Christian, Oil Derrick
Cross of oil (1930). Photo credit: Illustration by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from Unknown Author / Wikimedia and Fallaner / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).

Central to the trajectory America has followed for several generations is a still enormously powerful fossil fuel industry.

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Politics for the last eight years has been different from any other time in my life, and this is hardly a perception unique to me. The phrase “existential crisis” is bandied about quite a bit and, while the rule is to somewhat discount such hyperbolic pronouncements as, well, hyperbole, our current situation strikes me as an exception to that rule. We’ve never had a candidate for president saying openly he plans to be a dictator, even for one day. And holders of high office have never before openly supported every-day dictators like Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban. 

So how did we arrive at this existential crisis, where one of our two major parties sees democracy as an impediment and increasingly embraces the tenets of minority rule

As with most of history, it’s a confluence of three phenomena: the financial interests of the powerful, social pressures, and a handful of unethical and exploitative leaders. 

Electoral College Presidents

Let’s begin with the Republican campaigns for the presidency. It’s a telling trend in modern politics that Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the past five elections, yet have captured the presidency three times in that stretch. Both George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 lost the popular vote and prevailed only because of our Electoral College system. 

Trump won the Electoral College by approximately 78,000 votes across three states while Bush’s Electoral College victory required the heavy-handed intervention of the US Supreme Court. Bush’s minority victory didn’t lead to any Supreme Court appointments in his first term but Trump was able to appoint a trio of far-right Supreme Court justices after losing the popular vote by several million. 

The notorious case of Bush v. Gore — the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2000 election to stop the recount taking place in Florida — stands as one of the turning points of American history, ushering in a trend toward minority rule by Republicans in the 21st century. And what did it turn on? Swing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, reportedly seeking to retire and be replaced on the court by a Republican appointee, signed on to the 5-4 per curiam opinion handing the presidency to Bush. The partisan majority’s reasoning was considered unprecedented at the time and the decision itself says it was a one-off and not to be put forward as precedent.

The justices’ reluctance to commit themselves to their own legal reasoning was damning, and that reasoning was consequently widely condemned by the legal community. In fact, it was not cited in a majority opinion until Moore v. Harper in 2023, the case on the “independent state legislature” theory, which would have placed federal elections entirely in the hands of state legislatures and made them unreviewable by state courts.    

Seizing the New American Century

So why did the Supreme Court majority — meaning the four Republican appointees not sharing O’Connor’s special, personal motivation — pick that hill to die on? Why would the 2000 election require the Republican Party to pull the mask off and openly reveal the Supreme Court as a political actor?

This is where the nexus, introduced above, between financial interests and unethical leaders comes into play. In January 2020, Justice Clarence Thomas was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and asking that Supreme Court salaries be increased. When he raised his concerns to a Republican lawmaker, the lawmaker wrote to him, “It is worth a lot to Americans to have the Constitution correctly interpreted.” As gangster Doyle Lonnegan put it in The Sting, “Ya folla?”

Given the timing, it’s reasonable to ask whether this foresight was directly related to the upcoming election. Did Thomas know 2000 was an excellent time to negotiate for financial assistance? Did he “folla”?

I think it also reasonable to deduce that the fossil fuel industry, facing its own little existential crisis in the form of “Green” Al Gore, badly needed the result that the court served up in Bush v. Gore

Whether and how the industry’s poobahs may have actually “requisitioned” that result is an open question; the boon the court provided is not. Gore threatened to become the first environmentalist president. His An Inconvenient Truth is one of the first and most influential environmentalist films, and he labeled the Republican Party a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry. 

To answer the question of why Big Oil and Gas would fear an environmentalist president so acutely, we must remember that, despite their propaganda, the oil industry executives absolutely knew global warming was happening, and indeed their internal research mapped out the increased temperatures of today precisely. 

If we look at the contributions of Oil and Gas to political parties from 1990 through today, the amount given to each party is roughly comparable (and under $20 million per party per year) from 1990 through 1994, then jumps to over $20 million to the Republicans in 1996 and again to $28 million in 2000 with Gore threatening, the highest level between 1990 and 2008. 

More recently, the fossil fuel donations to the Democratic Party exceeded $10 million only once: $13 million in 2020, roughly one-fifth of the $67 million given to Republicans that year.

While these numbers don’t prove an outright purchase, as Gore implied (though he may well be right), they clearly show an industry going from hedging its bets with both parties in the early 90s to moving towards the Republicans in 1996 and going all-in in 2000, donating more than four times as much to Republicans ($28 million) as to Democrats ($6.8 million). 

Having made that financial commitment, the industry expected Republicans to pursue the contested 2000 election with no holds barred. It was, they understood, a crucial turn in a road they had long been paving.

Economic regulation of coal and gas effectively ended in 1985; what regulation remained in effect was environmental in nature. As president, Ronald Reagan broke with the tradition of appointing agency heads with in-field government experience and instead began appointing those who shared his hostility to the agencies in question. To head the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, he appointed Anne Gorsuch (mother of current far-right Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch), a corporate lawyer who had fought against the creation of the EPA in the first place. 

Thus the oil and gas industries enjoyed freedom from regulation during the 80s, when Republicans were in control. The first President Bush — one of the last old-school Republicans, who still believed to some extent that government could work — gave the EPA back a few of its teeth after the damage it took from Reagan and Gorsuch. But many agency employees noted that revival was short-lived and said they saw 1994, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-GA) reactionary Contract with America kicked in, as a “watershed moment” when environmental policy became explicitly political and one-sided. 

That year jibes with the cycle from 1994 to 1996, where we noted an inflection in oil and gas donations to the respective political parties. 

The Long Road to Minority Rule

How does it all tie together? While there exist quite a few documents — such as the Powell memo; the Atwater interview on the Southern Strategy, as well as his memoirs of all his dirty tricks in politics; and the Project 2025 playbook, which is so extreme that even Trump is backpedaling away from it — explicitly laying out strategies for melding money, power, and ideology synergistically, we can add to that record some strong inferences derived from events and responses. We can, in effect, track the mindset, strategy, and tactics of the right wing as it moved to establish itself in enduring, if not perpetual, power without achieving the enduring support of a popular majority.

The landslide defeat of the far-right Barry Goldwater in 1964 marked a nadir for American conservatism, a low point that spawned the growth of think tanks like the Hudson Institute (1961) and the Heritage Foundation (1973), and long-term planning aimed at reversing much that had been put in place by the New Deal and Great Society programs, as well as such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

From the standpoint of a Leonard Leo, working his fundraising magic at the far-right Federalist Society, capturing and keeping the federal judiciary became the key to imposing a far-right, theocratic ideology on America, rolling back one by one the progressive and democratic advances of the better part of a century.

It was understood early on that capture of the judiciary (federal and state) would constitute a key component of such plans. Supreme Court composition at any given time owes itself to a combination of electoral success (presidency and Senate), dumb luck (who dies or retires when), and strategy (appointing young ideologues, for example).

For a variety of reasons, the last SCOTUS that could properly be called “liberal” expired half a century ago. Without getting too deep into the weeds, following the appointment by Lyndon Johnson of the liberal Thurgood Marshall in 1967, the next 10 appointments were made by Republican presidents (a couple of which appointees, Harry Blackmun and David Souter, turned out to be far less conservative than expected by their appointers), and 14 out of 19 up to the present, including all three chief justices.

The Courts Held the Key

That succession of right-wing courts (mirrored to a large extent in lower court composition), the least accountable by far of the three federal branches, has had a profound effect on our national direction, impacting virtually every aspect of American lives.

From the standpoint of a Leonard Leo, working his fundraising magic at the far-right Federalist Society (founded 1982), capturing and keeping the federal judiciary became the key to imposing a far-right, theocratic ideology on America, rolling back one by one the progressive and democratic advances of the better part of a century.

Leo began to realize this ambition in the 1990s. His push for not just conservative judges but a pipeline of young ideologues on the bench was a “big hit with donors” and the Federalist Society budget quadrupled under his leadership. 

Bush v. Gore, in 2000, brought home another reality: The Electoral College gave Republican presidential candidates a significant electoral edge (because of its built-in over-representation of small states and winner-take-all nature), and it also meant that future elections might come down, as 2000 did, to state-level legal challenges of everything from voting rights and suppression to issues involving election security and the counting process. 

