Onslaught of the Oily Authoritarians

 Doomsday Clock

“I think for me the struggle to defend the truth is a precondition for defending our democracy, and the struggle to defend our democracy is a precondition for taking the effective action that needs to be taken in order to meet the climate crisis in a serious way and turn it around.”

— U.S. House member Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol

Democratic politicians are being pressed hard on issues of critical importance to Black, Native, and Latinx communities—those most harmed by state oppression, economic injustice, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, and the impacts of climate change. In response, a minority of the party’s lawmakers began in 2021 to push harder for stronger voting rights and climate legislation. But without a functioning majority in the Senate, they flopped on both fronts.

The party remains stalled largely because it’s tightly limited in how far most of its members will go in challenging the economic power structure. That has led some on the left to ask a bleak question: If neither major party is responding productively to the climate or justice emergencies, let alone challenging the corporate drive for profit that underlies those ills and many others—why should we even care if either party seizes and maintains control of the federal government for the foreseeable future?

I recently reached out to a couple of people whose views I greatly value to ask how they would respond to that question. Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes), a lecturer of American Indian Studies at Cal State San Marcos and author of As Long as Grass Grows (2019), replied in part, “I would agree that the corporate Democrats are beholden to their corporate overlord donors . . . But I do think that [the Democrats overall] are more reasonable in many ways, and responsive to marginalized, racialized others. With the continued growth in leadership of Indigenous, Black, and Latino populations, there is a possibility for paradigm shift, especially if we can build real coalitions with each other.”

I also asked Noam Chomsky, long one of the world’s most forceful voices confronting capitalism’s exploitation of people and the Earth. He was blunt: “I’ve been hearing this all my life. In childhood, it was the squabbling between the two main left parties in Germany. The Communists, religiously following Stalin’s orders, condemned the Social Democrats as ‘social fascists,’ no different from the Nazis. Why should we care whether one or the other party seizes power for the foreseeable future? We found out why then.”

The only realistic course is to protect the electoral process despite all its flaws, ensure universal voting rights, and push harder than ever to make this country what it has never been: a multiracial, pluralistic democracy.

Election Subversion in the Wild

How serious is the current threat to the republic? Is Jamie Raskin overreacting? No, says Richard Hasen, a law/political science professor at UC Irvine. He concluded his 2022 Harvard Law Review analysis of the republic’s predicament with these words: “I fear that only concerted, peaceful collective action against an attempt to subvert election results stands between American democracy and nascent authoritarianism.” Hasen and others cite the following developments as cause for alarm.

Key states are enacting ever more extreme gerrymanders of state and congressional districts; prescribing criminal charges for election workers and voting-rights groups based on minor mistakes and trumped-up accusations; and replacing local and state election officials with partisan operatives. Those measures and others would be used primarily to suppress vote totals in counties and districts with large racialized populations. Some are intentionally designed to invite legal challenges that could be struck down by the Supreme Court’s rightist majority, thereby gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act and taking civil rights law back to the 1950s.

Most ominously for presidential elections, the Supreme Court could also uphold moves by swing-state legislatures to grant themselves the power to choose the slates of electors that their states send to the Electoral College, nullifying the will of their states’ voters and potentially the nation’s voters. This is not wild speculation. We learned from that recently leaked draft opinion on reproductive rights that this Court is willing, even eager, to blow up long-established Constitutional protections.

And secretary-of-state offices across the country, which typically attract about as much public attention as the fish and game commission, have become prime political battlegrounds. Twenty-three candidates running for secretary of state in 2022 across twenty-seven states are currently labeled by States United for Democracy as “election deniers” for having said or done things that indicate a willingness to steal elections. Once elected, any of them could become, in one official’s words, “arsonists with keys to the firehouse.”

Working synergistically, these ploys have a solid chance of bringing the federal government under unified extremist control by January 2025. The most plausible scenarios have been delineated in chilling detail by Barton Gellman, Matthew Seligman, and, most recently, J. Michael Luttig, a retired U.S. Court of Appeals judge and superstar in the conservative legal establishment.

