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  • How the Christian Right Is Using Hobby Lobby and "Duck Dynasty" to Take Back America

    Pundits may be declaring the culture wars over, but conservative Christians are donning their battle gear and rushing back to the front lines. In recent months, a coalition of conservative evangelical organizations has been deploying an aggressive voter mobilization campaign that involves a combination of high-tech tools, briefings for pastors, and rallies simulcast to mega-churches around the country.

    The goal of these gatherings is to drum up outrage over recent political skirmishes, including the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, and to persuade believers that their religious freedoms are under attack by ungodly forces. During one recent event, which was shown in churches across the nation, speakers likened the situation of US churchgoers to Christians beheaded by ISIS in Syria. "We see the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, truth and lies," said David Benham, whose planned HGTV reality show was canceled after his fiercely anti-gay remarks came to light. "What's happening with swords over in the Middle East is happening with silence over here in America."

    The campaign dates back to March, when United in Purpose, a nonprofit funded by wealthy evangelical Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, convened a Voter Mobilization Strategy Summit near Dallas. At the event, churches and conservative Christian political organizations forged a strategy to mobilize voters for the 2014 midterms. United in Purpose, a behind-the-scenes technology and communications group with deep dominionist ties, also shared a variety of tools including videos and voter mobilization apps. (One app allows pastors to compare their membership rosters with voter rolls, so they can better guide their flock to the polls.) The Family Research Council and Texas-based Vision America, which played a key role in the summit, then began hosting policy briefings for pastors and staging lavishly produced voter mobilization events that were broadcast live to churches and groups across the country.

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  • How Science Explains #Gamergate

    By now you're probably heard of #Gamergate, the internet lynch mob masquerading as a movement for ethics in video game journalism. Though #Gamergaters, as they're known, have repeatedly targeted their critics with rape and death threats, drawing rebukes from the broader gaming community, surprisingly few observers have asked whether violent video games themselves may have triggered this sort of abhorrent behavior.

    Debate about video games and violence has, of course, been around almost as long as video games have. In 1976, the now-defunct game company Exidy introduced Death Race, a driving game based around mowing down what appeared to be pedestrians. "I'm sure most people playing this game do not jump in their car and drive at pedestrians," the behavioral psychologist Gerald Driessen told the New York Times. "But one in a thousand? One in a million? And I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It'll be pretty gory."

    Driessen's fears seem almost quaint these days. Traffic fatalities and violent crime are at their lowest rates in decades, despite the advent of drastically more realistic and morally depraved games such as Grand Theft Auto. "Facts, common sense, and numerous studies all debunk the myth that there is a link between video games and violence," the Entertainment Software Association, the industry's trade group, writes on its web page. "In fact, numerous authorities, including the US Supreme Court, US Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior."

    But the ESA's defense of violent games masks a deeper reality: An emerging body of scientific research shows that the games aren't as harmless as many people think.

    "Just because you don't necessarily go out and stab someone" after playing a violent game "doesn't mean you won't have a more adversarial mindset," says Susan Greenfield, an Oxford-trained neurologist and author of the forthcoming book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. "Your thermostat will change so that you will be more easily angered, more hostile than polite. And that, in fact, is what we're seeing with this #Gamergate thing."

    Studies, in fact, show a strong connection between gaming and the types of behaviors exhibited by the #Gamergate mob. A 2010 meta-analysis of 136 papers detailing 381 tests involving 130,296 research participants found that violent gameplay led to a significant desensitization to violence, increases in aggression, and decreases in empathy. "Concerning public policy, we believe the debates can and should finally move beyond the general question of whether violent video game play is a causal risk factor for aggressive behavior," the authors wrote. "The scientific literature has effectively and clearly shown the answer to be 'yes.'"

    Violent games account for approximately 60 percent of the $65 billion global video game market. And evidence suggests that the effects of playing them go beyond the effects of just watching violence on a screen. Researchers from Denmark's Utrecht University, for instance, found that students who played a violent video game later exhibited more aggressive behavior than a group of spectators who had watched the others play.

    The aggressive behavior resulting from gaming isn't just theoretical; it can spill out into the real world. For example, a study of long-term effects in American and Japanese schoolchildren showed that as little as three months of intense gaming increased their frequency of violent behavior such as punching or kicking or getting into fights. Several studies have involved telling experimental subjects competing in a nonviolent video game that they could administer a sonic blast through their opponents' headphones, but warned that it would be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. Those most willing to administer the (nonexistent) sound blasts, as it turned out, had recently played violent games.

    Other evidence suggests that people who play violent video games are less likely than others to act as Good Samaritans. Participants in an Iowa State University study played either a violent or nonviolent video game before a fake fight was staged outside the laboratory. Players of the violent game were less likely than other participants to report hearing the fight, judged the fight as less serious, and took longer to help the injured party.

    In a 2012 study whose outcome relates more directly to #Gamergate, French college students played either a violent game or a nonviolent game before reading ambiguous story plots about potential interpersonal conflicts. The researchers then had them list what they thought the main characters would do, say, or feel as the story continued. The players of the violent games expected more aggressive responses from the characters in the story—a result that mirrors how the gaming community, but hardly anyone else, has consistently imputed evil motives to video game journalists and female game developers when reading about developments in the emerging "scandal."

    Taken together, these studies may help explain why some participants in #Gamergate felt justified in sending rape and death threats to their critics while other gamers, instead of calling them out, looked the other way.

    In her book, Greenfield lays out a convincing neurological explanation for the video game/violence connection. While the well-known plasticity of the human brain allows it to adapt to a wide range of environments, Greenfield argues that it also exposes us to dangerous changes in brain chemistry when we immerse ourselves in violent video games for extended periods:

    Investigators recorded the brain activity of experienced gamers, who normally played an average of fourteen hours per week, while they played a first-person shooter game…Results showed that areas of the brain linked with emotion and empathy (the cingulate cortex and the amygdala) were less active during violent video gaming. The authors suggest that these areas must be suppressed during violent video gaming, just as they would be in real life, in order to act violently without hesitation.

