The Game of Politics

<– Back to Table of Contents

Ultimately, it’s up to the world’s top political leaders and elected officials to make the decisions that can save the planet from the twin existential threats of climate catastrophe and nuclear war.  They are the ones who can sign, ratify and implement treaties banning fossil fuels and nuclear weapons. They are the ones who can redirect trillions of dollars in public funds from nuclear weapons programs to climate mitigation efforts. They are the ones who can pass legislation and impose regulations that ensure the swift, smooth and just transition to a peaceful, clean and renewable future. And above all, United States leaders must make these decisions, because without the US, very little progress can be made on either of these issues. That means having a President willing to sign the Nuclear Ban Treaty and a Fossil Fuel Treaty, and willing to make other executive decisions to speed up the transition. It means having 67 Senators who are willing to ratify these treaties, and a majority in both Houses of Congress willing to pass the necessary legislation, ensure implementation of treaties, and allocate the money to pay for all that. How can we get there?

The social barometer

One of the tools used by social change activists and community organizers to identify who they want to target for what purpose is called the social barometer, or spectrum of allies.[1] This involves drawing a half-circle with “allies” at one end and “opponents” at the other. In the middle are “neutral” parties.

The goal is then to try to move people from wherever they are on the barometer to somewhere nearer to the “allies” side.  Every degree of change is helpful in this kind of campaign, even if it’s just nudging a hardline opponent closer to neutral.

In terms of the US Congress, this would mean identifying where on the barometer each Member of Congress is currently, and then trying to move them further along in the right direction. We can identify where they are now by looking at their voting records, their co-sponsorship of various bills, their statements to the House, statements to the press, Facebook and Twitter posts, and through direct communication. We can then tailor our asks and our arguments to try to move them towards support for bills or resolutions that will actually move the needle in terms of their position on our issues.

The nuclear barometer

Applying the social barometer to the field of nuclear weapons, we might describe a spectrum from “bomb-enthusiasts” to “nuclear abolitionists.” In the middle are those who are indifferent or content with the status quo. Toward the bomb-enthusiast end you might find those who want to make it more difficult for other countries to have nuclear weapons while doing nothing to reduce our own arsenal. On the other side of indifference, you might find proponents of reducing arsenals and risks, short of actually getting rid of them.

Figure 16.1 Social barometer – nuclear weapons[1]

Unfortunately, most current Members of Congress and most officials inside the Administration fall much closer to the bomb-enthusiast side of the barometer than the abolitionist side. To move the needle: Can we get bomb-enthusiasts to at least recognize the danger of a world awash with nuclear weapons?  Can we alert the status quo to the need for reducing and eventually eliminating these weapons? Can we get baby-steppers to embrace abolition? Can we get abolitionists to put more effort into convincing their colleagues to join them?

[1] Graphic by Vicki Elson (2023) in Canva.

The climate barometer

We can place Members of Congress along a similar spectrum when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels. Many Members of Congress still fall much closer to the fossil-fuel-enthusiasts end of the spectrum than to the elimination end. But can we get coal-enthusiasts to at least recognize the need to move away from the worst climate offenders? Can we get change-resisters to realize that the Petroleum Age cannot go on forever? Can we get the fossil-fuel-dependent to grasp the urgency? Can we get baby-steppers to embrace abolition? Can we get abolitionists to put more effort into convincing their colleagues to join them?

Figure 16.2  Social Barometer – Climate[1]

[1] Graphic by Vicki Elson (2023) in Canva.

[1] See, for example, Global Peace Warriors. (n.d.). Social barometer or spectrum of allies. and the tool as developed by Training for Change at Lakey, G. (2021). Spectrum of Allies. Training for Change.

Why is this so difficult?

Saving the planet should be a no-brainer. Why is it not happening at the scale or urgency required? To answer that question…

Follow the money.

Many workers in the nuclear weapons and fossil fuel industries might be just as happy making wind turbines or solar panels instead.[1] So who benefits from continuing to depend on fossil fuels and nuclear weapons? Who would have the incentive to do everything possible to prevent a transition away from these things – even when the survival of humanity is at stake?

Corporations can reap enormous profits by investing a very small amount of money and time in lobbying, supporting politicians’ election campaigns, advertising, influencing the media, funding think-tanks, etc. In some cases, this can amount to a return on investment of over 1,000%. [2]

A 2014 Princeton study[3] looked at 1,800 policy issues debated in Congress over a 20-year period, and whether or not these were enacted into law or rejected. They found there was a near-zero statistical correlation between which policies the majority of the public wanted and which were eventually adopted by Congress. On the other hand, they found a near 100% correlation between what the economic elites (big business interests) wanted and what ended up as US policy.[4]

We must be under no illusions about the exceedingly powerful interests that lie behind the existing status quo regarding nuclear weapons and fossil fuels. These are trillion-dollar industries and they have a huge amount at stake.

