GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR
In a two-part discussion, this week we’re joined by two experts on the frontlines of fighting for our democracy on the all critical state level. If you want to fight for our democracy and prevent the slide into authoritarianism, clean up your local state government! How to proceed? Two experts from The States Project – Melissa Walker, a widely read author for teen novels turned democracy defender, and the Head of Giving Circles, and Aaron Kleinman, the Director of Research – are here to tell you. Walker and Kleinman address structural impediments to democracy – including gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the composition of the Senate – as well as challenges from dark money shadow networks and astroturf protests. They also give advice on navigating state politics and staying strong in the midst of this onslaught on our rights. We need all hands on deck for 2022, and an informed public is a powerful public!
Today the White House announced that President Joe Biden will visit the Middle East next month. His first stop will be in Israel, and then he will go to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the man responsible for the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS recently invested $2 billion in Jared Kushner’s new investment fund against the advice of the funds’ advisors.
In 2019, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in part because of the Khashoggi killing, but administration officials have been quietly visiting for months, in part to urge Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to help ease gas prices in the U.S. While the White House maintains that it is looking for a “reset” with the Saudis in order to promote peace talks between Israel and Palestine, end the war in Yemen, and address human rights violations, it acknowledges that oil production is on the table.
Inflation is high in the U.S., as it is all over the world, because of demand, supply chain problems, the soaring costs of transportation as the world’s few carriers jack up prices, and so on. But that inflation is driven in large part by higher oil prices, which have driven up the price of gasoline and diesel in the U.S., which in turn makes everything more expensive.
Since the first public hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, much of the traffic on right-wing social media has been about gas prices, blaming them on President Biden. Republicans see gas prices and inflation as key issues both to distract from the hearings and to enable Republicans to take over control of Congress in the November midterm elections.
In fact, according to a piece by E. Rosalie in the newsletter Hoaxlines, U.S. production of crude oil during Biden’s first year was actually higher than it was in Trump’s first year. To encourage production, Biden’s officials have issued more permits on federal lands than were issued in the Trump administration’s first three years, at a pace that approaches that of George W. Bush’s administration. Only 10% of all U.S. drilling takes place on federal land, but the Bureau of Land Management confirms that more than 9000 drilling permits on public land are currently approved. Not all would be productive if they were developed, and none of them could start producing immediately, but this undercuts the argument that gas prices are high because the Biden administration has choked off permits.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has also driven up global oil prices, but the U.S. gets less than 2% of its oil from Russia.
What appears to be driving U.S. gas prices is the pressure investors are putting on oil companies, whose officers answer to their investors. Limited production creates higher prices that are driving record profits. In a March 2022 survey of 141 U.S. oil producers asking them why they were holding back production, 59% said they were under investor pressure. Only 6% blamed “government regulations” for their lack of increased production.
Oil companies are seeing huge profits and are using the money for stock buybacks to raise stock prices. BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, TotalEnergies, Eni, and Equinor will give between $38 and $41 billion to shareholders through buyback programs this year. As EOG Resources wrote to its shareholders: “2021 was a record-setting year for EOG. We earned record net income of $4.7 billion, generated a record $5.5 billion of free cash flow, which funded record cash return of $2.7 billion to shareholders. We doubled our regular dividend rate and paid two special dividends, paying out about 30% of cash from operations…. This period of high oil prices allows us to further bolster the balance sheet. To support our renewed $5 billion buyback authorization and prepare to take advantage of other countercyclical opportunities, we plan to build and carry a higher cash balance going forward….”
But congressional Republicans appear uninterested in adjusting the disjunction between supply and demand that is creating such high consumer prices. In May the House passed the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act by a vote of 217 to 207 with only Democrats in the yes column and all Republicans and four Democrats voting no. The bill provided a vague warning that it is unlawful to charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for consumer fuel during presidentially declared energy emergencies, and it gave the Federal Trade Commission more power to punish price gouging.
