March 2011, Week 3


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Thu, 17 Mar 2011 22:19:45 -0400
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Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in
Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here)

by William Cronon

Scholar as Citizen

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

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.

So...who is?

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/ SourceWatch: http://www.sourcewatch.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 http://www.alec.org

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.

Becoming a Member of ALEC: Not So Easy to Do

How do you become a member?  Simple. Two ways.  You can be
an elected Republican legislator who, after being
individually vetted, pays a token fee of roughly $100 per
biennium to join.  Here's the membership brochure to use if
you meet this criterion:
What if you're not a Republican elected official?  Not to
worry. You can apply to join ALEC as a "private sector"
member by paying at least a few thousand dollars depending
on which legislative domains most interest you. Here's the
membership brochure if you meet this criterion:
http://www.alec.org/am/pdf/Corporate_Brochure.pdf Then
again, even if most of us had this kind of money to
contribute to ALEC, I have a feeling that membership might
not necessarily be open to just anyone who is willing to pay
the fee. But maybe I'm being cynical here.

Which Wisconsin Republican politicians are members of ALEC?
Good question. How would we know? ALEC doesn't provide this
information on its website unless you're able to log in as a
member. Maybe we need to ask our representatives. One might
think that Republican legislators gathered at a national
ALEC meeting could be sufficiently numerous to trigger the
"walking quorum rule" that makes it illegal for public
officials in Wisconsin to meet unannounced without public
notice of their meeting. But they're able to avoid this rule
(which applies to every other public body in Wisconsin)
because they're protected by a loophole in what is otherwise
one of the strictest open meetings laws in the nation. The
Wisconsin legislature carved out a unique exemption from
that law for its own party caucuses, Democrats and
Republicans alike. So Wisconsin Republicans are able to hold
secret meetings with ALEC to plan their legislative
strategies whenever they want, safe in the knowledge that no
one will be able to watch while they do so. (See
for a full discussion of Wisconsin's otherwise very strict
Open Meetings Law.)

If it has seemed to you while watching recent debates in the
legislature that many Republican members of the Senate and
Assembly have already made up their minds about the bills on
which they're voting, and don't have much interest in
listening to arguments being made by anyone else in the
room, it's probably because they did in fact make up their
minds about these bills long before they entered the Capitol
chambers. You can decide for yourself whether that's a good
expression of the "sifting and winnowing" for which this
state long ago became famous.

Partners in Wisconsin and Other States: SPN, MacIver
Institute, WPRI

An important partner of ALEC's, by the way, is the State
Policy Network (SPN), which helps coordinate the activities
of a wide variety of conservative think tanks operating at
the state level throughout the country. See its home page at

Many of the publications of these think tanks are accessible
and downloadable from links on the SPN website, which are
well worth taking the time to peruse and read. A good
starting place is: http://www.spn.org/members/

Two important SPN members in Wisconsin are the MacIver
Institute for Public Policy: http://maciverinstitute.com/
and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI):
http://www.wpri.org If you want to be a well-informed
Wisconsin citizen and don't know about their work, you'll
probably want to start visiting these sites more regularly.
You'll gain a much better understanding of the underlying
ideas that inform recent Republican legislation by doing so.

Understanding What These Groups Do

As I said earlier, it's not easy to find exact details about
the model legislation that ALEC has sought to introduce all
over the country in Republican-dominated statehouses. But
you'll get suggestive glimpses of it from the occasional
reporting that has been done about ALEC over the past
decade. Almost all of this emanates from the left wing of
the political spectrum, so needs to be read with that bias
always in mind.

Interestingly, one of the most critical accounts of ALEC's
activities was issued by Defenders of Wildlife and the
Natural Resources Defense Council in a 2002 report entitled
Corporate America's Trojan Horse in the States. Although
NRDC and Defenders may seem like odd organizations to issue
such a report, some of ALEC's most concentrated efforts have
been directed at rolling back environmental protections, so
their authorship of the report isn't so surprising. The
report and its associated press release are here:

There's also an old, very stale website associated with this
effort at http://alecwatch.org/

A more recent analysis of ALEC's activities was put together
by the Progressive States Network in February 2006 under the
title Governing the Nation from the Statehouses, available

There's an In These Times story summarizing the report at

More recent stories can be found at

http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/6084/corporate_con_game(about the Arizona immigration law)

and there's very interesting coverage of ALEC's efforts to
disenfranchise student voters at

and http://www.progressivestates.org/node/26400

For just one example of how below-the-radar the activities
of ALEC typically are, look for where the name of the
organization appears in this recent story from the New York
Times about current efforts in state legislatures to roll
back the bargaining rights of public employee unions:
Hint: ALEC is way below the fold!

A Cautionary Note

What you'll quickly learn even from reading these few
documents is that ALEC is an organization that has been
doing very important political work in the United States for
the past forty years with remarkably little public or
journalistic scrutiny. I'm posting this long note in the
conviction that it's time to start paying more attention.
History is being made here, and future historians need
people today to assemble the documents they'll eventually
need to write this story. Much more important, citizens
today may wish to access these same documents to be well
informed about important political decisions being made in
our own time during the frequent meetings that ALEC
organizes between Republican legislators and representatives
of many of the wealthiest corporations in the United States.

I want to add a word of caution here at the end. In posting
this study guide, I do not want to suggest that I think it
is illegitimate in a democracy for citizens who share
political convictions to gather for the purpose of sharing
ideas or creating strategies to pursue their shared goals.
The right to assemble, form alliances, share resources, and
pursue common ends is crucial to any vision of democracy I
know. (That's one reason I'm appalled at Governor Walker's
ALEC-supported efforts to shut down public employee unions
in Wisconsin, even though I have never belonged to one of
those unions, probably never will, and have sometimes been
quite critical of their tactics and strategies.)  I'm not
suggesting that ALEC, its members, or its allies are
illegitimate, corrupt, or illegal. If money were changing
hands to buy votes, that would be a different thing, but I
don't believe that's mainly what's going on here. Americans
who belong to ALEC do so because they genuinely believe in
the causes it promotes, not because they're buying or
selling votes.

