5 Ways PRA Exposed the Corporate Right in 2015

What would our democracy look like without the influence of corporations and industrialists? It has become more and more difficult in recent decades to imagine an answer to this question. As the late political scientist and PRA’s founder Jean Hardisty wrote in 2014, neoliberalism—or deregulated market capitalism—”seeks to replace democracy with oligarchy.” Indeed, corporate money and influence are remaking our democratic institutions, from the dark-money lobbying groups and think tanks pushing limitless deregulation, to individual wealthy donors putting their thumbs on the scales of public policy in state legislatures and using new Voter ID laws to suppress the vote. As progressives contemplate how to build a movement for justice that can effectively counter such forces, it is necessary to understand how the Corporate Right—what Hardisty termed the Chamber of Commerce wing of the conservative movement—is collaborating with others on the Right to advance its agenda.

PRA has written much in the past about the Right’s attacks on the most vulnerable groups of working people: women, people of color, LGBTQ people. During 2015, we launched the new PRA Economic Justice Research Project to identify some of the current trends and to develop a fuller analysis of who exactly is behind the ongoing transformation of our democratic infrastructure.  Our research has fueled some of the most effective recent campaigns for economic justice, including: the fight for domestic workers’ rights, the fight for paid family leave laws, and the fight for fair wages for restaurant workers. Here are five ways our work exposed the Corporate Right’s shenanigans in 2015.

  1. Rick Perry NFIBIn January and February, we looked into the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) spearheading of a lawsuit that tried to halt, and then delay, the implementation of a new Department of Labor rule that will allow home care workers to be covered by the same minimum wage and overtime protections that other workers enjoy under U.S. labor law. I also wrote an article about the IFA’s involvement in this fight that was published by In These Times.
  1. fun-at-red-lobserFrom January through March, we examined how restaurant owners, through their own corporate lobbying group – the National Restaurant Association, are fighting against paid sick days and better pay for employees. We also discussed how Walmart’s announced pay raises were little more than PR stunt to change its anti-worker image.
  1. AitkenIn March, we began seriously investigating the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), a professional association claiming to represent 275,000 HR professionals worldwide. SHRM is headquartered in Alexandria, VA, and pulls in about $143 million per year. It has a 501c3 charitable foundation (the SHRM Foundation) whose activities are still a mystery to us; and it also has an immigration policy advocacy arm, the Council for Global Immigration, which has its own separate structure. Mostly, however, SHRM acts as a lobbying organization for the corporate side of the HR equation. It hosts lavish conferences to which members are invited, and it does train members in how to comply with workplace law. But it also uses its policy and advocacy departments to actively lobby for employer-side changes in workplace law. For example, SHRM opposes the USDOL’s expansion of the overtime rules, the NLRB’s expedited elections rule, mandatory paid leave laws, and much more. Despite SHRM’s strong dedication to curtailing worker rights and workplace protections, SHRM presents to the public, the media, and often to its own membership, a studiously neutral political facade, and attempts to appear not to take sides in employer-employee relations. I attended SHRM’s legal and legislative conference in March 2015, and reported out my findings in a series of blog posts.
  1. Arthur BrooksIn May and June, we examined how the Christian Right may or may not be informing and involving itself with corporate lobbying groups, think tanks and other vehicles funded by industrialists to remake our political economy. We turned toward the narratives around poverty that began to come out of right-wing think tanks and Christian conservative groups this year—both secular groups like the American Enterprise Institute, and religious groups like the Acton Institute, as well as quasi-Christian groups such as the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. Based on this research, I wrote a piece for The Public Eye magazine on Faith-Washing Right Wing Economics, or how the Corporate Right uses Christian Right organizations and messaging to advance its agenda. Also, during the national debate surrounding the confederate flag, we discussed how the neo-confederate South lost to (ironically) free market neoliberalism.
  1. devos familyFinally, in December, we looked even more closely at the DeVos family as an example of one wealthy Christian Right family that is involving itself deeply in political work. Although they work primarily in Michigan, this Koch-like family is branching out to other states on some key issues: education privatization, promulgation of RFRA laws, and so-called “right to work.” We think they are not alone; that other wealthy donors are becoming bolder and more willing to call the shots politically in their joint Christian/Corporate Right projects.

As we ring in 2016, I am sad to say I will no longer be heading up PRA’s Economic Justice research work. I look forward to seeing what the team is able to accomplish in the future based on this important groundwork. Special thanks to Kelsey Howe, Jacey Rubinstein, Jaime Longoria, Eli Lee, Doug Gilbert, and Jonathon Orta for their assistance.

Ed. note. PRA would like to thank our outgoing Corporate Right researcher, Mariya Strauss, whose work over the last year has been invaluable. We wish her the best in her new adventures!

The Koch-Like Family You’ve Never Heard Of Influencing State Legislatures

On the homepage of almost any major news publication, one can read about the latest bombastic actions of the current crop of conservative candidates – Trump, Cruz, Carson etc. Behind all of the pageantry and show, however, it is critical for people of conscience to consider how big-money donors can influence public policy. Most people have heard of big spenders like the Koch brothers or the Walton family—well known for using their money to shape not only policies, but also the very infrastructure of our political system. But  who are those deep-pocketed names we’ve never heard of?

The DeVos family—Michigan-based builders of the Amway fortune—is one of the most influential families in conservative U.S. politics. Their agenda includes many items on the Corporate and Christian Right’s wish lists, including so-called “right to work” laws that weaken unions, discriminatory Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bills, and education privatization (including pushing school vouchers that transfer public dollars to private religious coffers). Although some of their higher-profile activities such as Dick DeVos’ failed 2006 race for Michigan governor and Richard DeVos´ ownership of the Orlando Magic basketball team are covered in the press, their political spending has gotten far less attention. This year 435 seats will be contested in the House of Representatives, 35 in the Senate and 13 gubernatorial races will take place alongside local and county elections; therefore it is critically important for the country to see and debate the influence that rich families like the DeVoses are wielding in politics.

Though they share the Kochs´ commitment to corporate welfare, the DeVoses also promote a Christian Right cultural and social agenda. They use their money and influence to contribute to conservative infrastructure, including think tanks, astroturf organizations and policy advocacy groups, both in Michigan and elsewhere. The family epitomizes the disturbing trend toward billionaires willing to spend big money to change the political structure—a structure that, as PRA’s late founder and political scientist Jean Hardisty wrote in 2014, is “drifting toward oligarchy”.

The DeVos Family

Dick and Betsy DeVos  (Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

Dick and Betsy DeVos
(Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

Based in western Michigan, the DeVoses fund a number of organizations that push conservative policies including right to work, RFRA, and school vouchers. Richard DeVos, the patriarch of the family, is one of the original founders of Amway, a supplier of everything from home care products to insurance (the company was ranked 30th largest U.S. company by Forbes in 2015, and pulled in nearly $11 billion last year).

If you were to walk through Grand Rapids or Detroit, it would be nearly impossible not to notice the DeVos name: the DeVos Convention Center, DeVos Performance Hall, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Helen DeVos Center for Arts and Worship and DeVos Graduate School of Management to name a few places. For many in Michigan, the name is synonymous with western Michigan, conservative philanthropy and the Republican Party.

For the past 50 years, Richard and his wife Helen have positioned themselves as one of the most important families in Michigan politics. Their son and daughter-in-law, Dick and Betsy DeVos, are following in their footsteps with their own foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. (Betsy is the daughter of Edgar Prince, a founder of the Family Research Council.)  Between 2000 and 2012, the family gave nearly $5.4 million to the Michigan Republican Party, according to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The report also demonstrates how the DeVoses exert influence over state and national policy making. For example, the DeVoses gave $50,000 to a Michigan ballot committee that worked to ban same sex marriage in 2004; the committee also received support from Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and the Michigan Family Forum. Locally, their money has found its way into 70 different Michigan political committees. According to a report by the Michigan Campaign Finance network, the family gave $4,902,055 during the 2013-2014 cycle.

The DeVoses exert influence over state and national policy making. For example, the DeVoses gave $50,000 to a Michigan ballot committee that worked to ban same sex marriage in 2004.

Right to Work

Right to work laws originated in the Old Right of the 1950s and, as PRA economic justice researcher Mariya Strauss has written, are designed to “remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job.”

