With EPA & Labor Unions Under Fire, So is US Democracy


Image: Michael Casey

There's more to the recent political assault on the EPA than meets the eye -- it goes beyond the 'big government' rhetoric, and beyond political opportunism (though there's plenty of that indeed). But the entire debacle reveals something more fundamentally disturbing -- a wrench in our democratic process, which allows the interests of the rich to essentially overrule the American public's right to clean air, clean water, to lead healthy lives. And there are a few seemingly unrelated reasons I'd argue this is happening: skyrocketing income inequality, a scattered green movement, and a decline in political support for working class families.
We're fresh off the heels of the BP Gulf Spill, perhaps the greatest ecological disaster the United States has ever seen, and an anti-regulatory, anti-environmental political ideology is somehow front and center in the national theater. A majority of Congressmen in the House will soon vote to peel away the powers vested in the EPA and the Clean Air Act. Barely two years after electing the most environmentally progressive president in decades, we're seeing our protections against pollution getting trampled -- just as the scope of the threat posed by climate change is made crystal clear; just when we need them the most.

The climate and clean energy bill that passed the House of Representatives in 2009 is now long dead -- even though polls consistently found that most Americans fully supported its aims. And a full 77% of Americans support the EPA, and don't think Congress should interfere with its operations -- but the invigorated GOP leadership is attacking it anyways, attempting to strip its budget and limit its ability to hold major polluters accountable.

In case you missed it, there's a pattern here: the American people consistently support strong protections to their air and environment, yet they're ignored or overruled by Congress. But how can this be? If people really wanted clean air and water, then the politicians eying their reelection bids would have to take those demands into consideration, right? Unfortunately, this is where we get to that whole wrench-in-democracy thing.

To understand why this malfunction is occurring, we need to understand a simple fact: since the 1970s, income inequality has skyrocketed in the US. The highest-earning Americans, the top 1%, control 34% of the entire nation's wealth. That's a huge departure from the late 70s, where the same 1% controlled only 12.8%. As of 2006, the top 0.01% earned nearly 1000 times what the bottom 90% did. And because of all of this, politicians have been catering more and more of their policymaking to meet the demands of that 1%.

Here's Kevin Drum on how this works:

American politicians don't care much about voters with moderate incomes. Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early '90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that's not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don't respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that's not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don't respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.

Drum's article goes on to detail how the labor movement used to act as a countervailing force to business sector policy aims that ignored the desires of middle-to-low income voters -- but since its splintering in the 70s and subsequent decline, Democratic politicians have increasingly abandoned championing the working class and have turned instead to soliciting the favors of corporate interests and the wealthy. Which brings us back to the assault on the EPA, and the death of legislation aimed at reducing carbon pollution in the Congress.

The sad truth is that there's no voting block powerful enough to motivate politicians to pursue legislation aimed squarely at improving public health in general (especially if it would inconvenience the business community in the process). The labor movement used to put pressure on Congressmen to protect the working class from things like rampant pollution, but its influence has waned far too greatly for it to be an effective driver in doing so now.

And what about a grassroots movement like the one that inspired so much environmental reform in the late 60s? It's not here; not yet, anyways. The BP spill inspired about as much environmental protest as the May Day parade. But we're working on it -- this is precisely the reason Bill McKibben organized 350.org; in an attempt to cultivate a grassroots movement large enough to act as a lever of power on Congress.

Right now, the millions of people impacted by pollution from industrial sources -- who live in lower-income areas near power plants or factories, who get asthma, cancer, respiratory illness, and the hundreds of millions more who will be impacted by the advance of climate change -- their votes aren't in nearly the same weight class as influential parties like the Koch brothers or, say, the CEO of Exelon. They have no institutional representation. And with no institutional structure (like labor or a widespread grassroots movement) backing them up, politicians won't feel they can successfully capitalize on advocating for working class rights -- and we get what we're seeing now. Inaction, haplessness. Corporate influences overpowering the will of the American public.

The EPA is charged with providing a valuable public service to all Americans, rich or poor, and politicians are attempting to shut it down for the benefit of a few corporations -- this should be widely seen as a travesty. McKibben is right. It's time to get organized.

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More on the EPA
The GOP's Anti-Clean Air Act Bill is an Assault on Science Itself
Bush's EPA Told Him CO2 Should be Regulated, Was Overruled by Cheney
5 Leading US Health Groups Oppose Efforts to Block EPA Regulating CO2

Tags: EPA | United States

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