President Biden’s choice for Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), drew immediate opposition from some Republicans, and reported concerns from West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin—although Manchin subsequently said he would vote to confirm the nominee.
“We are concerned with Rep. Haaland’s record on energy development,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) explained, citing her “opposition to important energy infrastructure like pipelines” and “support for policies like the Green New Deal, which raises prices for consumers while increasing our reliance on foreign energy sources.”
Supporters countered that Haaland will stand up to powerful interests in pursuing policies essential to protecting the environment.
She “is going to shift a worldview on how we’ll be managing water, land and natural resources in the future,” said Julia Bernal, director of Pueblo Action Alliance in New Mexico. “The way we’ve been misusing resources and mismanaging land has resulted in a climate crisis. Seeing a change in who holds that power, if that threatens the interests of oil and gas, that definitely reveals what’s wrong with things.”
This seemed to portend a healthy Senate debate, one well worth having. How severe is the impact of fossil fuels on the climate? What level of trade-off, if any, is acceptable between a cleaner environment, and loss of jobs and energy independence? How effective are alternative sources of energy? (an issue dramatized by the apparently widespread solar and wind power outages during the recent powerful storm in Texas) Do major oil and gas producers have an out-sized influence on American energy policy, and are they using it to advance their self-interest by suppressing alternatives?
Sadly, a more toxic scenario was also portended.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, would be the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet. And that, for some, was enough to justify imputing bigotry to anyone who opposed her nomination.
Typical was this statement by Montana state Sen. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat and member of the Salish and Kootenai tribes, as reported by Politico:
“Being a minority person and being a person of color, it makes you wonder if she would get this treatment if she wasn’t a person of color, if she wasn’t Indian and if she wasn’t a woman. She became an easy target because we haven’t gotten to this place in our country where we give — especially women and people of color — a fair shot.”
Then there was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who excoriated fellow Democrat Manchin for having concerns about Haaland while he voted to confirm the “openly racist” Jeff Sessions as President Trump’s attorney general. Her evidence that Sessions was “openly racist”? His hard line on immigration—which I didn’t like either, but I require some actual evidence, which AOC didn’t provide, before assuming it was motivated by racism.
True to form, during hearings last Wednesday and Thursday, Republican senators challenged Haaland with tough questions on energy and environmental issues. Also true to form, Haaland supporters and mainstream media outlets decried the tough questioning as evidence of racial bias. While they cited not one instance of Haaland’s critics referencing her gender or ethnicity—indeed, it is only her supporters who are doing so—they simply claimed that various criticisms of her, even though issues-based, were “code” for anti-Native American racism. Thus could the Associated Press, without evidence, blare the headline, “Native American nominee’s grilling raises questions on bias.”
Do you see how insidious this is? For her supporters to suggest that those opposing Haaland were motivated by racism and sexism, dismissing the policy differences they delineated, is no better than if those opponents had suggested that Haaland’s nomination was based solely on her ethnicity and sex, dismissing her experience, qualifications, and policy positions.
I am old enough to remember when opponents of the Vietnam war had to fend off charges that they were anti-American, even Communist sympathizers. Doubtless that was true of some of the more extreme, violent protesters—as doubtless there are some in America today whose opposition to Haaland is motivated by bigotry. But to impute such motives to respectable public officials and mainstream Americans who have no record of support for such evils, and who seek only to express legitimate policy differences, was wrong then and is wrong now.
And it is destructive in a number of ways:
- to the good name of those Senators being maligned, without cause, as bigots;
- to the nominee herself, as it suggests that supporters have no substantive arguments for her, and so must resort to slandering her opponents;
- to the serious debate and discussion we needed our Senate to engage in on critical energy and environmental policy questions;
- to equal rights, because falsely imputing racism and sexism to gain political advantage, like promiscuously labeling political opponents “Nazis” or “Communists,” trivializes the true nature of these evils, undermining our efforts to identify and combat them.
And of course, this resort to ad hominem attacks to try to discredit those we disagree with only further exacerbates the incivility which so poisons our public discourse.
Can we please, instead, rely on principled persuasion, rather than personal attacks, to advance the people and policies we believe to be good and just?
In short, can we all please heed the Eighth Commandment?