The story of how Michigan became a right to work state features the backroom dealings and pressures from big business that have typified right to work battles in state after state since the 1950s.

The DeVos family pushed for this legislation long before it landed on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder´s desk. The West Michigan Policy Forum organizes yearly conferences bringing together policy makers and business leaders in order to advance a so-called pro-business agenda in Michigan.  The organization, Dick’s brother Doug DeVos was former board chairman, has pushed for right to work since 2008. After the family spent $4.9 million on political candidates and committees during the 2014 state elections, right to work passed and was signed. In addition to the work of the West Michigan Policy Forum, the DeVos family also gave at least $2 million to fight a union-backed amendment to the bill that would have guaranteed unions the right to bargain.

Outside Michigan, the DeVos family is also tied to the national Tea Party organization, Americans for Prosperity, which was created by the Koch brothers and has now setup 36 state-based shops to operate out of. The DeVoses gave AFP over $800,000 between 2007-2011. This connection to David and Charles Koch points to a key observation: not only do the two families hold similar policy positions, but they also fund some of the same groups. AFP not only played a role in garnering support for right to work in Michigan, it also led a coalition pushing for a right to work law in Missouri. Although AFP failed to get the bill passed this year; workers’ rights advocates say they expect it will return soon.

This connection to David and Charles Koch points to a key observation: not only do the two families hold similar policy positions, but they also fund some of the same groups.

Americans for Prosperity has continued trying to build support for the bill in other states such as Kentucky. FreedomWorks—another conservative advocacy organization that represents a strategic partnership with the Kochs—runs public relations and advertising campaigns for anti-union and right to work bills. The organization received $600,000 between 2009 and 2011 from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, according to SourceWatch. Their online presence is also significant, as it is a key tool used to spread information on their anti-union and right to work positions.

Education Privatization

So-called “school choice” seems to be the area where the family has invested the most outside of Michigan. School choice is a blanket term used to describe everything from school voucher programs to charters to online “virtual” schools, and has garnered support from both Republicans and some Democrats. Conservative donors such as the DeVos family have used their money to influence this national trend. One of the biggest events is the annual School Choice Week, which included 11,082 individual events across the country last year. Every January the events are marketed as a social justice movement whose aim is to “raise public awareness for all types of educations options for children”. Behind the scenes, its most influential backers are the DeVoses and other conservative donors who have been pushing for more private and more religious schooling.

A look at the main partners—and their affiliations—helps shed light on the ideas driving School Choice Week. The American Federation for Children is a public policy organization whose board of directors is chaired by Betsy DeVos. According to SourceWatch, the organization, a 501(c)(4), is the political organizing arm of the Alliance for School Choice. The DeVos have been tied to efforts in Pennsylvania to eradicate public education by giving over $15 million over the last five years. PRA research fellow Rachel Tabachnick has compiled an anthology of the DeVos family’s efforts to eradicate public education.  As a front group that funnels money into other groups around the country, American Federation for Children has links to a number of other organizations which the DeVos family gave a total of $355,000 in 2013 – such as the American Enterprise Institute, Alliance for School Choice, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education is another sponsor of School Choice Week. Based in Florida, the organization is an example of how the DeVos family’s money has expanded outside of Michigan. The foundation received $100,000 from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation in 2013, and Betsy sits on the board of directors. Another group supported by the family is the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The New York-based group provides scholarships for students to study outside of the public school system. Pamella DeVos, wife of Dan DeVos, sits on the board of directors and helps direct the organization’s work in eight states.

Anti-LGBTQ Influence

As previously reported by PRA, this past summer Michigan passed a statewide religious exemption law that gives adoption agencies the right to claim a religious exemption from having to serve LGBTQ couples. The DeVos family donated $300,000 in 2013 alone to Bethany Christian Services, Michigan’s leading adoption agency and the main group that lobbied for the religious exemption bill.

The DeVos family also furthers LGBTQ discrimination through donations to their numerous foundations and religious conservative initiatives outside of their home state. The DeVos family, through its giving patterns, maintains ties to the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and the Federalist Society – all organizations with anti-LGBTQ positions.

The DeVos family, through its giving patterns, maintains ties to the Heritage Foundation, Focus on the Family, and the Federalist Society – all organizations with anti-LGBTQ positions.

At the Heritage Foundation, The Devos Center for Religion and Civil Society “examines the role that religion, family, and community [play] in society and public policy”. With the $1.8 million grant, the Center seeks to “help policy-makers, scholars, journalists and other leaders examine the important role of religious thought and activity in the United States, how it influences society and how it affects-an it affected-by public policy”. The center has taken a stance against same-sex marriage, called for defunding planned parenthood, and sponsored events aimed at furthering conservative positions. Along with their center at the Heritage Foundation, the DeVos family is also tied to the conservative Christian foundation, Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family is a one of the most well funded anti-LGBTQ organizations in the U.S. The conservative Christian foundation has received $800,000 from DeVos foundations. Focus on the Family has published numerous  articles making the false claim that LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination policies poses to religious freedom. The organization donated over $115,000 to defeat marriage equality in Maine, and $91,000 to defeat civil unions in Washington State, according to a 2014 report by the Human Rights Campaign. In the same report, the DeVoses were cited as sponsoring an annual conference advocating “ex-gay” or reparative therapy, the discredited practice of trying to somehow alter a persons’ sexual orientation. (The American Psychological Association has warned that the dangerous therapy poses serious risk to youth, and reparative therapy on minors has been banned in several states.)

The Federalist Society is an influential conservative legal organization that advocates for a conservative interpretation of the Constitution. The group says it aims to “[reorder] priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law”. Members include conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. As  by PRA, the Federalist Society “states that its purpose is to foster debate and discussion about the issues, but the articles and interpretations in its publications are all decidedly conservative and/or libertarian”. Through multiple foundations, the DeVos family contributed $55,000 in 2013 alone.

The Federalist society takes an anti-LGBTQ stance through its support of lawyers hostile to equal rights. Through their university campus chapters around the country, they host events hostile to LGBTQ equality such as one at Northwestern University Law School where the chapter hosted a debate on LGBTQ discrimination with food catered by Chick-fil-A (whose CEO publicly opposed marriage equality in 2012, prompting a national bycott).

DeVoses branching out

While Michigan has traditionally been the DeVos family’s stronghold, their influence for right to work, school privatization and RFRA bills is creeping into statehouses across the country. As states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri are pushing to become right to work states, it is worth asking how DeVos money finds its way to these battles. At the same time as their efforts to expand education privatization increase, their efforts to push RFRA bills continue to find their ways into state legislatures across the country. Through a network of organizations, the DeVos yield an impressive amount of power and influence in statehouses around the country. As the election cycle heats up in 2016, grassroots progressive organizers need to understand how billionaires such as the DeVoses are wielding influence.

‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism, and the Case for Action

This article is part of the Winter issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has prompted a vigorous public debate over whether or not Trump is flirting with fascism. Some analysts suggest his political dance partner is leading him to the tune of right-wing populism. Other analysts say Trump’s marriage to fascism already has been consummated. Either way, Trump is stomping on the dance floor of democracy in a way that could collapse it into splinters. It’s a “scary moment for those of us who seek to defend civil rights, civil liberties, and democracy itself,” warns political analyst Noam Chomsky.1

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Flickr, Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Back in 2010 Chomsky started lecturing about the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany into the abyss of Hitler’s totalitarian Nazism.2 There are parallels to our current political climate than need to be examined cautiously, even though conditions in the U.S. are not nearly as bad as those faced by the Weimar Republic.