Internal-Combustion Politics

Eva Darian-Smith, a professor of global and international studies at UC Irvine, wrote recently about the outsize role that industry donors and lobbyists have played in keeping fossil fuels in the drivers’ seats of economies worldwide, particularly in countries under anti-democratic leaders—most prominently, Scott Morrison of Australia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and, of course, Donald Trump. But such corruption isn’t the whole story; it serves primarily to aggravate the hard right’s inherent hostility toward any environmental regulation.

Throughout history, authoritarian regimes have pledged to restore a mythical, romantic past that celebrates the white cultural life of the countryside. America’s anti-democracy politicians and pundits peddle such myths today. But it’s all talk. They don’t actually aid or protect rural communities and long-endangered landscapes; they instead assert the rights of landowners and businesses to abuse soil, water, the atmosphere, and the living world as they see fit.

Race-based voter suppression directly suppresses votes for climate action. Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project notes that “In every state where we’ve measured voter priorities, we’ve found that Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans are significantly more likely than Caucasians to prioritize climate change and the environment.” And if suppression efforts targeting those voters succeed in 2022 and 2024, the potential increase in fossil fuel extraction, abuse of the nation’s lands and waters, and urban air pollution will hit those very same communities the hardest.

Political assaults on the will of the people and life on Earth are already working in tandem. We saw in the congressional battles over “Build Back Better” and similar legislation that for many lawmakers, “infrastructure” means roads, bridges, and airports—period. In this view, climate-friendly public transportation exists only for poor people, racialized communities, and environmental activists. Accordingly, many of the 34 voter-suppression laws passed by states last year alone make voting more difficult for those who don’t have their own vehicles. Some restrict voting by mail or strictly limit the numbers of polling places and ballot drop boxes per city or county, putting long distances between many voters and their right to vote. Others penalize volunteers who collect and deliver ballots for less mobile neighbors. And voter identification continues to focus on the driver’s license, placing yet another hurdle between non-drivers and the voting booth.

This means one’s exercise of constitutional rights in America is often contingent on ownership of an internal-combustion engine. And our ability even to challenge the power of the oil, gas, and coal industries is under attack as well. A key feature of the current slide toward autocracy is the blizzard of new state and local legislation that would further criminalize public protest against government and corporate policies.

A remarkably large number of these anti-protest bills and laws are aimed at shielding the extraction and use of fossil fuels. For example, some specify that nonviolent demonstrations anywhere in the vicinity of oil or gas pipelines, power plants, or other fossil-fuel-related infrastructure will be punished. Hardest hit are the Indigenous communities who have been at the forefront of the climate movement. Other new bills and laws put the rights of vehicles over those of people, prescribing severe penalties for anyone who impedes traffic flow at or near the scene of a lawful protest: jaywalking could thus become a felony. Some are even designed to absolve drivers of legal responsibility if they strike a pedestrian with their vehicle in the vicinity of a protest; they simply need to claim to have been fleeing in fear. And lobbyists are circulating a model bill in state legislatures that would punish climate-aware companies, universities, or other organizations if they take even the modest step of selling off their investments in oil, gas, and coal.

In her 2018 article “Petro-Masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire,” Cara Daggett of Virginia Tech University wrote that the slogan “Make America Great Again” harks back to a time when “cars, suburbs, and the nuclear family, oriented around white male workers, formed a triumvirate that yoked the desires of Americans not only to wage labor, but to the continued supply of cheap energy that made the dream possible.” This, she wrote, goes way beyond climate denial, becoming what Daggett labels climate refusal. “Refusal is active. Angry. It demands struggle,” she wrote. “Refusal can no longer rest at defending the status quo but must proceed to intensifying fossil fuel systems to the last moment, which will often require resorting to authoritarian politics.”

This onslaught by the oily authoritarians must not go unchallenged. Over the coming months, “In Real Time” will follow the efforts grassroots movements to achieve climate justice, multiracial, pluralistic democracy, and other goals. If these efforts consolidate, we the people can thwart the rise of any regime that would empower politicians to choose their voters while valuing fossilized hydrocarbons more highly than the living world within and around us.

This essay was originally published by City Lights Books as part of its “In Real Time” series. Listen to the “In Real Time” podcast for the spoken version of the series and to the Anti-Empire Project podcast. Also see the evolving “In Real Time” visual work. Stan Cox is the author of The Path to a Livable Future (2021) and The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020).


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