    What's more, the thrill that we experience while playing video games results from a release of dopamine, the same brain stimulant that accounts for the addictive appeal of drugs, gambling, and porn.

    When dopamine accesses the prefrontal cortex, it inhibits the activity of the neurons there, and so recapitulates in some ways the immature brain state of the child, or indeed of the reckless gambler, schizophrenic or the food junkie. Just as children are highly emotional and excitable, adults in this condition are also more reactive to sensations rather than calmly proactive.

    "How might his apply to video games?" Greenfield goes on to ask. "You can afford to be reckless in a way that would have dire results in the three-dimensional world. The consequence-free nature of video gaming is a basic part of its ethos."

    And, so it seems, of the ethos of #Gamergate. Harassing and threatening people might seem like fun to some people—until, at least, somebody dies in the real world.

  • Facebook Wants You to Vote on Tuesday. Here's How It Messed With Your Feed in 2012.

    On Election Day, political campaigns, candidates, consultants, and pollsters pay close attention to who votes and why—and so does Facebook. For the past six years, on every national Election Day, the social-networking behemoth has pushed out a tool—a high-profile button that proclaims "I'm Voting" or "I'm a Voter"—designed to encourage Facebook users to vote. Now, Facebook says it has finished fine-tuning the tool, and if all goes according to plan, on Tuesday many of its more than 150 million American users will feel a gentle but effective nudge to vote, courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg & Co. If past research is any guide, up to a few million more people will head to the polls partly because their Facebook friends encouraged them.

    Yet the process by which Facebook has developed this tool—what the firm calls the "voter megaphone"—has not been very transparent, raising questions about its use and Facebook's ability to influence elections. Moreover, while Facebook has been developing and promoting this tool, it has also been quietly conducting experiments on how the company's actions can affect the voting behavior of its users.

    In particular, Facebook has studied how changes in the news feed seen by its users—the constant drip-drip-drip of information shared by friends that is heart of their Facebook experience—can affect their level of interest in politics and their likelihood of voting. For one such experiment, conducted in the three months prior to Election Day in 2012, Facebook increased the amount of hard news stories at the top of the feeds of 1.9 million users. According to one Facebook data scientist, that change—which users were not alerted to—measurably increased civic engagement and voter turnout.

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  • What Can the Developer of the Polio Vaccine Teach Us About Ebola?

    This story was originally published on

    Had he lived, Dr. Jonas Salk would have turned 100 this week. Salk was a young man when in the spring of 1955 he announced his discovery of a vaccine that could prevent polio. He was hailed as a modern miracle worker. He went on to lead scientists from from around the world in studies of cancer, heredity, the brain, the immune system and AIDS at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.

    In this age of Ebola, it's enlightening and inspiring to hear Salk talk about the lessons he learned in developing the polio vaccine, and how they might be applicable to the AIDS crisis, which was raging at the time of this interview with Bill Moyers recorded in 1990.

    Salk died five years after this interview was broadcast. His memorial at the Salk Institute reads: "Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality."


    SALK: What we're doing now is trying to think like nature, in the sense that we are aware that species that have gone before us have disappeared from the face of the Earth. We'd like to use our intelligence and our creative capacity to prolong our presence on the face of the Earth as long as possible. It requires, therefore, that we develop the kinds of tactics and strategies amongst ourselves so as to assure that this can occur, to assure that we will not destroy ourselves or the planet, to make it uninhabitable and to allow the fullness of the potential of the individual to be expressed, to flower. That is—

    MOYERS: What is—

    SALK: —awfully ideal. The question now is how can we translate this, how can we make this operative? If you want me to give you an example—

    MOYERS: Yeah.

    SALK: —of how people can solve problems for themselves? When the problem of polio confronted this nation, confronted the world, there was an organization that formed in this country called the March of Dimes. Volunteers. They were not government-directed or -led. They didn't ask the government to do anything. They did it themselves. That's just a small illustration of what has happened in the past and can happen again and is happening continuously now here and, I think, in other parts of the world.

    MOYERS: I read the other day, coming out here, in fact, that by the year 2000, which is not very far from now, there will be some 20 million people in the world carrying the AIDS virus. Is that a comparable challenge to what you faced with polio 50 years ago?

    SALK: Well, it's an even more difficult challenge, but that's what evokes a response on the part of those who want to solve the problem, who are addressing themselves to just that question and philosophically, in approaching it. The virus, if it prevails, then we will lose. But if we are able to reduce the damage caused by the virus and, at the same time, try to enhance the immune response to the virus and establish a more favorable balance between the two, then we will be doing in relation to that problem what we want to do in relation to the world and that is to reduce the negative and enhance the positive at one and the same time.

    MOYERS: The good news would be that there is a vaccine that protects us and immunizes us, against the AIDS virus. Are we going to have that good news, do you think, in your time and mine?

    SALK: My expectation is that we will solve the problem. It's just a matter of time and just a matter of strategy. Now, why do I say that this is the case? It's because I think solutions come through evolution. It comes through asking the right question, because the answer pre-exists. But it's the question that we have to define and discover, to discover and to define.

    MOYERS: You mean, when you asked the question about how to defeat polio, the answer was already there?

    SALK: Mm-hmm, in a way. If you think of David and Michelangelo, it was in the stone, but it had to be unveiled and revealed. You don't invent the answer. You reveal the answer.

    MOYERS: From nature.

    SALK: From nature.

    MOYERS: From the life process.

    SALK: Yes.