Is it really fair to suggest Trump—neofascist or not—poses a danger to civil society itself, as occurred in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic? A review of Trump’s rhetoric makes this a legitimate question. Trump keeps gaining ground. As New York Daily News columnist Shaun King wrote in November:

For nearly six straight months, no matter how racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim Trump gets, he has maintained his lead in the polls. In fact, from all indications, it appears the more his public talk resembles that of a white supremacist, the more rabid and entrenched his support gets.3

The examples of Trump’s fascist-sounding rhetoric are numerous. In June, Trump tweeted, “I love the Mexican people, but Mexico is not our friend. They’re killing us at the border and they’re killing us on jobs and trade. FIGHT!”4 In July Trump falsely asserted, “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”5

Trump’s sexism was displayed at the Republican debate on August 6 when he was asked by Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly about referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump later attacked Kelly on CNN, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The London Guardian reported that the “insinuation that Kelly was menstruating crossed a line for organisers of the Red State Gathering, a conservative event featuring GOP presidential hopefuls.” That group cancelled an appearance by Trump.6

Forging ahead, Trump claimed in September that the United States had become the “dumping ground for the rest of the world” for undocumented immigrants and proposed rounding up and deporting some 11 million of them, including their children, who are U.S. citizens.7 In a series of rambling and contradictory statements, Trump called for widespread surveillance of Muslims and refugees in the United States, and seemed to agree to the need for a federal database registering all Muslims, although he later backed off to say he was only considering it as a possibility. He confirmed that he wanted such a database for all Syrian refugees.8

As Trump’s viciousness ballooned, the corporate press shifted from portraying him as a carnival sideshow geek to recognizing that he posed a threat to civil society and even democracy itself.9

The media reported with palpable disgust when, during a press conference, Trump mocked the physical disability of New York Times seasoned political reporter Serge Kovaleski.10 Amid mounting disruptions of his campaign rallies by anti-Trump activists, Trump began to mock them, tried to silence them, and even ask that they be forcibly removed. In one incident Trump appeared to approve of the physical attack on a Black Lives Matter protestor who interrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama.11

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

The Washington Post reported that Trump yelled, “Get him the hell out of here… Throw him out,” whereupon the protestor “fell to the ground and was surrounded by several white men who appeared to be kicking and punching him,” while CNN filmed video.12 Trump later remarked on Fox News that “Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”13

This was the same rally at which Trump announced to his cheering supporters, “I want surveillance of certain mosques.”14

Trump’s appeal to White Nationalism became increasingly obvious. While Trump can’t control who supports his candidacy, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos observed with disdain that even “the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, had endorsed him for President.”15

Writing about Trump’s nasty rhetoric, and the alarming welcome it has found during the Republican pre-primary media blitz, American Prospect journalist Adele Stan put it bluntly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.16

A Weimar Moment?

The Weimar period is crucial to understand because it was that precise moment in Germany’s history when a broad united front, crossing traditional political boundaries to defend democracy, could have blocked the mass base of a right-wing populist movement threatening to morph into a fascist juggernaut.17

Professor Paul Bookbinder at the University of Massachusetts in Boston has studied the Weimar Republic as it eroded into fascism in Germany. His collection of essays at the Facing History and Ourselves website, in a section entitled “The Fragility of Democracy,” explores the moments when public interventions might have altered what happened in Europe.18

As Bookbinder told me, “right now our society is facing some of the same tensions as seen in the Weimar Republic. People didn’t take seriously the threat to democracy when they could have; and when they did see the dangers it was too late.”19 He continued:

There are certainly some similarities to the rhetoric of the Weimar Period in Trump’s speeches, but also in that of some other Republican candidates, and Trump especially seems to be playing to an audience of angry White men who have held a privileged status as a group, but now see their status being challenged by people who they see them as undeserving.

Some commentators now are referring to Trump as a fascist demagogue, and Bookbinder thinks “they have a point” since “Trump is a strange combination of a fascist demagogue and a late night talk show host comedian. But we shouldn’t laugh at him because his is dangerous. When I watch Trump, even his facial expressions have the character I associate with the fascist demagogue Adolf Hitler. Trump’s crude humor also plays to some of the prejudices of many in his audiences.”

Mass Media, Demagogues, and Scripted Violence

Perpetrators of ethnoviolence and attacks based on race, religion, or gender “often take their cues from what they hear in the media,” wrote Robert Reich in a column on his website after the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November.20 Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, warned that “the recent inclination of some politicians to use inflammatory rhetoric is contributing to a climate” in which fear of violence is real and growing among targeted groups.

Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was shocked when Republican Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina continued to allege “that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts of fetuses,” even though the claim has been proven baseless. Fiorina isn’t alone, Reich continued. Mike Huckabee calls it “sickening” that “we give these butchers money to harvest human organs,” noted Reich. And after the Colorado shootings, Trump falsely claimed “some of these people from Planned Parenthood [are] talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car.” Much of Reich’s column consists of a horrific list of physical attacks on facilities operated by Islamic groups and Planned Parenthood in recent months.21

While violence is often used by ultra-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and various neonazi groups in the U.S., it is less common in conservative social and political movements. But Trump’s use of alarming right-wing populist rhetoric, aimed at mobilizing his predominantly White base, is changing that status quo.

The conservative Right generally tries to avoid this obvious and threatening sort of inflammatory language. In the Washington Spectator, political journalist Rick Perlstein, who has written several books about U.S. conservatism, observed of Trump that, “Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage.”22 The Nazis cultivated the idea of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. This, coupled with claims of a Jewish financial conspiracy and a sense of national humiliation that demanded redress, helped mobilize the mass base for fascism among the electorate in Weimer Germany. And it also legitimized the violence that followed Hitler’s rhetoric. Street fighting became rampant during the collapse of the Weimar Republic, as “Brownshirts” took to the streets to attack the targets singled out in Hitler’s speeches as a “threat” to Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s use of demagoguery aimed at scapegoated targets is laced with references to conspiracy theories involving President Obama—namely that he was not born in the United States. Tea Party conspiracists claim Obama is a secret Muslim and part of an evil plot. Trump also portrays Muslims in an apocalyptic framework, implying Muslims are a threat to the survival of the United States. Journalist Deborah Caldwell suggests this has touched a chord precisely because “people find his apocalyptic rhetoric enticing and familiar—because America has end-times obsession deeply embedded in its national psyche.” Conspiracism and apocalypticism are among the core components of right-wing populism, along with demonization, scapegoating, and “producerism,” which is the division of the population into “productive” members of society struggling against the “parasites” above and below who are subversive, sinful, or lazy.23

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin looked at “content intended to instill fear in a population,” or “intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable.”24 They point out that “media content helps shape an individual’s view of the world and helps form the lens through which all issues are viewed.” According to the authors:

  • In Rwanda prior to the genocide a private radio station tried to instill fear of an imminent attack on Hutus by a Tutsi militia.
  • In the months before [conflicts] in Serbia, state television attempted to create the impression that a World War II–style ethnic cleansing initiative against Serbs was in the works.
  • Throughout the 1990s Georgian media outlets sought to portray ethnic minorities as threats to Georgia’s hard-won independence.

Frohardt and Temin found that demagogues facilitated the likelihood of violence against specific demonized and scapegoated target groups by creating a widespread fear in the general population that serious—perhaps lethal–attacks on them were “imminent;” even though “there was only flimsy evidence provided to support” these false claims. They continued:

When such reporting creates widespread fear, people are more amenable to the notion of taking preemptive action, which is how the actions later taken were characterized. Media were used to make people believe that “we must strike first in order to save ourselves.” By creating fear the foundation for taking violent action through “self-defense” is laid.

Thus demagogic rhetoric can produce “scripted violence,” in which the demagogue can claim there is no direct link between the inciting language and the violence of “random” perpetrators.25

Using the F-word — Why Terminology Matters

There are good reasons why Trump’s statements cause our progressive antennae to wiggle. Trump’s swaggering demeanor recalls that of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A number of journalists have suggested that Trump is using rhetoric similar to that used by Adolf Hitler in mobilizing Germans to support fascism. Some just call Trump an outright fascist.26 In doing so, however, some writers have fallen victim to a hoax quote on fascism wrongly attributed to Mussolini: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”27

It’s not clear where this fake quote originated, but it confuses Italian corporatist syndicalism with modern business corporations. The spelling is the only major similarity. Mussolini and his adviser, fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, consistently wrote that under fascist rule corporations (and all other sectors of society) must bend to the iron will of the fascist ruler.28

Despite how loosely or inaccurately the terms are sometimes used, “fascism” and “totalitarianism” have very specific meanings. A totalitarian state is a central goal of fascist movements, including neofascism and neonazism. Totalitarian states enforce total control over every aspect of a person’s life—political, economic, social, and cultural—in order to reshape the individual and unify society. Totalitarianism is like authoritarianism on methamphetamines. Public debate and opposition are not tolerated. Core democratic systems are crushed. Dissidents are rounded up and sometimes executed. Political theorist and author Hannah Arendt argued that Nazism and Stalinism were the prime examples of totalitarian movements that gained state power.29

However frightening Trump’s ascent might be to progressives, the candidate is neither a neofascist nor a totalitarian ideologue, but a right-wing populist bully. And the distinction matters for reasons that go beyond simple taxonomy. Calling Republicans fascist or totalitarian leads progressive organizers into a dead-end of crafting the wrong tactics and strategies for the moment in which we live.

