Lee Fang exposes the State Policy Network & corporate domination of public policy

It’s much worse than you think

I was recently contacted by journalist Lee Fang and asked to review his new book The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right. I received the book yesterday and hope to have a full review out in the next couple of weeks.

As a lead-up to the April 24th release of his book, Fang has published a stunning piece at The Nation titled “The Right Leans In”. I call it stunning because it shows just how much power the corporate-funded right has amassed in shaping public policy in America, operating primarily at the state level. If you thought our biggest problem was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), you are quite wrong. ALEC is simply one piece of an intricate network formed to push the conservative agenda and turn it into laws and public policy across the country. Fang’s piece is essential reading for every progressive in the country.

At the center of this massive network is the State Policy Network (SPN). Innocuous-sounding, it has created a mind-blowing coalition of “think tanks” and media groups that dwarfs anything the left has to offer. These groups hire journalists to promulgate their agenda, have created media groups that syndicate content that is picked up by mainstream media outlets, and then amplify their messages through myriad blogs, videos, and other social media.

Fang quotes conservative leader Jim Demint:

[Demint] told the assembled donors confidently… to look beyond Washington, DC, and see that conservatives were scoring victories in state after state, citing the December move by Michigan Republicans to ram through anti-union legislation, as well as similar laws passed in Wisconsin and Indiana. Some of these victories would influence the Beltway as well. After all, the GOP’s control of state governments guaranteed that congressional districts were drawn in such a way that, in the 2012 elections, Republicans retained a thirty-three-seat majority in the House despite Democrats earning 1.3 million more votes for their candidates.

“You may not have heard about it,” DeMint continued. “We’ve been cultivating bright ideas, building coalitions and working with others like the State Policy Network to make these things happen.”

The SPN started in 1992 to fight tobacco regulation. Today, it focuses on union busting and the spread of right to work laws, stopping environmental regulation, encouraging the spread of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), privatization of education to for-profit corporations including expanded use of “virtual schools” (online classes), opposing net neutrality, and shifting the country’s tax burden from corporations to the middle class. Here’s how Fang describes what’s happening:

This latest project in conservative infrastructure building comes at a time when power is drifting away from political parties and other long-established organizations. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has accelerated this trend, with new Super PACs and attack-ad nonprofits springing up almost as fast as donors can write checks. The upgraded state echo chambers, led by SPN think tanks, seem particularly well-suited for this environment: they are fast-paced, Internet-savvy and dedicated to eliminating their perceived opposition.

The decline of media outlets doing serious journalism has created a supreme opportunity for this coalition of groups. Into the void created by the demise of major newspapers and the investigative reporting they do, SPN-affiliated think tanks have rushed to own that space. The result is that we can no longer trust much of what we read in the media:

As Joe Strupp of Media Matters has reported, the Franklin Center’s stated mission is to take advantage of cutbacks at local papers: “Cash-strapped and under-staffed, local and regional newspapers often can’t provide the real information that voters need to make good decisions.” Strupp, who interviewed several local editors who reluctantly run the center’s syndicated content, noted that some stories covered by the group—including one claiming that a union traded free barbecue for votes in Wisconsin—turned out to be false.

The head of the Franklin Center, a former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, boasted that by 2011, the group had hired more than 100 journalists in forty-four states—virtually all of them placed at SPN-affiliated think tanks. In Tennessee, it hired an award-winning journalist, Clint Brewer, for over a year, while in Hawaii and other states, its affiliates ran multiple stories questioning Obama’s birth certificate.

Their domination of the mediasphere includes the creation of media wire services to disseminate their propaganda. It’s revolutionary and unmatched by anything being done by the left:

MediaTrackers.org sites and news outlets mirroring Wisconsin Reporter now exist in states across the country, augmenting the advocacy of the expanded Americans for Prosperity and SPN chapters. “There’s no counterweight,” says Lisa Graves, head of the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group in Madison. Graves notes that Wisconsin Reporter, among the other Franklin Center news sites set up in more than two dozen states, has acted as a syndication service, providing right-leaning news coverage to local media. “There’s no progressive wire service,” she adds.

Some of the groups working together in this network will be familiar, of course: ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Others like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Free State Foundation, MediaTrackers.org, and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity are probably not so familiar. These groups often do the dirty work for their corporate sponsors, spending their contributions on “issue” campaigns that, at the end of the day, fatten their bottom lines.

Perhaps the most pervasive effort of late has been their attacks on unions, public sector unions in particular. Here’s how the SPN played a significant role in the dramatic conversion of Michigan to a right to work state late last year:

While many legislators were caught off guard by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s announcement, space in the front of the capitol had been reserved weeks in advance by Americans for Prosperity’s state chapter to set up a booth in support of the effort. Likewise, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy—the SPN affiliate in Michigan, with two recently opened media outlets, Michigan Capitol Confidential and Watchdog Wire Michigan—produced an array of content, from a Pinterest page to short videos on why the state should change its law governing labor unions.

Labor unions, on the other hand, spend the majority of their limited resources on member services like bargaining; their political money is mostly spent on candidate donations rather than the kind of rapid-response permanent campaign now embraced by their opposition. The only labor-backed political group that could be compared to the SPN-affiliated Mackinac Center and its allies—an organization called Progress Michigan, which does political research and media outreach—has far fewer resources than its counterparts on the right. In 2010, according to the latest available disclosure for the three groups, the Mackinac Center and Americans for Prosperity’s state chapter outspent Progress Michigan by $4.6 million to a little over $700,000. {…}

While progressive donors have also sought to fund targeted think tank and state media outlets in certain states—namely Colorado and, reportedly, Texas—there is no comparison in terms of size and scope, or in the underhanded tactics embraced by their ideological opponents.

Brian Rothenberg, head of ProgressOhio, notes that while family foundations exist on the right and the left, corporate money has flowed almost exclusively to conservative think tanks. “Especially after Citizens United,” he says, “the right is inherently better funded than the left.” In 2011, during the effort to repeal Governor John Kasich’s collective bargaining law, unions still provided less than 20 percent of ProgressOhio’s budget.

Their goal of destroying unions is not a secret. They are, in fact, quite shameless about it. Fang quotes Scott Hagerstrom, head of the Michigan branch of Americans for Prosperity, saying, “We fight these battles on taxes and regulation but really, what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.” He also quotes Joseph Lehman of the Mackinac Center who said, “The strategic idea we had in mind was defunding unions”.

Lee Fang’s piece is an important one and we can only hope that it is a wake-up call to progressives. It shows just how pervasive corporate power is in our political process but also in the lawmaking and policy setting that turns political ideology into laws that benefit corporations.

I’ll have more on this in the coming weeks after I have read The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right. Stay tuned.

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