  • 32 Countries Where Global Warming Could Make Violence Worse

    Recently, the Pentagon released a disturbing report. Climate change, it warned, will exacerbate problems like terrorism and disease outbreaks, drain military resources, and create new enemies. The report said that the military's basic operations—everything from training to its supply chains and infrastructure—are now threatened by rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns. It all points to one conclusion: Global warming is a national security issue.

    Now a new analysis, released Wednesday, is naming 32 countries in which conflict and civil unrest could be worsened by the changing climate. The findings are part of the seventh annual "Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas" from Maplecroft—a firm that studies how vulnerable countries are to various risks. It concludes that climate change is already impacting "food production, poverty, migration and social stability—factors that significantly increase the risk of conflicts and instability in fragile and emerging states."

    Those pressures could also "lead to disenfranchisement and drive support for radical groups."


    Maplecroft analyzed how exposed populations in these are countries are to climate impacts and assessed how well their governments will be able to adapt over the next 30 years. According to the report, the five countries most vulnerable to climate-related conflict and food insecurity are Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Chad.

    The 10 countries that Maplecroft found were most vulnerable to food insecurity and climate change. Maplecroft

    The report's authors highlight Nigeria (tied for third the list), where "widespread drought and food insecurity helped create the socio-economic conditions that led to the emergence of Boko Haram and the violent insurgency in the North East of the country."

    Boko Haram is a militant Islamist group that the US Justice Department says has been responsible for 600 attacks on government, churches, mosques and schools. It has killed about 5,000 people since 2009 and displaced over 650,000. The group kidnapped more than 200 girls and young women in April. (The Nigerian government says it has reached a ceasefire with the militants that would include the release of the girls, but according to the BBC the talks are still ongoing.)

    After visiting Nigeria earlier this year, my Mother Jones colleague Erika Eichelberger found that drought, population explosion, environmental degradation, and poverty are all aggravating the country's armed conflicts. There are now more clashes between farmers and nomadic herders over ever-dwindling agricultural land, and economic hardships in the country are boosting Boko Haram's recruitment efforts. Eichelberger quoted Oluwakemi Okenyodo, the executive director of CLEEN Foundation, a Nigerian security-focused nonprofit, as saying that when "young people are pushed to the wall," there's a greater chance that they will be sucked into the growing Boko Haram insurgency. Eichelberger reported that "there's not enough hard evidence yet to implicate human-caused climate change in the bulk of the ecological disaster" in Nigeria—but that could change in the future as rising temperatures increasingly threaten agriculture in the region.

    In a 2011 report, the United States Institute of Peace outlined a "basic causal mechanism" linking global warming to future conflict in Nigeria: Water and agricultural land shortages are followed by sickness, hunger, and joblessness. Governmental inaction on these issues in turn opens the door to conflict. "In the increasingly parched, violent northeast," writes the report's lead author Aaron Sayn, "members of groups like Boko Haram explain their acts by voicing disgust with government."

    Lake Chad supports vast swathes of Nigerian farming and grazing land, but it has lost more than 90 percent of its original size. Jacques Descloitres/NASA GSFC

    Maplecroft's rankings lend even more weight to the growing body of research tying climate change to the potential for more violence. Prior to the unrest that eventually exploded into revolution and armed conflict, Syria had experienced an unprecedented drought that led to the internal displacement of thousands of people who had lost their livelihoods.

    Natural resources were also at the heart of the Darfur crisis. "It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought," UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed. "Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change."

  • 7 Big Gun Fights to Watch on Election Day

    No election cycle in recent memory has seen the guns issue heat up the way this year's has. The National Rifle Association, continuing a long-running strategy of campaign spending, earmarked over $11 million for this year's elections—but for the first time in decades the nation's leading gun lobby is facing some truly formidable opposition. Americans for Responsible Solutions, launched by former congresswoman and mass shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety, bankrolled by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, have spent millions of their own to try to vanquish the NRA's influence. How will it play out? Here are key races to watch on Tuesday:


    Spending by the NRA: $485,000

    Spending by gun control groups: Everytown/Bloomberg, $2.6 million; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $1 million. [Update: A new press release from Everytown lists their total Washington spending at $4 million.]

    The showdown: In perhaps the most-watched race on guns, voters will decide on two competing ballot measures on the issue of background checks. Initiative 594 would expand background checks for gun purchases online, at gun shows, or through private transactions, closing the so-called loophole in federal law.  The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is leading the campaign for I-594, has received financial support totaling more than $2.5 million from both Everytown for Gun Safety and from Bloomberg personally. Bill and Melinda Gates also gave more than $1 million.

    The gun lobby counterattacked with Initiative 591, sponsored by Alan Gottlieb, president of the Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation. I-591 would prohibit the state from requiring background checks unless a "uniform national standard" for those checks is created. If passed, I-591 could create several confusing legal scenarios: This sort of state-level prohibition could contradict federal law, which already allows states to mandate additional background checks. And if both I-591 and I-594 pass, they may negate each other and lead to a protracted legal battle.

    Ricochet: Speaking out against I-594 in July, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Washington state, Brian Judy, raised the specter of, what else, Nazi Germany. Referring to venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who pledged $500,000 to back I-594 and who is Jewish, Judy said: "Now, he has put half-a-million dollars toward this policy, the same policy that led to his family getting run out of Germany by the Nazis...It’s like any Jewish people that I meet who are anti-gun, I think, 'Are you serious? Do you not remember what happened?'"

    North Carolina

    Spending by the NRA: $5.1 million

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $944,000

    The showdown: The NRA has spent millions on Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina house and GOP candidate for US Senate. That's the case despite the fact that Tillis' opponent, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, has been a strong supporter of gun rights, having voted against bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. She did, however, vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks. The two candidates are in a tight race that could decide control of the Senate. In September, the NRA made a $1.4 million TV ad buy highlighting Tillis' record on Second Amendment issues.

