(opinions) The Supreme Court Building

Joe Biden took his place behind the Oval Office desk after a long and contentious political election against the political equivalent of your heinous conspiracy-weaving uncle. Political pundits were confident that the election would be a landslide, but Biden’s narrow victory reminded us of the Democratic Party’s many weaknesses.  

For the past two election cycles, Democrats have propped up the antithesis of a confidence-inspiring presidential hopeful who will at least toe the corporate line without representing significant progressive change. In both runnings for the Democratic nominee, trailing right behind the candidate who eventually cinched it, was Bernie Sanders, a white-haired specter who acted as the ghost of Christmas present by bringing to our attention the ever-encroaching convergence of Wall Street and Washington interests. Front-runners in the primary responded by subverting his message — “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Hillary Rodham Clinton asked debate audiences, “would that end racism?” 

It could’ve been these subversions of working class concerns that cost Clinton the election in 2016, losing out to Donald Trump, who, on the campaign trail, shooed away corporate donors for the sake of appearances and promised voters he’d lay waste to the political elite who line their pockets and ignore their constituents. Of course, Trump strayed immediately from his anti-Wall Street campaign rhetoric and embraced his status as a vessel for corporate cash, which makes you pity the naive voters who thought the man with a gold-plated penthouse would be their working class champion. Although political corruption is now seen as the country’s most pressing bipartisan issue, voters still held their nose at the ballot box while they chose between two candidates who were unwilling to address it.

For decades, corruption in politics has evaded public ire by dressing up as lobbying — a system once meant to stifle the influence of powerful interests. Lobbying is the practice of using one’s resources to affect legislation to benefit a particular interest. Although it was originally intended as a way for constituencies to drum up support for issues existing outside an elected official’s awareness, the practice was quickly taken up by corporate interests: we have gun lobbies, pharmaceutical lobbies, telecom lobbies and, of course, the indelible defense industry. 

Biden, because of his years working for Delaware credit card companies, is all too familiar with corporate influence. With MBNA sponsoring much of his time in the Senate, Biden went on to support ambitious legislation such as the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which made it virtually impossible for borrowers to declare bankruptcy and is the reason why your student debt is nondischargeable. 

The practice of lobbying is so widespread that it remains the most popular post-Congress career choice in America. One of the main prerogatives of many elected officials in this country is to maintain office for a few years, soaking up corporate donations like a sponge, until they eventually retire into lucrative positions offered to them by those same corporate donors. These firms seek out elected officials because of their understanding of the legislative system. In this way, a former representative becomes the tool of a corporate interest — a tool used to navigate and shape the legislative process to ensure a sweeter outcome. So why is it that we sanction and support something that seems to be legal bribery?

“The US system has always been open to lobbying,” said Andrew Scerri, Ph.D., associate professor and director of graduate studies in the department of political science. “Any American citizen is able to stand as a representative and to petition their representative on interests that are close to their heart, therefore it stands that lobbying is almost a fundamental right.”

It was James Madison who initially sanctioned the practice of lobbying at the country’s inception. He feared factions’ power to influence and shape the form power takes, a threat he thought could be rivaled with democracy. 

In “The Federalist Papers: No. 10,” Madison writes, “There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” 

It was the latter that stuck, the thought being that by the will of the people, a check would be placed on powerful influences. Unfortunately, this has not panned out as Madison intended. There is an unspoken understanding in this country that checks decorated with zeros will always carry more weight than the will of impassioned individuals. This means that rich fossil fuel providers will always have more of an influence on public policy than regular citizens. 

Lobbying, like anything else that has devolved into a retch-inducing shadow of its former self, had noble beginnings — fossil fuel industries are actually responsible for bastardizing the practice for ignoble purposes.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Americans realized that a booming auto industry came at the expense of  clean air and safety, an issue they looked to politicians for help with. Politicians like Ralph Nader pressured the government to address issues of pollution and safety, considering such protections to be a matter of “public interest,” but the fossil fuel industry had a different interpretation of what “public interest” meant. In an America where the public interest gave consideration to safety and the environment, gears of industry could only churn for so long before yielding to the preservation of those things. So, their cash backed conservative think tanks movements which practically redefined public interest to mean “conditions conducive to a flourishing economy.” In these terms, the degradation of the environment is a non-issue, so long as it multiplies the wealth of certain stakeholders.

“Citizens United is in effect the success of a 40 or 50-year lobbying or legal movement to set in place institutional means by which these kinds of public interest cases would be very difficult to bring before the courts,” Scerri said.

Think tanks like Citizens United often maintain that property rights are the most important rights our country grants to its citizens, which is why they work so hard to protect them. This overemphasis of property rights fosters the idea that people in positions of power earned their spot because of their savvy and merit, while people without power are lazy and undeserving of a higher position. Additionally, this thinking asserts that the current social order should continue to exist exactly as is because without the savvy businessmen, the lazy people could never get jobs on their own and the economy would never thrive. Of course, that is completely bogus. 

