The covid pandemic should have revealed to us how hard it is doing democracy. The plague could be over by now had everyone agreed it's bad, had everyone agreed masks are good and had everyone agreed vaccines are the road of the righteous to liberation. While consensus is always difficult to achieve in any democracy, the radicalization of one of two major parties, such that it's more like a separatist movement than a legitimate bargaining partner, has meant consensus has become nearly impossible.
But the covid pandemic should have revealed something else, something related to how hard it is doing democracy. When one of two major parties is willing to hurt itself in order to achieve its objectives, that party is always going to have a political advantage over the other. Mutual benefit and trust are impossible when betrayal is optional. Put another way, having a political advantage over the other party is important enough that the Republicans will gladly hurt themselves. This is so important it will move heaven and earth so it does not appear to be suicidal but instead honorable—so self-harm doesn't look like masochism but instead freedom.
Consider recent remarks by Madison Cawthorn given during a speech on the floor of the United States House of Representatives during which he railed against new rules requiring members wear masks: "If I am to cowardly bend the knee here, like those on the left wish, then what is to stop you all from taking your tyranny to the rest of this country that I love," the North Carolina Congressman said. "How dare anyone in this institution attempt to dictate to the patriots on my staff how they may live their lives. … What makes this nation special is that here in this free land, the people are the royalty. So arrest us if you will, but I will not cower and I will not bend. You have come to take away our liberties, but Madam Speaker, in this country you are outnumbered."
Cawthorn is a carbuncle on the haunch of the Republican Party, but nevertheless he captures the democratic predicament I'm talking about. The more we ask these authoritarians to do the right thing—to get vaccinated for themselves and everyone they love—the more these authoritarians will recognize, because we keep asking so nicely, that they have an advantage over us. The more we ask them to do their part in the democratic exercise of collective problem-solving, the more they see the value in sabotage. Liberals often call them crazy, but they are not. They are making a rational choice. In order to continue this advantage, they continue refusing to "give in."
That the political advantage they imagine for themselves is fictional—you know, on account of they're dying from the covid—does not detract from democracy being made more difficult when one of the major parties is willing to hurt itself in order to maintain or gain a political advantage. Democracies can't live with authoritarians. Democracies can't live without them either. In any given democracy worldwide, there's always a sizable chunk of its population jim-dandy with the idea of liquidating their enemies. There's always a sizable chuck prepared to die for such "principles." Don't take my word for it, though. Here's Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a former health official fired by the state of Tennessee for doing her job too well. This is what she told CNN:
I think, you know, the other thing in Tennessee, and I think in a lot of our southern states what's happening is this ideology that if you get this vaccine, you're somehow placating the left part of the political spectrum. And so, what we're actually seeing is our most hesitant population in Tennessee is the white male rural conservative and that they are stating that they're not going to get the vaccine, really, out of spite, and are willing to put their own lives and the lives of people that they love at risk because they feel that if they get the vaccine, then they have, you know, placated the left or done what the Biden administration wants them to do. (The emphasis is mine.)
The result is a covid pandemic that should be over by now.
What can democracies do? I dunno. What can they do when sizable chunks of their populations are prepared to blow themselves up out of spite? While we can't prevent that in the absence of a federal mandate (I'll return to a mandate in a moment), we can prevent them from getting the respect they desperately crave. Make no mistake. Respect is the point of all those make-believe arguments, voiced by that carbuncle on the haunch of the Republican Party, about self-harm not really being self-harm but really being a principled fight for freedom. Noop. It's not. Suicide, yes. Liberty, no. Dying because the Biden administration wants you to live isn't brave. It's pathetic.
What the rest of us can do is point out that these authoritarians hurt themselves not out of principle but fear. They are deeply, deeply afraid. Of what? Not what they should be afraid of, like the covid, but of ordinary humiliation. Why do you think they talk to each other exclusively? It's because authoritarians inhabit lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations about themselves and the world around them that cannot exist "on the outside." They won't risk the humiliation that comes with engaging the "reality-based community" that the rest of us live in. They won't risk the humiliation of having to defer to the authority of facts—of the possibility of being wrong and not being as great as these authoritarians believe themselves to be. If they accepted as right and true the facts informing the "reality-based community," they'd be surrendering. They'd be accepting their "replacement." They'd rather replace by force the "reality-based community" with lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations about themselves and the world around them. Once that happens, then—only then—will they feel respected.
