Senator Barbara Boxer (r) with singer-songwriter Carole King
Not long ago I picked up retired Senator Barbara Boxer’s book The Art of Tough. I like Barbara. She was my district’s Congresswoman and then my Senator. And one of the most resolute fighters for environmental causes in Congress. I read through part of her book, then was distracted by other matters. A few days ago I opened it again. I’d like to quote her at as much length as “fair use” allows:
‘In all my years in public life, not one person, Democrat or Republican, has ever come up to me and said: “Barbara, the air is too clean and the water is too safe.” What used to be a bipartisan consensus issue has become a divisive partisan one. The Republican Party that used to stand for environmental protection now stands with the powerful polluter lobby. . . on a mission to derail an American value that their party once championed. . . .
“Republicans took over the House in 2011. I was forced to spend far too much time burying their anti-environmental amendments—almost one hundred of them within just two years—that would weaken toxic waste laws, clean air laws, safe drinking water laws, the Endangered Species Act, and virtually every other strong, protective environmental law.
“They’ve tried to derail our landmark laws through the back door. I fear that’s their continuing plan, since they can’t possibly come straight at these laws. Clean air and water are just too popular among voters for any politician who wants to get re-elected to oppose them openly. So the big-polluter–controlled Republicans try to starve the Environmental Protection Agency, weaken enforcement, and roll back American leadership on the environment around the world in every way possible.
“The word they substitute for “rollback” is “reform.” The word they use to undermine the word “protection” is “regulation.” These Republicans title their anti-environmental bills in such a way that you would never know what they’re really about. For example, the Clean Air Strong Economies Bill, S-2833, introduced in 2014 by John Thune, the Republican senior senator from South Dakota, actually freezes the EPA from improving air-quality. . . .And my favorite—S-485, The Clear Skies Act of 2003 by Senator Jim Inhofe, senior Republican senator from Oklahoma, permits increased air pollution by millions of tons over the EPA’s scientists’ recommendations and also delays enforcement of smog and soot pollution standards. Makes you sleep better at night, right? . . .
“One of the harshest battles I have ever had to endure involved protecting us all from harmful chemicals. This is a story of deception, manipulation, special interest influence, and the revolving door. . . It has been lonely to take on a lot of these battles. Standing alone, all by yourself, isn’t a lot of fun, but there is no choice once you decide what is right. You must go forward. At least that is how it is for me.”
How did what Barbara describes happen? How did a political party that once supported a national consensus to clean up polluted air and water all across the land abandon that goal and sell its soul to polluters? How did it justify taking a wrecking ball to forty years of work to move the nation away from a dark nightmare of smoggy air, acid rain, and sewers and industrial waste that emptied into waterways, and toward clean air, swimmable rivers, and conscientious cleanup of poisonous wastes?
You might reasonably wonder, “Is the Republican Party really doing all that?”
It is. Even Richard Nixon, who resigned from the presidency in disgrace, appointed a decent, principled man as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Bill Ruckelshaus looked at the burning oil slick on the Cuyahoga River where it ran through Cleveland’s industrial district and damaged two bridges (the nationwide joke was “Cleveland, city of light, city of magic”), and he resolved to move the nation onto a different path. A generation later the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland riverfront had been transformed. Restaurants and taverns along the many times cleaner river became destinations for lunch and dinner dates. Politicians of both parties followed Ruckelshaus’ lead, until . . . .
Until the nation’s politics reached a point where election and re-election campaigns became so expensive that many legislators and appointed officials just plain sold out. Sold their sense of ethics. Closed their eyes and ears to whatever the big corporations that shoveled campaign money at them didn’t want them to see or hear. And tried to revoke, destroy, or reverse every law protecting nature that big business didn’t like. Barbara Boxer tells many stories about specific events and senators. And as the 20th century ended and the twenty-first began, Republican legislators and appointees found their hands so permanently zipped into corporate lobbyists’ pockets that, well, shucks, they just couldn’t seem to get them out. And by cracky, they plain old just couldn’t even think straight no more. As for what the people wanted? Baffle them with Bullshit and smoke and mirrors so they can’t think straight either.
Who are the major players in this movie? It’s an open conspiracy. A huge one, with many players and more money to push it through than all the gold in Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool. How did it begin? We can trace its roots as far back as the Depression-era plot to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and his pro-environmental agenda in a right-wing plot to stage a coup d’etat, dump Roosevelt, and set up World War I war hero General Smedley Butler as a puppet front man for the plutocrats. But Butler had integrity. He refused. The plotters were unmasked and arrested. Their movement went underground and stayed largely hidden until Ronald Reagan was elected. Then it burst onto the national stage with a vengeance. Reagan “reformed” the tax policies that had been little changed from FDR’s time through the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter –the policies that were a foundation for the nation’s unprecedented prosperity during the post World-War II period.