Professor Roger Griffin is a world-class authority on the subject of fascism, and author of several books including The Nature of Fascism.30 Griffin defines fascism as:

… a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the “people” into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

Another expert, Emilio Gentile, author of The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, says fascism raises politics to the level of a sacred struggle seeking totalitarian control over society. It is “a mass movement with multiclass membership” that

…believes itself invested with a mission of national regeneration, considers itself in a state of war against political adversaries and aims at conquering a monopoly of political power by using terror, [electoral] politics, and deals with leading groups, to create a new regime that destroys [electoral] democracy.31

Despite Trump’s campaign slogan—the promise to “Make America Great Again”—neither of these definitions describe his program, even though he appears to be getting close to neofascist rhetoric. Trump’s obvious early mass appeal is built around right-wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons and I defined the term in our book Right-Wing Populism in America:

Populism is a way of mobilizing “the people” into a social or political movement around some form of anti-elitism. Populist movements can occur on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, inclusive or exclusionary, forward-looking or fixated on a romanticized image of the past. They can either challenge or reinforce systems of oppression, depending on how “the people” are defined.32

Populism is confusing because it is at once an ideology, a strategic organizing frame, and a rhetorical narrative storyline that names friends and enemies. While left-wing populism often organizes people around expanding economic fairness, right-wing populism relies on prejudice and bigotry, demonization and scapegoating of an “Other,” and fears of traitorous, subversive conspiracies.

Trump uses populist rhetoric to appeal to “the people,” even as he campaigns on his status as an elitist member of the one percent. Margaret Canovan, author of Populism, a key academic book on several populist variants, calls this “politicians’ populism.”33 It’s a cynical scam, but one with a history of short-term success in political contests as the means of one set of elites unseating the faction of elites currently running the government. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco called this a “selective…qualitative populism” and warned that there “is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Thus we now have Trumpism: the use of right-wing populism to mask the fascistic demonization of targeted groups.

Although they can look similar, right-wing populism is distinct from fascism. As the University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, an internationally-recognized expert on global right-wing movements, told the Washington Post in an article on Trump, “The key features of the populist radical right ideology—nativism, authoritarianism, and populism—are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.”34

Mudde, author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, sees Trump’s ideology and rhetoric as comparable to several European movements,35 particularly Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Danish People’s Party. These right-wing populist movements flirt with fascist themes, but are not full-blown neofascist movements, although they share many similarities in terms of exclusionary rhetoric, organic nationalism, and nativist bigotry.36 The trickiest part is that many scholars now see right-wing populism as a building block of neofascist movements. Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation facing a crisis. Fascism is the last resort of those in power trying to maintain control.

Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation.

Terminological distinctions matter because some of the strategies and tactics we craft while organizing against a right-wing populist movement must be categorically different from organizing to block the rise of a totalitarian fascist state.

To challenge the current wave of vicious anti-democratic attacks in the United States we must study the forces that have unleashed them as well as determine the exact moment in history in which we struggle against them. People’s lives may depend on it.

As fascism builds toward grabbing state power, the situation quickly unravels.37 Sporadic attacks and acts of terrorism against the named scapegoats become more frequent and widespread. People need to focus on organizing around physical self-defense. This is not that moment. Things are bad, but not as bad as when Weimar collapsed into the hands of Hitler and his thugs.

During a period of right-wing populism, as we are experiencing now, the focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump. Millions of White people seem to be having panic attacks in the face of the changing racial demographics of our nation. Our task is to build citywide and even neighborhood coalitions to defend economic and social equality. The coalitions must be multi-issue and cross boundaries of race, gender, class, age, ability, and more.

The focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump.

Suzanne Pharr, author of In the Time of the Right, talks about “divisions that kill.”38 By keeping us divided, the defenders of the status quo have an easier time exploiting us. She suggests that in the current political climate, organizers must bring the discussion back to the neighborhood level. “We have to get people to talk about what duress they are experiencing and the losses their communities are experiencing. Then we need to talk about what has been stripped away from our community and family support systems.” This is how we can reach out to our neighbors and convince them to “stop blaming poor people and people of color and start looking in the direction of the forces holding us down.”

But be aware that the targeting by our right-wing adversaries is opportunistic and can shift in an instant to reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, the environment, or “tax and spend” liberals. Back in 1994 the main target of the Right was the gay community, and right-wing strategists were using race as a wedge issue to get Black ministers to denounce the “Homosexual Agenda.”

The current crop of Republican candidates includes several active with the Christian Right and their agenda to curtail reproductive rights, force gay people back into the closet, and make women handmaids to male supremacy. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina makes wildly inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood and Jeb Bush is beating the militarist war drums with a frenzied ad campaign. Behind these candidates are millions of dollars of donations from wealthy “Free Market” fanatics pushing “neoliberal” policies to gut government services and cut taxes for the rich.

No matter who becomes the Republican candidate for President in 2016, the damage is already being done, and it is increasingly harming a range of scapegoated targets. This is a new political and social moment. Republicans have used bigoted rhetoric in the past, but anger has grown as buying power and status have shrunk among many Whites. This is producing a more virulent strain of White Nationalist nativism and masculinist rage.

Why Are These People So Angry?

The crowd listening to Trump’s stump speech in Massachusetts this October cheered his attacks on Mexican immigrants. The supporters my partner and I spoke with were fed up with the status quo, suspicious of President Obama, and very much liked Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Cleary not everyone. Trump supporters are angry. They resemble the folks in the film Network, who were told by a raving demagogue to open their windows and shout: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”39 This is the quintessential right-wing populist primal scream. Who is kicking them down the ladder of success? Someone has to be blamed for turning their American Dream into a liberal, “politically correct” nightmare.

When Trump uses the phase “politically correct” he is using a concept re-engineered by the Right in the 1980s as a way to silence activists demanding equality for traditionally oppressed peoples and groups in the United States. This is similar to the propagandistic use of terms such as “radicalization” and “extremism” to demonize dissent on both the Left and the Right.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Trump’s rhetorical propaganda is aimed at appealing to a growing base of angry and frustrated White middle and working class people. In a script broadcast by Trump ad nauseum, he is telling them who to blame for their slipping economic, political, and social status. According to sociologist Rory McVeigh, people who join right-wing movements tend to be convinced they are losing or about to lose status, power, or privilege in one or more of three civic arenas: economic, political, or social.40

We have seen exclusionary, repressive, or right-wing populist movements in the United States before. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was cheered as a champion of “the people” even as he kept Black people in chains and forced the Cherokee nation out of their ancestral homeland to make room for White pioneers.41 After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan launched a murderous wave of violence against freed slaves and their supporters in the South. The large populist movements of the late 1890s began as an overwhelmingly progressive force, seeking economic fairness and curtailing the abuses of economic elites, but some supporters later turned their anger against Jews and Blacks. The backlash against the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s frequently used populist-sounding conspiracist rhetoric, suggesting that communists and Jews were stirring up otherwise happy Black people in order to prepare the United States for a takeover by the Soviet Union. The presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan were built using clear and coded right-wing populist appeals to a White nationalist base.42

In more recent history, the rise of the Tea Party exemplified right-wing populism, as an angry constituency was mobilized back in 2009.43 The Tea Party idea originated with supporters of uber-libertarian Ron Paul, but the franchise was scooped up by conservative billionaires who funded trainings and rallies around the country. Over time Christian Right activists played a leading role in local Tea Party groups, shifting the focus to a toxic blend of nativist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric coupled with homophobia and antiabortion propaganda.44 Now the Tea Party grassroots is heavily populated by White nationalists.45 This is Trump’s voter base.

Folks who support the Tea Party and other right-wing populist movements are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society. These are primarily middle class and working class White people with a deep sense of patriotism who bought into the American dream of upward mobility.46 Now they feel betrayed. Trump and his Republican allies appeal to their emotions by naming scapegoats to blame for their sense of being displaced by “outsiders” and abandoned by their government.

