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.
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:
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 http://www.doj.state.wi.us/dls/OMPR/2010OMCG-PRO/2010_OML_Compliance_Guide.pdf 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:
Two important SPN members in Wisconsin are the MacIver Institute for Public Policy:
and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI):
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
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 here:
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
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 goals. (The nearest analog to ALEC that I’m aware of on the left is the Progressive States Network, whose website can be perused at
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 gains.
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.
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.