And this is what we are ultimately up against in the United States: This is not a country of nuclear weapons enthusiasts whose politicians will shift their position once the mood of the country shifts. This is a country whose politicians are bought and sold by the nuclear weapons and fossil fuel industries (and other industries). Most of them will shift their position only when that industry tells them to.

In poll after poll (depending, of course, on how the question is put) ordinary US-Americans, like their counterparts in most other countries of the world, indicate their desire to see a world free of all nuclear weapons and free of carbon emissions.[5] This does not translate into public policy for one reason and one reason only: members of the US Congress need to raise millions of dollars to fight re-election campaigns on a regular and surprisingly frequent basis, and they get that money from large corporate donors who expect political favors in return. It is pure, legalized corruption, and it has become the American system of government.

The US is the only major industrialized country in the world that does not have single-payer healthcare. The people want it, but the pharmaceutical and insurance industries don’t.[6] The US has by far the highest rates of gun violence in the industrialized world. The people want gun control, but the NRA and the gun manufacturers don’t.[7] And the US spends more on national “defense” than almost the entire rest of the world combined (see Chapter 10) – not principally because ordinary US-Americans feel endangered by other countries, but because the defense industry wants to maintain their lucrative government contracts.

Figure 16.3 The Congressional-Corporate Complex[8]

Election financing

According to OpenSecrets, the top 10 companies in the “defense” industry gave over $50 million to candidates during the 2020 congressional election cycle. The campaign contributions in 2022 include $3.2 million from Lockheed Martin, $2.2 million each from Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, $2.1 million from General Dynamics, $1.8 million from L3 Harris, and over $1 million from BAE Systems.[1] But these are not just some of the top contractors for the US military. They are also some of the top US nuclear weapons contractors (see chapter 17).

The fossil fuel industry spent even more. Koch Industries alone spent a whopping $27 million on candidates in the 2022 election cycle, followed by Occidental Petroleum with $8 million, Chevron with $7.5 million and American Petroleum Institute with $7 million.[2]

In total, the fossil fuel industry spent $125 million on campaign contributions in 2022, most of it going to Republican candidates. Unsurprisingly, the Democrat receiving the most money from the fossil fuel industry was Joe Manchin, the Senator from West Virginia, who more or less single-handedly blocked President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda and forced through a number of concessions to the fossil fuel industry in the Inflation Reduction Act. Manchin received over $1 million in campaign contributions from this sector.[3] It would appear that the investment paid off many times over—not in dollars directly, but in favorable legislation.  

[1] There is also “dark money” going to candidates, not all of which can be identified (see section below), but OpenSecrets does a pretty good job of monitoring the money that they can find out about: OpenSecrets. (n.d.). Defense.

[2] OpenSecrets. (n.d.). Energy/Natural Resources.

[3] OpenSecrets. (n.d.). Energy/Natural Resources.

Revolving door

On top of the straightforward election campaign contributions, there are also several other ways in which the corporations control members of the US Congress. One is the “revolving door” through which Members of Congress are offered lucrative jobs in the industries that support them and vice versa. In terms of the defense industry, there is a 3-way revolving door between Congress, the Department of Defense, and the companies who receive Congressionally-approved contracts from the DOD. tracks industry lobbing, revolving door appointments and campaign contributions to Members of Congress. They identified 672 cases in 2022 in which the top 20 defense contractors had former government officials, military officers, Members of Congress and senior legislative staff working for them as lobbyists, board members or senior executives.[1] That year, Congress gave the DOD over $851 billion in total funding.

A report by the Project on Government Oversight found a 1/4 of the DOD officials that moved to the private sector in 2016 went to one of the top five US defense contractors (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman).[2] Meanwhile, Open Secrets has tracked over 330 Department of Energy officials who have subsequently found their way into the American Petroleum Institute (a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry), into jobs at lobby firms representing fossil fuel interests, and onto the boards of various fossil fuel companies.[3]

For example, the current US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, came to that position directly from the board of Raytheon, one of the top five defense contractors in the country. And immediately prior to serving on the board of Raytheon, he was in a high-ranking position at the Pentagon, where he could advise the federal government on what military hardware they might need (from companies like Raytheon). As Secretary of Defense, he is now in the best possible position to ensure his former colleagues at Raytheon get what they want – and of course, they are.[4]

[1] See Giorno, Taylor (2023), “Revolving Door lobbyists help defense contractors get off to a strong start in 2023” in Open Secrets:

[2] Smithberger, M. (2018). Brass parachutes: The problem of the Pentagon revolving door. In Project on Government Oversight

[3] OpenSecrets. (n.d.). Revolving Door: Search Results.