Emotions matter in building social movements. The linkage of emotion and politics are at the heart of a forthcoming book by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author Arlie Hochschild. In it, Hochschild reports on many conversations with Tea Party members in the South, where the movement is strongest.47 Many she spoke with long doubted that Obama was American; even after the publication of his long-form birth certificate some still suspect that he is Muslim and harbors ill will toward America. Hochschild also observes that this set of beliefs was widely shared among people who otherwise seemed reasonable, friendly, and accepting. How she wondered, could we explain this?

Her premise is that all political belief

is undergirded by emotion. Given the experiences we’ve undergone, we have deep feelings. These shape our “deep story.” And this is an allegorical, collectively shared, “honor-focused,” narrative storyline about what “feels true.” We take fact out of it, judgment out of it. A “deep story” says what happened to us from the point of view of how we feel about it.

The “deep story” of the Tea Party is that the American Dream has leveled off. Ninety percent of Americans between 1980 and 2012 received no rise in salary while dividends from a rising GDP rose dramatically for the top 10 percent.

Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the one percent has enriched itself while pushing most of us into a downward spiral of exported jobs, lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and tax breaks for the wealthy. Government social services such as public health and food stamps have been slashed. Public works projects, from bridges to sewers, have been gutted. Shifting tax dollars to private charter schools has strangled public education, the keystone of democracy. This has been happening in communities of color for decades. Now it is front-page news because research shows it is devastating White working class and even middle class communities.48

Amid a rising gap between the rich and poor, the middle has been pressed out—especially blue-collar men, the bottom of the middle. Their search for other sources of “honor”—what Hochschild feels is an underlying crisis among Tea Party members—has also encountered resistance, and they have met with criticism, insult, and injury, from upper-middle class liberals who look down on them as “rednecks.”

Most Tea Party supporters feel the government is allowing them to be shoved aside, displaced, dispossessed, and disrespected by newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants who they don’t see as proper citizens (no matter their legal status).

Trump is popular among many Tea Party movement activists, although national leaders are remaining coy in terms of an endorsement.49 The Tea Party and Trump conspiracy theories feed off each other, and bolster a sense that there is a plot to disempower White people.

Trump and other Republican candidates capture their hearts and minds by telling them their anger is justified and then point them at scapegoats rather than the institutions that have failed them. A culture permeated by the legacies of White supremacy leads the White middle and working class to blame their real downward mobility on people of color and “non-White” immigrants, and in that way reproduces both structural racism and the class-based power of the one percent.

Much of this rhetoric, like Trump’s, began as a specific attack against Mexicans and Latinos, but it keeps expanding. There is a “Trump Effect increasingly sweeping through the country,” warned immigrant rights activist Pablo Alvarado, Director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network.50 For example, after the Paris attacks a number of Republican governors banned all refugees from entering their states.51 The Puente Human Rights Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix quickly responded with a statement declaring, “Scapegoating and xenophobia don’t make us safer.”52 But the attacks aren’t only coming from the Republican Right. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, is now criticizing immigrant-sheltering sanctuary cities.53

The center of the entire political spectrum in the United States is being shifted to the Right. The political views of today’s “centrist” Democrats resemble the views of many Republicans during the Nixon administration. White voters have been maneuvered into choosing White racial privilege over their own economic security. This explains the question asked in Tom Frank’s 2014 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?54 In 2015, the same mass base cheers Trump while he is mobilizing resentment. That tactic, which Jean Hardisty explored in her 1999 book of the same name,55 is a longtime part of right-wing politics in the U.S. But now, as demographers predict that the majority of the U.S. will be non-White by the middle of the century, the existing emotional response behind that resentment is getting stronger.

From Analysis to Action

The debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage. The current wave of right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold strategies and tactics as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

Debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage.

Trump is a political performance artist portraying the psychological Id of the American Dream. He unleashes the fearful and angry feelings of people who live in a society run as a zero sum game requiring the successful to climb up over those labeled as inferior. So as the old “Liberalism” consensus collapses from the center while the Right is on the rise, what do we do?

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future. At the same time we need to put pressure on backsliding liberals who now have the space to abandon justice for unauthorized immigrants and other targets of Republican venom.

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future.

Activists need to build broad and diverse local coalitions that tactically address local issues while strategically linking them to national struggles. Building broad, inclusive, and egalitarian coalitions is hard. Bernice Johnson Reagon is a progressive scholar, singer, and activist. She helped found the women of color a Capella vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon advises that, when doing real coalition building, “Most of the time you feel threatened to the core, and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”56

There are times when liberals and progressives can form alliances, but it can be frustrating. PRA’s founder, Jean Hardisty, explained this in her essay My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism. At times when the Right is a growing threat and the Left is weak, she argued, “liberal reforms have to be defended. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril…and like it or not” progressives must “work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors” in a “united front against the agenda of the Right.”57 Also keep in mind the right-wing backlash is a coalition that has fissures and cracks that can be wedged apart. We need to analyze and take advantage of the stress cracks in any right-wing coalition while making sure in our coalition work these strains are openly discussed and resolved honestly and equitably.

The late progressive activist Audre Lorde reminded us that there is “no hierarchy of oppressions.” Race, class, and gender issues are all complex and related, and no single form of oppression trumps another. That’s why the concept of intersectionality is so important. All systems of oppression need to be unraveled. Currently the focus is on the hierarchies of power and privilege that maintain the system of oppression on which this nation was founded: White Nationalism. That’s the primary text and subtext of the Trump campaign rhetoric. At the center of our struggle today is the idea of a “White Race”—which in scientific terms is nonsense. But in terms of the struggle we face, “Whiteness” is at the center. There is a White Race in the minds of millions of Americans. Whiteness is a social, cultural, political, and economic fact.

Right now we need to be organizing against right-wing populist scapegoating, especially racist White Nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken. We all need to be engaging in struggles in our local communities, schools, workplaces—even on the supermarket checkout line.

White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken.

Back in 2010 as the Tea Party Movement was first brewing, Chomsky raised the example of the Weimar period in Germany as a warning. At a meeting held by Z Magazine, Chomsky fielded a set of questions on how the Left should organize against the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and antigay backlash arising out of the Tea Party.58

“First of all,” he said, “you need to understand it. They say to themselves ‘We work hard, we’re Christians, we’re White…and now They are taking it all away from Us.’”

Chomsky points out that, though often bigoted, these “feelings are genuine…and they have to be dealt with.” Organizing has to be “done in a way which doesn’t frighten people,” that doesn’t “elicit their worst emotions and reactions.” Hochschild’s sociological analyses and Chomsky’s political analysis reinforce each other.

According to Chomsky, we need to pay attention to the feelings of resentment which are “very understandable” from their point of view. You begin by recognizing that their anger “does have legitimate roots. People feel…seriously threatened…people’s way of life is being taken away from them.” It’s not the immigrants who should be blamed, however, but the greed of the financial sector, Chomsky says.

And when organizing, “You don’t want to brazenly flaunt in front of people your attacks on their values.” You need to help them understand that their values should lead them to tolerance instead of hate. Chomsky was asked how activists can build a successful movement. He replied to the whole room, “We all know how…by education, by organizing, by activism.”


Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, has written scores of scholarly and popular articles on human rights, fascism, and right-wing movements. He served as a researcher at Political Research Associates for 30 years, and is creator of Trumpism.usAn expanded set of resources is being updated at Research for Progress.


Endnotes:

1 Correspondence with author.

2 Chomsky first raised the issue of Weimar at a lecture at Left Forum in New York City. Another Chomsky lecture mentioning Weimar presented at the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin is available as a transcript, http://chomsky.info/20100408/

3 Shaun King, “King: Donald Trump shows he’ll do anything to appeal to his racist supporters,” New York Daily News, (updated) November 22, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/king-trump-hits-new-racist-tweet-article-1.2443413

4 Affan Chowdhry, “Trump leads in polls despite gaffes,” The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2015. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/trump-leads-in-republican-race-despite-gaffes/article25516246/.

5 Washington Post, “Fact Checker” column, July 8, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/.

6 Edward Helmore and Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump’s ‘sexist’ attack on TV debate presenter sparks outrage,” August 8, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/09/megyn-kelly-donald-trump-winner-republican-debate.