Control of the courts would thus be a key component of Republican electoral success — and not only at the presidential level: By effectively greenlighting partisan gerrymandering in 2019 (Rucho v. Common Cause), the increasingly openly partisan SCOTUS gave a big boost to Republican prospects in the House and state legislatures (conservative and ultra-conservative appellate courts, like the 11th and 5th Circuits have followed suit). 

And Republican electoral success has, in turn, greased the gears for more right-wing jurists.

It has all worked according to plan, or better — a vicious cycle and, for Big Money (whether from Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Pharma, or Big Finance), the gift that keeps on giving.

The Making of MAGA

Which leaves one component to account for. Money certainly matters, and the rules of the game can be exploited if you pick the referees, but no political movement succeeds without foot soldiers and, to paraphrase Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch, “a fanatical devotion to the cause.” 

The religious Right provided this in spades when Republicans welcomed them into the party. In the 1940s and 50s the political parties were more closely aligned, as both had conservative and liberal wings. The Dixiecrat South voted Democrat but no one would confuse Democrats such as Strom Thurmond (D-SC until 1964, then R-SC) or Gov. Orval Faubus (D-AR) with William Proxmire (D-WI) or the Kennedys. The GOP, for its part, still had room for relative liberals like Sen. Edward Brooke (R-MA), Sen. Roger Goodell (R-NY), and New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay.

During the 1960s, there was a painful political recognition among Democratic leaders that the civil rights movement and Johnson’s support for it could lose Democrats the South. Which it did. At the same time, the extremely conservative Goldwater was warning the Republican Party of the danger of allowing evangelicals to take control of the party. 

The next several decades saw this realignment working itself out: The South became increasingly red, along with parts of the rust-belt Midwest; the “coasts” got bluer. Bill Clinton famously “triangulated” to win support across the growing divide. But Republican aspirants saw little need to follow suit — staking out, “compassionate conservatism” lip service notwithstanding, increasingly right-wing positions, appealing more and more to the evangelicals against whom Goldwater had warned. It was almost as if they believed in a new political physics, in which they could win elections and hold power without enlarging their tent or appealing to the center.

And indeed, although political dynamics are rarely cut and dried, 21st century electoral politics seemed to follow that script. The notorious faults of the 2000 Florida election, including the hanging chads, brought election reform to the fore. This led to the embrace of electronic voting and the problems that have come along with that. WhoWhatWhy Senior Editor Jonathan Simon, in CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy, has chronicled and analyzed the advantage electronic voting machines appear to have lent to Republicans since the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. Targeted voter suppression (“justified” as a response to baseless allegations of “voter fraud”) and computerized counting with inadequate transparency or verification have both correlated with the rolling breakdown in American democracy.

So has gerrymandering. The increasingly precise and efficient practice — with districts drawn by already gerrymandered legislatures and too often accepted by courts following the Supreme Court’s permissive guidance — has insulated the vast majority of representatives of both parties from the consequences of general elections. The overwhelming preponderance of “safe” seats has meant the real threat comes from within the party in the form of generally more extremist primary opponents. The impact of this phenomenon, particularly in the Trumpocene, has been especially potent on the right, contributing strongly to the radicalization and Trumpification of the Republican Party. 

And it has all culminated in the mass-mobilization of the MAGAs — and democracy itself dancing on the edge of the cliff.

What Oil Wanted, Oil Got

That’s a great deal to account for — such transformations rarely have a single traceable cause. Many individuals — from Reagan to Gingrich to Karl Rove to Leo et al. — have played a hand. So have some unfortunate institutional dynamics like the filibuster, and the vagaries of the Constitution itself. And probably some plain old dumb luck.

But central to the trajectory America has followed for several generations is an enormously powerful Fossil Fuel industry realizing that climate change was coming, understanding what kind of government needed to be in place to protect the industry at the expense of the planet, and calculating how best to spend its money — whom it needed to influence and whom it could collaborate with — to secure such a government, the public interest and democracy be damned. 

It has come, strangely enough, to pass. Almost as if it were following a script. A religious person, looking on at the whole sequence of events, would likely conclude that God is not a Democrat.

Doug Ecks is a lawyer and writer. He holds a JD from the University of California, Hastings and a BA in philosophy from California State University, Long Beach, Phi Beta Kappa. He also writes and performs comedy as Doug X.


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