Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World


“The Revolution Starts Here”

In the days leading up to the U.S. electoral holy day that is the Iowa Presidential Caucus, Iowa was briefly home to a large number of Bernie Sanders-backing political visitors with out-of-state license plates and banners proclaiming on the sides of their gas-guzzling SUVs that “the Revolution Starts Here.” The slogan appeared inside an outline of the state of Iowa. I wonder how many of the white middle class politico-motorists inside those SUVs will be returning to Iowa to fight for “the revolution” and/or at least against the Bakken Pipeline.

“Put a Mark Somewhere, Go Home, and Let Other Guys Run the World”

The nation’s unelected dictatorship of money rules 24/7, moving forward on a steady basis with its many-sided pillaging of the common good, its never-ending poisoning of the well. The populace is diverted from this harsh reality by the ubiquitous media electoral extravaganza. Again and again, the citizenry qua electorate is told that going into a two-[capitalist-]party ballot box for two minutes once every two or four years is a great and glorious exercise in popular self-rule. So what if the major party candidates are generally vetted in advance by the capitalist and imperial establishment, from which they often come? And so what if the ruling class rules in numerous ways, every day, at multiple levels, beneath and beyond the big, mass-marketed candidate-centered major party election spectacles that are acted out on time-staggered, constitutionally appointed schedule? “Rejoice citizens,” the U.S. wealth and power elite and its ubiquitous commercial media tell us: “you had your input on Election Day. Freedom and democracy are wondrous indeed!” As Howard Zinn noted in an essay on “the election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left” as Barack Obamania took hold in the spring of 2008:

“the election frenzy…seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls… And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. … But before and after those two minutes [in a voting booth], our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”

Under the American religion of voting, Noam Chomsky recently told Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson, “Citizenship means every four years you put a mark somewhere and you go home and let other guys run the world. It’s a very destructive ideology… basically, a way of making people passive, submissive objects.” Chomsky told Falcon and Isaacson that we “ought to teach kids that elections take place but that’s not politics.”

While Bernie Gave Speeches, Dakota Access Pushed Planet Plundering Pipeline

Speaking of the “other guys” we let “run the world” before and after we engage in the hallowed American voting ritual, imagine the clucking that must have taken place in the Dallas, Texas board rooms of Dakota Access LLC as the “election frenzy” surrounding the progressive Democrat and avowed climate change fighter Bernie Sanders took hold across Iowa last year. While thousands of white middle-class campus-town progressives flocked to Iowa rallies meant to sheepdog understandably disaffected voters back (via the “Bernie Revolution”) into the quiescence-inducing confines of the corporate Democratic Party, Dakota Access (a division of the eco-cidal corporation Energy Transfer Partners) moved methodically ahead with its plan to build the planet-baking Bakken Pipeline. This $4 billion, 1134-mile project will carry 540,000 barrels of largely fracked crude oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken oil patch” daily on a diagonal course through South Dakota, a Sioux Indian burial ground,18 Iowa counties, and a Native American reservation to Patoka, Illinois. It will link with another pipeline that will transport the black gold to terminals and refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.  Some of the “sweet crude” will be loaded onto rail cars for shipment to the east coast.

Last March, five weeks after Sanders essentially tied Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) approved the giant Iowa portion of the project, granting the Dakota Access eminent domain rights across the whole route. It was the last key step. The state “regulatory” boards in the other three states had already signed off.

Dakota Access first applied to the IUB for a permit to assault Iowa farmlands and waterways (see below) in the fall of 2014, just before Sanders’ first visit to Iowa (to speak before an overflow crowd of campus town liberals and progressives in Iowa City). Slowly but surely, as media-driven popular excitement over the largely Iowa-focused presidential candidate carnival built last year, the company quietly made its “case” over the irrelevant and scientifically informed opposition of environmentalists and concerned citizens in numerous “informational meetings” and “public hearings” across the pipeline’s Iowa route. While the state grew heavy with regiments of election-crazed activists, campaign functionaries, and journalists, Dakota Access expertly moved the appalling pipeline through the required administrative and public relations hoops under the media-politics radar screen.

For Iowa progressives, it was all about Bernie, who never had a serious chance to block the corporate coronation of Hillary – and who may not have been seriously attempting that Herculean feat. And while Sanders was heard uttering a word or two against the pipeline in at least one of his many heralded Iowa orations, Bernie never made a case for mass citizen action to block it in any way. He never told his supporters to do the sorts of thing that revolutionary movements are supposed to do besides gathering to hear speeches from big fancy know-it-all  politicians.


Which is too bad. Besides contributing to the catastrophic problem of anthropogenic – really capitalogenic – climate change (global warming driven largely by the excessive extraction and burning of fossil fuels), the Bakken Pipeline promises to help amoral capitalists make profits on the environmentally disastrous, water-wasting and water-polluting practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and threatens Iowa waterways, groundwater, and lands with terrible toxic leaks and spills. As the Bill Moyers-honored citizen action group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) noted last year: “If the Bakken Pipeline is built, it would seriously harm Iowa’s already impaired water quality, threaten the integrity of the fertile farmland of thousands of everyday Iowans, and contribute to our dependence on fossil fuels. This steers us away from developing renewable energy infrastructure and curbing the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.”

