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Who were the robber barons? The originals, I mean.
They were a class of minor lords in feudal Germany who’d been granted land and the title of baron by the king. Many of them set up illegal toll stops on roads and rivers crossing their fiefdoms. Using iron chains and brawny enforcers, these unscrupulous raubritter prevented shippers and travelers from passing unless they paid steep fees. Refuse to pay and you would be robbed of cargo or money, or even kidnapped for ransom, by these literal robber barons.
Several centuries later, in America’s Gilded Age, we spawned our own ruthless raubritter, a class of blunt-force monopolists, like Andrew Carnegie (steel), Jay Gould (railroads), Andrew Mellon (finance), John D. Rockefeller (oil), and Cornelius Vanderbilt (shipping). Historian Charles Geisst described them as, “a set of avaricious rascals who habitually cheated and robbed investors and consumers, corrupted government … and in general carried on predatory activities comparable to the robber barons of medieval Europe.”
Robber baron redux
From that lineage comes today’s Robber Baron of the Mountain State: West Virginia’s multimillionaire coal profiteer and right-wing Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin. Because of the present 50-50 partisan split in the senate, he’s been able to stand in the way of the Democratic Party’s national agenda, threatening to throw his vote to Republicans and prevent passage of any progressive policy. Like the barons of old, Manchin is a hold-up artist, routinely demanding that special benefits for his favored corporations be added to Democratic bills and that benefits for the public be subtracted. Pay up–or nothing moves forward.
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The fossil-fueled senator flashed his raubritter genes last December when he announced he would join Republicans to block critical climate- change legislation proposed by President Biden. But this past summer, out of the blue, Manchin suddenly declared that he and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had agreed to pass a scaled-down (but still significant) package of climate reforms. Which they did in August. Wow, progress!
Yes. But also no.
It turns out that to purchase this legislative win, Schumer had agreed to a devil’s bargain with the baron. Without consulting activist groups or even key members of his own party, the mighty Senate leader pledged that Democrats would also pass a follow-up bill: A 91-page package of regulatory giveaways to polluting industries. The concessions amounted to a literal dirty deal, greasing federal permitting rules so Big Oil, Big Coal, and other giants can more easily and quickly run over local residents and environmental defenders who oppose their rapacious projects.
This is a roll-your-eyes example of Schumer and too many other top Democrats living inside their little hothouse on Capitol Hill, pretending to work for the interests of their constituents. To maintain that fiction once the treacherous Manchin deal was exposed, they publicly and brazenly touted the deal as a “win,” dodging the fact that it callously sells out real people throughout America who’re struggling doggedly to stop one or more of the Bigs from laying waste to their water, land, air, health, businesses, communities … and climate. It’s a stark demonstration of why a growing multitude of grassroots democrats feel that establishment Democrats don’t know or care about them and their communities.
For insiders, “streamlining” regulatory procedures to comfort Manchin is just a necessary piece of legislative give and take. But for people on the outside, the deal is personal, for it would steal their power to protect essential pieces of themselves–ranging from vitals like homes and basic rights, to invaluable intangibles like natural beauty and peace of mind. Most senators never experience such corporate takings, but this kind of mass robbery is common in working class and poor communities. Schumer seems unaware of it, but nearly every state has scrappy grassroots coalitions currently battling the very pipeliners, frackers, drillers, channelers, poisoners, stripminers, and other corporate spoilers that Manchin proposes to strengthen.
The odds are already stacked against these gutsy grassroots champions of nature, community, and democracy itself as they battle the corporate Goliaths storming from afar with an overwhelming arsenal of money, lawyers, lobbyists, PR agents, and raw political clout. So, they were flabbergasted, and then infuriated, that the top senate leader of the self-described people’s party (backed by President Joe Biden, no less), was gleefully aiding and abetting their invaders. Moreover, while Schumer brought the corporate powers into his backroom to shape the deal, all of the outsider democrats were shut out and blindsided–not even informed about a fundamental rewrite of the rules, much less asked to participate. They soon learned the truth of the old saying: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Especially offended were thousands of Manchin’s own West Virginia constituents. Since 2014, they’ve been in a gut-level fight against a particularly destructive and dangerous corporate boondoggle: The 300-mile-long Mountain Valley Pipeline.
MVP is owned by a consortium of five huge utilities: NextEra, Equitrans Midstream, AltaGas, RGC Resources, and Consolidated Edison. Their $6.6 billion MVP venture is a mess of corporate arrogance and environmental abuses. If completed, it would pump 2 billion cubic feet per day of fracked gas (a toxic-laden, massively polluting, climate-destroying fuel) through the length of West Virginia, Virginia, and eventually into North Carolina. The gas carried by the pipeline would produce greenhouse gas emissions each year equivalent to 26 coal-burning utility plants. Yet, using political money and the autocratic power of eminent domain, the consortium already has foisted disjointed sections of its pipe on hundreds of farms, housing developments, rural towns, tribal lands, national forests, pristine wildlife habitats, wetlands, rivers, and water tables.
Still, for all their clout, they’ve failed to push it through. Because:
- MVP was grossly ill-conceived. Not only was it obviously destructive to communities and nature, but it also was designed to deliver a dirty, outdated, unneeded fuel that does more harm than good.
- The aloof financiers badly misjudged how hard it would be to overpower a hardy grassroots coalition of resistance that has grown, stayed connected, and been in MVP’s face for years, steadily documenting and exposing a catalogue of damages, illegalities, lies, and injustices perpetrated by the consortium. With determination and savvy, these local citizens and their progressive allies have presented their case again and again to multiple state and federal regulatory bodies and courts that have consistently sided with them, denying MVP permits for the consortium to operate.
- The pipeline itself was so poorly planned and badly managed that it has racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. It has become such a white elephant that investors began pulling out early this year. In short, the Davids had defeated Goliath!
An OOPS! Moment: Any doubt about whom Manchin-Schumer, Inc. was serving was clarified in September by the discovery that Big Oil’s chief lobbying front had written the specific procedural giveaways included in the side agreement. An initial draft of the provisions was even drawn on paper bearing the American Petroleum Institute’s watermark!
Then–BAM!–the Joe-Chuck bomb hit. In their 91-pages of procedural gimmes to polluters, the two senators inserted a special provision that mandated one particular fossil fuel project out of hundreds under development: Yes, the MVP. Thus, Goliath was to be resuscitated by federal fiat, nullifying years of tremendous organizing and the recent hard-won victory achieved by thousands of common people across three states. And yet, the Democratic perpetrators wonder why so many once-reliable constituencies see them as sellouts who’ve abandon the party’s progressive principles and people.
Doubling down on dirty
Luckily, there is a strong and growing core of genuine Democrats in Congress, and they rebelled in outrage as soon as they learned about the Schumerites’ devious ploy. Stalwarts like Sen. Bernie Sanders and such leaders of House progressives as Raul Grijalva and Ro Khanna led an open mutiny of Democratic members against the majority leader’s treachery. Most importantly, they added grassroots oomph to their inside fight by taking it to the countryside, rallying hundreds of community groups to action, as well as mobilizing an influential force of local Democratic elected officials who are battling fossil fuel invaders in their own areas–from Boca Raton to Bellingham, Talladega to Merrimack.
What was to be a quiet, quick corporate fix was suddenly out in the open, and Schumer realized his deal would lose in an honest, straightforward congressional vote. No problem though. He just escalated the dishonesty, slipping Manchin’s payoffs into an omnibus funding bill that Congress had to pass by October 1 … or the whole government would shut down. Thus, he put the deal on track–choo-choo!–to become law without anyone actually voting for it! Clever, huh?
But Mr. Clever’s evil twin is Mr. Cynical, and that’s the ugly face Schumer was showing to America. Not good optics, especially with mid-term congressional elections just a month away, so the deceitful duo was compelled to pull down their anti-democratic gambit. Yet, far from humbled, Schumer vowed to resume pushing the deal after November’s elections. Worse, Mountain Baron Manchin fell into an ugly pout, blaming his plan’s defeat on “the radical agenda” of “Bernie Sanders and the extreme liberals”–oblivious to the fact that clandestinely trying to shove a polluting pipeline down your own constituents’ throats is the very definition of radical extremism.
Vote? Hell, yes!
The Congressional $$-go-round
Maverick progressive outsiders like Danielle Walker and Mike Pushkin, the new vice chair and chair respectively of West Virginia Dems, recently won a majority on the WV Dems’ state executive committee. Here with Hightower at a recent Fayette County gathering.
