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Radical solutions for our corrupt politics

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

‘Yes, but how?’

When I wrote my recent piece on kicking the oil money out of politics, I didn’t think I was dodging the hard questions. I tried to be scrupulously even-handed – pretty much any reader would have seen a politician they respect get some mud in their eye – and backed up every assertion with the research.

Perhaps that was the problem. Partisan politics aside, sticking to the facts is easy; the data is just lying there, incontrovertible. But a better framing of the problem doesn’t get us closer to a solution. With the exception of minority Green parties and other fringe forces, there is little appetite – let alone a concrete plan – for solving this in the West. It is hard. It is controversial. 

So today, I’ll tackle this question head-on: what can we actually do to get the oil out of politics?

Regulation by apocalypse

Perhaps it's worth reiterating why this problem won’t solve itself. 

What we are seeing happen each year, with alarming speed, is Mother Nature underlining the science and revoking the industry’s social license to operate. Ecological feedback will put Big Oil’s current model out of business eventually, by hook or by crook. 

Unfortunately, political parties seem to prefer to let nature regulate by apocalypse than respond to any sense of moral pressure. As Trump once said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” So why do anything about lobbying?

The growing trend of bored trauma-bunny billionaires treating elections like hostile takeovers only suggests our plutocracy is growing stronger. And we can’t rely on supranational forces either, as COP’s oil-smeared guest list sadly attests. 

This problem needs an immediate, concerted regulatory response. What follows is my wish list - each of these ideas could be an article in itself, so excuse the brevity!

Citizens, unite!

First, the transmission mechanism: oil money and lobbying pervade politics because it is legal, effective, and under-scrutinised.

Simply keeping lists of registered lobbyists and recording donations does not amount to regulation; it is little more than book-keeping. Transparency is necessary but not sufficient. We need hard stops.

A first step in the US would be to overturn the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending under the guise of ‘free speech.’ 

Indeed, we might ask why politics needs private money at all. An alternative is the ‘publicly funded elections’ model. Such proposals or legislation have been considered in countries as diverse as Norway, India, Russia, the UK, and Nigeria, as well as 17 US states. In Maine, for example, 75% of state legislators have run campaigns funded solely by the state programme since it was enacted. Seattle has ‘democracy vouchers,’ giving every voter $25 to donate to the party of their choice. Brazil’s supreme court simply declared corporate political donations unconstitutional.

That is the simplest route to solving the problem of oil lobbying: banning all corporate financing in politics altogether. 

Stop feeding the chicken

Next, we might ask why Big Oil has so much influence in the first place. This is a chicken and egg problem – lobbying entrenches market positions and creates supernormal profits, which are spent on more (defensive) lobbying. Luckily, necessary solutions do double-duty here.

Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies is the most important step. Globally, society gives $7tn a year in support to oil and gas firms; strip that away, and their ability to dump billions into politics would be seriously curtailed. A proper price on carbon would correct demand and slash balance sheet valuations too, forcing an existential rethink of the entire business model. 

Cross-border schemes like the EU’s will also allow us to pool resources to support developing economies making the transition, so that uneven trade regimes don’t price poor producers into a high-dependency oil trap. We don’t need a repeat of the tobacco playbook, where strong regulation in western economies only drove the infection to developing nations.

Pay and culture

Lastly, we might also ask why politicians want to work with lobbyists. One answer is that the risks are low. Stronger anti-corruption laws and truly independent investigative bodies would help; too many of the world’s legislators mark their own homework when it comes to ethics. Another option would be to demand that all meetings with lobbyists are also open to the press and the public.

A less appetising, but equally important step would be to raise the remuneration of politicians themselves. Proper pay and high-value pensions – dependent on mandatory gardening leave after office and extended no-conflict rules – would remove the incentive for politicians to grease the revolving door with an eye to their post-parliamentary careers. 

Finally, we need to think about culture. At its root, this is a question of virtue, in the philosophical sense, and the way it has been hijacked by wealth. Politicians exist in the same cultural air as the rest of us: one reinforces the cult of the rich as the natural heirs of power. Its all very well to take aim at the Kochs of this world, but we also need to dethrone our own plutocratic heroes; just because you might like what Bill Gates or Larry Fink has to say on climate, amplifying billionaires of any stripe only reinforces the system. 

The spillover from cleaning up

That this is a laundry list of seemingly utopian dreams only reinforces just how pervasive this problem is. But that is also exactly why we have to be bold and think big. 

Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of such a programme is that it would do more than help solve climate change. Gerrymandering and voter suppression, antiquated electoral systems and manufactured culture wars are all part of the same system of corruption, both cause and consequence of the overweening power of a few vested interests. Getting the oil out of politics would leave us all with a far cleaner democratic fabric, full stop.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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