7 David Leopold, “The shocking reality of Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions, MSNBC, 09/15/15. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/donald-trump-shocking-reality-deportation-plan

8 Lauren Carroll, “In Context: Donald Trump’s comments on a database of American Muslims, November 24th, 2015, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/nov/24/donald-trumps-comments-database-american-muslims/.

9 Jason Stanley “Democracy and the Demagogue, Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web, The Stone, October 12, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/democracy-and-the-demagogue/

10 The Guardian,New York Times slams ‘outrageous’ Donald Trump for mocking reporter’s disability,” November 26, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/26/new-york-times-outrageous-donald-trump-mocking-reporter-disability.

11 Jenna Johnson and Mary Jordan, “Trump on rally protester: ‘Maybe he should have been roughed up’,” November 22, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/22/black-activist-punched-at-donald-trump-rally-in-birmingham/.

12 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

13 http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/22/politics/donald-trump-black-lives-matter-protester-confrontation/

14 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

15 Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated: Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now, The New Yorker, “The Political Scene,” August 31, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated.

16 Adele M. Stan. 2015, “A Nation of Sociopaths? What the Trump Phenomenon Says About America,” American Prospect, September 9, 2015. http://prospect.org/article/nation-sociopaths-what-trump-phenomenon-says-about-america.

17 Paul Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany,” Section: The Fragility of Democracy, (Weimar Republic Readings): four essays (Brookline, MA, Facing History and Ourselves, no date), https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/readings/choices-and-consequences.

18 Ibid.

19 Interview with the author, December 9, 2015.

20 Robert Reich, “Why Hate Speech by Presidential Candidates is Despicable,” November 29, 2015 http://robertreich.org/post/134235925280.

21 Ibid.

22 Rick Perlstein, “Donald Trump and the ‘F-Word’: An unsettling symbiosis between man and mob,” Washington Spectator, September 30, 2015. http://washingtonspectator.org/donald-trump-and-the-f-word/

23 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 6-9. Terms explained in right sidebar here: http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

24 Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin, Use and Abuse of Media in Vulnerable Societies, Special Report 110, Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace. October 2003, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/websites/usip/www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr110.pdf, (accessed 26/9/2012). Although an excellent study, the report is flawed by the failure to include a single footnote. See also Kofi A. Annan, Allan Thompson, and International Development Research Centre of Canada, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2007).

25 Chip Berlet. 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2014). Excerpts at http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/scripted-violence/.

26 Chip Berlet, “Trump a Fascist?” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/trump-a-fascist/.

27 Chip Berlet, “Mussolini: The Fake Quote,” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/mussolini-fake-quote/

28 Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), “The Doctrine of Fascism,” in Enciclopedia Italiana (1932); Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), The Doctrine of Fascism (Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1935), this was the official English translation of the article in the Enciclopedia Italiana;  Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (Rome: ‘Ardita’ Publishers, 1935), an expanded version of “The Doctrine of Fascism.” A discussion of the use of the fake quote is at

29 Hannah Arendt,  The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951). See also: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

30 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993).

31 Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, translated by Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); See also regarding Nazi Germany as sacralized politics: David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2005); Klaus Vondung, The Apocalypse in Germany ( Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2000). An expanded bibliography is at http://tinyurl.com/toxic-mix.

32 Chip Berlet and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000) http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

33 Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt, 1981).

34 Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,“ Washington Post, The Monkey Cage, August 26, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/08/26/the-trump-phenomenon-and-the-european-populist-radical-right/ .

35 Cas Mudde. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

36 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

37 Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany.”

38 Suzanne Pharr, “Divisions that Kill,” in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995) http://www.publiceye.org/eyes/div_kill.html.

39 Network, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky (Hollywood, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1976), Full quote at Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/quotes.

40 Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell. “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000 (American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 2014): 1144-171; Rory McVeigh, “Ku Klux Klan activism in the 1960s is linked to the South’s swing to the Republican Party, London School of Economics, the LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy, December 17, 2014, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2014/12/17/ku-klux-klan-activism-in-the-1960s-is-linked-to-the-souths-swing-to-the-republican-party/.

41 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, pp. 40-46; Google Educational Resources, “Jacksonian Era: Populism,” online resource, https://sites.google.com/site/jacksonianera/Home/populism.

42 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

43 Chip Berlet, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement.” In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2014); Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015, online report, (Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2015). http://www.irehr.org/2015/09/15/the-tea-party-movement-in-2015/.

44 Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment,” in Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (Farnham and London: Ashgate, 2014).

45 Burghart and Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015.

46 Scher and Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment.”

47 The book is tentatively entitled Strangers in Their Own Land: a journey into the heart of the right, (New York: The New Press, 2016)

48 Michelle Chen, “Now White People Are Dying from Our Terrible Economic Policies, Too,” The Nation, November 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/now-white-people-are-dying-from-our-terrible-economic-policies-too/ Chauncey Devega, “Dear White America: Your working class is literally dying—and this is your idea of an answer?” Salon, Nov 6, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/06/dear_white_america_your_working_class_is_literally_dying_and_this_is_your_idea_of_an_answer/.

49 S.A. Miller, “Donald Trump enjoys support of tea party movement that refuses to fully embrace him,” The Washington Times, November 22, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/22/donald-trump-enjoys-support-of-tea-party-movement-/.

50 Pablo Alvarado, “Reaction: L.A. Sheriff Reverses Course on Jail Deportations,” National Day Laborers Organizing Network, September 22, 2015 http://www.ndlon.org/en/pressroom/press-releases/item/1165-reaction-l-a-sheriff-reverses-course-on-jail-deportations

51 Scott Oathout “Gov. Ducey calls for immediate halt of new refugees to Arizona” KVOA Television, Nov 16, 2015 http://www.kvoa.com/story/30529819/gov-ducey-calls-for-immediate-halt-of-new-refugees-to-arizona.

52 “Puente Responds to AZ Gov. Ducey’s Announcement on Refugees,” Puente Movement, http://puenteaz.org/press-releases/puente-responds-to-duceys-announcement-on-refugees/.

53 Courtney Coren, “Dianne Feinstein Under Fire for Sanctuary City Bill,” August 3, 2015http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/Dianne-Feinstein-sanctuary-city-bill/2015/08/03/id/665214. Newsmax is a right-wing website cited here to encourage touring the page to review the rhetoric.

54 Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004), http://www.whatsthematterwithkansas.com/.

55 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/books/.

56 Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1983, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000. See also http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/publications.shtml.

57 Jean Hardisty, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism,” The Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities), in the Brown Paper series, March 1996. Republished with permission by Political Research Associates, 2015 http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/24/my-on-again-off-again-romance-with-liberalism/.

58 Chomsky’s comments are assembled by the author from a transcript of a videotape of the event. He was speaking at Z Magazine’s Media Institute (for progressive journalists). Video: “What Went Wrong: A Q & A with Noam Chomsky,” a Z Video Production. Chomsky confirmed these are still his views in an e-mail to the author.

Who was behind Michigan GOP’s one-two punch against LGBTQ working families?

As 2015 winds to a close, Michiganders–especially working people and LGBTQ folks–are reeling from right-wing assaults on both their pocketbooks and their civil rights. I am referring to the one-two punch of new laws passed during the summer legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder. These new laws effectively roll back decades of progress made by community and labor organizing in the state; at the same time, they represent dots along a disturbing trend line that people in many other states need to see more clearly in order to avoid the same fate.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan
(photo via Flickr courtesy of Michigan Municipal League)

First, the one punch: Dubbed the “death star,” HB 4052 is a state preemption, or local interference, law passed by the legislature that bans cities from enacting their own laws governing wages and benefits. (Note: although the original bill would have banned cities from passing LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances, that provision was stripped out.) Signed in June by Gov. Snyder, the new law blocks cities in Michigan from enacting living wage laws, mandating paid sick days, or passing laws on any other workplace-related issues. Such interference with local control is becoming more common. It may come as a shock to some readers that nearly all states have already done away with cities and towns’ ability to pass local gun control laws; not quite as many states have blocked local control of tobacco, e-cigarettes, and environmental regulations, but this is indeed a trend that organizers can no longer ignore. In these states, an organizing victory in a single city is at risk of being preempted by state law. (A clickable map of such laws is available here, although it may not be completely up to date.)

