The horror of those days haunts me still. Some of us thought that a terrible danger loomed if the Republican Party took charge. Others hated the Democratic administration so much that they insisted there was no difference between George Bush and Al Gore. That was true when it came to free trade. Six years earlier, the Clinton administration had brought us NAFTA, which Al Gore continued to defend vocally, even as the 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle were on everyone’s mind (well, at least, on every radical’s mind).
But it was the other fronts that terrified me. There, the differences were profound. If Bush were elected, I anticipated two major disasters. One was an attack on human rights—gay rights, racial justice, women’s rights. And sure enough, a whole damn tsunami of attacks on reproductive rights followed, laws and regulations and funding shifts designed to make abortion and birth control difficult or impossible to access without having to overturn Roe v. Wade. Women lost big in 2000. Gays, lesbians, and trans people were at best in a holding pattern. Affirmative action and racial justice suffered.
The other was environmental. The Bush administration proved to be far, far worse than anyone in 2000 could have possibly imagined, so bad I am not sure we yet understand what happened during his presidency. In a hundred years, when humans look back at when climate change got baked in—when we passed the point of no return, when we signed the deal for the catastrophe that made large parts of the world uninhabitable, put many coastal areas and islands underwater, and produced mass famine, mass extinction, and mass displacement—they may well point to 2000 and the election of George W. Bush. For eight years, his administration served the fossil fuel industry rather than the people of the United States, denied that climate change was an issue, and refused to join the world in any global treaty or support any meaningful legislation at home.
Yes, Gore was a doofus, a wooden figure, a compromiser who ran a lousy campaign, but he’d been passionate about climate change throughout the Clinton administration. He worked hard on the issue after the 2000 election, and he and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work. What we do now on climate will matter in 10,000 years. It matters to all the life in the sea. It matters to the poorest and most vulnerable people around the planet, who are already being hit hardest by catastrophic weather events, from the hurricane in Haiti to crop failure in drought-stricken India. It matters to the people who will be born in 10, 100, 1,000 years from now—if people are born 1,000 years from now.
But in that bitter election of 2000, people said that they wouldn’t vote for the lesser of two evils, or that there was no difference between the two, and tossed out other stock phrases that weren’t really a substitute for analysis. They shamed anyone who wanted a more complex, nuanced assessment or thought abortion and the Supreme Court mattered. Some said that if voting changed anything, the powers that be would make it illegal (which, given that the Republicans have been trying hard ever since with gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement, could be seen as confirmation that, yeah, voting matters).