[4] See employment history of Lloyd Austin at


A vast army of corporate lobbyists in Washington provides a lot more than free lunches for their Congressional compatriots.  They provide a vast array of technical expertise and assistance in writing complex budget authorization bills. They provide technical briefings. They do the work that Members of Congress simply do not have the time to do themselves (because they are so busy raising money for their re-elections[1]). In 2022, defense contractors spent $127 million on lobbying expenses in Washington, DC,[2] and the oil and gas industry spent about the same amount.

Lobbying really pays off. According, again, to OpenSecrets, Bechtel, for instance, invested $1.3 million in lobbying congress in 2022, and in return secured defense contracts worth $1.6 billion – a return on investment of over 1,000%  (see table below). That’s not unusual. 

Table 16.1 Top Nuclear Weapons Industry lobbying costs and income[3]

The fossil fuel industry doesn’t receive huge government contracts in return for their lobbying efforts in the same way that the nuclear weapons industry does. Nevertheless, they clearly benefit financially from the decisions that get made – or not made – about climate mitigation and plans to transition away from fossil fuels.

Table 16.2 Fossil Fuel Lobbying costs and Net Income, 2022[4]


[2] OpenSecrets. (n.d.). Defense lobbying profile

[3] Wasted: 2022 global nuclear weapons spending. (June 2023). ICAN.

[4] Lobbying information from Open Secrets:

Oil & Gas: Lobbying, 2022. (2022). OpenSecrets.

Net Income information compiled from individual company FY2022 reports.

Dark money

We can more or less track the corporate money spent on election funding, revolving doors, and lobbying. But it’s harder to count so-called “dark money.” This is money being channeled from corporations to Members of Congress in ways that cannot be easily tracked or identified. The former head of the Federal Election Commission recently estimated that more than $600 million was being funneled to Members of Congress through unaccountable non-profit organizations with innocuous names like “Patriot Majority,” “American Future Fund,” “Americans for Prosperity” and “Crossroads GPS.”[1]

All of this adds up to a situation that most Americans understand intuitively, reinforced by the Princeton study in 2014: big corporations have much more influence over what becomes US policy than do ordinary citizens, despite the fact that elected officials are voted in by those ordinary citizens to supposedly represent their interests.

[1] Beckel, M. (2018). Dark Money Illuminated. In Issue One

[1] See Elson, Vicki (2023), “Inside the Doomsday Machine: The 2023 Deterrence Summit” (3 parts), in Pressenza, March 5, 2023 (part 1); March 6, 2023 (part 2); March 7, 2023 (part 3):

[2] Fossil Fuel companies that spent more than $1million on lobbying in 2022 from Open Secrets: Profit information from company’s fy2022 financial reports. See also Wasted: 2022 Global Nuclear Weapons Spending. (June, 2023). ICAN.

[3] Gilens, Martin and Page, Benjamin, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” in Perspectives on Politics Volume 12 Issue 3 , September 2014 , pp. 564 – 581


[4] There have been subsequent attempts to challenge the figures and the methodology used by the Princeton Study, but the basic finding is indisputable: economic elites and big business interests in the US have far more influence over what gets decided in Congress than do ordinary citizens.

[5] A YouGov opinion poll of 1355 US adults in September 2019 found 49% of all adults and 70% of Democratic voters in favor of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. See A Chicago Council Survey in July 2020 found 66% of Americans wanting a world free of all nuclear weapons. See But poll results vary, especially in relation to how the questions are worded.

[6] Insurance companies spent $586 million in 2018 lobbying against Medicare for All. See Cancryn, A. (2019, November 25). The army built to fight ‘Medicare for All.’ POLITICO.

[7] The NRA has spent more than $140 million since 2010 on the election of pro-gun candidates. See BBC News. (2023, April 13). US gun control: What is the NRA and why is it so powerful? BBC News

[8] Graphic by Vicki Elson (2023)

Congressional legislation today

Three and a half decades later, the corrupting influence of big corporations on the US Congress is at least as great as it was in the 1980s. The “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision in 2010 overturned meagre attempts to control the influence of corporations over Congress and gave those corporations the legal right to unlimited spending on elections.[1]