You can't ever let that happen. The democratic exercise of collective problem-solving—for instance, putting an end to this goddamn pandemic—demands loyalty to facts. It also demands humility. Humility, to the authoritarian, isn't humility as the rest of us understand it. It's humiliation, which is a source of pain, which is of their own making. It's humiliating when people on the outside don't believe lies believed true on the inside. It's humiliating when the rest of us don't believe their ridiculous claim to be fighting for their liberty. Long before they chose to hurt themselves during a plague in order to gain some kind of imaginary advantage over their imaginary enemies, they were already hurting. Pain is the simple result of encountering a modern, literate and technologically advanced society. If existence itself is painful, what's a little more, especially when the pain is seen as evidence of the rest of us being against them?
It may seem ironic to say this but a federally enforced vaccine mandate will probably put an end to all this. Sure, some will resist. Many will die before getting a shot. But most of the rest of these authoritarians will cave under the weight of government's authority. They won't admit to it, of course. They will convince themselves they are getting a shot out of their own free will. It's the right thing to do! Whatever works.
The director of Pray Away, a new Netflix documentary about the so-called "ex-gay" therapy movement, says that contrary to popular belief, the dangerous, deadly practice of attempting to change people's sexual orientation or gender identity is alive and well. In fact, despite the shuttering of prominent organizations like Exodus International, the ex-gay movement appears to be growing as conservatives dig in their heels against "woke" and "inclusive" culture.
Although numerous states have banned ex-gay therapy, those laws typically apply only to licensed mental health professionals whose clients are minors, and not to religious practitioners who may be protected by the First Amendment.
Kristine Stolakis, who directed the film that was executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum, told the Daily Beast that the "urgency in making Pray Away stemmed in part from a desire to battle the assumption that in 2021, when 'woke' and 'inclusivity' are buzzwords, practices like gay conversion therapy don't exist anymore."
"When pop culture turns the concept of gay conversion therapy into a joke, as shows like Saturday Night Live have done several times in recent years, it fosters an assumption that, because it's being laughed off, it must not be a serious problem in modern society," the Daily Beast reports, adding that an estimated 700,000 people have gone through a form of conversion therapy in the U.S., and a survey found that youth who experienced it were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.
"This is a message that we hope our film sends, which is that as long as some version of homophobia and transphobia exist, some version of the conversion therapies will continue," Stolakis told the Daily Beast. "I wish I could say something rosy, that this collection of leaders has defected, therefore this is going away. It's not the case. There are always going to be new leaders essentially in training, ready to take this place if this larger culture of homophobia and transphobia continues. ... I think it is a mistake if we look at this as a red versus blue issue, as Republican versus Democrat. This is not that. We're talking about making sure people are more or not more likely to kill themselves. That's what we're talking about. There's no room for politics. We need to make sure that people are safe."
Julie Rodgers, one of several former ex-gay leaders and participants whose stories are chronicled in Pray Away, said the Exodus International affiliate with which she worked, Living Hope, is larger and more influential than ever. That's because "the more progressive certain parts of society become, the more aggressive and protective these communities are of what they consider to be morally upright and pure lifestyles," according to the Daily Beast.
"There's definitely a sense in which we are seeing polarization and we are seeing more people that I'm connected to still in the Christian right really digging their heels and doubling down," said Rogers, who finally left the ex-gay movement after she was sexually assaulted in college, and neither Living Hope or Exodus International provided any help.
Read the full story here, and watch the trailer below.
Pray Away | Official Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com
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Fixing Texas' power grid was about the only thing Republicans and Democrats in the legislative session seemed to agree on earlier this year. Power companies were in the hot seat, as millions of Texans who endured a week of subfreezing temperatures with no power demanded sweeping, multibillion dollar improvements to prevent another deadly disaster — and lawmakers promised action.
