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A Study Guide on Sources of Conservative State Legislation
A big controversy has erupted over this piece by a history professor at the University of Wisconsin who Republicans now want to smear.
By William Cronon
Editor's Note: After the following article was published in his blog, William Cronon was attacked by the Wisconsin Republican Party which demanded under open information laws to see emails written in his university email account. Notice that the Republican Party did not refute anything in the article, rather it wants to find something about the professor by which they can smear him, attack him, destroy him as a person and scholar. He is the president-elect of the American Historical Association very able to argue his case. He published a piece in the New York Times on the historical context of Governor Scott Walker's effort to repeal collective bargaining by public sector workers. Paul Krugman has written a column about Cronon today. I am publishing Cronan's blog item below because it is a helpful guide to do research on the network of organizations which has developed over the last forty years to promote conservative economic policies in the United States. That is, because higher education in general in this country has neither adopted nor promoted conservative economic ideas as a whole, the radical right has created its own network of ideologically-based think tanks and organizations to promote its narrow views, funded by the wealthy eilite of this country. And they cannot tolerate the views of even a moderate university professor. What is happening in Wisconsin is not what the citizens of Wisconsin have themselves worked to achieve, but is the result of this well-funded national network of extreme conservatives. Local Republican leaders in Wisconsin are doing the bidding of the corporate funders of conservative extremism. To be exposed like this is what is making those local leaders so angry that they want to smear the name of a leading academic scholar.
Whoís Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didnít Start Here)
March 15, 2011
A Study Guide for Those Wishing to Know More
After watching the sudden and impressively well-organized wave of legislation being introduced into state legislatures that all seem to be pursuing parallel goals only tangentially related to current fiscal challengesĖending collective bargaining rights for public employees, requiring photo IDs at the ballot box, rolling back environmental protections, privileging property rights over civil rights, and so onĖIíve found myself wondering where all of this legislation is coming from.
The Walker-Koch Prank Phone Call Reveals A Lot, But Not Nearly Enough
The prank phone call that Governor Scott Walker unhesitatingly accepted from a blogger purporting to be billionaire conservative donor David Koch has received lots of airplay, and it certainly demonstrates that the governor is accustomed to having conversations with deep-pocketed folks who support his cause. If youíve not actually seen the transcript, itís worth a careful reading, and is accessible here:
But even though Iím more than prepared to believe that David and Charles Koch have provided large amounts of money to help fund the conservative flood tide that is sweeping through state legislatures right now, I just donít find it plausible that two brothers from Wichita, Kansas, no matter how wealthy, can be responsible for this explosion of radical conservative legislation. It also goes without saying that Scott Walker cannot be single-handedly responsible for what weíre seeing either; I wouldnít believe that even for Wisconsin, let alone for so many other states. The governor clearly welcomes the national media attention heís receiving as a spear-carrier for the movement. But heís surely not the architect of that movement.
Conservative History Post-1964: A Brilliant Turnaround Story
I canít fully answer that question in a short note, but I can sketch its outline and offer advice for those who want to fill in more of the details.
Iíll start by sayingĖa professorial impulse I just canít resistĖthat itís well worth taking some time to familiarize yourself with the history of the conservative movement in the United States since the 1950s if you havenít already studied the subject. Whatever you think of its politics, I donít think there can be any question that the rise of modern conservatism is one of the great turnaround stories in twentieth-century American history. Itís quite a fascinating series of events, in which a deeply marginalized political movementĖtainted by widespread public reaction against Senator Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and the massively defeated Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964Ėmanaged quite brilliantly to remake itself (and American politics) in the decades that followed.
I provide a brief reading list at the end of this note because many people from other parts of the political spectrum often seem not to take the intellectual roots of American conservatism very seriously. I believe this is a serious mistake. One key insight you should take from this history is that after the Goldwater defeat in 1964, visionary conservative leaders began to build a series of organizations and networks designed to promote their values and construct systematic strategies for sympathetic politicians. Some of these organizations are reasonably well knownĖfor instance, the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a Racine native and UW-Madison alumnus who also started the Moral Majority and whose importance to the movement is almost impossible to overestimateĖbut many of these groups remain largely invisible.
Thatís why events like the ones weíve just experienced in Wisconsin can seem to come out of nowhere. Few outside the conservative movement have been paying much attention, and that is ill-advised. (I would, by the way, say the same thing about people on the right who donít make a serious effort to understand the left in this country.)
Itís also important to understand that events at the state level donít always originate in the state where they occur. Far from it.
Basic Tools for Researching Conservative Groups
If you run across a conservative organization youíve never heard of before and would like to know more about it, two websites can sometimes be helpful for quick overviews:
Right Wing Watch: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/
Both of these lean left in their politics, so they obviously canít be counted on to provide sympathetic descriptions of conservative groups. (If I knew of comparable sites whose politics were more conservative, Iíd gladly provide them here; please contact me if you know of any and Iíll add them to this note.) But for obvious reasons, many of these groups prefer not to be monitored very closely. Many maintain a low profile, so one sometimes learns more about them from their left-leaning critics than from the groups themselves.