    Ricochet: Tillis has an A+ rating from the NRA, not least because he supports the NRA's agenda of legalizing guns all over the place. During his tenure in the North Carolina house, Tillis helped pass a bill expanding concealed carry in North Carolina to school parking lots, public parks, and restaurants serving alcohol.


    Spending by the NRA: $4.7 million

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $272,000

     Bill Gold/ Warner Bros./ Wikipedia

    The showdown: The NRA has worked vigorously against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in another of this year's key senate battlegrounds. A week after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, Udall came out in favor of stricter gun control legislation, and he voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill the following April. His opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, is decidely pro-gun rights; the NRA spent $1.3 million on a TV ad supporting Gardner. For its part, Americans for Responsible Solutions has targeted voters with digital and direct mail ads in support of Udall.

    Ricochet: So-called "Make My Day" protections seek to allow Colorado homeowners to use deadly force if they feel threatened—and as a state representative, Gardner introduced a "Make My Day Better" law (a term he coined) no less than four times. Had it passed, it would have extended these self-defense protections to business-owners and employees.


    Spending by the NRA: $2.9 million

    Spending by gun control groups: $0

    The showdown: The NRA has spent big on this key Senate race, investing in Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, with $1.4 million going towards TV ads. In 2013, Cotton co-sponsored "The National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act," which would have allowed concealed carry license holders to pack heat in all states that permit concealed carry.

    Ricochet:  In 2013, the NRA ran radio ads praising Cotton's opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, after he voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill, which Pryor did in spite of direct pleas from family members of Sandy Hook victims. But gun control groups generally have not targeted Pryor for that vote, given his vulnerability in a deep-red state. (Everytown ran a TV ad in Arkansas criticizing Pryor shortly after his vote against Manchin-Toomey, but an Everytown spokesperson told Mother Jones that the group hasn't taken any action against Pryor this election season.)


    Spending by the NRA: $663,000 (House) + $3.4 million (Senate)

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $269,000 (House) + $470,700 (Senate)

    The showdown: The third congressional district race in Iowa is one of the most heated with respect to guns, with both Americans for Responsible Solutions and the NRA making six-figure buys for TV attack ads. The Republican candidate, David Young, helped block the Manchin-Toomey bill while working as Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) chief of staff. An ARS ad focuses on how that makes it easier for domestic abusers to get guns:

    Young's challenger, former state Sen. Staci Appel, by contrast, voted for a law prohibiting gun possession by perpetrators of domestic violence in 2010. The NRA's ad goes after her by linking her with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

    In the state's tight Senate race, the NRA has so far spent more money against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley than on any other candidate this year, throwing its support behind Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst. Ernst has consistently voted for pro-gun policies. The NRA recently aired a provocative ad in her support: A mom is putting her kids to bed and texting with her spouse, who is on his way home from the airport. Suddenly a man breaks in, and the clip cuts to yellow caution tape, while a narrator intones, "Bruce Braley voted to take away your gun rights."

    Americans for Responsible Solutions fired back a few days ago with its own ad, which features a county sheriff and highlights Ernst's opposition to universal background checks.

    Ricochet: The NRA has used versions of its Ernst ad in several other states, including Louisiana, Georgia, and West Virginia.


    Spending by the NRA: $14,000

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.8 million

    The showdown: Gabby Giffords represented Arizona's 2nd congressional district before she was shot in the head during a community event in Tucson in January 2011. Now, in what is shaping up to be one of the nation's tightest House races, Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions has spent more money opposing Republican Martha McSally than it has spent on any other candidate. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Ron Barber beat McSally in the 2012 House race. Barber had served as Giffords' district director, and was also wounded in the 2011 mass shooting.

    ARS aired two commercials in September highlighting McSally's opposition to closing the loophole on background checks at gun shows and online. The group debuted another ad this week.

    Ricochet: In September, ARS ran a controversial ad criticizing McSally's stance on laws that would have made it harder for convicted stalkers to get a gun. ARS yanked the ad after McSally announced that she had been a stalking victim and would support laws that would make it illegal for misdemeanant stalkers to buy guns.

    New Hampshire

    Spending by the NRA: $89,000

    Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.1 million

    The showdown: In the first and second congressional districts, ARS has spent big on TV ads that highlight former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta and state Rep. Marilinda Garcia’s opposition to universal background checks. While in Congress, Guinta cosponsored a bill for reciprocity of conceal carry permits across state lines.

    Ricochet: In 2011, Republican congressmen read the Constitution aloud in its entirety on the House floor for the first time. Guinta read the Second Amendment, to the envy of some colleagues.

    All spending totals as of October 29, 2014

  • Joni Ernst Is the Tea Party's Endgame
    Joni Ernst Tea Party
    Louis Brems/ZUMA

    Early last Thursday morning, Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate for Senate in Iowa, swung by the Des Moines Rotary Club to speak at the group's monthly lunch meeting. Mostly white and mostly male, the club counts much of the state's political elite among its members. The day Ernst visited, I spotted the current Republican secretary of state, the GOP's nominee to succeed him, a Republican state senator and former congressional nominee, and a former state GOP chair in the crowd. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who is about to win his sixth term in office, wasn't there, but his son Eric was sworn into the club before Ernst spoke.

    Ernst is one of the surprise successes of the 2014 midterms. Thanks to a campaign predicated on playing up the state's growing urban-rural divide and tarring her Democratic opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, as an out-of-touch urbanite, the one-term state senator has narrowly led most recent polls and holds a two-point advantage in Real Clear Politics' polling average ahead of next Tuesday's election.

    Ernst is often described as the harbinger of a tea party revival. She supports a "personhood" amendment that could make all abortions illegal and endanger birth control and in vitro fertilization. She has called for President Barack Obama's impeachment and thinks states should be free to nullify federal laws. She has vowed to vote for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and she buys into the conspiracy theory that the United Nations' "Agenda 21" is a secret plan to usurp democracy.

