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The Democratic Party’s Neoliberal Rationalizations Of Corporate Power Endanger The Planet

Dr. Cornel West was severely troubled by Democrats, who deployed “neoliberal rationalizations of corporate power” during Democratic National Convention Platform Committee proceedings. West, the prominent scholar appointed to the committee by Senator Bernie Sanders, effectively expressed the frustration of millions of Americans when he took members to task for voting against key amendments to the platform.

On June 24, very late in the evening, the committee deliberated over an amendment, which had the rare support of both Hillary Clinton and Sanders appointees. It requested the Justice Department investigate Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies, which likely engaged in fraud when concealing information they knew about the threat of climate change from shareholders and citizens.

The vote came after Clinton appointees and members appointed by Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz defeated: a ban on natural gas fracking; a carbon tax, keeping 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground to curb effects of climate change; a government test to block any energy infrastructure projects, which would significantly contribute to climate change, and a measure to halt the abuse of eminent domain by the fossil fuel industry.

West said it must be acknowledged the Justice Department “has not already engaged in this investigation, given the hiding and concealing going on with Exxon Mobil and others.” There must be ongoing criminality by oil and gas companies in the same way Wall Street crimes that must be ongoing. “The age of impunity goes on and on,” West said, and the only thing stopping government from catering to corporate interests are social movements bringing pressure to bear.

Indeed, on the issue of climate change, the “neoliberal rationalizations of corporate power,” which West acknowledged, were quite profound.

Environmental activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben, who was appointed by Sanders, proposed the following language for the platform: “Democrats believe government should not aid private companies by using eminent domain to build new fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States.”

Paul Booth, Clinton appointee and executive assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, rationalized allowing the abuse of eminent domain by the government to go unchecked.

“Let’s not make such a quick assumption that public purposes and private purposes are all determined by whether the company that carries it out is public or private,” Booth argued. “There are public purposes in our country and our system [that] we leave to private companies to carry things forward. Much of our infrastructure, electricity transmission lines, is a very obvious example. Railroads is another one, are almost entirely privately owned and operated, but eminent domain applies because they are the sole means. [You have] such structures in order to fulfill public purposes and provide public goods.”

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress who was appointed by Clinton, cowardly suggested the “right could use what we say” if Democrats took a stand against eminent domain abuse in the platform. She misconstrued McKibben’s amendment and acted like it targeted the entire concept of eminent domain, when it clearly advocated that Democrats only apply it to the fossil fuel industry.

To be clear, the amendment was developed by Jane Kleeb, director of the community organization, Bold Nebraska, which played an instrumental role in organizing ranchers and farmers against TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. Ranchers filed cases in Nebraska courts over eminent domain rights and delayed pipeline construction long enough for political pressure to build.

Think Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress, reported this month on battles ongoing over eminent domain; particularly, how Dakota Access is seizing land for the Bakken pipeline in the midwest:

“I’ve been paying on this land for 35 to 40 years … and within four or five years since paying for it, somebody is trying to take it away to put a pipeline across it,” said William Smith, an Iowa farmer who refuses to lease away 200 acres of the land he uses to grow corn and soy. “It just doesn’t sit very well with me,” he told ThinkProgress.

Smith, 66, is part of small group of Iowa landowners who are challenging Dakota Access’ eminent domain power in court. “We are still not giving into the company,” he said. At issue is whether the pipeline company deserves eminent domain powers given that it’s not a public utility. In addition, plaintiffs claim giving eminent domain powers for the Bakken pipeline is not a public improvement or serves any public use, according to court documentation obtained by ThinkProgress.

Prior to this debate, McKibben detailed the impact of natural gas pipelines or fracking wells on the environment, as well as their major contribution to climate disruption. Nevertheless, Clinton and Wasserman Schultz appointees disregarded the science and voted against the eminent domain abuse amendment. They sided with the industry.

“I’m getting a little depressed about this pattern,” West shared. “I mean, you have Brother McKibben. McKibben has no monopoly on truth, capital T, but he’s one of the great prophetic voices of the 21st Century dealing with the state of emergency. And he’s presenting these very powerful arguments and insights and frameworks, and each time it’s unconvincing to my fellow colleagues around the table.”

