Posts Tagged ‘Republican’

Those who have been following the controversy over the Wisconsin Republican Party’s open records request for access to certain of the emails sent from or received by my state email account since January 1 have undoubtedly been awaiting news about how this request will be handled. My colleagues at colleges and universities across the country–along with many other citizens of Wisconsin and other parts of the United States–have joined me in expressing strong concern about the threat to academic freedom represented by requests of this sort, but expressions of concern do not by themselves solve the difficult challenge of figuring out how best to balance the genuine public interest represented by freedom of information and open records laws on the one hand, and privacy, academic freedom, and First Amendment rights on the other.


What casual observers may also not instantly recognize is that legally, the “record holder” who received this request is not myself, but rather the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is as committed to honoring the public records law as it is to defending academic freedom. So for the past week, I have been watching the leadership of the university struggle to perform the legal “balancing test” required to serve these two important public goals.


The university has now released two documents in response to the open records request, along with a subset of the emails sent from or received by my state email account since January 1. The first document is a letter written by John Dowling, a lawyer with UW-Madison’s Office of Administrative Legal Services, that does a superb job of applying and explaining the legal balancing test that the university used in trying to honor the open records law while meeting other statutory obligations and defending the principles of free scholarly inquiry and academic freedom.


The second is an eloquent statement by UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin articulating the principles at stake in this case. In it, she affirms the university’s commitment to honoring the Wisconsin Public Records Law while making the strongest possible argument that academic freedom must be taken into account when responding to open records requests lest the freedom of inquiry and freedom of thought at a great public research university be threatened or eroded.


I will be writing more fully in a future post concerning what I’ve learned about the challenge of balancing freedom of information with freedom of inquiry, but I don’t want to waste any time in encouraging everyone to read these two documents carefully.


I could not be more grateful for the thought and care that Biddy Martin and UW-Madison attorneys have put into crafting these responses–and I am very proud of this university for continuing to defend the great traditions of the Wisconsin Idea and of the “sifting and winnowing” plaque that I discussed in my earlier blog entry (the “sifting and winnowing” section is toward the end).


From where I’m sitting, the two documents below can proudly take their place beside that wonderful sentence from the 1894 report of the UW Board of Regents:


Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.



Original available as PDF here.


April 1, 2011


Stephan Thompson

Republican Party of Wisconsin

148 East Johnson Street

Madison, Wisconsin 53703


Dear Mr. Thompson:


I am writing on behalf of and as legal counsel for the University of Wisconsin-Madison in response to your records request e-mailed to me and dated March 17, 2011.  By that request, you seek various e-mails written or received by UW-Madison Professor William Cronon through his university e-mail account beginning on January 1, 2011.  You specifically seek e-mails that reference 20 words, terms and names of individuals that all appear to be related to current political events in Wisconsin.


At our request, Professor Cronon immediately undertook a search of all of his accumulated e-mails for the specific words, terms and names as you stated them in your request.  The university’s legal staff then reviewed all of the identified e-mails to determine which ones must be made available to you pursuant to the Wisconsin Public records law.  Those determinations have been reviewed and approved by the appropriate university officials.  Copies of the records determined to be available to you under the law are enclosed.


In reaching our conclusions, we have made several assumptions based upon the nature and context of your request.  You asked the university to produce e-mails that contain the word “union.”  We assume that you are using this word in the context of labor unions.  We, therefore, are not producing the numerous e-mails that contain such unrelated terms as “Memorial Union” or “European Union.”


You have also requested e-mails that contain the word “recall.”  Again, we have made the assumption that you are using this word in the context of the current efforts to recall certain public officials in Wisconsin.  We are not producing e-mails containing the word “recall” in the sense of recalling a past event (e.g., “I recall from our meeting last week …”).


We have also assumed that you are not interested in copies of e-mailed newsletters from membership organizations or subscription publications that are generally available.  Professor Cronon receives regular newsletters from organizations that are of personal and professional interest to him – e.g., Wisconsin Historical Society; Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; Forum on Religion and Ecology, etc.  None of these organizations are overtly political, nor are they involved in the current efforts to recall any public officials in Wisconsin.  Professor Cronon also subscribes to e-mail delivery of generally available publications – e.g., The Economist.  The university is not producing any of these e-mails that have been identified as containing any of your specific words, terms or names.


If we are wrong in any of these assumptions, please let us know immediately.


You should further note that the e-mails that we have reviewed contain absolutely no evidence of political motivation, contact from individuals outside normal academic channels or inappropriate conduct on the part of Professor Cronon.  The university finds his conduct, as evidenced in the e-mails, beyond reproach in every respect.  He has used his university e-mail account appropriately and legitimately.   He has not used his university e-mail account for any inappropriate political conduct.  In fact, none of the e-mails contained any reference whatsoever to any of the specific political figures that you identified (except Governor Scott Walker), nor do they in any way reference the proposed recall efforts.