The project includes the assertion of eminent domain whereby Iowa farmers and others will be forced to grant Dakota Access, well, access to their supposedly private property. The pipeline requires a permanent easement 50 feet wide, with no structures allowed on the easement.  A wider, temporary easement will be corporately appropriated during construction. The company boasts that it has purchased voluntary easement agreements on 91 percent of the properties along the route in Iowa.

Iowa’s Meskawki Indian tribe objects to the pipeline, which will defile the group’s burial grounds and treaty-ceded territory. Also voicing opposition is the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi, whose Tribal Chair Judith Bender told the IUB last year that the “pipeline will cross every major watershed in Iowa. It will only take one mistake and life in Iowa will change for the next thousands of years. As a people that have lived in Iowa for thousands of years, we have environmental concerns about the land and drinking water…Our main concern is that Iowa’s aquifers might be significantly damaged. We think that should be protected, because it is the water that gives Iowa [its] way of life.” (As few Americans know, Iowa is one of the most river and stream-filled states in the nation.)

It is true that the Bakken pipeline still formally requires approval from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to obtain local-impact permits for air quality, water discharge, storm-water, flood plain and “sovereign [Native American] lands,” as the pipeline runs through state parks or public lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers also needs to issue a permit, because the pipeline routes through watersheds. But neither administrative hurdle is expected to pose anything more than a formality. The DNR is ready to play ball with the petro-capitalist master-class, of course. Look at the recent “oh by the way” news report from KCCI, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines:

“State officials have revoked a stop-work order on the Bakken oil pipeline where tribal officials object to disrupting sacred American Indian land in northwest Iowa that includes burial grounds. Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins tells The Des Moines Register reports that the state department granted Texas-based Dakota Access LLC an amendment to its sovereign lands construction permit…Baskins says the pipeline will be located about 85 feet underground in the Big Sioux River Wildlife Management Area by using special equipment rather than digging a trench for a route. State Archaeologist John Doershuk said in an email last week to department director Chuck Gipp that the proposed method is a satisfactory avoidance procedure…Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Dallas Goldtooth says his organization opposes the department’s decision to allow the pipeline to be constructed in the area.”

Beneath the Web version of this story on the KCCI Website when I read it last Thursday, the following “Recommended” stories were given links: “Kim Kardashian’s Short Skirt Caused a Major Scene;” “Why Donald Trump Avoids Talking About his Daughter Tiffany;” and “These Yoga Pants are the Fastest Selling Pants in History.”

Dakota Access is ready and rearing to lay some pipe. A major selling point and no small part of why Dakota Access has the state’s building trades unions on board is that the company promises to create between “12 and 15 permanent jobs” (whoopee!) and 2,000 and 4,000 temporary jobs.

Backing Candidates vs. The Things Real Movements Do

I recently ran into a young left Iowa activist who reported being fired last year by CCI. The cause for his discharge? Being too direct and energetic in trying to rally Iowa citizens against the planet-baking Bakken Pipeline. When I asked the activist (who was working at an apple orchard) what CCI had been up to last year as the pipeline moved its way through the Iowa “public approval” process, he told me that they’d been “knocking on doors and making calls for Bernie Sanders.”

I don’t know all the details on all that, of course, but I can report that CCI (to which I have made modest annual contributions for years) made a historic departure from its longstanding practice of avoiding presidential candidate endorsements in the case of Bernie Sanders. In doing so, the CCI’s Action Fund made sure to note “the necessity of a movement of Iowans dedicated to fighting for justice and democracy 365 days a year.” It claimed that this “closely reflects Bernie Sanders call for a political revolution in the United States.”

Not really. Sanders was and remains a major party politician who is all about giving speeches and directing people towards the duopolistic, corporate-dominated ballot box and its narrow, once-every-two-and-four-years and candidate-centered definition of popular input, NOT direct action and real grassroots movement-building organizing. As Jeffrey St. Clair noted on Counterpunch last April:

“More and more this vaunted [Sanders] ‘movement’ seems to be little more than a kind of moveable feast, which follows Sanders around like a swarm of post-modern Deadheads, from venue to venue, to hear the senator deliver the same tepid stump speech he’s been warbling for the last 8 months…What might a real movement have done? If Sanders could turn 30,000 people out for a pep rally in [lower Manhattan’s] Washington Square Park, why couldn’t he have had a flash mob demonstration mustering half that many fervent supporters to shut down Goldman Sachs for a day? If he could lure 20,000 Hipsters to the Rose Garden in Portland, why couldn’t he turn out 10,000 Sandernistas to bolster the picket lines of striking Verizon workers? If Sanders could draw 15,000 people in Austin, Texas, why couldn’t his movement bring 5,000 people to Huntsville to protest executions at the Texas death house? If Sanders could draw 18,000 people to a rally in Las Vegas, why couldn’t he just as easily have lead them in a protest at nearby Creech Air Force Base, the center of operations for US predator drones? Strike that. Sanders supports Obama’s killer drone program. My bad. But you get the point. Instead of being used as stage props, why hasn’t Sanders put his teaming crowds of eager Sandernistas to work doing the things that real movements do: blocking the sale of a foreclosed house in Baltimore, disrupting a fracking site in rural Pennsylvania, shutting down the entrance to the police torture chamber at Homan Square in Chicago for a day, intervening between San Diego cops and the homeless camp they seek to evict? Why? Because that’s not who Bernie Sanders is and that’s not what his movement is about. He’s willing to rock the neoliberal boat, but not sink it” (emphasis added).

