by Meg White
When I heard that the American Petroleum Institute (API), the lobby group for Big Oil, was taking a cues from the healthcare debate by endeavoring to recreate the vicious rallies we've been seeing in an effort to defeat the Waxman-Markey bill, I was worried. Not only am I just plain sick of the frightening vitriol being spewed at these events under the guise of populism, I'm also afraid of any further compromises to the already watered-down cap-and-trade legislation as it moves through the Senate.
What to do? Well, I had a chat with America's No. 1 populist. Author and commentator Jim Hightower assured me he is not worried, despite the fact that the very first rally by API's front group, Energy Citizens, was held in his home state of Texas last Tuesday.
"These protests have been popping up like mushrooms on moldy Astroturf, and this might just be the moldiest," Hightower said. "Energy Citizens is nothing but a Big Oil front and a PR stunt," noting that oil companies around Houston rented the space for the rally, provided entertainment, printed placards and t-shirts and provided food for the event.
The thing that really got him was that these companies gave time off to their employees and encouraged them to attend the rally. Hightower speculated that, had employees tried to take off work to meet with their kid's teacher for example, the situation would have been quite different.
"Here they are in a very philanthropic mood," Hightower said with what sounded over the phone like a wry grin. But what was really a "hoot" were the people who were complaining about "big government intruding" on the industry by giving subsidies to alternative energy companies.
"Big Oil is just gobbling billions of dollars of subsidies," Hightower said. "It's beyond ludicrous."
But that doesn't mean any of this meticulous planning or misleading rhetoric is going to make a difference. Hightower says these companies are "totally wasting their money."
"It's hard to love Big Oil. No one wants to hug Exxon Mobil and say, 'Thanks,'" he said. Hightower predicted that the same rhetoric used at the healthcare town hall meetings will be significantly less effective at these events that are already being derided in the media as "glorified company picnic[s]."
"I don't think that socialism thing is quite going to work," Hightower said. "That's what they will try to do, [but] people are actually worried about climate change."
Despite his incredibly healthy sense of humor, this whole angry mob story really riles Hightower. But he's not mad at the GOP. Most of the blame, he says, lies with progressives and the Democratic Party.
"Have we learned nothing from Karl Rove? This is what they do!" Hightower said. "[The debate] has to be done not in reaction to some right-wing flapdoodle."
Hightower said it's "inexcusable" that people are out there demanding that the government keep out of Medicare, and that Obama should have billed the plan as Medicare-for-all to avoid the branding problem he's got today. But it's not just the politicians that bear responsibility for this angry mob story; the fourth estate plays a part, too.
"The media has been extraordinarily lazy" in reporting these town hall stories, Hightower said. Most reporters are more than happy to just call any angry mob a populist revolt, he said, though the reality is far from it.
"Populism has nothing to do with anger. Populism was -- and is -- a movement focused on run-away corporate power," Hightower said. "You actually have to be against corporate interests."
The addition of populist-sounding groups like the Farm Bureau to the ranks of Energy Citizens might confuse some in the media who equate farmers with populism, but Hightower says the Bureau is more about "the old boy network" than anything else.
"They don't represent farmers; they're an insurance company" dealing in fertilizers made with petroleum, Hightower said. "You don't see the National Farmer's Union, which actually represents farmers" teaming up with API.
So, while he's not worried about Big Oil's Astroturfing attempts, that doesn't mean Hightower likes it when these things happen. But the one good thing that may come out of API using this technique is that this may be a signal of the beginning of the end of such nonsense.
"This has got to be the dying gasp," Hightower said. "The oil companies doing this is going to really dampen down these Astroturf efforts, because they're just fraudulent and people are beginning to see that."
Thanks, Exxon Mobil! How about a hug?