They won against daunting foes: Joe Manchin and big money. Of 535 members of the US Senate and House, the #1 recipient of oil and gas campaign cash is West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. Among his largest donors is NextEra, the lead operative pushing the Mountain Valley Pipeline. And guess what corporation is Chuck Schumer’s #2 largest campaign benefactor? NextEra. Indeed, Schumer is Congress’ #1 recipient of money from utilities, and one of his former aides is now a lobbyist for utilities on pipeline issues. The insider lawmakers take corporate money and the people get taken. But that doesn’t have to be!
What we have here is a blockbuster example of why electing actual Democrats matters. Yet, some progressives moan that Schumer’s machinations in the Manchin saga show such an irredeemable level of corporate corruption within the Democrats’ top echelon, that the party is unworthy of their votes. To which I say: Get a grip!1 Thanks to Bernie, Raul, Ro, and others in the feisty congressional contingent of solid-d Democrats, the progressives are winning this one, beating the combined forces of the majority leader, Baron Manchin, the White House, and Washington’s pollution lobby. 2 Having fewer progressives voting does nothing but throw open the gates to total corporatization of the party and the country. It’s a senseless surrender, especially when we’ve recently been gaining supporters and victories with our populist issues, showing the way to get beyond a 50-50 partisan split to become a governing majority. 3 Yes, the current party hierarchy has rigged its structure and rules so it can keep the mavericks at bay, ignore the rank and file’s progressive majority, and fund conservative candidates against democratic Democrats. But don’t whine, organize! Ultimately the party is not a thing to be owned, but a process to be worked … and, step by step, state by state, election by election, progressives are steadily becoming the Democratic Party.
Just ask Joe Manchin!
A one-man blockade in the US Senate, Manchin has positioned himself over the years to be an even more massive barrier to people’s progress in West Virginia. In addition to the inherent power of being once governor and now senator, Manchin used hook and crook to turn the state Democratic Party into his personal fiefdom. Not only did he name the chair, vice chair, and all other key state party officers, but he also installed “Little Joes” in all 99 seats on the state executive committee. Until recently, even to run for elected office as a Democrat has required kissing Joe’s ring. His control was so absolute that he threw West Virginia’s 2016 presidential primary to Hillary Clinton, even though Bernie Sanders had scored landslide victories to win every county!
But poor Joe–along came Selina Vickers, an unsung social worker aggrieved that the state’s working class and poor families were falling deeper into poverty and illness while Manchin, the only statewide elected Democrat, grew richer and more powerful by serving the predatory corporate powers and his own financial interests. Becoming a student of intraparty procedures and an indefatigable organizer, Vickers rallied grassroots anger at the party establishment’s corruption. And she found a path to victory in an odd place: The national party’s own rules. The rules require gender and racial equity on committees, as well as specific democratic procedures in leadership elections–nearly all of which “Manchin’s party” had flagrantly ignored.
For six years, this grassroots insurgency grew from county to county. It began winning procedural challenges, leading to filing a diversified slate of reform candidates this year to run against Manchin’s ossified, autocratic party structure. Then, at the Dem’s state convention in June, the reformers collected the prize that good intentional organizing can deliver: Their slate’s win of the majority of seats on the executive committee included defenestrating Manchin’s former chief of staff (who reacted by promptly switching parties). In an electoral sweep, democratic outsiders had become the party.
The party’s new chair is a cab driver and musician, Mike Pushkin. The vice chair is Danielle Walker, a member of the House of Delegates and a forthright progressive advocate. And she is now, believe it or not, the first person of color in the state’s history to have a seat on the Democratic executive committee! It was truly a people’s victory, pulled together and directed by hundreds of everyday volunteers who did it without big money, professional consultants, or the backing of established organizations. And now these grassroots West Virginians are building a real democratic party structure, bringing in other long-excluded people and choosing candidates from this downhome base to run for city, county, and state legislative positions. They’re showing the importance of having a democratic structure if you intend to win democratic policies. As Vickers put it: “There’s a seat at the table if we can unrig the system.”
Of course, Manchin & crew are furiously conniving to take power back and remove democracy from the state party, but this is a gusty, determined group–a model of perseverance for progressive champions elsewhere seeking democratic advances where they live.
Honest politics defeats cynicism and draws people in. As the new Democratic vice chair Danielle Walker said to a reporter for The Intercept: “I see Democrats around the state of West Virginia having hope for the first time. There’s a new beacon of light shining down on the government with people energized and ready to strategize with a return to the democratic process.”