Tag Archives: ALEC

The Strategy

A recent newsletter from Arwa Mahdawi, who writes forThe Guardian outlined one of the many ways the Right attacks American democratic institutions.  Here are her three most important paragraphs:

The far right constantly introduce extreme bills like this into state legislatures with the full knowledge that there is zero chance they will pass. It’s part of a broader strategy to further their agenda that can be summed up as exhaust and inure. Exhaust: the more they overwhelm legislatures with extreme legislation, the harder it becomes for liberals to fight them. It becomes a game of “Whac-a-Mole”. Inure: proposing extreme ideas like this via legislation helps gradually desensitize people and shifts the Overton window to the right; step by step the unthinkable becomes mainstream.

All this isn’t just my personal opinion, by the way: it’s extracted from a playbook written by Christian nationalists. A few years ago a researcher called Frederick Clarkson uncovered an initiative from a coalition of far-right Christian groups called Project Blitz that gave their supporters detailed instructions on how to codify their views into law and gradually destroy the division between church and state. I highly recommend reading Clarkson’s writings on Project Blitz: they are essential for understanding the current moment. As Clarkson said when he first found the playbook: “It’s very rare that you come across a major primary source document that changes the way you view everything, and this is one of those times. This is a 116-page strategy manual hidden away on a website explaining at least what a section of the religious right are doing in the United States.”

Bills like the one in North Carolina, it can’t be stressed enough, are not just frivolous one-offs by extremists. They’re part of a coordinated – and highly effective – strategy to consolidate power by the right. Democrats should really be paying more attention to these tactics and learning from them. So many centrists are afraid that suggesting things like free healthcare will make them look like radicals hellbent on bringing communism to America. You think the right care about looking “radical”? Of course not. They care about power. And they’re very good at doing whatever it takes to get it.

I actually wrote about Project Blitz back in January of 2020. It was launched in 2015 by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation, and Wallbuilders–the bogus “history” organization founded by David Barton. (Barton is a Republican operative and thoroughly discredited historian who rejects the separation of church and state and claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.) Project Blitz  is to Christian nationalists what ALEC is to corporate plutocrats–-as I wrote at the time, a number of the extreme anti-choice, anti-gay and pro-Christianity measures that have emerged from America’s legislative chambers come directly from Project Blitz’s package of twenty “model” bills.

Just as ALEC has managed to delay and/or defeat regulatory reforms opposed by the plutocracy, laws supported by Project Blitz move the Overton Window toward the theocratic goals supported by Christian Nationalists.

Project Blitz and ALEC are only two of the numerous Rightwing organizations that have been working patiently beneath the radar for years, intent upon changing America’s culture–trying to erase the wall between Church and State, erode our already tattered and inadequate social safety net, and make both plutocratic and White Christian privilege permanent. The numerous propaganda arms of the Right aid and abet the efforts of these organizations.

Meanwhile, opposition to these co-ordinated and well-financed strategies is pretty accurately described in not-so-funny sayings like “I’m not a member of an organized political party–I’m a Democrat” and rueful observations about circular firing squads. That isn’t because Democratic strategists are feckless; it’s because virtually every American who follows politics and is not a theocrat, plutocrat or bat-shit crazy person has fled to the only alternative, the Democratic Party–and as a result, Democrats represent an incredibly wide range of opinions and ideologies. 

Herding cats would be easier.

The old line about the GOP “falling in line” is true: most recently demonstrated by the willingness of Senate Republicans to vote against a bill they had previously supported.  The PACT Act would have delivered desperately needed healthcare to veterans, but because a Democratic deal to pass a slimmed-down version of Build Back Better caused a fit of pique, they turned their backs on those veterans. The bill had easily passed the Senate in June. But a technical error required another vote, and more than two dozen Republicans switched sides–they fell in line. (After a furious reaction–notably, from Jon Stewart– they caved and passed it.)

Thanks to the intransigence of lockstep Republicans, the machinations of the organizations moving the GOP further and further to the Right, and the ideological heterogeneity of the Democrats, lawmakers who want to actually govern don’t have much of a chance.

The Plutocrats And The Theocrats

As if ALEC wasn’t enough of a threat to citizens of red states, we now have “Project Blitz,” an effort patterned on ALEC’s all-too-successful formula.

