January 13, 2021

Oped by Brianna Cunliffe – PEN Chief Investigative Reporter

The seven senators who voted to overturn a legitimate election and bolstered a violent attempted coup have received a total of $5.4 million from oil and gas corporations. This is no coincidence. The desperate and dangerous rhetoric of Donald Trump and his loyalists and the insidious influence of the fossil fuel industry have one thing in common: lies. 

Climate denialism. Unfounded claims of election fraud. Outside groups funding ads that defame candidates who would dare to oppose fracking or industrial agriculture. Our democracy is facing a critical challenge: not the lively debate sparked by difference of opinion, but the fracturing of our nation by consistent falsehoods. 

When merchants of doubt can carry on campaigns to undermine climate science and public health protections while using Congressmen as their mouthpieces, when hate groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans can openly endorse a candidate for statewide office without being instantly disqualified — there is something deeply wrong. 

The horrifying prevalence of false currency based on lies and division reached its natural and abhorrent penultimate form with the events of January 6th. Not only have hearts and minds been breached by hatred, deceit, and fear-mongering, but now so has the physical sanctum of our very seat of government, by those many of us call neighbors. 

Every last elected official complicit in this charade has broken the sacred covenant of their office.Already spiraling downward the consequences of withheld donations and near-universal condemnation are not enough. If they will not resign, they must be removed by the mandate of the people at the ballot box at the first opportunity. 

The ballot box has been our first line of defense, however flawed the systems guarding it may be. This is the source of a shred of good news — for however slowly, we are finally coming to reckon with these insidious forces within our politics. Despite its desperate and despicable attempt to cling to its power, the fossil fuel industry is nonetheless failing, and, as more public servants courageously declare themselves independent from corporate dollars, its influence is waning. 

Likewise, in the face of defamation, misinformation, and brutally uncivil campaigns, true leaders are persistently challenging those who have grown complacent and disconnected from the needs of their communities. Across the country, alongside losses by those targeted by super-PACS, were those who won despite this opposition. They will represent a new generation of champions for equity and resilience as they assume office. The Georgia runoffs were proof of this. Despite generations of disenfranchisement for communities of color and active misinformation campaigns, change-makers like Stacey Abrams helped empower the people to make their voice heard when the stakes had never been higher.  Victories like these are to be celebrated; they are all the more remarkable for the incredible hurdles in their path. 

The crises and failures of leadership we have witnessed this past year have made one thing abundantly clear: you cannot be the mouthpiece of Exxon or QAnon while also being a servant of the people. The two are simply irreconcilable. It is time for us to individually find out, once and for all, what creed our leaders bow to — their own self-interest, or the good of our republic. Then vote accordingly.