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How to Turn the "Red" States Deep Green

By Steve Ongerth - Truthout, November 6, 2004

The following piece was written in reaction to the results of the 2004 US Presidential Election. Originals of this article seem to have disappeared from their websites (Truthout, ZMag, and Indybay), so this piece is copied from Resilience (the links at the end of the article have been deleted, since many are defunct now, though many new organizations have taken their place in much greater ways. The graphic, right, shows that the predictions made in this article have indeed partially come true. The predicted political transformation is still taking shape.

I am no fan of electoral politics. I think casting a ballot is one of the weakest forms of democratic, libertarian, collective actions that people can use in a functional democracy. America, however, is not a functional democracy. It would take more time than I have at the moment to explain why in great detail. It is sufficient to point out that the powers that be, rich corporations and the US Government use the results of national elections to claim a mandate on their privilege to wage wars for oil and continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of the very rich whether they actually have one or not. Elections merely represent a one-dimensional snap shot of the minds of those casting ballots at best.

That said, there is no denying that the powers that be will (and have) read the results of the 2004 Presidential election as a legitimization of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative imperialist puppet masters. They will spin this "election" as a positive referendum on the so-called war on terror and the Iraq invasion even as the latter continues to grow increasingly untenable for the American occupation. And, the already out-of-control American Taliban, the Christian Right will take the results of this election as a sign that their tactics work and they will continue to turn back the clock on social progress, social justice, and rational thought. During the second Bush term we may well see the beginning steps of a full-fledged theocracy in America. This is very scary to think about.

Forget for a minute that this election may well have been stolen as well as the 2000 election. In fact, the signs are that the theft of the 2004 election were worse than the 2000 fraud. Even if we succeed in proving it, it's not likely to result in a special election, because, to my knowledge, that would require an act of Congress, and seeing as how the Congress is controlled by the Republicans, I don't foresee them voiding the results (though we should continue to fight that fight of course).

I think we need to look at the future. I think the left needs to be completely honest with itself. Even if Kerry did win the presidency, he is not a leftist nor would he do much (if anything) to fundamentally alter the course that Bush and his clowns have set for us. The only positive thing that could be said of John Kerry is that he probably couldn't have done any worse than Bush.

How do we embrace the future?

Ironically we must set our sites on the deepest of the so-called "red" states in America's heartland. This ever increasingly fearful and hysterical bastion of religious fundamentalism is well described, in microcosmic fashion by Thomas Frank in What's The Matter With Kansas?. Essentially religious fundamentalism has taken root and gained strength because the followers of the fundamentalist leaders have been ripe for manipulation. The typical followers of religious fundamentalists are not necessarily inherently right-wing zealots. Most of them are struggling farmers and low-wage workers whose economic prosperity has been devastated by the very same Republicans they so blindly and loyally follow. Why? Because the Democrats, since 1973, haven't even really pretended to fight for the interests of the working class or small farmer in America. The Republicans don't either. Instead they choose to campaign on issues that appeal to the prejudices of the inhabitants these rural states, because at least they can somehow show a difference between them and the Democratic leadership who tend to be upper-middle class and not at all sympathetic to workers, unions, and small farmers. The same could be said of business union bureaucrats (though Thomas Frank doesn't discuss them in What's the Matter With Kansas?, the criticism fits them equally well).

Yet there is no reason why these rural working class Americans must be Christian fundamentalists. 100 years ago, the ancestors of these current fundamentalists were largely left-wing populists, Wobblies, and even socialists. Some of them were deeply religious. Many had "backwards" views about some issues, but such things can be unlearned over time. THey turned to the far left because there was a vibrant left wing workers' and farmers' movement (in fact there were several) which spoke to their immediate economic and material needs (unlike today). If a similar movement existed today, no doubt many of these current fundamentalists would not be fundamentalists. Sure, many of them may still be church-going, devoted Christians who turn to their Bible for inspiration. Many of them would no doubt still oppose abortion. Some of them would still have doubts about evolution as well. Yet, few of them would follow these fascist charlatans who promise to "restore America's Christian soul" (a lie) and few of them would be interested in legislating morality, because they would have more immediate concerns, namely their well being. It goes without saying that if most human beings have to make a choice of following a charismatic fundamentalist minister who promises salvation after death but nothing in the present or choosing a good paying job an d the chance of a better future on Earth with the promise of eternal salvation still possible, they would almost all choose the latter. It seems to me then that the way to destroy the demon of theocracy is to steal its thunder. How do we do that?