Nuclear weapons legislation

One of the most popular nuclear weapons-related bills in Congress in the last few years has been the Markey-Lieu Bill (H.R. 669), calling for restrictions on the President’s sole authority to launch nuclear weapons (see Chapter 9). This bill was first introduced in the House and the Senate on January 24th, 2017.[1] After nearly two years languishing in Committee, it got as far as having 82 co-sponsors in the House. It was then reintroduced in 2019 and reached a total of 62 co-sponsors. In 2021 it got a total of 43 co-sponsors and since being introduced in the current congress it so far has 21 co-sponsors.[2]

The Back from the Brink resolution, H.Res.77, has overtaken the Markey-Lieu bill in the present Congress, with over 40 co-sponsors so far (October 2023).[3] This resolution calls on the US to “embrace the goals and provisions” of the Nuclear Ban Treaty and to take four other immediate steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war.[4]

The Back from the Brink resolution does not yet have a companion resolution in the Senate. But even the Markey-Lieu bill, which garnered 13 Senate co-sponsors after the first two years, would need a further 38 votes to pass in the Senate (48 more votes would be needed to override a filibuster). As in the House, Senate support for the Markey-Lieu bill has gone down rather than up over the past 6 years, with only 7 Senate co-sponsors so far in this session of Congress.[5]

It is clearly an uphill struggle to get even this most popular of nuclear weapons-related bills through the Senate. More demanding nuclear weapons bills have even less support.

The Nuclear Weapons Abolition and [Climate] Conversion Bill (currently H.R. 2775), has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton every year since 1994.[6] This “warheads to windmills” bill clearly and unequivocally calls for the US to sign the Nuclear Ban Treaty, ensure the total elimination of all nuclear weapons from all countries, and convert all those wasted human and financial resources into the green technologies needed to address the climate crisis and other pressing human needs.[7]

However, this bill too has only a fraction of the supporters in Congress it would need to ever be voted into law. There’s no expectation that it’s likely to be passed by Congress any time soon. But it’s worth holding up the Norton bill as a gold standard of what must be done to ensure our survival as a species.

[1] See current version: Rep. Lieu, T. [D-C.-36. (2023, January 31). H.R.669 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2023 (2023-01-31) [Legislation].

[2] See successive versions of H.R.669 at

[3] See Rep. McGovern, J. P. [D-M.-2. (2023, January 31). H.Res.77 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Embracing the goals and provisions of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (2023-01-31) [Legislation]. and more on the Back from the Brink platform at Back from the Brink | Bringing Communities Together to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

[4] Rep. McGovern, J. P. [D-M.-2. (2023, January 31). H.Res.77 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Embracing the goals and provisions of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (2023-01-31) [Legislation].

[5] See Sen. Markey, E. J. [D-M. (2023, April 18). S.1186 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2023 (2023-04-18) [Legislation].

[6] See current version: Del. Norton, E. H. [D-D.-A. L. (2023, April 20). H.R.2775 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Conversion Act of 2023 (2023-04-20) [Legislation].

[7] Del. Norton, E. H. [D-D.-A. L. (2023, April 20). H.R.2775 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Conversion Act of 2023 (2023-04-20) [Legislation].

Climate legislation

At least Congress has passed, and the President has signed into law, two important pieces of legislation on climate: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Unfortunately, as discussed in Chapter 4, these laws still fall far short of what is needed to prevent a climate catastrophe. Much stronger pieces of climate legislation have been introduced, but like their counterparts on the nuclear weapons issue, they have floundered in Congress.

The Green New Deal resolution, currently H.Res.319/S.Res.173,[1] was first introduced by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Markey in 2019. It reached a peak of 101 House co-sponsors during that session of Congress (roughly half of all Democrats but still far short of a majority in the House) and 14 Senators (also well short of a majority in the Senate).

In 2021, the GND resolution gained 3 more co-sponsors in the House but lost two in the Senate, and by 2023, the current session of Congress, the resolution so far has 95 co-sponsors in the House and 11 in the Senate.

The GND resolution enjoys, by far, the most support of any piece of climate legislation in Congress that goes beyond current government policy. But, like Back from the Brink, it’s also just a resolution: it expresses Congress’s view, but it has no legal force. Even if passed, it would not bind the administration to change any of its existing policies.

Other pieces of legislation that would move the country more decisively toward a fossil-free future have much less support in the current Congress, and, like their nuclear weapons counterparts, they have literally no chance of becoming law any time soon.

These include the excellent Earth Bill, H.R. 598, put together by grassroots activists from all over the country[2] and introduced by Rep. Espaillat.[3] It calls directly for the rapid transition to 100% percent renewable electricity, zero emission vehicles, and regenerative agriculture by 2030 as the first immediate steps that must be taken. So far it has just 10 co-sponsors.