The university is not producing the following categories of records for the following reasons:


  • Records related to students.  The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 USC 1232g and 34 CFR Part 99, requires the university to keep confidential all education records directly related to students.  E-mails between Professor Cronon and specific students are included in this requirement.


    • Records related to potential students.  FERPA, by its specific terms, does not apply to records relating to individuals who are contemplating becoming students at the university.  However, we have performed the common law balancing test incorporated in the Public Records law (State ex rel. Journal Co. v. County Court,  43 Wis. 2d 297 (1969)) and have concluded that the public interest in communications between Professor Cronon and potential students is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications.  There is a strong public interest in recruiting the best and brightest students to this state’s public universities.  Individuals who correspond with faculty members about the possibility of coming to the university to pursue their education deserve at least as much privacy as those who eventually enroll and are protected by the specific terms of FERPA.  Making such communications public, especially if the individual eventually decides not to come to this university, would have a detrimental effect on the university’s ability to recruit and enroll the best and brightest students.


      • Records related to professional organizations.  Professor Cronon, like many other faculty members, is involved in professional organizations related to his fields of study.  In fact, he is the current President-Elect of the American Historical Association and was a member of the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians.  In these roles, he has had significant e-mail communication with officials of the organizations concerning internal issues specific to those organizations.  We have performed the common law balancing test incorporated in the Public Records law and have concluded that the public interest in such communications is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications.  If the internal discussions and business issues of such professional organizations were to be made public solely as a result of the participation by a faculty member of this university, it would have a significant chilling effect on the ability of the university’s faculty members to participate in these important positions.


        • Personal communications.  The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Schill, et al. v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, et al., Case No. 2008AP967-AC (July 16, 2010), allows the university to withhold e-mails containing purely personal communications that do not relate to Professor Cronon’s employment as a faculty member or the official conduct of university business, even though they were sent or received on university e-mail and/or computer systems.


          • Intellectual communications among scholars.  Faculty members like Professor Cronon often use e-mail to develop and share their thoughts with one another.  The confidentiality of such discussions is vital to scholarship and to the mission of this university. Faculty members must be afforded privacy in these exchanges in order to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.  The consequence for our state of making such communications public will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities that can guarantee them the privacy and confidentiality that is necessary in academia.  For these reasons, we have concluded that the public interest in intellectual communications among scholars as reflected in Professor Cronon’s e-mails is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications.


            • Communications related to personnel matters.  Professor Cronon’s e-mails include several dealing with personnel matters, including the evaluation of candidates for tenure and consideration of potential candidates for employment.  Section 19.36(10)(d), Wisconsin Statutes, excepts from the Public Records law the performance evaluations of university employees.  Section 19.36(7), Wis. Stats., which allows the identities of final candidates for employment positions to be made public, is an indication of the public policy favoring the confidentiality of inquiries about possible employment prior to an actual position opening or application.  We have performed the common law balancing test incorporated in the Public Records law and have concluded that the public interest in such communications is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications.


              The university is required to inform you that to the extent that this amounts to a denial of your request, it is subject to review by mandamus under sec. 19.37(1), Wis. Stats., or upon application to the Attorney General or District Attorney.



              John C. Dowling

              Senior University Legal Counsel


              Members of the campus community,


              Two weeks ago UW-Madison received an open records request from Stephan Thompson, deputy executive director of the state’s Republican Party, for email records of Professor Bill Cronon.


              Professor Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. He is one of the university’s most celebrated and respected scholars, teachers, mentors and citizens. I am proud to call him a colleague.


              The implications of this case go beyond Bill Cronon. When Mr. Thompson made his request, he was exercising his right under Wisconsin’s public records law both to make such a request and to make it without stating his motive. Neither the request nor the absence of a stated motive seemed particularly unusual. We frequently receive public records requests with apparently political motives, from both the left and the right, and every position in between. I announced that the university would comply with the law and, as we do in all cases, apply the kind of balancing test that the law allows, taking such things as the rights to privacy and free expression into account. We have done that analysis and will release the records later today that we believe are in compliance with state law.


              We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under FERPA. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member’s job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.


              Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.


              When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.


              This does not mean that scholars can be irresponsible in the use of state and university resources or the exercise of academic freedom. We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon’s records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.


              To our faculty, I say: Continue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the ‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.


              Chancellor Biddy Martin


              The outpouring of messages I’ve received via email, blog comments, phone calls, published columns, and direct communications from friends over the past week has been nothing less than overwhelming, and I honestly haven’t even begun to keep up with the flood that has poured through my computer and my life. I’m not sure when I’ll ever be able to do so.


