The Don't Look Up Opportunity
Culture eats politics for breakfast, so climate activists ought to seize the moment created by Netflix and Hollywood.
Welcome back to another weekly edition of The Connector, where I focus on news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and try to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive. This is completely free newsletter—nothing is behind a paywall—but if you value it and can afford a paid subscription at any level, please hit the subscribe button and choose that option. Feel free to forward widely; and if you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please sign up!
And…we’re back. I hope, dear reader, that you got some time off over the last two weeks and turned off the news as much as you could. Here in the not-as-cold-as-usual Northeast, the Omicron variant is everywhere. For New Yorkers like me, this brings back some of the trauma of April 2020, when it really felt like the Angel of Death was stalking our streets. Between my wife and I, we counted a dozen close friends and colleagues who suffered the loss of dear ones in those weeks. Now, the infection rate is skyrocketing. Where I live in Westchester County, one of the first epicenters of COVID-19 in America, the number of reported infections went from 2,369 on December 1 to 26,261 on January 1. My sister, my elderly father and my daughter, all of whom live in the greater Metro area, have all tested positive in the last three days.
But, thank goodness, there is a silver lining. So far, people who are fully vaccinated and boosted seem to be getting mild cases. I say thank goodness and not thank God because goodness—the ethic that impels many of us to choose to apply our talents to take care of others—is what is protecting us. You might argue that luck or divine intervention gave us a COVID variant that happens to be wildly contagious but less dangerous to the lungs, but again, the hospitals are still filling up with severely ill people. However, they are almost all unvaccinated. If you’ve never encountered philosopher Daniel Dennett’s essay about saying “thank goodness” instead of “thank God,” which he wrote after surviving a “dissection of the aorta” and nine hours of surgery, take a few minutes to read it. This is not to take anything away from people who may believe in a higher being. But if it weren’t for science and the teamwork of dedicated medical professionals, public health workers and government, a lot more of us would be dead now.
It’s tempting to be furious at unvaccinated people for our current mess, and indeed I’ve written that Democrats ought to be demanding why so many Republican politicians seem to want the virus to win. But that’s an argument about the need for Democratic leaders to do more to create the political weather instead of constantly reacting to the storms Republicans whip up. At a more human level, getting angry at someone for avoiding the jab isn’t going to change their mind. Everything we know about motivated reasoning and the role of emotion and ego self-preservation in how people form and hold opinions shows that yelling at people doesn’t make them more amenable to reason; it has the opposite effect. As it is, the vaccination rate in the United States had continued to creep upward, with 156 million vaccinated by the beginning of this year, an increase of about 14 million from a month ago, according the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Figuring out how to change minds and expand the base of people who support policies that would make our world more humane, just and equitable is the hard work of political organizing.
For example, right now we’re at an interesting moment in the ongoing debate about climate change. Extreme weather events keep happening, as predicted by climate scientists. In just the last week, the Pacific Northwest and the Middle Atlantic have experienced unusual levels of snowfall (leading to a massive 24-hour-long traffic jam in Virginia), while bad drought conditions in Colorado built the fuel for the rapid wildfire that destroyed thousands of homes in the Denver suburbs. Climate-driven extreme weather is the new normal. But for organizers, something different has happened in the last two weeks: Don’t Look Up, a satirical movie about humanity’s inability to stop a comet from wiping out Earth, has become a big hit thanks to its all-star cast, pungent jokes, and Netflix’s massive platform.
According to Netflix, Don’t Look Up was its number one movie during the week from December 24-31st. In just its first week, people across the globe spent more than 111 million hours watching it, putting it in Netflix’s top ten for 94 countries. While Netflix’s demographics in North America trend a tad liberal (34% say they are conservatives, slightly lower than most surveys) I think it’s safe to say that the movie is being viewed beyond the choir of people who are already convinced about dangers of climate change and the urgent need to do more to reduce our carbon emissions. According to Google Trends, search interest in the phrase “don’t look up” jumped when the film opened on Netflix December 24th. Interest in that phrase was highest in the following states: New Hampshire, Alaska, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan, California, Colorado, West Virginia and Rhode Island. Three of those are “red” states; two are “purple.”