    If elected, Ernst would almost certainly be among the most conservative senators in the country. Yet she owes her rise to prominence not to the tea party, but to the Rotary Club types—the GOP establishment, which urged her to run and bet that her biography and folksy political charm would matter far more than her extreme policy positions. She is somehow both the handpicked champion of the mainline business-minded wing of the Republican Party and a hard-right conservative reactionary—the logical end-result of the ongoing merger of the tea party and the rest of the GOP. And if she wins on Tuesday, she'll set an example that Republican candidates will emulate for years to come.


    Ernst's life story is at the heart of her appeal, and she knows it. "I didn't have a lot as a kid, but I didn't know any different," she told the Rotary crowd, regaling the room with tales of her childhood on a small family farm in southwest Iowa. She explained how, in 1989, she was one of 18 Iowa State undergrads sent on an agricultural exchange to a collective farm in Ukraine, which was then still a part of the Soviet Union. Ernst was shocked by the lack of modern amenities—the farm had no telephone, no running water, no car, no refrigerator. "They didn't have those freedoms, and you could tell they hungered for that," she said. The experience pushed her to join ROTC when she returned to campus.

    Ernst built a career in the armed forces. She deployed to Kuwait in 2003 at the start of the second Iraq War, and serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard to this day, leading the largest battalion in the state. In 2004, she ran for county auditor in her home county. She won, and was reelected in 2008. Then, in 2010, Branstad tapped Kim Reynolds, the state senator in Ernst's district, as his lieutenant governor. Reynolds and local Republicans recruited Ernst to run for Reynolds' seat, which she won with 67.4 percent of the vote.

    Ernst's biography—and her record of electoral success—helped rally establishment Republicans to her cause, says Steve Roberts, a former chairman of the state party.

    When Sen. Tom Harkin, the five-term Democratic incumbent, announced his retirement in 2013, the mainline GOP crowd knew Ernst was their woman. "She was a different kind of candidate, which was the only way we were going to maybe have a chance to beat Braley," Roberts says.

    Soon after Harkin announced he would retire, Roberts and a gaggle of other establishment GOPers encouraged Ernst to run for the soon-to-be-open seat. That group included David Oman—a former chief of staff to Branstad who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998 and was co-chair of Mitt Romney's Iowa campaign—and David Kochel, Romney's lead political strategist in the state. In July 2013, Ernst announced she would run for Harkin's seat. Reynolds, the lieutenant governor, endorsed Ernst a few months later, and Kochel and Oman joined Ernst's campaign. Romney, Kochel's former boss, endorsed Ernst this March. As the state's top Republican, Branstad didn't endorse a candidate in the primary, but his preference was no secret. "Pretty much everybody in the state knew that Ernst was Branstad's pick, even if he wasn't going to say so publicly," says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.


    Four other Republicans ran for the GOP nomination to replace Harkin. Like Ernst, they lacked statewide name recognition. But with the help of her friends in party leadership and a well-timed viral ad in which she promised to apply her pig-castrating skills to the federal budget, Ernst sailed to an easy victory in the June 3 primary. She finished with 56 percent of the vote—an outright majority that ensured she would not have to win over delegates at a potentially unpredictable nominating convention.

    Since June, Ernst has tried to tack to the center, and Democrats have pointed to her comments during the primary to paint her as extreme. "That kind of stuff can come back to haunt you," Hagle says. But Ernst has brushed off her past positions, often by simply denying she ever held them.

    As a result, Ernst's stump speech is light on policy specifics. She rolls through her bio, attacks Braley for being out of touch with farmers, complains about the Environmental Protection Agency, and touts Iowa's economic fortunes over the past several years of Republican rule. "We are at that critical juncture," she'll say. "We have to set America moving in the right direction, just as we have done here in Iowa. I believe our Iowa way, our Iowa values is exactly what we need to see in the federal government." How, exactly, those Iowa values would translate into federal policy is left unstated.

    What Ernst lacks in policy substance, though, she makes up for with folksy charm and panache. She knows how to work a room, and she's an expert in the sort of retail politics expected in Iowa, where presidential hopefuls come every four years to prostrate themselves before caucus voters.

    After the event at the Des Moines Rotary Club, Ernst's bus—"Honk if you think Washington is broken!" is printed in large letters on the back—cruised west on I-80 to the Guthrie County Courthouse for a small meet-and-greet with about 15 supporters. After a stump speech that include fart jokes about climate change regulation—"How do you regulate methane coming out of a cow? I haven't figured that out, I don't know how the EPA's going to figure that out"—Ernst pressed the flesh with the small group, greeting people with hugs as if they were old friends, and readily agreeing with the conservative take on any position they asked her about. The crowd ate it up. "We're Joni Ernst country. And it just don't get any better," Myrna Beeber, a retired nurse, told me. Beeber says she plans to vote for Ernst so that her "son in the military has an advocate in Congress," but others at the event couldn't offer much else for why they plan to vote for her. "I like her personality," another retiree, Benny Woodard, told me. "She's been in Iraq."

    Braley peppers his stump speeches with numbers and policy specifics. But he doesn't have Ernst's easy charm. Last week, I watched him mingle amidst a group of old union hands at a United Steel Workers chili cook-off in the industrial outskirts of Des Moines. As one middle-aged union couple quietly enjoyed their meal, Braley walked up and awkwardly attempted small talk. "I'm just like you, I enjoy a lot of crackers in my chili," he said. The couple stared at their food with disinterest.

