The Biden administration likes to put Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on television. It’s easy to understand why. Buttigieg is well-spoken and rhetorically fluid, a forceful advocate for Biden’s policies, and especially skilled in verbal sparring against Republicans and reporters. Yet Buttigieg’s silences are sometimes as telling as his words.
On February 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous material including vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. From the start it was clear that this was a major environmental disaster, and it led to an evacuation of the surrounding area. On February 5, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine warned, “Everyone in Pennsylvania and Ohio who’s in this area, you know, you need to leave. You just need to leave. We’re ordering you to leave. This is a matter of life and death.”
On the very day that DeWine was uttering these dire words, Buttigieg appeared on three Sunday news shows: CNN’s State of the Union, NBC’s Meet the Press, and ABC’s This Week. Remarkably, on none of these programs was Buttigieg asked about the ongoing East Palestine disaster—despite the fact that, as transportation secretary, regulating train safety is one of his responsibilities. Nor did Buttigieg feel it incumbent on himself to raise the issue and offer what guidance and assurances he could. Instead, Buttigieg’s ubiquitous TV appearances were taken up with the transparently hyped-up issue of a Chinese weather balloon that entered USA airspace—quite possibly as a result of unpredictable wind patterns.
The mainstream media certainly deserves blame for its preference for xenophobic threat inflation over covering an environmentally devastating industrial accident, one rooted in a combination of corporate malfeasance and bipartisan unwillingness to regulate powerful businesses.
But Buttigieg’s own reticence on this matter is hard to ignore, especially in contrast to his irrepressible volubility on most other topics. It took Buttigieg a full 10 days to make a statement on the East Palestine disaster.
In a twitter thread on February 13, Buttigieg wrote, “I continue to be concerned about the impacts of the Feb 3 train derailment near East Palestine, OH, and the effects on families in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own.” The next day, Buttigieg followed up by writing, “We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015), but we are using the powers we do have to keep people safe.”
This statement was only partially true. It’s undeniable that the Trump administration’s deregulations have been a problem. But Trump whittled regulations that had already been watered down by Republicans in Congress in 2015 thanks to railroad industry lobbying.
Equally important is the fact that the Biden administration and its transportation secretary have made no effort to remedy the situation. As The Lever reported on February 10, “In the aftermath of a fiery Ohio train derailment, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s department has not moved to reinstate an Obama-era rail safety rule aimed at expanding the use of better braking technology, even though a former federal safety official recently warned Congress that without the better brakes, ‘there will be more derailments [and] more releases of hazardous materials.’” In fact, under Buttigieg’s watch, the Transportation Department was contemplating stripping down brake safety rules even further.
In a follow-up report, The Lever debunked Buttigieg’s hapless complaint that “we’re constrained.” In fact, industry watchers and union activists have suggested multiple ways Buttigieg could use his existing power to ramp up the regulation of the railroad industry. Buttigieg’s policy paralysis is a matter of choice, not structural barriers. It’s hardly surprising that Buttigieg, whose résumé includes time as a McKinsey consultant, is allergic to government regulation of industry. By both ideology and formation, Buttigieg is a thoroughgoing neoliberal.
I asked Jeff Hauser—founder and director of the Revolving Door Project and an astute critic of corporate domination of government—to evaluate Buttigieg’s performance. Hauser was scathing: “Buttigieg is not supposed to be sitting in first class as a passenger in government offering up political bon mots for the press. He is supposed to be putting the pedal to the metal and accelerating the Transportation Department’s enforcement capacity after Elaine Chao’s actively damaging reign. It’s about time that Buttigieg quits auditioning for the role of White House press secretary and start doing the work of the executive branch—executing aggressively existing laws designed to protect Americans from rapacious rail and aviation companies. An engaged secretary of transportation would have begun the process of reanalyzing the costs and benefits of a new braking rule on their first day in office. It should not take a tragedy to get him focused on the responsibilities of his office.”
In taking a stance that minimizes the ability of the federal government to redress the East Palestine disaster, Buttigieg has created a powerful opening for the right—especially conspiracy theorist and racists. On his Fox News show on February 15, Tucker Carlson folded the East Palestine story into his familiar right-wing populist narrative of the white working class being mistreated by liberal elites. Carlson told viewers:
According to Pete Buttigieg, Biden officials were on the scene, yet somehow they never said a word about the mushroom cloud until pictures of it evoked outrage on social media and, of course, they didn’t. They didn’t even notice. It had nothing to do with equity or climate change. East Palestine is a poor, White town that voted for Trump. So honestly, who cares? No one in the Biden administration did care and that’s an atrocity.
On the wilder precincts of the right, East Palestine is already a source for conspiracy theories about a malevolent government. As The New York Times notes, “Right-wing commentators have been particularly critical, using the crisis to sow distrust about government agencies and suggest that the damage could be irreparable.”
In the aftermath of the East Palestine disaster, we see the fault lines of contemporary American politics. On one side, there are corporate Democrats like Buttigieg who are invested in the status quo and want to downplay the ill effects of capitalism. On the other side are right-wing demagogues like Carlson who are using disasters to stoke racist paranoia among whites.
But there’s also a third faction worth attending to. The rising left of the Democratic party includes voices who want to break this dangerous stalemate by pushing the Biden administration to take a harder line against corporate misconduct. On February 13, Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted, “East Palestine railroad derailment will have a significant negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents for decades and there is almost zero national media attention. We need Congressional inquiry and direct action from @PeteButtigieg to address this tragedy.” The four senators representing Ohio and Pennsylvania—Sherrod Brown, J.D. Vance, Bob Casey, and John Fetterman—have joined together in calling for a Senate investigation.
Congress’s taking up its investigatory duties could open the way for a return to the kind of regulations needed—in particular forcing companies like Norfolk Southern to upgrade their braking systems. The system currently used in East Palestine dated back to the Civil War. A congressional investigation is the best hope of avoiding the twin evils of Buttigieg’s willful paralysis and Tucker Carlson’s demagoguery.