The Koch brothers, two billionaires who have funded a staunchly anti-government agenda for years, will be hosting a confidential strategy meeting in January, intended to “counter the most severe threats facing our free society.” This event highlights a deeper current of money that has been invested in an anti-government policy agenda that goes back decades.
In the midst of this past election season, candidates across the country engaged in an ideological battle with one side claiming that government is the problem and the other side claiming that we cannot solve our problems without effective government. This battle continues to take place on a dramatically uneven playing field. It has been stacked against the public good for decades by deep pockets of corporate wealth.
Policy Agendas More Important Than Election Cycles
David Calahan, a researcher who studies the ideological basis of philanthropy, published a major report in 1999 titled “$1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990’s” that describes the web of money that flowed through the top 20 Conservative think tanks in the United States. He identified the strategies that allow a well-funded minority to dominate public discourse and set the agenda for the country. One of his major assertions was this:
“In fact, the more fundamental changes in American politics may not be in election results, but rather in the rise and fall of different ideas and their attendant policy agendas.”
Consider the impacts of the Tea Party Movement that arose after President Obama took office. A nonelection agenda was initiated to frame the debate around anti-government sentiments. Its veneer of grassroots populism conceals a vast network of media outlets, high-profile spokespeople, training centers and deep pocketed funders who made the Tea Party possible. And yes, the Koch brothers are major donors of the effort.
How were they able to get Tea Party candidates on so many ballots? Why do even the incumbent Republicans feel that they must conform to the extreme views of people like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh? The answer is that a massive communications infrastructure has been built to reward those who conform (and punish all the rest).
Investing in the long haul pays off.
After building a vast infrastructure, it was pretty straightforward to rile up millions of people, especially since these very people experience the brunt of economic collapse. The ironies run deep in that those who have been hurt the most by deregulation and privatization are the foot soldiers rallied to the call of freedom by this effective system for mass manipulation of public opinion.
How Far Back Does This Go?
The first major effort to build an anti-government communications system can be traced back to 1971 and the “Powell Memo,” written by Lewis F. Powell. It laid out the ideas that influenced wealthy conservative businessmen to build a web of think tanks, media outlets and recruitment centers that would go on the offensive and destroy public good will toward government. For nearly 40 years now, this system has been growing in size and sophistication. And it is surgical in its precision and effectiveness.
The impacts on the US economy and political system have been devastating. These graphs tell the story well … rising international debt, increasing concentrations of wealth, lost savings of working people, explosive individual debt. The list goes on and on. All corresponding with the advance of an anti-government agenda throughout the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s.
A toxic attitude was spread like a virus and the harmful policies followed. We are now living in a country where the top 10 percent control nearly all of the wealth alongside a working poor living in third-world conditions. The uneven playing field has given obvious advantage to those who had the wealth to begin with.
Where Is the Progressive Response?
All hope is not lost. A number of progressive donors finally got the wake-up call in 2005 and created the Democracy Alliance. They began pooling their money to invest in think tanks and media outlets of their own. Organizations like Campaign for America’s Future, Commonweal Institute and Center for American Progress have come into being and are attempting to catch up. But the opposition has a 35-year advantage.
Unfortunately, the progressive movement suffered a major casualty in April of 2008. The Rockridge Institute closed its doors due to inadequate funding support from donors. Rockridge was a unique think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political frames in public discourse in order to help progressives navigate the toxic culture wars of American politics. One of the major causes for this loss was the massive flux of money into the 2008 election cycle. Short-term gains were given myopic focus and the long term was sacrificed.
I worked at the Rockridge Institute during this period. On the last day of the institute, Evan Frisch and I made a plea to the progressive community that we must invest in cognitive infrastructure. Here’s a snippet of what we said:
“Create a new progressive infrastructure that embodies our ideals and values. This includes a cognitive infrastructure – the ideas, values and modes of thought that express the progressive vision. Simply churning out more policy proposals and statistical analyses without taking into account what people understand the situation to be will leave the populace bored, confused and distant from the political process.”
This plea is more timely than ever today. The progressive response remains inadequate because we don’t share a common vision, nor do we invest in the long haul. So, we saw an election where Democrats were blamed for the harms caused by anti-government Republicans (and a spattering of Conservative Democrats who have infiltrated the other party). The instigators of harm are smearing the real heroes. And it’s working!
If we are to turn the tide on this culture war and reclaim the Spirit of America, we’re going to need to arm ourselves with knowledge about the origins of anti-government sentiments. And we’re going to need to invest in pro-government, pro-community ideas of our own.