    Braley was more at ease when he addressed the full room. He complained about tax breaks given to companies that ship jobs overseas. He put forth a simple pitch on how raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would boost everyone's fortunes, as 20 percent of the state's workforce makes below that level. "180,000 of those Iowans are women, half of them are over the age of 30, and almost a third of them have children," he said at the front of the room as several people lined up to fill up their cup at the keg behind him. "And if you're working full-time in Iowa and only earning $15,000 a year at a minimum wage job and living in poverty, that's just not right."


    Last Sunday, I drove to Red Oak, the small town in Iowa's remote southwest where Ernst grew up. Red Oak is more than 30 miles from any interstate—let alone anything that could begin to qualify as a city—along two-lane highways that wind through cornfields and past grain silos. Downtown consists of one square block with a small park in the middle. The town's lone coffee shop is closed for renovations.

    I had come to Red Oak to talk to Troy Price, the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, who had planned to meet some of the few Democrats in this heavily Republican area and make a few calls from a phone bank at the town's Latino cultural center. But when we pulled up in separate cars at 7 p.m., the door to the Latino Center was shut and the lights were off. Price wasn't ready to immediately call it quits, so the two of us opened the unlocked door (this is small town Iowa, after all) and we walked around a few empty rooms to make certain there wasn't a secret backroom where the Democrats had sequestered themselves. After determining that the building was empty, we wandered back out to the street.

    Price, mystified by the case of the missing phone bank, was in the middle of a panicked call to make sure Democrats actually exist on Ernst’s home turf when Jason Frerichs, the 37-year-old chair of the Montgomery County Democrats, ambled up and said hello. Frerichs said his handful of volunteers had already packed up for the day. But he was happy to chat, and suggested we walk the half-mile to a nearby Subway sandwich shop. Montgomery is the third unhealthiest county in the state, Frerichs explained, but he has dropped more than 100 pounds in the past year by eating better and exercising.

    Frerichs, who moved to Red Oak from Iowa City three years ago, is the sort of Democrat who casually describes the GOP as a "party of white supremacists," refers to the Republican governor as "Terry Braindead" and says he wants to go across town and stick a Bruce Braley yard sign on Joni Ernst's lawn. (He hasn't, but he's convinced her neighbor to put one up next door.) "I'm not very well liked by the Montgomery County Republican Party," he explained. Price winced.

    When we got to Subway, where he's clearly a regular, Frerichs went into politicking mode, asking the women behind the counter if they've voted yet and telling them that they should be troubled by Ernst's support for the personhood measure. They told him they are strongly opposed to abortion, and didn't seem convinced when he noted that the personhood bill could endanger access to birth control.

    Midway through our meal, four Ernst staffers walked into the restaurant. They stood out—no one else in Red Oak was dressed business casual—and they carried themselves with the preternatural confidence of youth, like high-school quarterbacks before the big game, or Capitol Hill interns. The Ernst bus was refueling at the gas station next door. Price scrunched in his seat and immediately lowered his voice to barely above a whisper.

    When Branstad and Romney's allies and the GOP establishment tapped Ernst, they "were looking at her resume," he said. "But her positions"—her extreme views on everything from privatizing Social Security to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—"weren't great." The party suits made a bet that her positions wouldn't matter when paired with a stirring bio. On Tuesday, they'll find out if they bet right.

  • Why Are Environmentalists Supporting This Republican Senator?

    This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Since the 2008 election and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party movement, the Republican Party has moved far right on energy and environment issues. Politicians who once accepted climate science have decided that they actually don't. Congressional Republicans have voted to cut funding for the EPA and its programs, to prevent federal agencies from studying climate change, and to revoke EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

    Environmental groups that want to demonstrate their bipartisanship haven't been left with many Republicans to support. In this election cycle, Maine Sen. Susan Collins stands out. She unequivocally accepts climate science. In 2009, she cosponsored a "cap-and-dividend" bill to limit emissions with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). She is the only Senate Republican to vote against preventing EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. (But she did vote to block EPA climate action in 2010, arguing that "Congress, not the EPA, should decide how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.") The Environmental Defense Fund ran an ad earlier this year praising her for "confronting climate change." The League of Conservation Voters endorsed her. Her lifetime environmental voting score from LCV is 67 percent. That's low for someone the group has endorsed, but unusually high for a Republican.

    Continue Reading »

  • Fox News' Parent Company Is Really Worried About Global Warming

    The day after Superstorm Sandy devastated much of the East Coast, Al Gore issued a statement linking the storm to climate change. That's when Fox News went on the attack.

    "These global warming claims have been debunked time and time again," declared Eric Bolling, a former crude oil trader who is now one of the network's most inflammatory hosts. "Look, it's weather. Weather changes. Things happen. It has nothing to do with global warming."

    But Fox's parent company, 21st Century Fox, sees things differently.

    Earlier this month, a London-based organization called CDP released hundreds of questionnaires it collected from corporations—including 21st Century Fox—that had agreed to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and outline the risks global warming could pose to their business. In its submission to CDP, 21st Century Fox noted that climate change "may increase the frequency and power of tropical cyclones" and that the resulting storms could hurt its bottom line. And the company cited Sandy as a prime example:

    In the current reporting year, 21st Century Fox was affected by Superstorm Sandy through filming interruptions, travel delays, facility and equipment damange [sic] and box office closings in the Northeast U.S. The storm showed that 21st Century Fox can be negatively impacted by climate-related weather impacts. Severe weather and climate change also pose physical risks to 21st Century Fox's supply chain, such as the ability and timeliness with which products and services can be delivered to and from the company.

    An entertainment colossus with businesses that include everything from right-wing cable news to blockbuster movies to satellite television, 21st Century Fox is one of two media companies led by Rupert Murdoch. The other is News Corp, which controls newspapers worldwide and which split from 21st Century Fox last year. In its own response to CDP, News Corp also cited Sandy, similarly warning that climate change could disrupt its business by potentially increasing the "frequency and power of tropical cyclones."