Grappling with these ideas makes it easier to understand the current situations we now inhabit. Pipelines which promise ecological destruction are defended by people who argue that they will create jobs and enliven local communities with wealth. It’s not that those things aren’t important, but the fact that citing flammable tap water as an argument is weaker than the rebuttal — which is that you’re better off because you have more money to buy bottled water — is ludicrous.

In 2018, Virginia Tech’s own Emily Satterwhite, professor of Appalachian studies, chained herself to the 30-foot excavator meant to lay the groundwork for the Mountain Valley Pipeline with the conviction that corporate interest does not define the interests of Appalachian residents.

“The Mountain Valley Pipeline is not good economically for Appalachia; it is sold that way to politicians like Governor McAuliffe,” Satterwhite said.

Satterwhite cited a study by Key-Log Economics that finds the pipeline would cost eight counties along the route around $8 billion in lost property taxes, real estate value and ecosystem function. Satterwhite also factored in the reality that most of the construction and post-construction jobs created by the pipeline would be held by out-of-staters, making promises of economic prosperity in the region sound hollow.

For the numerous financially burdened counties of rural Appalachia, the pipeline presents many costs without much reward. Most of the profit created through this venture is destined to end up in the hands of corporate executives and institutional investors, such as corporate banks. Examples like these tend to contradict the conservative myth of the corporate-class hero who keeps the engine of progress revving for the good of mankind. There might be some marginal benefit to major cities around the country, but the reality of unrestricted corporate influence is more akin to a Dracula, where blood is sucked from the veins of rural Appalachians to revitalize a scant few metropolitan vampires.

Preying on the underprivileged and underrepresented is not only backed by a lot of cash, but also has the support of the top position in government. Although Virginia’s 4th Circuit Court appeared to seal the fate of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, halting its construction back in 2018, Dominion Energy and Trump’s administration jointly appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling, which they did.

It’s not difficult to understand the lack of sympathy pipeline stakeholders have for those underprivileged rural communities — politicians have historically marginalized the needs and grievances of poor people, looking to scapegoat individuals instead of addressing structural issues.

“In the United States, by scapegoating people of lower classes as supposedly lazy or unworthy, there’s been a real protection around individual wealth instead of social wealth,” Satterwhite said.

Satterwhite thinks that this kind of ill-informed apathy trickles down and affects the way many people are willing to think about Trump voters and their share of the blame for the current state of politics.

“One of the things that alarms me is the way that some liberals have blamed rural whites for Trump and for the direction that the country is going and insisting that rural whites get what they deserve,” Satterwhite said. 

For decades, both of the major political parties in this country have been cashing out their working class positions to double down on their alignment with the donor class. Sure, prioritizing donors over the underprivileged will give you a much larger return on your investment in the short term, but in the long term it creates swaths of voters for whom the system no longer works and encourages them to put their energies into populist movements. Trump isn’t the only one leading these kinds of movements — in 2016, the constituencies of West Virginia turned out in droves for Sanders, shadowing Clinton with an almost 20-point advantage in the primary. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party did a much better job at reigning in their populist candidate than the Republicans.

Many voters, like Satterwhite, know the game is fixed and have stopped waiting for out-of-touch politicians to be their salvation, instead taking action against those who are working overtime against them.

“I think what people are seeing with the pipeline fight is that, if you follow your polite Southern etiquette, you’re getting nowhere,” Satterwhite said. “Your actions can be disruptive and beautiful at the same time.”

Satterwhite’s powerful demonstration three years ago was only a microcosm of a much bigger movement against a pipeline that promises to devalue the land that Appalachians live on — most notably, a group of renegades living in trees to halt the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

For the past two and a quarter years, activists have been living in the last remaining trees along the pipeline’s construction route, sleeping on makeshift platforms and having strawberry rhubarb pie pulleyed up to them while locals admire their will.  

These actions not only thwart the advancement of pipeline construction but are also selfless pursuits which inspire the sympathy of politicians. Sam Rasoul, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, has repeatedly amplified the voice of Red Terry, who tree-sat on her own property to protect it from construction crews.

#NODAPL, one of the most energized and outspoken pipeline demonstrations in recent history, garnered the sympathy and support of Bernie Sanders and even then-sitting president Barack Obama. Though the pipeline eventually drilled a hole through the hearts of many dissatisfied protesters, it proved that small voices in unison can be heard all the way to the Oval Office, its walls presumably soundproofed with stacks of cash.

The public increasingly realizes that their representatives cannot be the agents of progress when they are funded by the opponents of progress. That Gov. Abbott of Texas goes on Fox blaming solar and wind distributors for the energy crisis because they are in competition with the oil and natural gas firms who donate large portions of his income.

Lobbying can still be used the way in which James Madison intended. No longer would underrepresented constituents have to depend on the hollow promises of reality television billionaires, nor would their concerns be trivialized by out of touch politicians — the voice of the collective booms louder than the man at the podium and can carry us toward a more equitable future.

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