I donít want this to become an endless professorial lecture on the general outlines of American conservatism today, so let me turn to the question at hand: whoís really behind recent Republican legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere? Iím professionally interested in this question as a historian, and since I canít bring myself to believe that the Koch brothers single-handedly masterminded all this, Iíve been trying to discover the deeper networks from which this legislation emerged.
Hereís my preliminary answer.
Telling Your State Legislators What to Do: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)
The most important group, Iím pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft ďmodel billsĒ that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)
If youíre as impressed by these numbers as I am, Iím hoping youíll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.
You can start by studying ALECís own website. Begin with its home page at
First visit the ďAboutĒ menu to get a sense of the organizationís history and its current members and funders. But the meat of the site is the ďmodel legislationĒ page, which is the gateway to the hundreds of bills that ALEC has drafted for the benefit of its conservative members.
Youíll of course be eager to look these overÖbut you wonít be able to, because youíre not a member.
Becoming a Member of ALEC: Not So Easy to Do
How do you become a member? Simple. Two ways. You can be an elected Republican legislator who, after being individually vetted, pays a token fee of roughly $100 per biennium to join. Hereís the membership brochure to use if you meet this criterion:
What if youíre not a Republican elected official? Not to worry. You can apply to join ALEC as a ďprivate sectorĒ member by paying at least a few thousand dollars depending on which legislative domains most interest you. Hereís the membership brochure if you meet this criterion:
Then again, even if most of us had this kind of money to contribute to ALEC, I have a feeling that membership might not necessarily be open to just anyone who is willing to pay the fee. But maybe Iím being cynical here.
Which Wisconsin Republican politicians are members of ALEC? Good question. How would we know? ALEC doesnít provide this information on its website unless youíre able to log in as a member. Maybe we need to ask our representatives. One might think that Republican legislators gathered at a national ALEC meeting could be sufficiently numerous to trigger the ďwalking quorum ruleĒ that makes it illegal for public officials in Wisconsin to meet unannounced without public notice of their meeting. But theyíre able to avoid this rule (which applies to every other public body in Wisconsin) because theyíre protected by a loophole in what is otherwise one of the strictest open meetings laws in the nation. The Wisconsin legislature carved out a unique exemption from that law for its own party caucuses, Democrats and Republicans alike. So Wisconsin Republicans are able to hold secret meetings with ALEC to plan their legislative strategies whenever they want, safe in the knowledge that no one will be able to watch while they do so.
(See http://www.doj.state.wi.us/dls/OMPR/2010OMCG-PRO/2010_OML_Compliance_Guide.pdf for a full discussion of Wisconsinís otherwise very strict Open Meetings Law.)
If it has seemed to you while watching recent debates in the legislature that many Republican members of the Senate and Assembly have already made up their minds about the bills on which theyíre voting, and donít have much interest in listening to arguments being made by anyone else in the room, itís probably because they did in fact make up their minds about these bills long before they entered the Capitol chambers. You can decide for yourself whether thatís a good expression of the ďsifting and winnowingĒ for which this state long ago became famous.
Partners in Wisconsin and Other States: SPN, MacIver Institute, WPRI
An important partner of ALECís, by the way, is the State Policy Network (SPN), which helps coordinate the activities of a wide variety of conservative think tanks operating at the state level throughout the country. See its home page at
Many of the publications of these think tanks are accessible and downloadable from links on the SPN website, which are well worth taking the time to peruse and read. A good starting place is:
Two important SPN members in Wisconsin are the MacIver Institute for Public Policy:
and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI):
If you want to be a well-informed Wisconsin citizen and donít know about their work, youíll probably want to start visiting these sites more regularly. Youíll gain a much better understanding of the underlying ideas that inform recent Republican legislation by doing so.
Understanding What These Groups Do
As I said earlier, itís not easy to find exact details about the model legislation that ALEC has sought to introduce all over the country in Republican-dominated statehouses. But youíll get suggestive glimpses of it from the occasional reporting that has been done about ALEC over the past decade. Almost all of this emanates from the left wing of the political spectrum, so needs to be read with that bias always in mind.
Interestingly, one of the most critical accounts of ALECís activities was issued by Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council in a 2002 report entitled Corporate Americaís Trojan Horse in the States. Although NRDC and Defenders may seem like odd organizations to issue such a report, some of ALECís most concentrated efforts have been directed at rolling back environmental protections, so their authorship of the report isnít so surprising. The report and its associated press release are here:
Thereís also an old, very stale website associated with this effort at
A more recent analysis of ALECís activities was put together by the Progressive States Network in February 2006 under the title Governing the Nation from the Statehouses, available here:
Thereís an In These Times story summarizing the report at
More recent stories can be found at
(about the Arizona immigration law)
and thereís very interesting coverage of ALECís efforts to disenfranchise student voters at
For just one example of how below-the-radar the activities of ALEC typically are, look for where the name of the organization appears in this recent story from the New York Times about current efforts in state legislatures to roll back the bargaining rights of public employee unions:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/business/04labor.html Hint: ALEC is way below the fold!