    Indeed, Sandy cost Murdoch's media empire more than $2 million in "damage and filming delays," according to the documents.

    The storm caused significant damage and shutdowns at News Corp plants, and it reportedly disrupted delivery of the Wall Street Journal. (According to one of the documents, "weather-related missed deliveries" of the Journal have been increasing over the last three years.) Murdoch's entertainment business also took a hit. For example, 21st Century Fox reported that Sandy "reduced sales in a key market" and cited estimates that the storm was largely responsible for a 12 to 25 percent drop in box office sales. And flooding in Brooklyn damaged the set of the The Americans—a TV drama produced by Fox Television Studios—forcing the company to postpone filming. (A Fox spokesperson said the delay lasted "less than two weeks" while the necessary repairs were made.)

    Of course, News Corp and Fox were far from the only businesses impacted by Sandy. Delta Airlines, for instance, told CDP that it lost $75 million in revenue. Abercrombie & Fitch lost more than $10 million in sales. And utility giant Con Edison shelled out more than $500 million to fix damage caused by the storm.

    But the Murdoch companies' statements linking Sandy's devastation to climate change represent a striking contrast to the global warming commentary that often appears in their news outlets. Fox News, in particular, is a hotbed of climate denial; a recent Union of Concerned Scientists study found that fully 72 percent of the network's climate segments contained "misleading" statements. A Fox editor once directed reporters to cast doubt on temperature data showing that the Earth has warmed.

    On the newspaper side, the Wall Street Journal regularly publishes editorials and opinion pieces skeptical of climate science. And according to a report last year from the Australian Center for Independent Journalism, News Corp's Australian papers are a "major reason" why that country's media is "a world leader in the promotion of scepticism."

    Fox and Friends
    Fox News, two weeks before Superstom Sandy Screenshot: Media Matters/Fox News

    This tension is nothing new for Murdoch's companies. In 2011, Fox News hosts were attacking climate scientists even as Murdoch was announcing that News Corp had become carbon neutral. Media Matters (my former employer) wrote at the time that the "contrast between what News Corp's chairman says and what its employees actually do is a stark illustration of the company's attempt to play both sides of the climate issue."

    The companies' concerns about possible climate disruptions go far beyond Sandy. "To the extent that any increase in frequency of extreme events can be correlated to a trend like climate change," writes 21st Century Fox in its CDP submission, "there is a continued need to prepare for business disruptions." It warns that "extended and severe droughts" could worsen wildfires in Southern California, where much of its entertainment business is based. And it cites recent wildfires in Russia and floods in Australia that "disrupted film and TV productions and caused property damage."

    News Corp has similar concerns about increasing wildfire risk, writing that its Australian businesses operate "in regions with bushfire risks, and 2013 saw the extreme fire season start earlier than previous years." And the company points to another—less obvious—threat from climate change. As droughts become more frequent and more severe, writes News Corp, there could be unpredictable consequences for the forestry industry that produces the paper its newspapers are printed on. But don't worry: The Wall Street Journal's climate-change editorials are available online.

  • These Guys Were on the Deepwater Horizon When It Blew Up

    After the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded in June 2010, killing 11 workers and sending roughly five million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, much of the media coverage featured sludge-covered seabirds, empty shrimp baskets, and other environmental impacts. But for Doug Brown, the catastrophe was even more immediate. He was the rig's chief engineer, standing in the control room when a deafening blast sent him flying and turned his workplace into a fiery, oil-soaked hell.

    In The Great Invisible, a documentary about the blowout and its aftermath that premieres today in Los Angeles and New York, Brown breaks into tears as he recalls the "incoherent screamings of pain" of his coworkers: "I saw men completely lose control."

    This virtually untold side of the Deepwater Horizon story emerges from a melange of archival footage (including home videos shot onboard the rig) and original interviews with rig workers and family members of men who died in the disaster. They speak of pride at working on one of the world's most advanced drilling rigs, terror at the explosion, and the post-traumatic stress and guilt that still haunt them.

    Above all, they tell of their betrayal by Transocean, the rig's owner, and BP, its operator—companies to which they gave their best years, and which they now blame for systematically walking back basic precautions in the months preceding the explosion. The film is equally critical of the federal government, which has resumed selling offshore drilling leases while offering no new rig-safety regulations.

    The Great Invisible also paints a vivid portrait of life in the bayou fishing communities where filmmaker Margaret Brown (no relation to Doug) grew up—communities still reeling four years after the spill. I spoke with Brown about producing a film that is as much an exploration of America's love-hate relationship with the oil industry as it is a critique of a few miscreant companies—and about how she encouraged her emotionally scarred central characters to speak out for the first time.

    Climate Desk: You grew up in southern Alabama. How did your own background affect your filmmaking approach?

    Margaret Brown: That's pretty much why I made the film. My dad was sending me pictures of his house with the orange oil booms they put out during the spill. It was weird to see your home surrounded by the booms. It was really emotional. And then I started talking to people in the area, and everyone was super depressed. It's not like a hurricane where people know how to respond. In a hurricane, there's a drill if you grow up down there. With this, nobody knew what to do. There was a lot of uncertainty and depression. And that was what I responded to.

    margaret brown
    Filmmaker Margaret Brown

    When we first went down there, there were so many cameras on the beach for like two or three months. And then it went away. I was curious about what would happen when all the other cameras left—when that image went off the news of the plume of oil leaking. The minute that was gone, all the reporters were gone. I stayed four years. I was curious what it would be like to make a film about something everyone knows about. How do you make that novel and fresh?

    The film changed. It started with me wanting me to make something about where I grew up, and turned into something about the larger question of how Americans relate to petroleum. I wanted to see if I could make something personal, but also where people can watch it and understand a little more about what happens when we fill up our car. Hopefully people would have the same kind of thought process that I did, learning about how deeply entrenched the government is, how it makes so much money off offshore leases—which is probably a big answer to why things aren't changing.

