Last September, a group of political strategists met in a restaurant near Dupont Circle to hear from an international guest. Nearly everyone at the table was invested in the fight against climate change and had worked on the Democratic Party’s renewable energy measure, the Inflation Reduction Act, this past summer.
Byron Fay, a political operator from Australia, was their guest in Washington. He had come up with some wild plan. Over dinner, Fay presented it: American climate activists could recruit independent candidates to run for Congress in conservative regions, claiming climate action as a hallmark issue but abandoning the name of the Democratic Party.
Fay said that polling data demonstrated widespread concern for environmental issues among voters, even those conservatives who regard Democrats with distrust. If American climate supporters could separate themselves from party politics, maybe they might win traction in hitherto inaccessible areas.
Fay cited former CIA officer Evan McMullin, who at the time was running an independent campaign in Utah against Republican Sen. Mike Lee. McMullin’s main platform was protecting democracies from the far right, and he was able to run since the Democrats didn’t put forth a candidate. It seems like the survival of the world could use an Evan McMullin.
To say the least, it was a radical proposal. There is no evidence from recent U.S. history that supports the idea that such a strategy would be successful.
That approach has already been successful in Fay’s own nation. A group of non-affiliated candidates challenged the incumbent conservatives in a number of swing districts in Australia’s general election in May. Nicknamed the teals after the colour of their campaign posters, these upstarts attacked the current government for rejecting climate action and helped push Scott Morrison, then the prime minister, from office.
An influential environmental organisation called Climate 200 spent millions on the election to help the teals. Simon Holmes à Court, an activist investor, is behind it, and Fay is running the show as executive director.
The climate politics have entered a new phase, and the September meeting helped signal that. To my recollection, this is the first time in recent history where green forces in several nations may learn as much from studying the heroic failures of one another as they can from sharing their own revolutionary achievements. They have finally stopped fighting an uphill battle to raise public awareness about climate change. Election results from Washington to Warringah show that they have genuine momentum on various continents.
Their job today is to increase the pace at which the world makes the switch to renewable energy. An attitude of experimentation and a readiness to challenge the limitations of conventional political politics at home are required in this time.
This procedure is already under progress in several areas. The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom environmentalists have formed a political feedback loop, akin to an informal distance-learning programme for climate activists.
Watching Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, officials of the Australian Labor Party absorbed how Biden spoke about climate change not only as an environmental catastrophe but also as an economic opportunity. Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese has pledged to make Australia a “clean energy powerhouse” if elected in the next election, and has criticised the conservative Liberal Party for being stuck in the past and wasting the country’s potential. The message was vital in making Albanese prime minister, with the teal independents providing crucial support.
Senior officials of Albanese’s Labor Party, including national secretary Paul Erickson and former deputy prime minister Wayne Swan, visited Liverpool for the British Labour Party’s annual conference in October, weeks following Fay’s meeting in Washington. Australia’s climate message placed conservatives on the defensive and blunted the traditional allegations that progressives sought to shred Australia’s mining sector to preserve the trees, as discussed with aides to Keir Starmer, Britain’s opposition party leader.
San Francisco-based environmental organisation Climate Cabinet head Caroline Spears said Australia should teach other countries where conservatives deny climate science a thing or two.
She remarked, “We share a lot with Australia, in climate denial and the Murdoch media,” alluding to Australian-born U.S. citizen Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire has vilified environmentalism.
Our electoral framework, however, is not one that we share with Australia. Voter turnout is ensured by law in Australia, where participation is mandatory. Votes for independent and third-party candidates are protected under ranked-choice voting because their second- and third-choice selections are taken into account if the first-choice candidate does not win. That makes it a more conducive atmosphere for teal-style campaigns than the United States, where votes cast for independent candidates are wasted virtually by definition.
“It’s a far riskier proposition in the States,” said Ed Coper, an Australian strategist who has been heavily engaged in the teal efforts. His comments on Australia’s example of how to penalise politicians who “handle climate as a culture-war problem” were particularly noteworthy. The autonomous model, however, may be difficult to import.
Then there is the problem of campaign money. The $13 million that Climate 200 invested in the Australian election had dramatic results. In the United States, the amount would not be enough to fund even one competitive Senate election. There is a distinct shift in socioeconomic stratifications. Australia’s teal wave was mostly driven by middle- and upper-class city and suburb dwellers who lean left on cultural and environmental concerns but right on fiscal problems. This group is known as “centrist Democrats” in the United States.
Fay’s proposal was met with scepticism by American environmentalists back in September. The 36-year-old Australian departed unfazed, realising that to those jaded by the cruel machinery of American elections, his idea could seem outlandish. There were murmurs among the Americans as to whether or not he understood the extreme partisanship of our political process. They had recently supported the Democrats as usual and seen a generational victory in climate policy. The necessity for a crafty new strategy was not immediately obvious.
Yet it might be a mistake to automatically dismiss a political innovation in a developed democracy just because its institutions are not the same as ours.
When I recently met with Fay, he agreed with me that there were major institutional differences between the political systems in Australia and the United States. Indeed, he joined our Zoom chat from a setting that underlined our contrasting circumstances: I was at home in America’s chilly capital, while he was beneath a stunning blue sky on the coast of New South Wales. A little later, he mentioned to me that he had gone surfing following that.
Fay argued that the large, overarching parallels between Australian and American politics should be prioritised above the little, nuanced differences. According to Fay, the crux of the teal strategy is organising climate activists in conservative regions that are displaying signals of political unrest. It’s a chance to see how committed conservative voters really are, while also providing a new choice for those who worry about the environment but don’t consider themselves progressives.
Of course, he noted, Democrats would probably have to quit these contests for an independent to have a chance.
Fay said, “You transform the nation if you can locate two states and twenty House contests where this can work.” “If I were a Democratic strategist, I’d be asking myself, “Where do we have hope in the next decade?” And maybe now an independent can compete.”
This is an interesting topic for discussion. If the strictest form of the teal method doesn’t work in American elections, is there a more generalised variant that might?
What if a climate-conscious American billionaire funded rural independents who shared a platform of unleashing a clean energy revolution, imposing term limits on federal legislators, and ending illegal immigration, instead of fielding a set of independents in affluent suburbs with the teal message (a blend of support for climate action, gender equality, and clean government)?
Would that kind of independent candidate do better or worse than a normal Democrat in a state like Utah, Idaho, or Alaska? Who could do the most to hurt the political career of a sitting official who has conservative views on climate change?
The McMullin campaign from last autumn provided a clue. The Utah independent was defeated by Lee by a 10 point margin. In contrast, the 2016 challenge against Lee was a huge success for the Democrat, as the Republican candidate won by 41 points. Cara Mund, an independent candidate for Congress in North Dakota whose platform centred on support for abortion rights, lost badly in the elections but still finished 10 points ahead of the Democratic nominee in the state. There does seem to be merit in ditching the party name in favour of rallying support for a cause that defies easy categorization to the political left or right.
The United States is not used to politics being conducted in such a manner. But there’s no reason to assume that the United States will come up with the most ingenious political answers to a problem as pressing as climate change.