A Cautionary Note
What youíll quickly learn even from reading these few documents is that ALEC is an organization that has been doing very important political work in the United States for the past forty years with remarkably little public or journalistic scrutiny. Iím posting this long note in the conviction that itís time to start paying more attention. History is being made here, and future historians need people today to assemble the documents theyíll eventually need to write this story. Much more important, citizens today may wish to access these same documents to be well informed about important political decisions being made in our own time during the frequent meetings that ALEC organizes between Republican legislators and representatives of many of the wealthiest corporations in the United States.
I want to add a word of caution here at the end. In posting this study guide, I do not want to suggest that I think it is illegitimate in a democracy for citizens who share political convictions to gather for the purpose of sharing ideas or creating strategies to pursue their shared goals. The right to assemble, form alliances, share resources, and pursue common ends is crucial to any vision of democracy I know. (Thatís one reason Iím appalled at Governor Walkerís ALEC-supported efforts to shut down public employee unions in Wisconsin, even though I have never belonged to one of those unions, probably never will, and have sometimes been quite critical of their tactics and strategies.) Iím not suggesting that ALEC, its members, or its allies are illegitimate, corrupt, or illegal. If money were changing hands to buy votes, that would be a different thing, but I donít believe thatís mainly whatís going on here. Americans who belong to ALEC do so because they genuinely believe in the causes it promotes, not because theyíre buying or selling votes.
This is yet another example, in other words, of the impressive and highly skillful ways that conservatives have built very carefully thought-out institutions to advocate for their interests over the past half century. Although there may be analogous structures at the other end of the political spectrum, theyíre frequently not nearly so well coordinated or so disciplined in the ways they pursue their goals. (The nearest analog to ALEC that Iím aware of on the left is the Progressive States Network, whose website can be perused at
but PSN was only founded in 2005, does not mainly focus on writing model legislation, and is not as well organized or as disciplined as ALEC.) To be fair, conservatives would probably argue that the liberal networks they oppose were so well woven into the fabric of government agencies, labor unions, universities, churches, and non-profit organizations that these liberal networks organize themselves and operate quite differently than conservative networks doĖand conservatives would be able to able to muster valid evidence to support such an argument, however we might finally evaluate the persuasiveness of that evidence.
Again, I want anyone reading this post to understand that I am emphatically not questioning the legitimacy of advocacy networks in a democracy. To the contrary: I believe they are essential to democracy. My concern is rather to promote open public discussion and the genuine clash of opinions among different parts of the political spectrum, which I believe is best served by full and open disclosure of the interests of those who advocate particular policies.
I believe this is especially important when policies are presented as having a genuine public interest even though their deeper purpose may be to promote selfish or partisan gains.
Reasserting Wisconsinís Core Values: Decency, Fairness, Generosity, Compromise
ALECís efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote Democratic, for instance, and its efforts to destroy public-sector unions because they also tend to favor Democrats, strike me as objectionable and anti-democratic (as opposed to anti-Democratic) on their face. As a pragmatic centrist in my own politics, I very strongly favor seeking the public good from both sides of the partisan aisle, and itís not at all clear to me that recent legislation in Wisconsin or elsewhere can be defended as doing this. Shining a bright light on ALECís activities (and on other groups as well, across the political spectrum) thus seems to me a valuable thing to do whether or not one favors its political goals.
This is especially true when politicians at the state and local level promote legislation drafted at the national level that may not actually best serve the interests of their home districts and states. ALEC strategists may think theyíre serving the national conservative cause by promoting legislation like the bills recently passed in WisconsinĖbut I see my state being ripped apart by the resulting controversies, and itís hard to believe that Wisconsin is better off as a result. This is not the way citizens or politicians have historically behaved toward each other in this state, and I for one am not happy with the changes in our political culture that seem to be unfolding right now. Iím hoping that many of my fellow Wisconsinites, whether they lean left or right, agree with me that itís time to take a long hard look at what has been happening and try to find our bearings again.
I have always cherished Wisconsin for its neighborliness, and this is not the way neighbors treat each other.
One conclusion seems clear: what weíve witnessed in Wisconsin during the opening months of 2011 did not originate in this state, even though weíve been at the center of the political storm in terms of how itís being implemented. This is a well-planned and well-coordinated national campaign, and it would be helpful to know a lot more about it.
Letís get to work, fellow citizens.
P.S.: Note to historians and journalists: we really need a good biography of Paul Weyrich.
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