Massey Deaths, BP Spill, Bank Scandals: Dems Have Chance to Reframe Debate

Roger Bybee

America has just been hit by a series of lightning bolts – the West Virginia mining disaster, the BP oil spill, and ongoing scandals involving our biggest banks – which have suddenly and starkly illuminated fundamental realities about our economic landscape.

These lightning flashes have shown our economic system in its most brutal form and disastrous to the lives and futures of ordinary Americans.

Yet the Republicans, avid advocates of precisely the policies underlying these catastrophes, are widely perceived as gaining strength. Liz Sidoti, for example, notes that analysts for both parties” see the GOP as gaining as many as three dozen House seats and possibly the 40 needed for control.” As many as nine Democratic Senate seats may be at risk.


So what’s going on here? The GOP proponents of policies that translate, for the majority of citizens, into heightened risk of death, degradation of the environment, and deprivation of basic family needs — are somehow in the political saddle.

Despite recent events that should permanently discredit their every word, the Republicans are dominating the political debate. They are seemingly herding the easily-cowed Democrats toward political slaughter in November.


But this outcome is not inevitable, and calls for the Democrats –particularly President Obama – to halt their unstinting praise of the free market system” that echoes the Republican and to instead, forcefully re-frame the debate.

The Democrats need desperately to shift the discourse from Republican-shaped small government vs. big government” question to the real issue of whom the government serves: the interests of the big donors or the needs of the vast majority?

The past month has provided, unfortunately, a set of reminders of what US politics really mean in life-and-death terms:

MASSEY COAL The cruel deaths of 29 coalminers buried alive in an explosion at a mine owned by Massey Energy, have exposed the relentless profit-first mentality of Massey and its notorious CEO Don Blankenship, who continually sacrificed safety to fatten the bottom line. At the same time, it has also unearthed the unwillingness of Republicans to curtail corporations’ unsafe practices that are both imminent hazards to workers and the environment.

BP SPILL BP’s April 20 drilling-platform disaster, in which 11 workers were blown up or burned to death, underscored the lessons taught in both the recent Massey disaster and a string of BP violations of worker and environmental safety rules. While GOP has temporarily softened the chants of Drill, baby, drill!”, the hole in the Gulf of Mexico’s floor keeps shooting out vast quantities of oil each day, promising decades of environmental destruction across the entire Gulf.

BANKERS’ BANQUET Continuing scandals among the banks bailed out in 2008 by the public are constant reminders of how the bankers have prospered at taxpayer expense while ordinary citizens flounder just to stay afloat. The list of scandals keeps growing: betting their own clients; raking in record profits and doling out huge bonuses while largely refusing to extend credit to productive sectors of the economy; and spending over $1 million a day to lobby against significant reform of their casino-like practices, to name but a few.

Meanwhile, a massive wave of mortgage foreclosures – which means families losing a hugely important sense of psychological and financial security – is looming. Nationally, one out of four home mortgages under water” (the homes are now valued less than the amount owed on the mortgage,) In Nevada, fully 70% of homeowners face this situation.

The employment situation, while improving modestly [Moberg] is still punctuated by a 9.9% unemployment rate. The feebleness of the recovery can be explained in significant part by the fact that major banks are failing to extend loans to the productive sector of economy, and have reverted to their old ways of publicly-protected risk-taking, 


As Nomi Prins, the Wall Street defector who authored It Takes a Pillage, explains, banks are drawing interest from storing cash in the Federal Reserve freezer while credit for productive activity remains largely frozen:

Today, banks are required to keep $63 billion in reserves, but parked an extra $1.2 trillion at the Fed.

Meanwhile, banks are using other federal funds to bolster speculative operations. The biggest banks, such as Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, are on a dangerous cycle of higher trading profits and mounting losses in their consumer businesses.

In other words, banking businesses that are tied to the real economy are dying, but raw gambling disguised as finance is doing fine.

Packaging these stories of the recent horrors and scandals, the Democrats have a very powerful story to tell about the need for protecting the vital interests of the vast majority against the greed of they few.

Given what Americans have just endure under George W. Bush for eight years, most Americans will be persuaded by their version, if it is presented forcefully enough.

But President Obama and the Democrats must first be willing to crash through an invisible shield that keeps them from laying out the real story about their partners” in the private sector. These partners” might be eager donors to the Democrats, but it should be clear by now that they want no part of any real reform on any front.

Unlike FDR during the 1930’s, Obama and Co, have not trusted the American people enough to tell the truth about the need to rein in Corporate America – even when it is obviously at its most reckless and rapacious. 

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
In These Times August 2022 Cover
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue