Right-wing groups spent untold millions from undisclosed sources to oppose now-confirmed Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings in late March and April, despite Jackson being moderate enough to earn the backing of a police union and prominent GOP legal figures.
Jane Mayer’s The New Yorker exposé recently uncovered the role of the little-known dark money organization, American Accountability Foundation (AAF), in attacking Judge Jackson and other Biden nominees. AAF appears to be an offshoot of the Conservative Partnership Institute — another dark money organization that has received money from major right-wing sources, like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, as well as from Bradley board member and Trump apologist Cleta Mitchell. AAF took credit for starting the absurd and much debunked lie that Judge Jackson is soft on sentencing sex crime offenders. This claim was subsequently promoted widely by other right-wing dark money groups.
Another bizarre avenue of attack from Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) — fueled and amplified by dark money groups, like the “Independent Women’s Forum” (IWF) and Heritage Foundation, which have also received funding from the Bradley Foundation — accused Judge Jackson of bringing critical race theory (CRT) to the Supreme Court. The senators baselessly claimed she would employ it in her legal decisions and insinuated that she promoted it because she was a board member of a private school that supposedly taught CRT. (Judge Jackson testified that she has had no say in the school’s curriculum.)
Critical race theory, a legal theory analyzing the way historic racism has come to bear on our laws and legal structures, was little known outside of academic circles until early 2021. Since then, right-wing operatives and dark money organizations that take in money from anonymous ultra-wealthy donors have weaponized CRT as a boogeyman to oppose the teaching of race and racism, as well as diverse representations of gender and sexuality.
These attacks are likely a preview of the desperate and hate-filled messaging that right-wing politicians and media will employ to try to gain advantage in November’s midterm elections. They also highlight the expanding influence of a small number of elites using dark money to impose their narrow views on others and to control how Americans think and what they learn in school — from kindergarten to law school.
The Dark Money Takeover of the Courts via Law Schools
In many ways, the anti-CRT attacks against Judge Jackson during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing are unsurprising. They are a product of a longstanding effort by elite families and individuals to control what is taught in law schools across the country, as well as in K-12 schools and higher education.
The Federalist Society, a dark money organization founded in 1982 as part of a concerted effort to foster right-wing libertarian recruitment networks, has sought to alter the entire legal landscape by “developing and promoting far-right positions, guiding law students and young lawyers accordingly, and influencing who will become judges, top government officials, and decision-makers,” according to the progressive advocacy group People For the American Way.
The Federalist Society is a right-wing juggernaut within the legal profession. It received nearly $30 million in funding in 2019 alone, including money from Koch Industries and anonymous sources. It has chapters at almost every major university in the country and has come to dominate the judicial nomination process. A longtime Federalist Society leader, Leonard Leo, hand-selected Trump’s list of Supreme Court nominees, including now-Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
Part of the Federalist Society strategy of dominating legal thought is by disguising its right-wing approach to the law as a “judicial philosophy” on college campuses, in conferences it hosts, and now during judicial nominations. The Federalist Society has been wildly successful at promoting its right-wing concocted “originalist approach,” which purports to interpret the “original intent” of the men who wrote and amended the Constitution, but, in effect, allows the limited views of long-dead white men to trump the actual language ratified in the Constitution. So much so that the IWF, which is part of the massive $600 million Leonard Leo network, encouraged GOP members of Congress to attack Judge Jackson for not promising to employ it during her confirmation hearings.
The Federalist Society is one element in a massive coordinated effort by the Christian and libertarian right to manufacture a right-wing consensus in the legal profession and beyond to reshape our political structures.
Today’s right-wing attacks on CRT specifically and education broadly are part of longstanding efforts by a few ultra-wealthy individuals to reshape our educational system into one that trains students to be compliant with authority, rather than independent thinkers who value diversity.
The Dark Money Assault on K-12 Schools
K-12 public schools have long been a target of this fight by the ultra-wealthy to control what students learn in schools, largely by promoting “school choice” or the funneling of public funding to privately administered schools.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been a major privatizing force alongside the right-wing funding sources of the DeVos family, the Kochs (led by billionaire libertarian oil mogul Charles Koch), the Waltons (heirs to the Walmart fortune), and other billionaire families. The Gates Foundation is also largely responsible for the Common Core standards (drawing from George W. Bush’s destructive “No Child Left Behind” policy) that have shaped public school curricula through its testing regime since 2014.
Right-wing dark money forces with the financial backing of our country’s wealthiest people have taken advantage of families’ discontent with inadequate government support during the COVID-19 pandemic to attack public schools via their curricula, library holdings, teachers’ unions, masking and vaccine requirements, and school board politics.
Right-wingers have condemned librarians and teachers at K-12 schools as “racist” for teaching about the U.S.’s history of race and racism. They also have smeared educators as sexual “groomers” for presenting literature on the experiences of LGBTQ youth and adults.
Christopher Rufo, with the dark money think tank the Manhattan Institute — which has received vast funds from the Bradley, Gates, Thomas W. Smith, Koch Family and Walton Family Foundations — is credited with inventing the conflict over CRT. Rufo has made no effort to hide his use of CRT to fuel a culture war: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
These assaults on public schools represent a renewed effort to push the related right-wing struggles to privatize education and to control what students learn in public schools and ultimately, how they think.
At a CPAC conference in July 2021, Inez Stepman, senior policy analyst at the IWF, asserted that in order to change what is taught in K-12 schools, parents should leverage school choice “so when they show up at those school board meetings, they are able to say ‘you know what, if you don’t satisfy us, your salary is going to be cut. We pay your salary.’”