    CD: Which of your initial assumptions were challenged or changed as you made the film?

    MB: I think just the scope of what we talk about when we talk about oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. And after watching all the grandstanding in Congress, I really did think something might change in terms of safety regulations. Maybe that's naïve. But this is the first major oil spill where something hasn't changed. It made me a little more cynical.

    But I think it's a timely moment. People are realizing [climate change] is real in a way they didn't 10 years ago. I think the film is part of the conversation, but it's not the answer. I think people see it in a really simple way, like it's either "Boycott BP!" or "Drill baby drill!" There's no real understanding of the huge expanse in between, and that's frustrating to me. We are all connected to what BP is giving us.

    The spill happened, and then nothing happened. I hope the film can address why nothing happened, and I think a lot of that is Congress. But also that, the minute it got off the news, people stopped thinking about. It seemed like, "Okay, they capped it. It's gone." But actually, there are no new safety regulations. It's not gone.

    doug brown
    Doug Brown was chief engineer on the Deepwater Horizon when the rig exploded in 2010. Courtesy Margaret Brown

    CD: How did you get the workers and their families to open up?

    MB: That was the hardest part, actually, those interviews. [Rig hand] Stephen Stone and Doug Brown were absolutely the hardest people to get to agree to be in the film. I think that was mainly because of the PTSD they'd suffered from the accident, and they and their wives weren't sure if being in the film would be better or worse for them. I think they're still not sure. We still talk about it. But I think mainly the consensus has been that it's been cathartic and positive to share their story. Those stories of how their lives have changed, and how they haven't gotten paid, and what happens when you witness this—the guilt and the troubling feelings, the suicidal feelings. It's some of the scariest stuff there is. They were super brave to be in the movie, because in that industry I think people sort of follow the leader, and those guys decided to speak out and be whistle blowers.

    Doug had tried to kill himself, and it was really hard to get them to open up. I spent hours with his, Meccah, on the phone talking, and crying sometimes, because I think they thought at first that I was a spy from Transocean. They had such a level of mistrust and being messed around with by those companies that they didn't believe that I was an independent filmmaker. So I went from being a spy to someone you would talk to. They felt that Doug had been so loyal to that company, and was so proud of his job. To go from that to feeling like—I mean, Doug struggles with a lot of guilt for something that he had little to no control over. And it's interesting to me who feels guilt in this film—and who should feel guilty.

    The workers are proud of what they're doing. There's a sense of bringing oil to the American people and providing energy. If you just look at it from the left, and how bad BP is, you're going to miss a lot of what's really going on.


Green Facts

  • Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial fleet of airplanes every 3 months

  • Recycling for one year at Stanford University saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die prematurely worldwide every year due to air pollution.

  • You will save 100 pounds of carbon for each incandescent bulb that you replace with a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), over the life of the bulb.

  • Americans use 100 million tin and steel cans every day.

  • A single quart of motor oil, if disposed of improperly, can contaminate up to 2,000,000 gallons of fresh water.

  • Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute.

  • Recycling 100 million cell phones can save enough energy to power 18,500 homes in the U.S. for a year.

  • Less than 1% of electricity in the United States is generated from solar power.

  • Glass can be recycled over and over again without ever wearing down.

  • Recycling 1 million laptop computers can save the amount of energy used by 3,657 homes in the U.S. over the course of a year.

  • Americans throw away more than 120 million cell phones each year, which contribute 60,000 tons of waste to landfills annually.

  • American workers spend an average of 47 hours per year commuting through rush hour traffic. This adds up to 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic each year.

  • Every week about 20 species of plants and animals become extinct.

  • Shaving 10 miles off of your weekly driving pattern can eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

  • A tree that provides a home with shade from the sun can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime.

  • 77% of people who commute to work by car drive alone.

  • A steel mill using recycled scrap reduces related water pollution, air pollution, and mining wastes by about 70%.

  • It takes 6,000,000 trees to make 1 year's worth of tissues for the world.

  • States with bottle deposit laws have 35-40% less litter by volume.

  • Current sea ice levels are at least 47% lower than they were in 1979.

  • Youll save two pounds of carbon for every 20 glass bottles that you recycle.

  • An aluminum can that is thrown away instead of recycled will still be a can 500 years from now!

  • In California homes, about 10% of energy usage is related to TVs, DVRs, cable and satellite boxes, and DVD players.

  • 82 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from burning fossil fuels.

  • A laptop consumes five times less electricity than a desktop computer.

  • You will save 300 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 10,000 miles you drive if you always keep your cars tires fully inflated.

  • Bamboo absorbs 35% more carbon dioxide than equivalent stands of trees.

  • If every U.S. household turned the thermostat down by 10 degrees for seven hours each night during the cold months, and seven hours each weekday, it would prevent nearly gas emissions.

  • Turning off the tap when brushing your teeth can save as much as 10 gallons a day per person.

  • Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make the material from scratch.

  • Refrigerators built in 1975 used 4 times more energy than current models.

  • Nudge your thermostat up two degrees in the summer and down two degrees in the winter to prevent 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

  • For every 38,000 bills consumers pay online instead of by mail, 5,058 pounds of greenhouse gases are avoided and two tons of trees are preserved.

  • One recycled aluminum can will save enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours.

  • In the United States, automobiles produce over 20 percent of total carbon emissions. Walk or bike and you'll save one pound of carbon for every mile you travel.

  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year.

  • Washing your clothes in cold or warm instead of hot water saves 500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and drying your clothes on a clothesline six months out of the year would save another 700 pounds.

  • Due to tiger poaching, habitat destruction, and other human-tiger conflicts, tigers now number around 3,200a decrease in population by about 70% from 100 years ago.