Fortunately there is a golden opportunity staring us squarely in the face. America is addicted to foreign oil and has a fossil fuel addiction. But renewable energy offers a healthy alternative to this problem if we could only develop the resources. The development of those resources would require manufacturing the equipment needed to produce them, and that would create jobs. These would not be low-end Walmart or McDonalds jobs, but good paying, highly skilled jobs. There would need to be many of them. These could even be union jobs (and I think they should). It is also an amazing coincidence that some of the reddest states are the plains states where wind energy has enormous potential. In the current issue of the magazine Solar Today ( Thomas Starrs, the chair of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) notes that 'the United States has been called "The Saudi Arabia" of wind energy because of the vast untapped potential of wind energy resources across much of the North and Midwest.' States that not only voted for Bush, but heavily for Bush including Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming, as well as weaker Bush states, such as Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, and New Mexico are all ripe for wind energy systems.

These states would also be excellent locations for solar power, biomass energy, and reclaimed methane energy (i.e. using the methane from cattle manure to provide electricity). The agricultural states could also potentially be the source for the growing demand for biodiesel or vegetable oil energy.[1]

How can the left and greens frame the issue that fits our agenda as well as the agenda of these followers of Bush and the fundamentalists? I figure we must do the following:

  • (1) Learn as much as we can about renewable energy, including all of the technological as well as economic challenges and obstacles that hold it back. Learn how to overcome them as the strongest advocates are currently trying to do;
  • (2) Advocate for locating renewable energy manufacturing jobs in these "red" states in communities where there is an acute need for jobs. Advocate for tax incentives to set up such manufacturing plants (but make sure they're powered by renewable energy as much as feasibly possible and that they are not themselves environmentally harmful). This won't be easy at first, however. . .
  • (3) Draft ballot measures, lobby government officials, or run candidates for office on a program of providing cheap, renewable energy for all. This can be done by pushing for tax deductions for the entire cost of installing grid-tied personal renewable energy systems on residential and commercial buildings, including wind, solar, biomass, etc. The tax deductions will alleviate the installation costs and create a high demand for the technology (thus alleviating the challenges I just stated in point 2);
  • (4) Demand that existing utility providers diversify their production capacity with renewables and demand tax incentives to switch to renewables as quickly as possible;
  • (5) Demand that the electricity grid be municipalized and owned in common. Allow individuals and businesses that generate their own electricity to sell their surplus energy into a collectively run pool which they can exchange for cash or energy credits (the latter of which they can use later when they have a personal shortage);
  • (6) Establish apprenticeship programs for skilled workers including installation, maintenance, and upgrading of energy systems at all points along the grid.
  • (7) Establish community run credit unions that provide low interest loans for the establishment of locally owned renewable energy businesses. Provide greater incentives for locally controlled, collectively run, unionized, environmentally friendly businesses.
  • (8) Demand funding for education programs aimed at K-12 education that teaches energy and resources management and conservation.
  • (9) Where there are toll roads, allow free passage for hybrid, biodeisel, or hydrogen powered vehicles.
  • (10) protect locally owned, family farms. Demand tax incentives or loan forgiveness for organic farmers.

These ten points alone would be taken with skepticism or even outright hostility at first, and likely would require us to demonstrate their effectiveness, but here's how to spin the message; this program will:

  • (A) Create good paying American jobs;
  • (B) Provide tax incentives for small businesses, locally owned farms, and workers;
  • (C) Reduce America's dependence on foreign oil limiting the danger of terrorism (whether that danger is real or not);
  • (D) Strengthen the local economy by restoring economic power to the people;
  • (E) Limit the power of banks, corporations, and the federal government;
  • (F) Help the environment without reducing anyone's personal freedom.

Notice that the issues of religion, guns, and gays are not discussed. That's because in the red states, these issues are poison for the left and/or greens. That's not to say they shouldn't be dealt with; they should, and they likely will.