Part of the problem is two of the Clinton appointees on the committee were Carol Browner and Wendy Sherman. They worked for Albright Stonebridge group, a firm formed after former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s consulting company and Stonebridge International, a defense contractor lobbying group, merged.

Browner and Sherman have held positions in government. Sherman was under secretary of political affairs at the State Department. Browner was head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and later, director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy in President Barack Obama’s administration. Both are supporters of natural gas, as well as nuclear power. [Browner co-authored a Center for American Progress report on “clean energy,” which supported more investment in natural gas production.]

When McKibben put forward an amendment to include language advocating the State Department end the promotion of fracking overseas, Sherman used Cold War rhetoric to bolster her neoliberal rationalization of corporate power and encourage colleagues to vote down McKibben’s proposal.

“If we do not make sure that there are secure energy sources for countries in Europe and from around the world, we may find ourselves facing a confrontation with Russia as it uses energy and existing pipelines for leverage in geopolitics,” Sherman declared.

In other words, if U.S. companies do not compete in markets in Europe, Russian companies will, and America cannot allow Russian capitalism to beat American capitalism, even if that means promoting dirty energy projects.

Sherman, a former State Department employee, engaged in revisionism when McKibben proposed language to encourage federal government agencies to apply the same test to fossil fuel industry projects as Obama applied to the Keystone XL pipeline; that is, if a project would “significantly exacerbate global warming,” that project should not be approved. She led opposition on the basis that the State Department followed a painstaking process to ensure blocking the pipeline would hold up if challenged in a court.

However, Sherman neglected to mention that the EPA contended the State Department’s assessment of the pipeline’s impact was “unduly narrow.” It overlooked how TransCanada would respond to oil spills, safety issues, and neglected the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. The department even claimed the pipeline project would not “substantially exacerbate” climate disruption.

What is remarkable is Clinton Democrats, who rationalized allowing corporate power to go unchecked, shot down a test favored by President Obama. The committee overwhelmingly voted against including opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in the platform because Obama supports the agreement. Yet, in this instance where the party could have shown unity with Obama, catering to corporate interests was more important.

It was Browner, who led the opposition to including a ban against fracking, which invited the ire of West.

West confronted Browner for engaging in incrementalism instead of recognizing what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” He suggested Democrats, like Browner, are in a “different vibe,” even if they agreed with what needs to be done to address the climate crisis.

“When you’re on the edge of the abyss or when you’re on that stove, to use the language of Malcolm X, you don’t use the language of incrementalism. It hurts, and the species is hurting,” West added.

The planet is experiencing staggering amounts of extreme weather brought about by climate disruption caused by humans. In November 2015, it was widely reported the planet is halfway to warming the Earth two degrees Celsius, a threshold where increasingly dangerous climate events are virtually guaranteed.

Princeton University scientist Michael Oppenheimer told “PBS Newshour” in 2015, “If we don’t start with rapid emissions reductions and substantial emissions reductions, that we will pass a danger point, beyond which the consequences for many people and countries on Earth will simply become unacceptable and eventually disastrous.”

What stands in the way of meaningfully addressing climate change is not only the fossil fuel industries but the neoliberal rationalizations for corporate power, which West called out.

As executive director for National Nurses United, RoseAnn DeMoro, articulated at the People’s Summit in Chicago, “The goal of neoliberalism is to turn our nation into a giant market, to turn citizens and residents into apolitical consumers, and to replace civil and human rights with private property rights. In short, the architects of neoliberalism, including the corporations and the political class, arm the market against us.”

The “architects of neoliberalism” push deregulation, privatization, and austerity upon us. They wield eminent domain against property owners. They commodify all parts of life without regard for the health of Planet Earth, and they have very well-positioned members of the political class, who will serve them when needed, as Clinton and Wasserman Schultz did during deliberations over the platform.

There is hope in resistance. Movements throughout the world, from indigenous communities to farmers to ranchers to regular citizens, who live nowhere near pipeline projects, fight the colonization of land by corporations each and every day. But the planet only has so much time, and those neoliberals in positions of power, who delay action, commit acts of indifference on a daily basis because they have not the spine nor the independence to oppose corporations destroying our world.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."