The Senate has not moved forward with the bill. Republicans there can kill it with the filibuster and will do so, despite the fact that a Morning Consult/Politico poll shows that 77% of registered voters—including 76% of Republicans—like such a measure. Only 13% of voters outright oppose such a law (10% have no opinion).
Biden has sought to address the issue with the tools at his command. After trying to ease pressure by releasing oil from the strategic reserve, he has set out to reduce the nation’s demand for oil products by identifying the conversion to clean energy as a national security issue. On June 6 he vowed to “continue…pushing Congress to pass clean energy investments and tax cuts” but also authorized the use of the Defense Production Act to speed up the domestic production of solar panel parts, building insulation, heat pumps, and power grid infrastructure like transformers. He will also lower tariffs on solar technology coming to the U.S. from Southeast Asia for two years. These measures should ensure a reliable supply of solar panels while creating more jobs in the green energy sector, which currently employs more than 230,000 people in the solar industry alone.
In addition to Biden’s measures to ease oil prices, lawmakers are trying to curb inflation by imposing the sorts of limits on carrier prices that they refuse to on oil prices.
On Monday the House passed the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 to hamper unfair business practices among shipping carriers. The measure passed the Senate in March. Although the bills were introduced by Democrats, the votes that passed them were bipartisan, reflecting, perhaps, that the nine shipping companies that dominate the world market are multinational rather than domestic. According to Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), shippers have raised prices on U.S. businesses and consumers by more than 1000% on goods coming from Asia, enabling them to make $190 billion in profits last year, a sevenfold increase in one year. This bill, he said, “will help crush inflation and protect American jobs.” Biden has praised the bill and promises to sign it.
And tomorrow the Federal Reserve is expected to announce an interest rate hike of three quarters of a percentage point, its highest since 1994, to combat inflation. Higher interest rates will make it more expensive to borrow money, which should cool down the economy, although getting inflation down to the 2% the Fed prefers will likely slow consumer spending, dampen wage increases, and slow economic growth.
And of course, next month, Biden will visit the Saudis, who can increase oil supplies quickly if they believe it is in their best interest to do so.
And finally, a heads up: tomorrow’s hearing of the January 6 committee has been postponed. The next hearing is now scheduled for Thursday at 1:00 pm.
GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR
This is Part II of our interview. In this two-part interview, we take a deep dive into a right-wing hellhole with acclaimed scholar Nancy MacLean, the author of the bestseller Democracy in Chains, which discusses how anti-democratic networks run by powerful plutocrats came to hold the United States hostage. MacLean discusses the Koch dark money network and its shadowy political partners, the decades-long libertarian takeover of the Republican Party by far-right mercenaries, the infrastructure of this extremist network and how it has sustained itself for so long, the rise of the neo-confederacy, and the dystopian plans billionaires have for the American future. We also get MacLean’s opinions on recent crises like the pandemic, the Trump Crime Cult’s Capitol attack, and the assault on voting rights. And of course we ask her how we best battle these insidious adversaries, break America’s Koch addiction, and get our country back!
Today, President Biden signed nine bipartisan bills designed to improve veterans’ health care and to honor those who have served in our nation’s military. It was an upbeat hour in the midst of a storm gathering as the nation takes on both gun safety legislation and the events of January 6.
Today, Good Morning America ran an 8-minute segment with teacher Arnulfo Reyes, who was wounded in the massacre at Uvalde, Texas, where on May 24 a gunman murdered 19 schoolchildren and 2 teachers and wounded 17 others. The gunman badly wounded Reyes before murdering all 11 of the children in his classroom. In a powerful interview, Reyes vowed, “I will not let these children and my coworkers die in vain. I will not. I will go to the end of the world to not let my students die in vain.”
Then, actor Matthew McConaughey, who is from Uvalde, gave a passionate speech to reporters from the press podium at the White House. A gun owner himself, McConaughey called for strengthening our gun safety laws with background checks, raising the minimum age to purchase an AR-15 rifle to 21, instituting a waiting period for those rifles, and establishing red-flag laws. “These are reasonable, practical, tactical regulations to our nation, states, communities, schools, and homes,” he said.