Remember that most fundamentalists are followers. They are only looking for someone to lead them to greener pastures. I suggest we show them a different path. The program I have just suggested will utterly discredit the right. Why? Because they're likely to oppose this program because of their support for big oil. But who wouldn't want economic security? Do you think that the conservatives will retain their base of support if they try to deny their base economic benefits? I think not.[2]

Of course, we should not make the same mistake that the right makes in how we address these potential supporters. We should not seek to exploit them or use them for our own personal gain. Instead we should seek to empower them to run their own communities at the grassroots level. The benefit in doing that is obvious. A renewable energy revolution will no doubt have a tendency to boom and bust cycles as well. Such would be limited by local control and unions. If we simply enabled another dot-com type bubble, the religious right would have another opportunity to move in once our bubble burst. By enabling and empowering the grass roots we limit such a future.[3]

And what of the issues of god, gays, guns, and abortion? Prejudice dies hard. But it is possible for people to agree to disagree. The left should not seek to limit anybody's freedom to worship their god in whatever way they wish (as long as our choices to do the same or not worship any god). The issues of gays, guns, and abortion are more complex (and I realize that it is easy for me to say that because I am not gay nor am I a woman), but I suspect that they only have the power they do to divide because the American Taliban have exploited them. There are many religious leftists who are quite unafraid of gays and understand the occasional inevitability of aborted pregnancies. Likewise there are those that are religious conservatives who are quite willing to live and let live. I suspect that most of the followers of the religious right are easily liberated from such superstition and prejudice if we could only learn to respect them as human beings.

Such a future is not a guarantee nor is it by any means easy. However if we dedicated ourselves to it, we could turn the red states a deep green and utterly break the back of the American Taliban. We would go a long way towards restoring the American economy, rebuilding the labor movement, decentralizing power, and protecting the environment as well. It would undermine many incentives for terrorism, whether from our own government (because other countries would likely also decentralize their energy systems as well) or any perceived threat of "Islamic" terrorism. It certainly would undermine most possibilities of "Christian" terrorism as well. In ten to twenty years we could make the religious right as irrelevant then as Stalinism and overt Nazism are today. It would be a form of libertarian, grassroots socialism that relies on a much freer market than anything promised by contemporary capitalism. It would really be brought on by a wind of change.

Notes (added August 2016):

[1] It's is now clear that biomass energy is a capitalist greenwash, though this was not as evident at the time of this writing, when that industry was just getting going.

[2] Indeed, this is exactly what's happening. There is a split taking place within the far right wing of US capitalist politics. Those that have financial ties to the fossil fuel industry, organized in large part by the Koch Brothers and ALEC, have organized vast opposition to renewable energy deployment, including solar and wind power tax credits, net metering programs, renewable energy portfolio standards, and the like. Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) have taken positions opposing the deployment of distributed renewable energy generation that threatens their business model, though they support renewable energy mandates that might help it. Then, there is the growth of right-"libertarian" (a misnomer and oxymoron to be sure, but applicable ion this case) coalitions with greens (such as the so-called "Green Tea Coalition") in support of distributed renewable energy generation, such as policies and incentives favorable to roof-top solar. Greens on the left see it as chance to challenge fossil fuel capitalism (or even capitalism itself). The "right-so-called-'libertarian'-greens" see it as a chance to "declare independence" from big "socialist" (again a misnomer, but applicable) utilities and foster "individual" liberty. Either way, these trends portend a substantial realignment in US politics, and perhaps, depending on the future path these trends take, an opportunity to undermine capitalism itself and build a new world within the shellof the old. Failure to do that, of course, likely represents the death of human civilization on Earth, and possible the death of life on Earth in general.

[3] Instead, what seems to be taking place (in August 2016) is a Carbon Bubble, where the major fossil fuel capitalist industries are imploding due to price crashes brought on by bust cycles in once white-hot economies, such as China, and supply gluts. This, coupled with the rapid growth of renewable energy technology, if forcing the issue. Meanwhile, IOUs are facing something known as "the Utility Death Spiral". caused by the faster-than-expected growth and deployment of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar, coupled with the game-changing promise of local energy storage.