of course, we weren’t expecting the typical answers when my consulting firm (which is helping to run Andrew Yang’s campaign for mayor) recently polled 800 likely voters in New York City. Nor were we surprised by the top issue chosen by a whopping 45% of respondents: COVID-19. One year ago, hardly anyone knew what coronavirus was. Today, it’s all that most voters care about. The next two concerns that appeared on our survey—crime (11%) and racial and social justice (8%)—weren’t even close.
The poll helps to explain what New Yorkers are looking for in their next mayor. But it also contains lessons for future politicians. When a crisis arrives, voters want something different from the usual political norms. And the mother of all crises is still ahead of us.
I’m not talking about another pandemic, although that remains a risk. I’m talking about climate change. A decade from now, COVID-19 will be a painful, distant memory, and a new, harsh reality will be setting in. In the west, raging wildfires and smoke-filled days. In the east, massive hurricanes and flooding shorelines. In some parts of the world, this new reality will mean you can’t go outside during certain times of day, because the heat is too extreme. In others, it will mean daily water restrictions because of droughts.
Imagine the horrors of coronavirus, compounded and made permanent. There’s no vaccine for climate change. The disease may be manageable, but it’s forever.
If voters right now are demanding that their politicians solve the coronavirus crisis, how do we think they’re going to react when the ravages of climate change arrive? They’re not going to care that it was too hard politically to pass a carbon tax or to invest in carbon capture technology when there was still time. They’re not going to remember that they didn’t want gas to cost more, flights to cost more, their electric bill to cost more. They’re just going to see that life as they know it has changed for the worse, and they’re going to be out for blood.
The trouble with climate change is that it’s slow, occurring over generations. In between the “once in a century” disasters that now happen every few years, it’s possible to forget that the ice caps are melting.
The trouble with most politicians is that they only care about the present. In my twenty-five years of experience in city, state, and federal government, and in running political campaigns, I’ve learned that 99% of elected officials just want to stay in office. They’re willing to be flexible on just about any of their views or positions as long as it keeps them around. That strategy works in normal times. But the world we’re living in today is anything but normal.
The smart politician, the one who’s in it for the long haul, understands that you can’t just respond to a crisis as it happens. That’s what mediocre politicians do. The smart politician looks around the corner and gets ahead of it.
In this case, that means leading on climate change. Failure to do so puts their political careers at risk (in addition to the planet). Their lack of action—which means passing bills and doing things, not just holding press conferences and sending tweets—writes the future campaign ads against them.
COVID-19 is a glimpse into the future for today’s politicians, and it should be extremely sobering. It won’t matter whose fault it is. It won’t matter what threats you were facing from the opposition at the time. All that matters is if you were perceptive and proactive enough to recognize all of the ways your constituents’ lives were about to change for the worse and you did something about it.
Will taking action now anger some lobbying groups and potentially make you more vulnerable in a primary (especially for Republicans)? Probably. But you can manage anger over a handful of votes. You can’t triage a climate apocalypse.
My 14-year-old daughter already blames everyone over the age of 25 for destroying her future. Wait till she can vote. Now add in the tens of millions of Gen Z-ers just like her. Politicians: The ways life has already changed because of coronavirus are a very clear sign of what’s to come. Ignore it at your peril.
Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist. His consulting firm, Tusk Strategies, is running Andrew Yang’s campaign for mayor of New York City.