This is yet another example, in other words, of the
impressive and highly skillful ways that conservatives have
built very carefully thought-out institutions to advocate
for their interests over the past half century. Although
there may be analogous structures at the other end of the
political spectrum, they're frequently not nearly so well
coordinated or so disciplined in the ways they pursue their

(The nearest analog to ALEC that I'm aware of on the left is
the Progressive States Network, whose website can be perused
at http://www.progressivestates.org/ but PSN was only
founded in 2005, does not mainly focus on writing model
legislation, and is not as well organized or as disciplined
as ALEC.)

To be fair, conservatives would probably argue that the
liberal networks they oppose were so well woven into the
fabric of government agencies, labor unions, universities,
churches, and non-profit organizations that these liberal
networks organize themselves and operate quite differently
than conservative networks do - and conservatives would be
able to able to muster valid evidence to support such an
argument, however we might finally evaluate the
persuasiveness of that evidence.

Again, I want anyone reading this post to understand that I
am emphatically not questioning the legitimacy of advocacy
networks in a democracy. To the contrary: I believe they are
essential to democracy. My concern is rather to promote open
public discussion and the genuine clash of opinions among
different parts of the political spectrum, which I believe
is best served by full and open disclosure of the interests
of those who advocate particular policies.

I believe this is especially important when policies are
presented as having a genuine public interest even though
their deeper purpose may be to promote selfish or partisan

Reasserting Wisconsin's Core Values: Decency, Fairness,
Generosity, Compromise

ALEC's efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote
Democratic, for instance, and its efforts to destroy public-
sector unions because they also tend to favor Democrats,
strike me as objectionable and anti-democratic (as opposed
to anti-Democratic) on their face. As a pragmatic centrist
in my own politics, I very strongly favor seeking the public
good from both sides of the partisan aisle, and it's not at
all clear to me that recent legislation in Wisconsin or
elsewhere can be defended as doing this. Shining a bright
light on ALEC's activities (and on other groups as well,
across the political spectrum) thus seems to me a valuable
thing to do whether or not one favors its political goals.

This is especially true when politicians at the state and
local level promote legislation drafted at the national
level that may not actually best serve the interests of
their home districts and states. ALEC strategists may think
they're serving the national conservative cause by promoting
legislation like the bills recently passed in Wisconsin -
but I see my state being ripped apart by the resulting
controversies, and it's hard to believe that Wisconsin is
better off as a result. This is not the way citizens or
politicians have historically behaved toward each other in
this state, and I for one am not happy with the changes in
our political culture that seem to be unfolding right now.
I'm hoping that many of my fellow Wisconsinites, whether
they lean left or right, agree with me that it's time to
take a long hard look at what has been happening and try to
find our bearings again.

I have always cherished Wisconsin for its neighborliness,
and this is not the way neighbors treat each other.

One conclusion seems clear: what we've witnessed in
Wisconsin during the opening months of 2011 did not
originate in this state, even though we've been at the
center of the political storm in terms of how it's being
implemented. This is a well-planned and well-coordinated
national campaign, and it would be helpful to know a lot
more about it.

Let's get to work, fellow citizens.

William Cronon


P.S.: Note to historians and journalists: we really need a good biography of Paul Weyrich.

An Introductory Bibliography on the Recent History of
American Conservatism

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation:
Conservative Power in America, 2004 (lively, readable
overview by sympathetic British journalists).

David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American
Conservatism: A Brief History, 2010.

George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in
America Since 1945, 1976(one of the earliest academic
studies of the movement, and still important to read).

Lee Edwards, The Conservative Revolution, 2002 (written from
a conservative perspective by a longstanding fellow of the
Heritage Foundation).

Bruce Frohnen, et al, American Conservatism: An
Encyclopedia, 2006 (a comprehensive and indispensable
reference work).

Jerry Z. Muller, Conservatism, 1997 (extensive anthology of
classic texts of the movement).

There are many other important studies, but these are
reasonable starting points.

[William Cronon studies American environmental history and
the history of the American West.

Cronon's research seeks to understand the history of human
interactions with the natural world: how we depend on the
ecosystems around us to sustain our material lives, how we
modify the landscapes in which we live and work, and how our
ideas of nature shape our relationships with the world
around us. His first book, Changes in the Land: Indians,
Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983), was a
study of how the New England landscape changed as control of
the region shifted from Indians to European colonists. In
1984, the work was awarded the Francis Parkman Prize of the
Society of American Historians.

In 1991, Cronon completed a book entitled Nature's
Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which examines
Chicago 's relationship to its rural hinterland during the
second half of the nineteenth century. In 1991, it was
awarded the Chicago Tribune 's Heartland Prize for the best
literary work of non-fiction published during the preceding
year; in 1992, it won the Bancroft Prize for the best work
of American history published during the previous year, and
was also one of three nominees for the Pulitzer Prize in
History; and in 1993, it received the George Perkins Marsh
Prize from the American Society for Environmental History
and the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Award from the Forest
History Society for the best book of environmental and
conservation history published during the preceding two

In 1992, he co-edited Under an Open Sky: Rethinking
America's Western Past, a collection of essays on the
prospects of western and frontier history in American
historiography. He then edited an influential collection of
essays entitled Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place
in Nature, examining the implication of different cultural
ideas of nature for modern environmental problems, published
by Norton in the fall of 1995.

Cronon is currently at work on a history of Portage,
Wisconsin, from the end of the last Ice Age down to the


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