Will the BP Fiasco Change U.S. Politics? Don't Bet on It

The odds are that this spill won't actually be that big of a historical moment. I'm not a cynic, but there's something extraordinarily resilient about Americans' collective indifference to holding people and organizations accountable.
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This is a constant drumbeat, but think about it: Isn't it remarkable how transcendently awful BP's approach to the Gulf disaster has been? At each and every turn, with the stakes impossibly high, BP has always chosen to do the wrong thing. There's the substance -- having no emergency worst-case contingency plans for a blowout, disingenuously refusing to estimate the amount of oil flowing. There's the politics and image stuff, including CEO Tony Hayward's lies and self-pity and the platoons of lawyers and PR people trying to keep cleanup workers silent and choke off media attention. It's been an awesome display of every kind of 21st century corporate dick-itude.

If you're cynical, then this is merely garden-variety corporate misbehavior, if on a grand scale. But we're at an interesting pass here. Consider: for years BP has buffed its image with the green sunflower logo and the "Beyond Petroleum" campaign, portraying itself as a forward-looking, responsible corporate citizen. This nominally covered its left flank, but more importantly gave it a forward-looking, friendly image. Perfect mainstream mass-market positioning.

Meanwhile, the cult of the free market, which too often means letting big business do what it wants, retained a powerful hold on U.S. politics. We're still learning all the ways in which the Bush administration pulled out all the political and regulatory stops for big oil and other energy industries, which led to a culture of lax oversight and technological corner-cutting in a high-risk activity.

Now: When disaster struck, it quickly became obvious that all the green stuff was just for show. Where it counted, BP had not been green at all, but murky brown. Today, with the Gulf of Mexico getting more fouled by the hour and the eyes of the world riveted on its every move (the one time you really, really want to get corporate PR right) BP has demonstrated it cares more about covering its own arse than doing the right thing.

Here's one thing I genuinely don't get. Just from a PR standpoint, BP's tactical, hectoring approach makes no sense. If I were BP (which in fact I'm not) I would simply roll over, conceding everything the critics are saying, promising to make everything whole again to the fullest extent possible, acknowledging the profound wrong that it has committed here at every opportunity, in words and actions. I'd call off the lawyers and PR people. The nickel-and-diming media interference is futile, after all. The story is simply too big -- geographically, environmentally, and historically -- for it to have any appreciable effect other than to make BP look bad. But BP's honchos either cannot recognize this, or they don't care, or they have no overarching strategy for the company's corporate and social responsibilities going forward - other than minimizing them.

Surely the BP debacle is the kind of emperor-has-no-clothes moment that ends up meaning something. Many of the default political assumptions of the past three decades have exposed as scams: that the interests of global corporations are more or less in line with those of a majority of individual voters and the working class; that markets are best served by federal accommodation of corporate interests.

But the odds are, it won't be that big moment. I'm not a cynic, but there's something extraordinarily resilient about Americans' collective indifference to holding people and organizations accountable. We're the "let's move on" nation. Current American politics, with its lobbying nexus and regulatory capture problems, has been extraordinarily resistant to fallout from big events that should alter the way people, and thus politicians, think and behave about economic issues.

So, we'll have to wait and see. But as long as BP keeps on doing what it's doing, the odds of such a realignment of public opinion will continue to rise.

This post first appeared on my True/Slant blog.

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