The first thing to know about Project Blitz is that it was launched in 2015 by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation, and Wallbuilders. The latter is an organization founded by David Barton, the Republican operative and discredited historian who rejects the separation of church and state, claiming that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

I had not previously heard of Fred Clarkson, who has evidently been studying the Christian right for decades, but he came into possession of Project Blitz’s 116-page manual of model legislation in early 2018.  Clarkson says that Project Blitz  is to Christian nationalists what ALEC is to corporate plutocrats–a number of the extreme anti-choice, anti-gay and pro-Christianity measures that have emerged from legislative chambers over the past couple of years came from Project Blitz’s package of twenty “model” bills.

The bills are seemingly unrelated and range widely in content—from requiring public schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust” (IGWT); to legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people; to religious exemptions regarding women’s reproductive health. The model bills, the legislative strategy and the talking points reflect the theocratic vision that’s animated a meaningful portion of the Christian Right for some time. In the context of Project Blitz’s 116-page playbook, however, they also reveal a sophisticated level of coordination and strategizing that echoes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which infamously networks probusiness state legislators, drafts sample legislation, and shares legislative ideas and strategies.

A study conducted by Americans United for Separation of Church and State counted 74 bills considered by state legislatures in 2018 that echoed the “model legislation” in the Project Blitz handbook. All are intended to erode the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

There are bills promoting “In God We Trust” on license plates and in public schools. (Here in Indiana, a bill to that effect is being considered by the legislature this year.) Then there are the “Christian heritage” bills, and those emphasizing “the importance of the Bible in history” to promote the notion that the U.S. is a Christian nation.

The measures which Project Blitz organizers admit might be “hotly contested,” are those seeking to empower licensed professionals to deny health care and other services based on religious beliefs and those that would allow adoption agencies to reject adoptive families on religious grounds.

At least 10 states have laws that allow discrimination by child welfare agencies, most of which have been passed since Project Blitz launched in 2015, and–surprise!– similar measures have been introduced in Indiana.  (I’ve previously blogged about a couple of them.)

Project Blitz–and the Trump Administration–have been described as the “death rattle” of White Christian nationalism. In 2016, Robert P. Jones wrote“The End of White Christian America,” detailing the demographic inevitability of that end.(The linked article has the graphs, and an interview with Jones.)

Project Blitz is part of the Christian Right’s  hysterical reaction to demographic reality, but recognizing that fact doesn’t make its efforts less worrisome–or less unAmerican. Just as ALEC has managed to delay regulatory reforms that would hinder the plutocracy, the legislation supported by Project Blitz would both delay the inevitable and cause considerable damage in the interim.

It’s also worth noting that today’s GOP is almost entirely composed of White Christian nationalists. In the states where Republicans hold sway, that “death rattle” is likely to be prolonged, dangerous and very, very ugly.

 

ALEC’s Priority: Gerrymandering

One of the many problems exacerbated by the loss of local journalism is the increasing nationalization of American politics. Those who follow political news are focused almost exclusively on Washington, and that focus has only intensified since 2016. If there is one thing Donald Trump is good at (and it is the only thing), it is sucking the air out of the newsroom. He’s like the wreck by the side of the road that you can’t help rubbernecking.

But we ignore state politics at our peril.

Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office because the Republican Party has been punching above its weight for a number of years. The GOP  has been able to win elections not because it can claim majority status, but because it has been able to game the system at the state level, primarily through gerrymandering and voter suppression.

And these efforts have been aided and abetted by ALEC.

ALEC–the American Legislative Exchange Council–is a powerful (and secretive) conservative organization. It is best known for preparing “model” bills favorable to its corporate members, bills that more often than not are introduced–unaltered– by conservative state legislators. ALEC has been incredibly successful in getting these measure passed, and the organization has shaped legislation in policy areas ranging from health care (undercutting the Affordable Care Act) to criminal justice (promoting private prisons). It has worked to lower taxes, eliminate environmental regulations, quash unions, and protect corporations from lawsuits, and it depends upon Republicans to achieve its aims.

So the organization’s current priority is gerrymandering.

In the early August heat, nearly 200 Republican lawmakers gathered in an Austin, Texas, hotel to learn about what one panelist described as a “political adult bloodsport.” The matter at hand — gerrymandering — could lock in Republican power in the states for another decade if successfully carried out again in 2021.