But by the end of the legislative session, if Texas' top power companies were aggrieved by the way they were treated by the Legislature or any of the new laws passed targeting their industry, they didn't show it.
Texas elected officials can't receive campaign donations during the session, but after it ended in May, they were showered in cash by the energy industry — even more than usual for a group known for its deep pockets and generous campaign giving.
From June 21 to June 30, after the legislative fundraising blackout ended, five of the largest and most prominent companies in the Texas power grid supply chain — Calpine, Centerpoint, NRG Energy, Oncor and Vistra — or their top executives collectively donated about $497,000 to state elected officials and political groups. That's more than twice the $207,000 they gave during the same period when the legislative session ended in in 2019, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. A large chunk of that cash was driven by Oncor, Texas' largest transmission and distribution electric company, with many big donations coming from the company's executives.
Over that same short stretch in June, 11 prominent oil industry leaders, including billionaires Kelcy Warren, S. Javaid Anwar and Douglas Scharbauer — all three whom could not be reached for comment — combined to contribute about $3.2 million to Texas elected officials, up from about $2.2 million over the same period following the previous legislative session in 2019. Warren's company Energy Transfer declined to comment on his behalf.
For some energy experts, the increase in donations for the officials at the close of the session looks like a reward for not passing more stringent regulations and raises questions about whether lawmakers let the oil, gas and the broader energy industry off easy for its massive failures.
"Gas producers got a pass by Texas policymakers," said Michael Webber, professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin. "Making a million-dollar political donation to reward the government for its light touch and encourage the government to continue turning a blind eye to price gouging and windfall profits while hundreds of people die seems like a good return on investment."
"Making a million-dollar political donation to reward the government for its light touch and encourage the government to continue turning a blind eye to price gouging and windfall profits while hundreds of people die seems like a good return on investment."
— Michael Webber, professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin.
A spokesperson for Oncor said the company "believes in actively participating in the political process." CenterPoint said: "In this case, CenterPoint Energy Political Action Committee made public contributions to support members of the Texas Legislature who had announced their intention to run for re-election, regardless of party affiliation." A Calpine representative said its CEO, who made up the bulk of contributions tied to the company, donated money "as he develops relationships with these members directly." The other two companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who is heading into a reelection year in 2022, benefited most from the flood of June campaign donations from the energy industry.
Abbott received about $4.6 million from oil, gas and broader energy interests, his largest haul ever from those groups in the post-legislative session fundraising period following the four regular legislative sessions during Abbott's tenure as governor.
Those donations included $1 million from Warren, cofounder of a pipeline company that made $2.4 billion from the winter storm, according to a report from Bloomberg. Warren has given Abbott $250,000 donations almost every year since he won the governor's office in 2014.
"Governor Abbott represents all Texans, and that's what he takes into account every day as he works on behalf of the Lone Star State," spokeswoman Renae Eze said.
Other lawmakers who saw some of the largest spikes in funding from the energy industry were those who authored the power grid legislation and chaired the committees that heard the bills.
State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, chair of the powerful state affairs committee in the House, was among those lawmakers.
Just 6%, or $1,141, of his overall campaign contributions in the brief June fundraising period after the 2015 legislative session came from the energy industry. During the same stretch after the two subsequent legislative sessions in 2017 and 2019, fewer than 9% of Paddie's contributions came from energy interests.
After the 2021 regular legislative session, energy industry donations totaling $26,000 for the period made up 88% of Paddie's campaign contributions over just the last 10 days of June.
"Absent that storm, his contributions would have been different," said Bill Miller, a longtime Texas political consultant and lobbyist. "The storm, as bad as it was, helped him on his bottom line for contributions."
Paddie received contributions from Oncor; Vistra, the state's largest power generation company; and NuStar Political Action Committee, an oil and gas group. Paddie has received thousands in contributions from these entities in election years, but never this amount immediately after a legislative session.