McConaughey described the children and teachers who lost their lives at the Robb Elementary School, and explained just how the killer’s AR-15 so destroyed their bodies that they had to be identified by DNA… or by their signature sneakers. He warned that “Responsible gun owners are fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals. These regulations are not a step back; they’re a step forward for a civil society and—and the Second Amendment,” he said.
He urged lawmakers—and Americans—to come together to pass legislation to protect our children. “Because I promise you, America—you and me, who—we are not as divided as we’re being told we are…. How about we get inspired? Give ourselves just cause to revere our future again. Maybe set an example for our children, give us reason to tell them, ‘Hey, listen and watch these men and women. These are great American leaders right here. Hope you grow up to be like them.’ And let’s admit it: We can’t truly be leaders if we’re only living for reelection…. We’ve got to make choices, make stands, embrace new ideas, and preserve the traditions that can create true—true progress for the next generation.”
As McConaughey finished and left the podium, James Rosen from Newsmax called out: “Were you grandstanding just now, sir?”
That response reflects the continuing dislike of Republicans for gun safety regulations. While the House will begin tomorrow to discuss passing a federal red-flag law, a minimum age requirement that a buyer has to be 21 to purchase a semiautomatic rifle, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, these measures will not get through the Senate, where the filibuster enables Republicans to stop legislation unless Democrats can muster a supermajority of 60 votes.
Senate Republicans have already said that they will not consider the regulations experts think are central to stopping mass shootings: an assault weapons ban such as we had until 2004, limits on ammunition magazines, and expansions of background checks to cover private gun sales are all off the table. They also say an age limit of 21 to purchase an assault-type rifle like that AR-15 is unlikely.
Republicans seem to be feeling the pressure of constituents angry at more and more frequent mass shootings. “This moment is different,” McConaughey said, in an echo of gun safety activist and Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg. “We are in a window of opportunity right now that we have not been in before, a window where it seems like real change—real change can happen.”
And yet, Republicans who have embraced an ideology that rejects federal regulations and celebrates the idea of gun-carrying men cannot accept the gun safety rules most people want. So they are turning to extremist rhetoric. Jennifer Bendery reported in the Huffington Post that the extremist American Firearms Association warned of “tens of thousands of Bloomberg-funded, red shirt radical, commie mommies all over the Capitol complex.” Its leaders told members to prepare for “battle” at the U.S. Capitol. “They’re coming after us right now,” a fundraising email warned.
Republicans are also under pressure from the upcoming hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. They have announced that they will launch counterprogramming to the committee hearings, and those Republicans most likely to carry water for Trump are already on social media trying to undercut the committee and to stir up new scandals of one sort or another.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Representatives Jim Jordan (R-OH), Jim Banks (R-IN) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) will lead the way in arguing that the committee is illegitimate and out of touch. According to a document obtained by Vox, Trump has asked his chief supporters to shape the media coverage of the hearings and to “control and drive messaging using the channels we control.”
Republican leaders appear eager to attack the committee without explicitly defending Trump, for it’s not clear yet just how bad he will appear in the story the committee tells. Tonight, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter ordered lawyer John Eastman to turn over another file of emails…by tomorrow. Some of them, he said, fall under the crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, and he outlined how “Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan to disrupt the Joint Session was fully formed and actionable as early as December 7, 2020.”
The Fox News Channel says it will not carry the January 6 committee hearings live, although CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, and CNN will. As Sawyer Hackett, a co-host of the Our America podcast, noted, the Fox News Channel “ran 1,098 primetime segments on Benghazi from the day of the attack until the committee hearings, which they carried live for more than 7 hours.”
The Department of Homeland Security today issued a new bulletin in the National Terrorism Advisory System, stating that the U.S. “remains in a heightened threat environment.” It noted that “[t]he continued proliferation of false or misleading narratives regarding current events could reinforce existing personal grievances or ideologies, and in combination with other factors, could inspire individuals to mobilize to violence.” Stories that the government is unwilling or unable to secure the southern border and the upcoming Supreme Court decision about abortion rights might lead to violence, it said.