The second punch to hit Michiganders during this summer’s legislative session was a statewide religious freedom restoration act, or RFRA law, that awards adoption agencies the right to claim a religious exemption from having to serve LGBTQ couples. Though it is narrower in scope than a much broader failed RFRA bill that would have allowed any individual or business to claim the right to discriminate against LGBTQ persons because of a “sincerely held religious belief”, the adoption RFRA will have a chilling effect on LGBTQ families in the state.

With the help of a researcher based in Western Michigan, PRA looked into what groups and funders were behind this one-two punch in the Wolverine State. What we found: Although there are two separate sets of right-wing groups lobbying for the anti-local control law and the RFRA laws, they share an important common funder: the DeVos family, billionaire founders and heirs of the Amway fortune.

Although there are two separate sets of right-wing groups lobbying for the anti-local control law and the RFRA laws, they share an important common funder: the DeVos family, billionaire founders and heirs of the Amway fortune.

Michigan provides us with an instructive lesson in how the Right can deploy a multi-pronged policy strategy. In the case of the local interference “death star” bill, the Corporate Right used its corporate lobbying groups to lobby noisily for the bill. The groups that spoke in favor of the bill and are part of the public record were the National Federation of Independent Business, Associated General Contractors of Michigan, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to research by the Lansing-based Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the National Federation of Independent Business had spent $202,036 on lobbying in Michigan for the first seven months of 2015 while the US Chamber of Commerce spent $64,000 on lobbying during the same time period.

Dick and Betsy DeVos  (Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

Dick and Betsy DeVos
(Grand Rapids Press File Photo)

At the same time, though, the DeVos-funded Michigan Freedom Fund, which is run by DeVos family operative Greg McNeilly (who ran Dick DeVos’ failed 2006 campaign for governor), pushed hard behind the scenes for the local interference bill. The vote for the bill ultimately split along party lines, with a handful of Republican lawmakers opposing it in both the House and Senate. With a GOP majority, this meant the bill passed, and Governor Snyder signed it with gusto.

The newly enacted RFRA legislation would mean that a child placing agency (for adoption or foster care) could not be required to provide any services if those services conflicted with the agency’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” contained in a written policy, statement of faith, or other document adhered to by the agency. This applies also to referrals made by the Department of Human Services for foster care management or adoption services under a contract with the department. An agency could decline such referrals. Those wanting to limit LGBTQ couples/families from adopting in Michigan have been proposing similar legislation since 2005.

This includes the DeVos family, as well as the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. The Princes, who made their fortune in auto parts manufacturing, are another politically active ultra-wealthy Michigan family. One of their sons is Erik Prince, founder of the defense contractor/security firm Blackwater. And with Betsy DeVos as a daughter, the political alliance between the two families remains strong.

Several members of the two committees that helped write the adoption RFRA laws received contributions from individuals or organizations that are hostile towards LGBTQ rights and equality.

Several members of the two committees that helped write the adoption RFRA laws received contributions from individuals or organizations that are hostile towards LGBTQ rights and equality. Rep. Kathy Crawford and Senator Tom Casperson both received $9,000 in support from the DeVos family, and Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R), who introduced HB 4188, received $8,100 from the DeVos Family, according to research by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. This may not be a shock to those from Michigan, who know the DeVoses are the most politically active donors in the state in recent years. But the DeVoses also funded some of the groups, such as Michigan’s largest adoption agency Bethany Christian Services, that lobbied hard for the adoption RFRA: the most recent 990 documents (2013) for the Richard & Helen DeVos Foundation show that they contributed $250,000 to Bethany Christian Services. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation provided $25,000 to Bethany in 2013.

Another group that lobbied for the adoption RFRA was Michigan Family Forum, an affiliate of CitizenLink, the state policy network of the Family Research Council. Michigan Family Forum used its longstanding connections to Christian Right politicians and networks across the state to mobilize voters and lawmakers to support this set of bills. Major donors to the Michigan Family Forum in recent years include the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation, which contributed $15,000 in 2014.

The DeVoses, and to a lesser extent the Princes, have their thumb on the scales of public policy in Michigan. But what does this mean for other states? Where else are these ultra-wealthy political donor families pushing to stop towns and cities from exercising their democratic right to local control? And where else might they be trying to stop LGBTQ people from gaining more human and civil rights? PRA is looking into these and other questions; watch this space for more.

Jeff Smith contributed research and writing to this report.

“Faith-Washing” Right-Wing Economics: How the Right is Marketing Medicare’s Demise

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.
Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

If you have worked all your adult life and are now receiving Medicare health benefits, you may be vexed to find that the third-largest federal program1 may not cover everything you need. Indeed, as PBS reported in July, “Medicare certainly does not cover long-term custodial care in nursing homes or other institutional settings.”2 Despite its limitations, the federal benefit program remains among the most popular government initiatives in U.S. history, even among Tea Party Republicans, who found a rallying cry in one South Carolina man’s infamous 2009 demand to establishment politicians: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”3 A 2011 Marist poll showed that 70 percent of those identifying themselves with the Tea Party opposed any cuts to Medicare.4 More recently, an April 2015 poll from Reuters/Ipsos showed that 80 percent of all Republican voters opposed cutting either Medicare or Social Security.5

Medicare’s broad popularity presents a problem for conservative candidates who are racing each other to eliminate the program as we know it. Some politicians want to cut Medicare as a means of shrinking the welfare state; others want to redirect Medicare’s vast payroll deduction revenues into the hands of private corporations. (Private contractors already administer at least one category of Medicare benefits.6)

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

Either way, following the demise of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—helped along by Romney’s mocking of poor and working class voters as “entitled” “victims”7—conservatives from across the ideological spectrum have been in search of a new marketing strategy: one that downplays the take-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich foundations of their policies. Whether and how factional disputes between the Tea Party’s “Freedom Caucus” and the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives can be managed remains to be seen. As William Greider recently wrote8 in The Nation, “The party can’t deal with the real economic distress threatening the nation as long as rebellion is still smoldering in the ranks. Of course, that suits the interests of the country-club and Fortune 500 wing of the party—the last thing they want is significant economic reform.”

In the throes of this turmoil, the free market or “country-club” conservatives are test-marketing a new brand: a Christian-inflected, contemporary remix of the 1980s’ and ’90s’ “compassionate conservatism.” Even as candidates like Jeb Bush (who wants to “phase out” Medicare9), Sen. Marco Rubio (a Florida Republican who has said he wants to raise the retirement age10), and former candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (who proposed cutting $15 million from his state’s Medicare program11) sharpen blades to slash retirement security, a chorus of voices preaching Christian love and generosity toward the poor is rising from two groups whose connections with each other are not widely understood—the Christian Right and what we might call the free market fundamentalists.

Though this new brand may be meant to appeal to those—including many Christians—uncomfortable with rhetoric that demonizes vulnerable people, conservative groups pushing this new poverty narrative aren’t breaking with free market and Christian Right leadership. They have no plans to redress income inequality. Instead, responding to internal pressure from both the Tea Party Producerist Right (whose “makers and takers” frame blames both the undeserving poor and liberal elites as drivers of a system that takes from “real,” productive Americans) and external pressure from the economic populist Left, the Christian Right and free market fundamentalists are changing the packaging on their long-shared policy agenda12 of cutting the government benefits on which vast numbers of people rely.

During this primary season, right-wing populists such as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin have grabbed headlines with the racist implication that everyone who isn’t a “maker” is to blame for keeping the United States from greatness. From a public relations standpoint, this sort of unrestrained demagoguery—dangerous as it is – could polish the shine on the relaunch of compassionate conservatism. But when we turn down the volume on these deliberately offensive antics, it becomes easier to recognize how the new right-wing slogans about poverty pose a serious threat.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Neoliberal conservatives like Bush, neoconservatives such as Rubio, and free market libertarians like Walker benefit from the decades-long Christian Right re-education of Evangelical voters, around half of whom now believe that capitalism is a Christian system.13 These politicians make the demolition of seniors’ retirement security seem like a tragic inevitability, as uncontrollable as the weather, rather than the political choice that it is.

An early election-season example of this narrative came from Jeb Bush in a July 22 interview, in which he argued that Medicare should be preserved for those already receiving the benefit, but “we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something—because they’re not going to have anything.”14

But Jeb’s concerns amount to crocodile tears. As Trump parades through city after city, spewing hate-filled rhetoric, Bush coolly explains how he will enact policies that will cause millions of future seniors to become destitute. By the standards of progressive economic populists, there are no “good guys” among the current roster of conservative candidates. They may differ on message and tactics, but as historian Geraldo Cadava wrote of Bush in a September essay in The Atlantic, “do not mistake his moderate tone, performance of goodwill, or marketability to Latino voters for an entirely different message than his cruder primary opponents.”15

Whose safety net?