You may not like the movie. I’ve written elsewhere that I thought it was too negative, even nihilistic, about the prospects for change. Several friends who have spent years in the trenches of working on the climate issue reported that they stopped watching after the first twenty minutes because it brought up too many frustrating memories. On the other hand, maybe the value of the film isn’t its effect on committed progressives but its ability to reach across the aisle. Laura Dawn, a longtime progressive media organizer who is the founder and CEO of Art Not War, said that, “I have Trump voters in my life that not only saw the film, and liked it—but more importantly told me that it really scared them. They also (and I can’t emphasize this enough) wanted to talk about climate change with me.” If Don’t Look Up’s blurry politics (the President, played by Meryl Streep, is clearly a stand-in for Trump, but she’s got a picture of herself hugging Bill Clinton on her Oval Office desk) is allowing it to reach non-liberals, that’s a plus.
Right now, none of the major organizations working on the climate issue have pivoted to address the opportunity created by Don’t Look Up’s massive reach. I haven’t gotten a single email or text from any group, and I’m on a LOT of lists. Nor have groups like groups 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, the Sierra Club or the Citizens Climate Lobby retooled their home page or their digital marketing campaigns to try to seize the moment. To some degree, that’s understandable: organizations, by their nature, move more slowly than individuals. The one group explicitly trying to connect with people moved by Don’t Look Up is Count Us In, a spin-off from the TED Network that was launched a year ago. Count Us In has partnered directly with the makers of Don’t Look Up, and is pumping out some solid content like this short video with its co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, which has already gotten close to a million views. It seems well-intentioned but mainly focused on offering people an array of individual behavior changes they can make.
There’s a larger opportunity here to engage with many people who perhaps previously were closed off to a conversation. While the leaders of climate groups get back from their holiday vacations and sort out their plans, here’s one suggestion that anyone reading this newsletter can take. If you have a Netflix subscription and have friends who are less political than you, offer to let them watch Don’t Look Up using your account. You just might find yourself with people newly receptive to talking about what to do next.
Odds and Ends
—“We’re a free market economy. They should be able to participate in that.” That’s Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month, voicing her opposition to banning Members of Congress and their spouses from owning shares in individual companies. Lawmakers are required to disclose such trades, but a major new investigation by Insider found 52 Members who have failed to properly report them, along with 182 senior staffers. Many own stock in companies in industries they oversee. You can search through that information here. The quality of actual disclosure is often abysmal, as this image from my friend David Moore of Sludge points out. Pelosi herself was worth an estimated $115 million in 2018, making her one of the wealthiest members of the House. That’s roughly four times what she was worth in 2008, and a rate of increase more than double what a common investor might accrue if they put their money in stock funds that earned a healthy 7% a year.
—The staff of the Democratic National Committee has voted overwhelmingly to unionize, affiliating with the SEIU. They are now opening negotiations with the DNC’s management. This is great, because lots of us have been wondering if the DNC had management.
—Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, a powerhouse in the world of civic tech, has been placed on paid administrative leave by her board while it investigates complaints about her conduct, April Joyner reported just before Christmas. Ouch. Bryant has fought back, saying she was not informed in advance of any investigation and accusing her board chair, Heather Hiles, of poor governance. Emily Shugerman of the Daily Beast adds more details, citing complaints from current and former staffers.
—Kudos to Brandon Silverman, the founder of Crowdtangle, who left Facebook last year but did not go quietly into the night. As Ben Smith reports for The New York Times, Silverman has been working with Congress on legislation to toughen transparency requirements on social media platforms, leaning on his own inside experience. Smith writes that the provision Silverman has been consulting on “would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to force platforms to disclose, in real time, what information is spreading on them. The provision is part of a bill more broadly aimed at letting academic researchers conduct independent studies into the inner workings of the platforms and their social effects. As written, the legislation would apply to Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Snap — and would probably, a Senate aide said, also extend to Amazon.”
—Thursday’s anniversary of that “tourist visit” to Congress last year is upon us, and my thoughts on what’s needed haven’t changed much from what I wrote a few weeks ago. I’m mildly hopeful that the Special Committee on January 6th will produce more attention-grabbing testimony and evidence, but it’s still clear that the MAGA faction is doubling down on celebrating the insurrection (and paying no price for that) while the democracy faction is fragmented in dozens of confusing pieces. This profile of Rep. Jamin Raskin (D-MD) by Michael Tomasky in The New Republic ought to serve as a balm. Maybe, just maybe, history has put the right person in the right job at the right time.
I am now writing twice a week for Medium as part of their contributing author program. If you enjoy the mix of topics that I cover here, then please sign up to be a Medium member. Basically, if you want more Micah, you can get it from Medium for just $5 per month of $50 per year (and roughly half of that accrues back to me if you sign up through my partner link). Here’s a “friend link” to yesterday’s post on Medium, which digs deeper into how movement organizers may be able to capitalize on the Don’t Look Up moment.