For most Democratic politicians, the future is a bright investment opportunity. Increasing funding for education is “investing in our future.” Addressing climate change does not mean reining in the fossil fuel industry, but investing in a “clean energy future.” And by investing in “innovation,” a word practically synonymous with “the future” in both business and politics, you prepare yourself to reap the rewards of whatever technological breakthroughs tomorrow might bring.
As a candidate, Joe Biden uses the word “future” in these familiar ways—reflected in the policy “vision” section on his campaign website. It’s optimistic, confident, and reassuringly nonspecific. (What exactly does “clean energy” mean? In the past, Biden has even backed “clean coal” as a global energy option.)
In an era when apocalyptic fantasies have displaced utopian ones, in which zombies and pathogens have replaced flying cars and robot maids in our movies, novels, and TV shows, Biden’s future carries a sour odor redolent of the recent past, like the mothballs in your Biden-supporting grandparents’ coat closet.
Biden’s competitor Bernie Sanders—trailing far behind him now in delegate counts—uses the word “future” quite differently in his campaign literature. When he borrows the omnipresent investment metaphor for education—apparently unavoidable even for a critic of Wall Street—he pairs it with a warning as well: “We should invest in young Americans—not leverage their futures.” His Green New Deal text offers similar ambivalence about the balance of possibilities and dangers ahead: promising, in rather conventional terms, the “automobiles of the future” but also warning that “we have less than 11 years left if we want to transform our energy system … if we are to leave this planet healthy and habitable for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and future generations.” The language tends to be oppositional rather than consensus-seeking: Where Biden’s climate policy looks forward to a clean-energy future, Sanders excoriates the fossil fuel industry for “endangering the future of humanity.”
Sanders’s way of talking about the future is not something we are used to in American politics. It’s an example of a style often criticized as too angry, too strident, too pessimistic. Sanders’s optimism, after all, is always provisional: A bright future is possible, but it’s never guaranteed. More than that, a better tomorrow is an uncertain obligation we have to others, not an entitlement we can claim as a birthright. And it’s impossible without a break with the past.
Biden’s campaign, on the other hand, promises a return to the recent past of October 2016. Like most conventional politicians, Biden appears to assume that the future must be good. You don’t “invest in the future” expecting to lose your shirt, after all: You invest in it confident that the returns will be bountiful and that each “morning in America,” to quote a famous Ronald Reagan slogan, will be brighter than the last.
American political rhetoric has, for generations, been built on some version of this untroubled future: one that is always bright, that is inexhaustible, that belongs to and is guaranteed to Americans. “The expansive future is our arena, and for our history,” said John O’Sullivan, coiner of “Manifest Destiny,” almost two centuries ago, in an essay called “The Great Nation of Futurity.” Younger people seem able to hear, perhaps more acutely than previous generations, the lies in such lines: No future is always bright—not for everyone. What brightness past American futures possessed was always illuminated by the burning Native villages of westward expansion; that confidence in our “progress” denied the slave labor that powered it. Far from being “inexhaustible,” America’s “expansive future” has frequently come at a terrible price in spent bodies, hearts, and land.
Who believes in the future, and which future do they believe in? Some Biden voters, voting as never-Trumpers (itself a moldering 2016 type), claim to see the future of the next four years as the priority. A return to the “normal” pace of the years before Trump has been Biden’s biggest pitch. But as The New Republic’s Kate Aronoff has pointed out, “there’s no normal to return to where the climate is concerned.” There is no resurrectable past. There is only a rapidly approaching future, which many of us have come to anticipate with a sense of dread. Many of those who voted, willingly or not, for Biden’s climate plan—which calls for carbon neutrality by 2050, decades too late—will never have to live with its consequences. Nor, of course, will Biden himself.
Our problem—the problem of people under 45 or so—is that we will live with these consequences. If you are obliged to think much further ahead than the next four years, it is impossible to be both honest and optimistic about the future. Exit polling from Michigan’s primary on Tuesday confirmed what has long been the sharpest divide of the election: the generational split between those over 45 (who voted overwhelmingly for Biden) and those under 45 (who backed Sanders by a wide margin). Too much emphasis on generational divides, of course, may paper over the vagaries of individual choices, as well as deeper fissures of class, region, and race. All the same, as Biden racks up primary victories with voters in their fifties and up, it’s hard not to feel a sense of betrayal. It feels as if our future has indeed been leveraged for a few years of peace and quiet.