Also, it noted: “As the United States enters mid-term election season this year, we assess that calls for violence by domestic violent extremists directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers will likely increase.”
All day, I have been coming back to this: How have we arrived at a place where 90% of Americans want to protect our children from gun violence, and yet those who are supposed to represent us in government are unable, or unwilling, to do so?
This is a central problem not just for the issue of gun control, but for our democracy itself.
It seems that during the Cold War, American leaders came to treat democracy and capitalism as if they were interchangeable. So long as the United States embraced capitalism, by which they meant an economic system in which individuals, rather than the state, owned the means of production, liberal democracy would automatically follow.
That theory seemed justified by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The crumbling of that communist system convinced democratic nations that they had won, they had defeated communism, their system of government would dominate the future. Famously, in 1992, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote that humanity had reached “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In the 1990s, America’s leaders believed that the spread of capitalism would turn the world democratic as it delivered to them global dominance, but they talked a lot less about democracy than they did about so-called free markets.
In fact, the apparent success of capitalism actually undercut democracy in the U.S. The end of the Cold War was a gift to those determined to destroy the popular liberal state that had regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and invested in infrastructure since the New Deal. They turned their animosity from the Soviet Union to the majority at home, those they claimed were bringing communism to America. “For 40 years conservatives fought a two-front battle against statism, against the Soviet empire abroad and the American left at home,” right-wing operative Grover Norquist said in 1994. “Now the Soviet Union is gone and conservatives can redeploy. And this time, the other team doesn’t have nuclear weapons.”
Republicans cracked down on Democrats trying to preserve the active government that had been in place since the 1930s. Aided by talk radio hosts, they increasingly demonized their domestic political opponents. In the 1990 midterm elections, a political action committee associated with House Republican whip Newt Gingrich gave to Republican candidates a document called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” It urged candidates to label Democrats with words like “decay,” “failure,” “crisis,” “pathetic,” “liberal,” “radical,” “corrupt,” and “taxes,” while defining Republicans with words like “opportunity,” “moral,” “courage,” “flag,” “children,” “common sense,” “hard work,” and “freedom.” Gingrich later told the New York Times his goal was “reshaping the entire nation through the news media.”
Their focus on capitalism undermined American democracy. They objected when the Democrats in 1993 made it easier to register to vote by passing the so-called Motor-Voter Act, permitting voters to register at certain state offices. The next year, losing Republican candidates argued that Democrats had won their elections with “voter fraud.” In 1996, House and Senate Republicans each launched yearlong investigations into what they insisted were problematic elections, one in Louisiana and one in California. Ultimately, they turned up nothing, but keeping the cases in front of the media for a year helped to convince Americans that voter fraud was a serious issue and that Democrats were winning elections thanks to illegal, usually immigrant, voters.
In 2010 the Supreme Court green-lit the flood of corporate money into our political system with the Citizens’ United decision; in 2013 it gutted the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring the Department of Justice to sign off on changes to election laws in some states, prompting a slew of discriminatory voter ID laws. In 2010, REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) enabled Republicans to take over state legislatures and gerrymander the states dramatically in their own favor.
At the same time, the rise of a market-based economy in the former Soviet republics made it clear that capitalism and democracy were not interchangeable. An oligarchy rose from the ashes of the USSR, and U.S. leaders embraced the leaders of that new system as allies. That allyship has gone so far that this week, the Conservative Political Action Conference held a conference in Hungary, where leader Viktor Orbán, who was a keynote speaker at the event, has openly rejected democracy. At the conference, he called for the right in the U.S. to join forces with those like him; yesterday, he declared martial law in his country.
At home, where our focus on free markets has stacked our political system in favor of the Republicans, the vast majority of Americans want reasonable gun laws, reproductive rights, action on climate change, equality before the law, infrastructure funding, and so on, and their representatives are unable to get those things.
Capitalism, it seems, is also trumping democracy at home.