              But among all the communications I’ve received in the past few days, few have touched me as much as the letter below, sent directly to Governor Scott Walker and Stephan Thompson (the Deputy Executive Director of the Republican Party who submitted the open records request for my emails). It was written by a longstanding Republican voter in Wisconsin who is a strong supporter of the governor’s fiscal policies. The author (whom I’ve never met and don’t know at all) shared it with me because he wanted me to see what he had written, and I was so moved by his eloquent words that I asked permission to reprint them in this blog. He asked only that I omit his name and contact information for personal reasons that I respect, so I’ve agreed to do so and hope readers will take my word that he did not try to hide his identity from me (unlike many of the most negative commentators on this blog). I have no reason to doubt the truth of anything he says.


              What I so admire about this letter is the author’s willingness to criticize leaders whose policies he supports but whose particular actions — at least regarding the open records request for my emails — he finds objectionable.  I admire the honor and integrity with which he declares his position, especially since I believe it is just these qualities — honor and integrity and fair-mindedness, even when dealing with people with whom one disagrees — that are so needed in our political life as a state and nation right now.


              I’m grateful to all who have written constructive comments on this blog, and all who have offered words of moral support no matter what their views on particular positions I have articulated here.  Thank you.


              Bill Cronon



              Hello Governor Walker and Mr. Thompson,


              I am a registered Republican and enthusiastically support the recent efforts to move the state towards fiscal responsibility.


              I happen to be a state employee; in spite of the large personal cost this will mean in our family income, we recognize the value and necessity of adjusting public sector benefits to match similar compensation available to private sector employees.


              I am also an Army veteran who volunteered to serve both here and overseas in defense of our most basic freedoms, including the freedoms of thought and speech.


              I am very disappointed by the recent and transparent efforts by the Wisconsin GOP to intimidate Professor Cronon. Inquiry into political activities and discourse about such activities is a legitimate academic pursuit. Even public employees have the right to voice private opinions, this is one of the most basic American rights. If there is nothing for the party to hide, there’s no cause for concern about a historian investigating and describing funding sources for reasons of posterity. The suggestions of wrong-doing inherent in your request so close on the heels of his blog posting is beneath the standards of the Wisconsin GOP. Casting aspersions on one of the most respected professors at one of the nation’s most respected universities makes you look petty and ridiculous.


              Excusing this behavior by suggesting that the “left” does so more aggressively than the “right” is justifying wrong-doing by others’ wrong-doing…is that really the course you want to chart for Republicans in Wisconsin? In response to his publicizing of this request, your press release also stated: Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. Well, members of the GOP have the right to accountability and ethical behavior by the leaders of the party as well, and I expect you would lead this effort to change the way Wisconsin works in an ethical and civil manner yourselves.


              This is not the way in which MY party behaves. Please adjust course before you lose your base.


              Thank you for your time and consideration,

              A Wisconsin Republican


              They don’t know how to spell my name, but since the Republican Party doesn’t seem to have posted this response to my recent blog on their own website yet, I thought their side should get a fair hearing here. See below.


              I have to say I’m at least as shocked as they say they are, but I’m rapidly gaining an unhappy education about what hardball politics in the United States now looks like.


              I worried for a while that my New York Times op-ed on “Wisconsin’s Radical Break” might have gone too far in drawing a carefully limited parallel between the current tactics of the Republican Party in Wisconsin and those of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s…but since the Republican Party seems intent on offering evidence to support that comparison, I guess I should just let their words and actions speak for themselves.


              I sure hope we can rebuild a culture of civility and fairness and generosity in this country.  It’s honestly the lack of fair-mindedness in the statement below that I find most disturbing.


              For Immediate Release

              Contact: Katie McCallum, Communications Director (608) 257-4765

              March 25, 2011


              In response to Professor William Cronin’s deplorable tactics in seeking to force the Republican Party of Wisconsin to withdraw a routine open records request, Executive Director Mark Jefferson released the following statement:


              “Like anyone else who makes an open records request in Wisconsin, the Republican Party of Wisconsin does not have to give a reason for doing so.


              “I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.


              “Further, it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request.  Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner.  The Left is far more aggressive in this state than the Right in its use of open records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media.


              “Finally, I find it appalling that Professor Cronin seems to have plenty of time to round up reporters from around the nation to push the Republican Party of Wisconsin into explaining its motives behind a lawful open records request, but has apparently not found time to provide any of the requested information.


              “We look forward to the University’s prompt response to our request and hope those who seek to intimidate us from making such requests will reconsider their actions.”



              Republican Party of Wisconsin | 148 East Johnson St. | Madison, Wisconsin 53703
p: 608.257.4765 | f: 608.257.4141| e:


              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.

              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:
              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 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
     (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.

              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.