Until 1980, when everything changed. Suddenly “Government of the people, more or less by the people, and more or less for the people” became “Government of the people, by the plutocrats, for the plutocrats.” Its goal was explicitly reversed from “prosperity for all the people” to “incredible riches for the few and tough shit for the many.” Reagan ripped off the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had put on the White House roof and trashed the auto mileage standards that Carter had enacted. Etcetera. The foundation for that historic reversal had been laid by Lewis Powell, who was a corporate lawyer and member of the Phillip Morris board of directors until Nixon appointed him to the Supreme court, where he was a champion of the tobacco industry and tried to suppress the evidence linking smoking to cancer. In 1971 he penned a lengthy confidential memorandum that was an anti-New Deal blueprint that outlined a program for big business and plutocratic Overlords to dominate U.S. politics. Wealthy heirs, CEOs, and self-styled “conservatives” who were actually extreme right wing anti-democratic radicals in disguise responded to his call. The Smith-Richardson Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the Carthage Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and Charles and David Koch and to an extent the Cato Foundation all pumped huge streams of money into the new right-wing agenda that Reagan made suddenly respectable. Not coincidentally it sought to eliminate almost all protections for the environment that interfered with big business’s ability to make make the maximum possible profits. I suppose this collusion ought to have a name. Powell is dead now and no one is more dedicated to the great Republican cause of turning the U.S. into a plutocracy (with the Big Lie ‘we are ever so democratic” as a cover story) than the Koch Brothers, so I reckon it makes sense to call the present Republican agenda “The Koch Plan.” Cut taxes on the rich and pay for it by trying to get rid of Social Security, etc. When allied with an international agenda of domination of developing nations by more developed, more powerful ones, and heedlessly poisoning our air and waters to make the richest even richer, this is called “neoliberalism.”
America had always had plutocrats, but not since the 1880s had they been so powerful or so in-your-face as the New Right became. The American Chamber of Commerce became a hired gun to help the corporate elite gut environmental regulation and skew the tax structure to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. That’s what it is today. (No my friend, it does not give a damn about your desire for clean air and water and unpoisoned crops and land.) ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, began creating blueprints for taking over state legislatures, executive branches, and courts and sent them all over the country to be enacted by state legislators who could be bought far more cheaply than national legislators. Ever since the 1930s most Americans had loved Roosevelt and appreciated what he did for them, like guaranteeing bank deposits and setting up Social Security. But then came Ronald Reagan, with Powell’s memo in the background. Reagan was one of the most gifted public speakers in the nation’s history, with a sunny, optimistic, engaging attitude. But from his campaign to become president until he left office, day in and day out he pushed the Powell Conspiracy viewpoint out into the nation’s consciousness. His words were a constant harsh drumbeat telling the nation that government was bad and big business was good. He was the first of three presidents who appointed Environmental Protection Agency administrators who did everything hey could to destroy environmental protections of every kind, MOST ESPECTIALLY those related in any way to fossil fuels. (Bush Junior was was the second, and #45 never saw a blade of grass he liked unless it was on a golf courses.)
Starting with Reagan, the Republican Party swung into line behind the Powell Conspiracy party line. Environmentally, its agenda was “glorify coal and oil and tar sands energy production, to hell with nature, and deny the reality of every environmental concern.” Economist James McGill Buchanan followed Powell as an intellectual kingpin of the big business total dominance of America agenda. And in their view, “democracy was so yesterday.” But they used democratic words and phrases as cover stories for their destruction of its substance. Their real agenda is to dominate and win at any cost and have everything as they want it. “Democracy” serves as a convenient cover story to disguise what’s really happening. Above all, they’re dedicated to giving the fossil fuel industry everything it wants. Today almost every Republican in elective office has close to zero ratings from almost every environmental organization, and close to zero on all the environmental protection items followed by Project Vote Smart.
That’s where we are now. Along with one more item. Most of the Republicans who hold their party’s anti-environmental, plutocratic, male patriarchy, dominate-at-any cost agenda have managed to convince themselves that their program is virtuous and righteous. Some will even tell you that “God’s on our side” – just like Adolf Hitler, who made “Gott mit uns” one of his slogans. After all, how can they live with themselves if they acknowledge that they’re destroying the biosphere in which their children and grandchildren will live? And so they lie to themselves and to everyone else about what they’re doing, and about its effects on the natural world and on society. And they act self-righteous as they defend their lies.
That, my friends, is how some of the politicans Barbara Boxer once respected lost their souls. After all, if they repented of their sins and took a stand to protect and restore our lands and air and waters, and truly strive toward government “By The People and For the People” instead of “By the Plutocrats and Overlords,” who would put out the big bucks to pay for their re-election? What would they say to their deluded friends who follow the Powell-Buchanan-Koch-McConnell-Trump agenda? Who would invite them to cocktails or golf?
So make no mistake. The Powell plutocratic republican open conspiracy, with the Koch Brothers, ALEC, and the American Chamber of Commerce at its center is alive and well. (At least somewhat open. Never has there been as much secret money flooding into right-wing political campaigns, with no disclosure as to who it comes from. That ain’t no inclination toward democracy, folks. And it ain’t no inclination toward treating Mother Nature well. If that’s what you want and support, here’s hoping you like what you get.