An important primer for progressives: Lee Fang’s “The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right”

Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part post on Lee Fang’s new book “The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right”. My interview with Lee Fang can be found HERE.

This past week, journalist Lee Fang’s new book The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right was released. Fang is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and a contributing writer at The Nation and the book represents the culmination of several years of researching and writing about the intersection of conservative politics with corporate influence on our government. The book is, at its core, a history book, showing us how America arrived at a place where a relatively small number of wealthy individuals and corporate entities have shaped the national dialog, our elections, national policy, and even the laws of our land to their own benefit, privatizing wealth while socializing risk.

The first chapter of The Machine is the most comprehensive overview of the history of the Tea Party that I have seen to date. Tracing its history back to the 90s when Big Tobacco manipulated populist sentiment against President Clinton’s proposal to tax cigarettes to pay for health insurance reform, Fang shows how some smart investments by a handful of millionaires and billionaires have created a powerful political force in this country.

The tobacco industry demonstrated that the Tea Party could be used to induce regular Americans to find common cause with corporate interests, and [Dick] Armey’s stunts showed willingness from the Republican Party to embrace the concept as their own. However, the nuts and bolts of how to create a self-perpetuating antigovernment Tea Party were designed primarily by three wealthy libertarians: real estate magnate Howie Rich and the billionaire owners of Koch Industries, Charles and David Koch.

But the book is about far more than the Tea Party and shows how “holistic” the Kochs and others have been in their effort to further their corporatist agenda and each chapter details a different part of the overall strategy. From message coordination to pitting progressive groups against each other and from a full-scale new media campaign to changing the face of politics at the state level, the conservative right as a front for corporate interests has covered all of their bases including some you may not have thought about. Lee Fang, however, pulls back to curtains to reveal the full scope of their decades-long effort.

The success the right has had is largely a reflection of their ability to coordinate their strategically chosen messages across a wide variety of communications platforms. No group has been more effective at this than the Heritage Foundation and, as Fang shows, they remain the “center of conservatism”:

By supplying policy ideas, hosting an endless array of conservative experts to testify on behalf of legislation, as well as other services, Heritage has become what many correctly call the “most influential conservative think tank.”

Much of Heritage’s decisive influence, however, must be measured by its primary — if underrecognized — role in coordinating the conservative movement and thereby setting the strategy for advancing cohesive right-wing ideals. Heritage sets the agenda for state-level conservative think tanks through the State Policy Network umbrella group, and its affiliated “Resource Bank” conference, while also providing assistance for right-wing think tanks internationally through its partnership with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. During the Obama presidency, Heritage took an even more aggressive stance, pulling together the key elements of the conservative coalition to fight progressives at every opportunity.

Fang also lays out how the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has played so effectively into the hands of the corporatist conservative machine. After honing the coordination of their network of groups for decades, they were in a perfect position to exploit the impact of Citizens United which let the genie out of the bottle with respect to corporate influence of our elections and national discourse:

In a drab office space at New York Avenue and 14th Street, just around the corner from the White House, elements of the Bush White House constructed a network of nonprofits dedicated to seizing power. This effort was not about restoring small government or changing America’s cultural fabric. It was a cold, calculated project to seize tens of millions in anonymous corporate money and use it to clobber their enemies with deceptive advertisements. Unlike the ideological right, these men—some of them lobbyists, most of them experienced partisans—had one and only conviction: defeating Democrats.

The informal network, called the Weaver Terrace Group, named after the street where Karl Rove convened meetings at his home, came together because of the Citizens United ruling. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, eliminated nearly a century of campaign finance law by allowing corporations and unions to spend unlim- ited amounts on electioneering. It was the second ruling in a row, after F.E.C. v. Wisconsin Right to Life, which allowed corporate-funded “issue-ads” to be run near election season, to open the floodgates to big business influence.

That spring, as Democrats toiled over health reform, jobs measures, and the financial overhaul known as Dodd-Frank, the Republican planners got to work. Citizens United provided an opportunity, but why would any corporation risk the public backlash of directly backing a candidate or cause? The idea, therefore, was floated to take advantage of the decision by developing a sprawling network of nonprofit organizations to funnel corporate cash into campaign commercials. The nonprofit organizations would simply be brands to conceal the true financiers of the advertisements. As Democrats continued their push for reforms, these GOP lobbyists and ad- makers would solicit funds from the companies that faced new regulations or taxes.