Another worthy climate bill, the Future Generations Protection Act, H.R.5606, was introduced by Reps. Schakowsky and Barragan in September 2023.[4] This bill would ban greenhouse gas emissions from all new power plants, end hydraulic fracking, and ban crude oil and natural gas exports. This bill so far has 22 co-sponsors.

The Fossil Free Financing Act, H.R.2443, is the most powerful in terms of threatening the fossil fuel industry. It would ban financing of fossil fuel projects by 2030. It currently has 19 co-sponsors.[5]

These bills call for implementation of various climate mitigation measures to speed up the end of fossil fuel burning. But there is not yet a “gold standard” climate bill calling specifically for the phasing out of all fossil fuels or for supporting a fossil fuel treaty. 

There are just half a dozen US Representatives who have so far cosponsored both the Norton bill on the nuclear side and the Fossil Free Finance bill on the climate side,[6] and they are as far towards the abolitionist end of both barometers as we are able to put them. There is always more they can do, but these are our models for who we need to be supporting human survival in Congress. Several of their colleagues support one or other of these bills,[7] and there are more who would be considered for various reasons to be close to the abolitionist end.[8]

[1] See current version: Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, A. [D-N.-14. (2023, May 15). H.Res.319 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. (2023-04-24) [Legislation].

[2] See website: The Earth Bill

[3]H.R.598 calls for 100% renewable electricity and sale of only fossil-free cars by 2030, which is good. But failing to tackle building and industrial heat emissions risks undermining the absolute necessity of eliminating fossil fuel burning, while the emphasis on regenerative agriculture is of course important, but more in the longer run. See text at

[4] Rep. Schakowsky, J. D. [D-I.-9. (2023, September 20). H.R.5606 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Future Generations Protection Act (2023-09-20) [Legislation].

[5] Rep. Pressley, A. [D-M.-7. (2023, March 30). H.R.2443 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): Fossil Free Financing Act of 2023 (2023-03-30) [Legislation].

[6] Reps. Tlaib, Jayapal, McGovern, Omar, Barbara Lee, Schakowsky and Grijalva.

[7] Reps. Pressley, Norton, Bowman, Bush, Summer Lee, AOC, Pocan, Casar, Meng, Raskin, Balint, Pingree, Huffman, Clarke, and Thanedar.

[8] These might also include Espaillat, Nadler, Doggett, Crockett, Ramirez, McCollum, Blumenauer, Steve Cohen, Jackson-Lee, Beyer, Moore, Porter and other progressives.

The bills are important even if they don’t pass

All of these bills have merit, and at the same time, none of them have any chance of being passed by this Congress.[2] They are important for changing the national conversation: we don’t have to live with nuclear weapons and runaway carbon emissions forever. And these bills are especially important because they give activists and campaigners a chance to see where these individual Members of Congress stand on these all-important issues. And it gives voters a tool for electing different legislators – a chance to vote to survive.[3]

This is the one tool that we ultimately have: to elect new legislators who will prioritize our survival. But that too is fraught with difficulty, not least because of the amount of money needed to run for public office and to have any chance of winning. And there’s the danger that even the most promising legislators can be co-opted. 

This is the reality we face in the United States: a Congress, and especially a Senate, that simply will not pass legislation that goes against the interests of the corporations who control them. And an electoral system that favors those with vast amounts of money at their disposal.

[1] See Campaign Legal Center (2022), “How Does the Citizens United Decision Still Affect Us in 2022?”

[2] If cosponsorship is anything to go by, the nuclear-related bill with the most cosponsors in Congress is H.R.669, with just 39 cosponsors as of August 2023. To pass the House, a bill needs to be able to garner at least 218 votes. And before it can even be voted on, the majority party has to be willing to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

[3] See voting advice by state at

Two ways to get around the problem of corruption

One approach is to campaign for changes to the political system in the US so that corporations are restrained and politicians are more accountable to the voters. There are many groups across the country working on this, and this is important work.[4] But that, too, will take time, since all the strategies designed to wrest control away from the corporations must first contend with the fact that they currently have that control, and they will not give it up easily.

Another approach is to try to change the interests of the corporations. That may sound a bit nonsensical, but it is not as impossible as it sounds. It’s happened before. The companies that make and maintain nuclear weapons do not exist in order to make nuclear weapons. They exist in order to make a profit. If it suddenly becomes too risky or unprofitable to make nuclear weapons, they will switch to making something else to keep themselves in business. The same is true for fossil fuel companies.

[4] See, for instance, Represent.US and their American Anti-Corruption Act: Others are working on election reform, campaign finance reform, fighting against gerrymandering of electoral districts, campaigning to eliminate the electoral college and more.