To which I humbly add: if Bernie could draw tens of thousands of people to rallies for “revolution” in Iowa City, Ames, and Des Moines, Iowa, why couldn’t he have directed a few thousand Sandernistas to surround and occupy meetings of the Iowa Utilities Board, demanding a halt to the Bakken project and calling for a full, planet-saving break from fossil fuels?

Fear, LEV, and 400 PPM

Bernie Sanders is moving ever closer to his full and always-promised endorsement of the Wall Street’s and the Pentagon darling Hillary Clinton. The airwaves and Internet are abuzz with the debasing, personality-focused contest between the right wing fanatic Hillary and the white nationalist, uber-narcissist buffoon Donald Trump. Meanwhile epic, climate change-fueled wildfires have just taken out much of northern Canada’s boreal forest. Record heat has led to forest fires and evacuations outside Los Angeles and San Diego and deaths in Central California. Record flooding has just killed more than 20 people in West Virginia. The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reports that the global, fossil fuel-driven concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the leading force behind recent climate change – has reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history. Levels that high have only been reached during the Pliocene era. According to Dr. Erika Podest, a leading carbon and water cycle research scientist, “This milestone is a wake-up call that our actions in response to climate change need to match the persistent rise in CO2. Climate change is a threat to life on Earth and we can no longer afford to be spectators.”

The nation’s and world’s top left intellectual (the same one quoted above on how the nation’s voting obsession turns citizens into “passive, submissive objects”) gravely counsels lefties on their solemn duty to vote for Mrs. Clinton (who has been endorsed by Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, a number of top foreign policy neoconservatives, and at least one of the Koch brothers) in contested states. The argument is that Trump represents a greater threat than Hillary does of precipitating nuclear war and of accelerating climate change. Maybe Trump does. Or maybe he doesn’t. Nobody really knows since Trump has no policy record and seems willing to say anything that he thinks (often incorrectly) might get him elected. The longstanding imperial “queen of chaos” Hillary seems far more aggressive than Trump towards nuclear Russia. She appears to be more likely than the Donald to sign off on the Trans Pacific Partnership, an arch-global-corporatist measure designed among other things to hamstring governmental efforts to reign in fossil fuel extraction and burning.

Whatever, the incredibly unpopular and openly absurd narcissist Trump has little chance of winning next November’s identity politics election. It’s Hillary’s cakewalk to blow. The Republican Party is in historic disarray at the national level, with the preposterous Trump gleefully leading the party’s self-destruction. (I’ve already seen a campaign ad in which an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator [Illinois’s Mark Kirk] tells voters that he’s not for Trump.) Mrs. Clinton is far, far ahead of Trump in the critical campaign finance sweepstakes, thanks to her sumptuous backing from the corporate and financial aristocracy.

The notion that it would somehow be the fault of left progressives who didn’t vote or who voted third party in contested states (because, guess what? they couldn’t block out the overwhelming stench of her arch-neoliberal corporatism and neoconservative imperialism) if Trump (miraculously) wins is a little hard to take. The usual sober warnings from left luminaries about the need for Lesser Evil Voting (LEV) seem more misguided than usual this time around. As the clever and incisive Andrew Levine recently noted on CounterPunch, “The only reason not to start [building an independent Left party outside the hopelessly corporate Democrats] now…is that too many deluded or willfully blind liberals, fearing that Trump might actually win, would object. Because Trump is bound to lose, there is a case to be made for not indulging their obsessions; there is also a case for not antagonizing them needlessly.” LEV is part of how we let rich guys run and ruin the world.

Meanwhile, Sanders is reported to still have more than $9 million of campaign funds raised from small donors who wanted to see a “revolution” against the corporate-financial plutocracy that is running livable ecology into the ditch. The Democratic Party naturally wants that surplus political capital invested in the crusade to stop the evil and preposterous Donald with the lesser evil Hillary.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Bernie gave that cash away to fund the kind of stuff that real movements do? How about a little chunk of that change to help actual revolutionaries undertake by any and all means necessary to monkey wrench petro-capitalism’s exterminist war on a livable Earth? I’d quit my day (well, night) job for just a small piece of that cash to wage war on the Bakken pipeline here in Iowa. Seriously.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).