March 15, 2011-
A Study Guide for Those Wishing to Know More
After watching the sudden and impressively well-organized wave of legislation being introduced into state legislatures that all seem to be pursuing parallel goals only tangentially related to current fiscal challenges–ending collective bargaining rights for public employees, requiring photo IDs at the ballot box, rolling back environmental protections, privileging property rights over civil rights, and so on–I’ve found myself wondering where all of this legislation is coming from.
The Walker-Koch Prank Phone Call Reveals A Lot, But Not Nearly Enough
The prank phone call that Governor Scott Walker unhesitatingly accepted from a blogger purporting to be billionaire conservative donor David Koch has received lots of airplay, and it certainly demonstrates that the governor is accustomed to having conversations with deep-pocketed folks who support his cause. If you’ve not actually seen the transcript, it’s worth a careful reading, and is accessible here:
But even though I’m more than prepared to believe that David and Charles Koch have provided large amounts of money to help fund the conservative flood tide that is sweeping through state legislatures right now, I just don’t find it plausible that two brothers from Wichita, Kansas, no matter how wealthy, can be responsible for this explosion of radical conservative legislation. It also goes without saying that Scott Walker cannot be single-handedly responsible for what we’re seeing either; I wouldn’t believe that even for Wisconsin, let alone for so many other states. The governor clearly welcomes the national media attention he’s receiving as a spear-carrier for the movement. But he’s surely not the architect of that movement.
Conservative History Post-1964: A Brilliant Turnaround Story
I can’t fully answer that question in a short note, but I can sketch its outline and offer advice for those who want to fill in more of the details.
I’ll start by saying–a professorial impulse I just can’t resist–that it’s well worth taking some time to familiarize yourself with the history of the conservative movement in the United States since the 1950s if you haven’t already studied the subject. Whatever you think of its politics, I don’t think there can be any question that the rise of modern conservatism is one of the great turnaround stories in twentieth-century American history. It’s quite a fascinating series of events, in which a deeply marginalized political movement–tainted by widespread public reaction against Senator Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and the massively defeated Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964–managed quite brilliantly to remake itself (and American politics) in the decades that followed.
I provide a brief reading list at the end of this note because many people from other parts of the political spectrum often seem not to take the intellectual roots of American conservatism very seriously. I believe this is a serious mistake. One key insight you should take from this history is that after the Goldwater defeat in 1964, visionary conservative leaders began to build a series of organizations and networks designed to promote their values and construct systematic strategies for sympathetic politicians. Some of these organizations are reasonably well known–for instance, the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a Racine native and UW-Madison alumnus who also started the Moral Majority and whose importance to the movement is almost impossible to overestimate–but many of these groups remain largely invisible.
That’s why events like the ones we’ve just experienced in Wisconsin can seem to come out of nowhere. Few outside the conservative movement have been paying much attention, and that is ill-advised. (I would, by the way, say the same thing about people on the right who don’t make a serious effort to understand the left in this country.)
It’s also important to understand that events at the state level don’t always originate in the state where they occur. Far from it.
Basic Tools for Researching Conservative Groups
If you run across a conservative organization you’ve never heard of before and would like to know more about it, two websites can sometimes be helpful for quick overviews:
Right Wing Watch: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/
Both of these lean left in their politics, so they obviously can’t be counted on to provide sympathetic descriptions of conservative groups. (If I knew of comparable sites whose politics were more conservative, I’d gladly provide them here; please contact me if you know of any and I’ll add them to this note.) But for obvious reasons, many of these groups prefer not to be monitored very closely. Many maintain a low profile, so one sometimes learns more about them from their left-leaning critics than from the groups themselves.
I don’t want this to become an endless professorial lecture on the general outlines of American conservatism today, so let me turn to the question at hand: who’s really behind recent Republican legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere? I’m professionally interested in this question as a historian, and since I can’t bring myself to believe that the Koch brothers single-handedly masterminded all this, I’ve been trying to discover the deeper networks from which this legislation emerged.
Here’s my preliminary answer.
Telling Your State Legislators What to Do:
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)
The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)
If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote.
You can start by studying ALEC’s own website. Begin with its home page at
First visit the “About” menu to get a sense of the organization’s history and its current members and funders. But the meat of the site is the “model legislation” page, which is the gateway to the hundreds of bills that ALEC has drafted for the benefit of its conservative members.
You’ll of course be eager to look these over…but you won’t be able to, because you’re not a member.