A spokesperson for Paddie did not respond to questions.
Paddie was among a chorus of elected officials from the governor on down demanding answers and solutions for why Texas' grid was on the brink of total collapse in February. There was a series of finger-pointing and falsehoods from state elected officials who wouldn't accept responsibility and falsely shifted blame to renewable energy sources as they vowed to fix the grid.
The Legislature ultimately passed a bill — shepherded by Paddie in the House and state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, in the Senate — that requires power generation companies to prepare to withstand extreme weather conditions. But the bill didn't set a hard deadline for when the upgrades need to be complete and it stopped short of detailing how the state would enforce and incentivize the process called weatherization.
Critics said this and other storm response bills spearheaded by these lawmakers also failed to provide direct assistance to people harmed by February's power crisis or to help Texans reduce electricity use to take pressure off the grid during extreme weather.
Schwertner went from receiving 3% of his overall campaign contributions from the energy industry in the fundraising period after the 2015 legislative session to the industry making up about 32% of his contributions in 2021. The amount of money the senator fundraised from energy interests jumped from $1,000 to $44,500, the Tribune found. A Schwertner spokesperson did not respond to questions for this story.
State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who led much of the upper chamber's response to the storm that left millions of Texans without electricity for days in subfreezing temperatures, also got a boost in funding.
More than a quarter of Hancock's contributions in June came from energy interests, about $53,500 — the most he has ever received in a post-legislative session period. This is up from 19% after the 2019 session. Hancock also has ties to the energy industry in his full-time job as a business owner. His chemical logistics company serves the oil and gas industry, among others. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Oil and politics have been entwined in Texas for more than a century, since wildcatters hit the first gusher at Spindletop back in 1901. Oil grew to become the state's signature industry, rich oilmen and companies started showering politicians with money and a romance blossomed. Oil and gas taxes now boost the state budget.
"The twisted roots between the oil and gas industry and Texas lawmakers is almost as old as the Capitol building itself," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
The Bush family's origin story in Texas revolves around oil and gas, and money from the industry has funded much of the family's political fortunes in the state ever since they arrived in West Texas.
While former Gov. George W. Bush was heavily funded by his family's well-established energy network, his successor, former Gov. Rick Perry, worked to cultivate a wide base of financial support from energy interests, Rottinghaus said.
Abbott has run a similar playbook as Perry and has taken it to a different level, Rottinghaus said.
Overall since 2014, Abbott has received about $30 million from oil, gas and other energy interests, which is about 18% of his $166 million total raised in that time. Four out of the top 10 individual donors to Abbott are oil and gas men.
Just before the energy donations poured in for Abbott in June, the power grid operator asked Texans, mid-heat wave, to conserve power and turn their thermostats to 78 degrees for a week in order to reduce electricity demand because significant power generation was unexpectedly offline.
The warnings led to renewed calls for the Legislature to take more urgent action to fix the power grid. During that week, Abbott assured Texans the grid was in better shape than ever.
Not long after, Abbott released a list of issues lawmakers needed to address in July during a special-called legislative session. The power grid was not included.
Leading up to Abbott's decision, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pressured Abbott in public statements that issues related to the grid needed to be on the agenda. Patrick's calls came after he tried to assert himself prominently in responding to the winter storm by demanding leadership changes at state regulatory agencies and sparring with one Abbott-appointed regulator on the senate floor.
About 26% of Patrick's contributions in June came from energy interests, more than $1.3 million, his most ever in the post-session stretch. That amount is up from 12% of his contributions coming from energy interests after the 2019 session, about $383,000.
Most of Patrick's energy industry money received in June was driven by oil executives.
Patrick spokeswoman Sherry Sylvester said: "No one has been tougher on the energy sector and more proactive for ratepayers this session than Lt. Governor Patrick, who moved immediately following the February storm to call for the resignations of both the PUC board and ERCOT, both of which were fully reformed through Senate Bills 2 and 3."
Disclosure: Calpine, CenterPoint Energy, NRG Energy, Oncor, University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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