A prominent criticism of politicians generally is that too often they serve themselves, rather than the people they were elected to serve. One spectacular example of this came in the form of Ted Cruz, and his behaviour during the Texas Freeze last month. On 10th February, the temperatures in Texas dropped to -18°c and led to power cuts across the state. In the days that followed, 4 million people were left without power or heat, and infrastructure broke down as roads and pavements were covered in ice. Citizens went to desperate, and sometimes fatal, measures to keep warm using gas stoves, car heaters and indoor generators that led to cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. The crisis resulted in around 60 deaths, a tragic case of this being 11 year old Cristian Pineda who was found unresponsive by his mother in their home, after the temperatures dropped to below freezing.
So where was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whilst residents were risking their lives for heat, and mothers were finding their sons dead in their beds? On a flight to Cancún, Mexico of course. Cruz booked a last-minute trip to Mexico as temperatures started to drop, and his family began to complain about the cold. While Texans struggled to keep warm, Cruz and his family stayed in a Ritz Carlton, where rooms are $300 a night, and temperatures reached nearly 30°c. Following the backlash from this, Cruz cut short his family’s holiday and flew home, where he tried to blame his political failings on his own children (by saying that they had the idea to fly to Cancún) and claiming he deserved some credit (for coming home early). He even had the audacity to joke about the incident at a conservative conference.
There have been calls for Ted Cruz to resign following his behaviour, but he is unlikely to face significant backlash despite abandoning his state during a time of crisis. This is because of three key reasons, which reveal some of the structural issues behind American politics.
Reason #1: Poorer citizens were hit harder by the Freeze
Lower-income households were less able to overcome the difficulties the sudden change in climate created, as they did not always have the necessary equipment to heat their homes. This could for example be those without sufficient insulation in their homes, or people with a lack of shelter in general. This economic situation overlaps with race, when we consider that in Texas, African American and Hispanic residents are more likely to live under the poverty line than Caucasians. This has been called ‘environmental racism’ which is when people of colour are more likely to live in homes with bad infrastructure, and therefore less able to endure natural disasters. We can see the outcome of this combination of economic, environmental, and racial factors in the Texas Freeze, as underprivileged communities and people of colour were hit harder. This impact is not just about surviving the crisis however, as the Public Utility Commission of Texas decided to raise the price of energy, meaning that those who could use energy and were on variable tariffs have been left with thousands of pounds of debt they cannot pay. These groups have less power in a country that has been structured to value white middle class Americans over all other citizens. Many have suffered because of the Texas Freeze but the power imbalance between Ted Cruz, the large energy companies responsible for the mismanagement of the situation and those affected means that little will be done. The discrimination many citizens face will also likely continue in the allocation of resources dealing with the fallout of the freeze, meaning it may be a long time before many recover.
Reason #2: Ted Cruz’s wealthy supporters have benefitted from the freeze
The Pineda family are attempting to address this power imbalance, by suing the energy companies for negligence, after their 11 year old son Cristian Pineda died in their home during the freeze. The utility companies had knowledge of the upcoming weather forecast a week before it occurred and yet did not undertake any pre-emptive action. The Texas power grid operates in a de-regulated free market, independent of the other states power supplies. Those utility companies that managed to keep operating during the freeze have benefitted economically off people’s desperation for power. The president of Comstock Resources allegedly stated that the freeze was like “hitting the jackpot”, which is remarkably callous considering people have died. Bizarrely, these companies chose to give power to empty office buildings but neglected to provide power to people’s homes. These companies will no doubt have to improve their services, as extreme weather conditions become more likely with climate change. Yet this cost will be shouldered by consumers who already cannot afford to pay the bills they have been hit with. As a wealthy republican senator, in a state with a high proportion of billionaires, Cruz enjoys support from these energy tycoons. As these people have benefitted from the freeze, Cruz will likely emerge from this controversy relatively unscathed.
Reason #3: Self-serving politicians: the new norm?
Politicians are under an additional level of scrutiny as their job involves public duty, and they are elected to fulfil that role. However recent years have seen a rise of a new type of politician, an electoral professional who begins a political career for reasons other than serving the public (increased connections, financial gain, fame, etc). Additionally, disempowered groups are less able to influence those politicians that benefit from wealthy connections. This is clearly the case with Ted Cruz’s response to the crisis in his state, and the fact that he has made jokes about it shows his disregard for those who have suffered due to his ineptness. This is not solely a problem in the U.S. In the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson missed five emergency committee meetings at the beginning of the Covid Crisis. These situations reinforce public opinion that all politicians are self-serving and leads to a decrease in engagement with political institutions.
The work of dedicated politicians should be celebrated, and the inaction of selfish careerists such as Ted Cruz should be held to account, to improve the quality of modern democracy.
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