This meeting was evidently a bit less secretive than usual, since reporters were able to attend the sessions on gerrymandering. One was even able to record it.

 This unprecedented level of reporting on the panel uncovered the tactics conservatives plan to employ as they seek to maintain the Republican hold on state legislatures across the country in the crucial redistricting wars to come….

The conservative experts gave attendees a range of tips on how to approach gerrymandering, from legislative actions to legal preparedness. The panelists scoffed at the idea of appointing independent commissions in states to draw districts, a solution to partisan gerrymandering gaining traction in some states, instead urging state lawmakers to secure as much control over the process as possible. One panelist suggested Republican lawmakers work with black and Latino lawmakers to pack minority voters into districts, and another urged them to exclude noncitizens from the population numbers used to determine districts, a move that would dramatically redistribute power away from blue areas. Yet, ALEC also warned state lawmakers to be careful — to avoid using the word “gerrymander” and drawing lines too heavily based on race.

As the linked article points out, other conservative organizations may be focused on the federal government, but ALEC understands that the key to power is at the state level– and that the key to maintaining that power is redistricting.

ALEC’s ultimate goal is to have more influence on state lawmakers than the lawmakers’ voters.

They want people to listen to them and not their voters, and the way they do that is by creating these gerrymandered districts so legislators don’t have to address the concerns of their district.

Gerrymandering does more than skew lawmaking at the state level, of course–it results in unrepresentative, “safe” Congressional districts that send disproportionate numbers of Republicans to Congress. Democrats win more votes; Republicans win more seats.In House races in 2012, 1.7 million more votes were cast for Democrats than for Republicans, but Republicans came away with thirty-three more congressional seats than the Democrats. Some of this is due to systemic issues, but much of it is due to gerrymandering.

After the last census, Republicans engaged in a national gerrymandering campaign that was so effective, it put Democrats at a disadvantage for a decade.

That disadvantage gave us the Tea Party and lots of laws written by ALEC .

Under Cover Of Jargon

The Indiana Statehouse is confusing. Often, that confusion is intentional. Lengthy bills are written in turgid “legalese,” and go on for pages. I’m a (recovered) lawyer and my eyes frequently glaze over.

And very often, you don’t have to be a hard-core libertarian to wonder: is this law really needed?

That was my first question when I received an email asking about Senate Bill 471, described as follows:

Would heighten the penalties for protests near oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure by creating the offenses of “criminal infrastructure facility trespass” and “critical infrastructure facility mischief.” The bill provides that an individual who knowingly enters critical infrastructure facility without permission commits critical infrastructure facility trespass, a Level 6 felony punishable by up to 30 months in prison. Under the bill, recklessly or knowingly defacing such a facility constitutes critical infrastructure facility mischief, punishable by up to six years in prison as a Level 5 felony. In either case, the individual may additionally be liable to the property owner for damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. An organization found to have conspired with an individual who commits either offense may also be liable for a fine of $100,000. The bill newly defines “critical infrastructure facility” under Indiana law to include a range of oil, gas, electric, water, telecommunications, and railroad facilities, as well as any “facility that is substantially similar” to one of the listed facilities.

No one wants to see a “critical infrastructure” damaged. But a bit of digging suggests that more is going on with this bill–being pushed in several states by ALEC, evidently in reaction to Dakota pipeline protests– than the protection of “critical” utilities.

As my correspondent notes,

This description is accurate, but to get into more specifics one of the most troubling provisions is Ch. 10, Sec. 4 that says if an organization is found to be a conspirator with a person convicted of either trespassing or committing criminal mischief on “critical infrastructure” the organization can be fined up to $100,000. Sec. 5(a) could also potentially be interpreted as creating a cause of action by someone who has suffered damages not only against the person who caused the damage, but an organization found to be a conspirator with that person, to recover those damages. If that was the case the organization could be liable for more than a $100,000.

A Sierra Club officer explains the effect:

A couple of years ago the Hoosier Chapter was in discussions with some Northwest Indiana groups about a protest at the BP Whiting Refinery to oppose its expansion to allow it to process tar sands petroleum. When it became clear that some of the groups were contemplating civil disobedience, the chapter withdrew from the discussions, since the Sierra Club forbids illegal activities. In the event, about 40 people sat in front of an access to the refinery and were arrested for trespassing. I believe that most were let go without a fine. Under the proposed law, could we be found to have participated in the protest even though we withdrew? Could we be found liable for informing the public about the protest via our website, FB, and twitter, even though we didn’t support the civil disobedience? Certainly we would have to think long and hard about even participating in such discussions under this bill.