Fang’s work reveals how corporatists like the Koch brothers use both conservatives and liberals to advance their goals saying, “Essentially, Koch will fund both conservatives and liberals when it comes to social policy. Because for them, social initiatives are more often a Trojan horse for imposing their radical economic views.”

He also shows how pervasive corporate money, much of which goes undisclosed, is in our elections, an influence that has exploded since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision:

The massive gains for Republicans in the midterm elections were the direct result of a permanent campaign financed by Koch, from the Tea Party, to constant media distortions, to the elevation of hundreds of Republican candidates. It’s impossible to truly quantify the amount of political money Koch infused in the first two years of the Obama administration. Koch’s charitable foundations provide a clue, but the true extent may never be known. Direct corporate donations from Koch Industries through fronts like the Independent Women’s Forum and Americans for Prosperity never have to be disclosed. {…}

Rather than appeal to the public directly, lobbying interests often set up what are known as “third-party authorities” to deliver a message. Again, corporations pursuing public policy through front groups is not considered lobbying by law. As such, front group–led campaigns not only confuse the public, but face very few disclosure requirements.

Perhaps one of the most insidious and effective efforts to beat progressives was the manipulation of social media and public websites. In The Machine, Fang notes how links to progressive articles on websites like Reddit were suppressed through well-coordinated actions. Additionally, sales of progressive books were hampered by a concerted and intentional effort by an army of operatives who gave poor reviews on websites like Amazon.com:

The manipulation of “open” platforms should be expected and is difficult to prevent. But right-wing operatives streamlined the process. The well-funded front group American Majority hosted 395 training sessions in 2009 and 2010 to teach Tea Party and Republican volunteers how to abuse open platforms like Twitter to spread the conservative cause—usually by spam attacks on Democrats. Austin James, a trainer with American Majority, taught a session on “guerrilla warfare” against liberals at a retreat in Pittsburgh. One technique he recommended was to go on Amazon and for “every Obama book” he told attendees to rate it down with one star (the lowest rating). “I mean, 80 percent of the books that I view and put stars on online, I never read, people. That’s just how it works,” he said.

Beginning in 2009, my colleagues and I noted that Think- Progress stories no longer appeared on popular websites like Digg and Reddit, sites where users submit and comment on the best content on the web. ThinkProgress, where I blogged, had been wildly popular on both sites for years. In August of 2010, AlterNet revealed a massive conspiracy by a small cabal of Digg users to systematically “bury” news content from liberal sources like Talking Points Memo, the Atlantic Monthly, the Huffington Post, and my own site, ThinkProgress. A secret list of Digg users called “DiggPatriots” had worked for over a year to coordinate their efforts. It was never clear if the group was acting on its own or working with an established GOP consulting firm or other entity.

Finally, Fang shows in The Machine how well-coordinated efforts at the state level have helped to kneecap public employee unions, further the drive to use tax money to fund private/charter schools, and generally funnel tax money into the coffers of corporations:

Most state governments, unlike the federal government, require balanced budgets. A confrontation was brewing, and groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce preferred that public servants—not businesses—feel the pain. If conservatives could convince the public to blame both state and federal budget woes on public employee salaries or pensions, then the problem could be solved by axing workers and their benefits instead of raising taxes on businesses or the rich.

This state-level approach is described in even greater detail in his follow-up piece for The Nation titled “The Right Leans In”.

The Machine should serve as a warning to the progressive movement in the United States. Through his exhaustive and well-documented reporting, Lee Fang has given us a clear look at our political adversaries. No matter where you turn, the influence of corporate America on our country and our government is there to be found in some form or another. What Republicans have done in Michigan since the 2010 midterm election is a nearly a case study in the pervasiveness of this impact. From the leverage exerted by money from the wealthy conservative DeVos family to the impact on the news we read from the State Policy Network affiliate Mackinac Center for Public Policy and from the crushing of unions by new Republican-advanced laws to fact that Michigan has more private for-profit schools than any other state in the country, Michigan has been on the front lines of the war on progressives that is detailed in The Machine.

Fang offers little in the way of answers to this and the progressive response is something that is clearly tepid at this point in the game. With corporations seeking to further their agenda, it’s Republicans who will have access to the nearly bottomless pile of money they have to offer. Nonetheless, Fang’s work will be an important element in understanding what we’re up against and, without that knowledge, we will never be successful.

The Machine can be purchased HERE.

Tomorrow I’ll have part two of this two-part series — an interview with Lee Fang about The Machine.

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