IWF, which has played a central role in manufacturing outrage over CRT in schools, has close ties with known school privatizers, like the DeVoses. It has also received funding from others, such as the Koch network, the Waltons and the Bradley Foundation.
The funding of new right-wing “concerned parent” organizations, like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education, that have popped up to fuel anti-CRT fervor in the past two years is still unknown due to weak disclosure laws. However, we do know that these groups have close ties to the Koch network and GOP politicians.
Moms for Liberty has been a leading group in attempts to ban books in public schools and libraries, particularly books written by Black and LGBTQ+ authors, and to intimidate school board members. Parents Defending Education acts as the legal arm of the anti-CRT dark money movement. It has, for instance, intervened in and filed lawsuits in opposition to school districts’ racial equity practices that offend the right wing.
Other more established dark money organizations funding anti-CRT attacks share funding sources with dark money projects dedicated to shifting higher education to the right, like the Thomas W. Smith Foundation. Reporting by Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria found the Thomas Smith Foundation donated at least $12.75 million between 2017 and 2019 to groups pushing the anti-CRT line, like the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, IWF, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and others.
The right-wing fight to control higher ed and K-12 curricula are intertwined in their goals, funding sources, and even at times their infrastructure. Hillsdale College, a university that has received over $520,000 since 2008 from the Charles Koch Foundation and $90,000 from the Thomas Smith Foundation since 2017, has had a “far-reaching role in shaping and disseminating the ideas and strategies that power the right,” per a recent Salon exposé. It is now moving to K-12 education by establishing a network of charter schools aimed at pushing “patriotic education.”
Right-Wing Family Foundations Fueling Anti-CRT Outrage Also Fight to Control Higher Education
The right’s deep-seated mistrust of higher education can be traced to the backlash against the New Deal’s infusion of resources to public universities in the 1930s. It ramped up during the Cold War-era witch hunts against “communist” intellectuals, during which National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. argued that trustees and alumni should wield power to control curricula and to dismiss professors who did not adhere to their Christian, free-market values.
In the 1970s, as the tenets of neoliberalism were gaining popularity, tobacco lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell scribed his infamous “Powell Memo” at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, laying out a plan for wealthy donors to take control of higher education in terms similar to Buckley’s. Charles Koch soon built upon the Powell memo to argue corporations were being forced to subsidize universities’ radicalism through taxes and should demand something in return.
Dark money “think tanks” funded by the U.S.’s wealthiest families and dedicated to controlling education from kindergarten to law school have since exploded in number and funding.
A 2021 report by UnKoch My Campus found that Koch foundation payments to colleges, universities and higher ed programming totaled $458 million between 2005 and 2019 with contribution amounts that have increased dramatically over time.
Such “donations” are designed to produce research supporting free-market extremism and to mainstream those ideas using the credibility of their host academic institutions, as well as to identify sympathetic students to channel into their dark money network. They also come with a quid pro quo.
Leaked documents show that the Koch network has frequently donated money to higher education institutions with conditions in exchange for say over hiring and more.
Other right-wing funding sources have donated millions annually to colleges and universities in recent years, like the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, which gave over $5 million in 2019, and the Bradley Foundation, which gave more than $3 million in 2021, plus more to dark money groups shaping education programming.
Beyond buying academic posts for professors who promote their right-wing positions, such foundations have funded dark money groups that alter what universities teach their students by policing and intimidating professors both inside and outside the classroom.
Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a dark money group founded in 2012 with seed money from the late GOP mega-donor Foster Friess, has since received donations from the Bradley, DeVos Family and Thomas W. Smith Foundations to identify, educate, train and organize right-wing students on college campuses.
TPUSA — which received almost $40 million from secret donors in 2019 — also promotes the harassment of professors who do not share their ideology. In 2016, it debuted its Professor Watchlist website, which adds professors (a group that is disproportionately Black) to a public watchlist — for actions as mundane as attending a demonstration, writing about gun violence, and teaching about race and racism — which often results in their being threatened with violence.
Campus Reform, a project of the Leadership Institute, which recruits and trains right-wing students to report on their liberal and leftist professors’ “misconduct,” similarly sics “armies of trolls on professors across the country,” as described in The Intercept. So, too, does College Fix, a publication of the Student Free Press Association (SFPA). Both the Leadership Institute and SFPA received funding from the Koch network and the Bradley Foundation.
Dark money groups with connections to the Trump administration, like Citizens for Renewing America (another offshoot of the Bradley-funded Conservative Partnership Institute) and Alliance for Free Citizens, have written model bills to limit the speech of educators. According to PEN America, 181 state bills that they call “educational gag orders,” including 32 active higher ed bills, have been introduced in states across the country since 2021.
Recent attacks on K-12 schools and higher education are a more brazen manifestation of longstanding efforts to silence teachers and control what students learn. Less immediately obvious is the degree to which the few right-wing families and elites funding these attacks are also fueling efforts to control what is taught to future politicians, lawyers and judges in law school. The right-wing’s goal in dominating centers of learning — from kindergarten to law school — is the same: to create a cadre of people dedicated to promoting their right-wing view. Attacks on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings — for her supposed connections to critical race theory and for not explicitly adopting the right-wing legal interpretation pushed by the Federalist Society — represent a confluence of the Christian and libertarian right’s efforts to turn back our rights and reshape our political system.
Until government policies place the knowledge and labor of teachers over billionaires, we can expect the ultra-wealthy in this country to continue to dominate our educational institutions, dictating what our young people learn and how they think, with vast implications for the future of our country’s political structure.