And that, I think, illustrates the actual purpose of the bill: to stifle dissent.

Indiana already has laws against trespassing and damaging property. S.B.471 ramps up the severity of the potential charges–from misdemeanors to felonies–and greatly increases the penalties. Although the bill contains a recitation that it is not intended to apply to “constitutionally-protected activities” (a provision added to mollify opponents of the measure), the question from the Sierra Club officer illustrates the chilling effect.

If one or two people at a protest inflict damage that was unintended and unforeseen by others, those others–including not-for-profits and civic organizations–run the risk of being hit with enormous fines. Of course they would “think long and hard.” That’s the whole point.

I am aware of no evidence that existing measures against trespass and property damage are inadequate or ineffective. But unnecessary and chilling as it may be, S.B. 471 is apparently moving “under the radar” toward passage.

This is how it’s done by the big “players” who understand how the system works.

While public attention and media coverage (such as it is) are focused on high-profile measures like bias crimes and teachers pay, troubling laws get a pass–in both senses of that word.

 

 

I Hope This Is Hyperbole…

Generally, when partisans of one sort or another pursue policies that are likely to have negative side-effects, those side effects are unintended. (Hence the term “unintended consequences.”) A recent report generated by The Institute for New Economic Thinking–a source with which I am unfamiliar, and for which I cannot vouch–asserts that the attack on teachers (about which I recently blogged) is part of a deliberate effort to “Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude.”

At least three people forwarded the paper to me. It references research by Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, and Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.  It describes a movement that is said to have begun in the wake of Citizens United, a “highly coordinated campaign” to destroy unions, cut taxes for the wealthy, and cut public services for everyone else.

Lafer pored over the activities of business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – funded by giant corporations including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Bank of America—that produces “model legislation” in areas its conservative members use to promote privatization. He studied the Koch network, a constellation of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. (Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company with business including crude oil supply and refining and chemical production). Again and again, he found that corporate-backed lobbyists were able to subvert the clear preferences of the public and their elected representatives in both parties. Of all the areas these lobbyists were able to influence, the policy campaign that netted the most laws passed, featured the most big players, and boasted the most effective organizations was public education. For these U.S. corporations, undermining the public school system was the Holy Grail.

The obvious question is: why? These organizations and businesses need an educated workforce; why would they intentionally subvert education? I understand–and mostly agree with– the argument that their preferred policies would have that effect, but why would that be the motivation?

While Lafer acknowledges that there are legitimate debates among people with different ideological positions or pedagogical views, he thinks big corporations are actually more worried about something far more pragmatic: how to protect themselves from the masses as they engineer rising economic inequality.

As Lafer sees it, we are headed for a new system in which the children of the wealthy will be “taught a broad, rich curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers. The kind of thing everybody wants for kids.” The rest of America’s children will be trapped in large classes with a narrow curriculum taught by inexperienced staff —or through digital platforms with no teachers at all.

Most kids will be trained for a life that is more circumscribed, less vibrant, and, quite literally, shorter, than what past generations have known. (Research shows that the lifespan gap between haves and have-nots is large and rapidly growing). They will be groomed for insecure service jobs that dull their minds and depress their spirits…

In other words, dismantling the public schools is all about control.

The linked article develops these themes, and readers who want to explore them more fully are welcome to click through and do so.

I know that even paranoids have enemies, but this argument strains credulity. I don’t quarrel with the assertion that many of these “reforms” are wrongheaded and detrimental to the national interest. (Vouchers, for example, are supported mainly by people who think they can make a profit and religious zealots who want public money to support their parochial schools.) The unwillingness of so many “haves” to pay the taxes that support the social and physical infrastructure that enabled their good fortune is selfish and despicable, but the policies they are pursing can be debated–and their dangers exposed–on their own (dubious) merits.

The problem is, if the gap between the rich and the rest isn’t reduced soon, we are likely to see more overheated accusations along these lines–along with more class-and-race-based animosity.

We’re entering the social danger zone.