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Politics

Gas Prices Are Polluting Our Politics

Add it to the list of reasons to switch to EVs.

Debate podiums and gas prices.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

With the Las Vegas sun bearing down and temperatures heading into triple digits, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the warmup acts at a recent Donald Trump rally, offered the crowd a vision more terrifying than the heat that would send six attendees to the hospital. “If you think gas prices are high now,” Greene said, “just wait until you’re forced to drive an electric vehicle!”

Amid the lusty boos that ensued at the mention of legally mandated EV purchases, there must have been at least a few rallygoers saying to themselves, Wait, if we all have to drive EVs, would that mean we’re … not using any gas at all?

A future of 100% EV deployment (forced by a tyrannical government or not) won’t be arriving any time soon. But with more EVs on the road each year, and as a wider array of models become available and sticker prices get closer to comparable cars with internal combustion engines, we can at least foresee the day when the price of gas isn’t so potent a political issue.

Just imagine it: No more politicians holding press conferences at gas stations so they can be photographed pointing angrily at the sign with today’s prices, no more ads with candidates pretending to fill up their pickups, no more disingenuous thundering about how the president ruined your life by letting gas prices rise.

Contra Rep. Greene, wider adoption of EVs should in theory produce lower gas prices (though oil-producing countries will certainly do whatever they can to stop that), since every EV on the road reduces demand for gas. That’s in the aggregate, but on a personal level, switching to an EV reduces your demand for gas to zero. Anyone who drove one in June 2022, when retail prices reached their recent peak of nearly $5 a gallon, knows what I’m talking about: Driving past a gas station, noticing a price on the sign higher than they could remember it ever being, then saying “Doesn’t matter to me!” (Average electricity prices were up a modest 13% in June 2022 compared to a year earlier, whereas gas shot up 60%.)

But they were the minority, and Republicans were eager to blame that price spike — caused by a combination of the post-pandemic economic revival and restrictions on Russian oil following the invasion of Ukraine — on President Biden. Entrepreneurs began selling stickers with a picture of Biden pointing and the words “I did that” so you could stick them on your local gas pump. Republicans called it “Joe Biden’s gas hike,” and took every opportunity to lay the increase at the president’s feet. "I'll tell you what, the little stickers on gas pumps all across the country illustrate the American people know exactly whose fault this is," said Sen. Ted Cruz in May 2022. "This was deliberate. This isn't an accident." Oddly, when prices came down, neither Cruz nor his colleagues thanked the president for saving American drivers so much money.

At the moment, gas prices are averaging $3.45 a gallon nationwide — not particularly low, but not so high that they’re going to doom Biden’s reelection bid (and they may fall further in the coming months). As a result, the issue hasn’t dominated the presidential campaign, which is a relief not only for those who cringe when both parties promote cheaper and more plentiful fossil fuels, but also for anyone who wishes politics weren’t so gripped by inanity.

Unfortunately, rising gas prices fill politicians with terror, incentivizing them not only to engage in ridiculous posturing but to make policy decisions that only reinforce the fiction that prices are within the government’s direct control. They all know that gas occupies a unique place in people’s economic perceptions, since no other product has its ever-changing price advertised on large signs on 145,000 street corners around the country. Even a slight bump sends them rushing to reassure the voters that they will move heaven and earth to get those prices down.

The truth that few politicians want to admit — neither the president’s party, which wants to portray him as powerful and decisive, nor the opposition, which wants to blame him for everything people don’t like — is that the president has very little ability to bring down the price of gas in the short run.

One thing the country’s chief executive can do is sell off part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase the supply on world markets, but the effect of doing so is limited and temporary. President Biden has been unusually aggressive on that score, starting with an unprecedented release of 180 million barrels in 2022. The administration moved to refill the reserve when the price dropped, making a tidy profit, but it’s also been eager to trumpet more releases, as it did last month when it announced a release of 1 million barrels from a Northeast reserve. “The Biden-Harris administration is laser-focused on lowering prices at the pump for American families, especially as drivers hit the road for summer driving season,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.

But it’s unlikely to make much of a difference. Even by the administration’s own estimates, the 2022 release of 180 million barrels temporarily reduced prices at the pump by at most around thirty cents a gallon, and perhaps much less. In other words, SPR releases are mostly about the president looking like he’s taking action.

The politics of gas prices are simultaneously real and fake: Real because higher prices impose genuine hardship on millions of people, especially those with modest incomes who have no choice but to drive, and fake because everyone pretends that the government can control whether prices rise or fall. The result is a political debate that could hardly be more divorced from the actual issues involved.

Which is why, even apart from the climate and economic benefits, a (mostly) post-internal combustion future will be so much better than the present. Not only will most of us be able to drive past the remaining gas stations and not even care what the prices are, there will be one fewer topic for cynical politicians to use for pandering and demagoguery. That’s certainly something to look forward to.

Paul Waldman profile image

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.

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