“It’s time to declare peace on the social safety net,” announced Arthur C. Brooks, president of the free market think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), at Georgetown University’s May 12 Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, before calling the social safety net “one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise.” Sharing the stage with Brooks were Robert Putnam, a best-selling author and Harvard political scientist whose latest book examines the diminishing prospects for economic mobility in the U.S.16; veteran Washington Post political commentator E.J. Dionne; and President Barack Obama.17 But Brooks did not mean to express approval of direct government benefits such as Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, TANF, and food stamps. Instead, his declaration of “peace” was the opening gambit for a broader argument to weaken these highly popular government programs.

“The safety net should be limited,” Brooks said, “to people who are truly indigent, as opposed to being spread around in a way that metastasizes into middle class entitlements and imperils our economy.” Brooks did not mention that AEI scholars spent the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s publishing commentaries and reports pillorying people who apply for public assistance.18 Perhaps the most famous of these scholars is AEI’s W.H. Brady Scholar Charles Murray (coauthor of the noxious 1994 tome The Bell Curve), whose 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, provided the intellectual basis for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which effectively ended the federal welfare system. Murray’s arguments helped shape the myth of the “welfare queen.” (“Poor, uneducated, single teenaged mothers,” he wrote, “are in a bad position to raise children, however much they may love them.”) Brooks’ comparison of government aid to metastatic cancer echoed those earlier waves of AEI antagonism.

It also underscored an implied threat. Brooks went on: “If you don’t pay attention to the macro-economy and the fiscal stability you will become insolvent. And if you become insolvent you will have austerity. And if you have austerity the poor always pay.” Such statements help make the increasingly precarious middle class fear that government direct aid programs that help their fellow citizens will lead to an economic tailspin. And if Brooks and his peers can effectively frighten the middle class away from defending the social safety net, there will be no constituency left that is strong enough to defend it.

But what will certainly remain are the largely invisible government aid programs for the wealthy and corporations: the billions in public subsidies that allow businesses to profit. That’s the cruel irony at the heart of free market fundamentalism. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler wrote in her 2011 book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, privatizing social welfare programs can appear like a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and, as such, part of a Reaganite reliance on market-based policy. “Yet, in fact,” she wrote, “such policies function not through free market principles of laissez-faire but rather through public subsidization of the private sector.”19 Because the gigantic subsidies Mettler describes primarily benefit the wealthy corporations that support conservative think tanks such as AEI, conservative intellectuals like Brooks never talk about cutting them. 

Cloaking cruelty with catchphrases

Brooks’ threat of austerity may appear less directly racist than the “bad parent” attacks on African Americans that Murray and others used to pass welfare reform during the 1990s.20 Instead of demonizing the poor outright, this time around Brooks melds Christian rhetoric with economic-speak to offer a more paternalistic, “colorblind” characterization.

“Every one of us made in God’s image,” he said, “is an asset to develop.”21 Brooks is vague about how poor Americans (whom he describes as “the least of these, our brothers and sisters”) can become “assets” in a capitalist sense. But he seems convinced that free enterprise will save them from poverty. Brooks concluded his Georgetown remarks, “That’s a human capital approach to poverty alleviation.” In his recent book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, Brooks expands on this Christian-lite evangelizing about the sacredness of work: “Work with reward is always and everywhere a blessing.”22

So, instead of welfare or government jobs, Brooks is proposing that work in the private sector will help poor people lift themselves out of poverty. Jeb Bush expressed a version of this idea at a Republican women’s event in late September, saying, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration…It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message…says you can achieve earned success.”23 But this strategy has already spectacularly failed, particularly for communities of color. In a May 2015 New York Times article, Patricia Cohen reported how African Americans who used to be able to make a middle-class living at government jobs have increasingly fallen into more precarious economic situations as their agencies have been privatized.24

Brooks’ use of “brothers and sisters” and “the least of these,” is just one example of how neoliberals have been adapting their language to better appeal to conservative Christians in recent years. The Christian Right has become such an important part of the conservative firmament that other factions of the Right are often obliged to cast their arguments in religious terms, weaving religious ideas directly into mainstream policy debates. And the most glaring example of this shift is that, whenever the public discourse turns to a criticism of income inequality, Corporate and Christian Right intellectuals turn to their new narrative: one that laments the existence of poverty while at the same time prescribing mythic free market capitalism—rather than jobs programs or tangible government supports such as Medicare—as its cure.

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia // Need to confirm if this is also Gage Skidmore

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo: Wikimedia

The billionaires’ Christian scholars

Conservative billionaire2s who have invested hundreds of millions in the U.S. political system, such as the Koch brothers, the Kern family, the DeVoses, and others, now fund a caravan of Christian social scientists, theologians, and scholars to serve as their free market evangelists. The most high-profile of these wealthy backers are the Koch Brothers; not only has AEI received funds from both the Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Trust (a dark-money organization that allows wealthy donors to give anonymously to conservative causes25), but David Koch also served on AEI’s National Council as recently as 2014.26

Brooks and other Christian free market surrogates use biblical language sanctifying the “dignity of work” and the entrepreneurial spirit, and craft slogans to market the Corporate and Christian Right policy goal of dismantling retirement security and health coverage for seniors. But many conservative donors want more than a catchphrase; they also expect a return on their investment in politics. They also want access for themselves to the largesse of the state. Christian Right groups have been working with free market groups since the 1980s to shrink government programs for the needy and move the funds from these programs into the hands of unaccountable, private religious charities.27

Writers in this magazine and elsewhere have documented this trend of ending direct government aid to the poor and elderly in favor of private charity, starting with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and continuing to the “compassionate conservatism” that WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky helped brand for President George W. Bush.28 As Bill Berkowitz wrote for The Public Eye in 2002, “Stripped of alliteration, ‘compassionate conservatism’ is the political packaging of the Right’s long-term goals of limited government, privatization, deregulation and the creation of a new social contract.”29

One tool that “compassionate conservatives” invented for redirecting state funds into private hands was the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. PRA has reported on this office’s funneling of federal grants to religious nonprofits under Bush, and on its continued lack of transparency and accountability under Obama.30

In the Georgetown panel discussion with Obama and Putnam, as well as in his book The Conservative Heart, Brooks updated compassionate conservatism to draw a sharp divide between what he considers the legitimate “safety net” and the abuse of it in “middle class entitlements.” “Help should always come with the dignifying power of work,” Brooks said.

Perhaps hearing Brooks’ remarks as yet another version of the Right’s attack on government assistance programs, Obama responded with a defensive question, asking, “What portion of our collective wealth and budget are we willing to invest in those things that allow a poor kid, whether in a rural town…in Appalachia or in the inner city, to access what they need both in terms of mentors and social networks, as well as decent books and computers and so forth, in order for them to succeed?”31 Obama was giving Brooks a chance to show his support for equality of opportunity for all people, not just for corporations. Brooks offered no response.

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Charity vs. collective action

Free market neoliberals from both sides of the aisle have not historically concerned themselves with the problems of the poor. Indeed, as the late political scientist Jean V. Hardisty and Northeastern University law professor Lucy A. Williams pointed out in their 2002 essay, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” the New Right coalition that brought Ronald Reagan to power popularized the idea that there were fewer people living in poverty than government data showed, and that anyone still in need of aid after Reagan’s implementation of supply-side economic policies, such as tax cuts for businesses, was simply abusing the system. “As a result of a decade of message development,” Hardisty and Williams wrote, “the Right was able to augment the justification for the elimination of federal social programs; they should be defunded not simply because they tax our paychecks, but because they destroy recipients’ character.”32

But conservative Christians have a more complex relationship to poverty. Care for the poor is unquestionably a central tenet of Christ’s teachings, and free market ideologues know that even the most profit-motivated Christian has been taught to give back a percentage of his or her income and time to those in need. Christian Reconstructionism33 and its “softer” counterpart, Christian Dominionism, the intellectual movements that undergird much of the Christian Right,34 offer a set of solutions for how a Christian government should treat the poor. As religion scholar Julie J. Ingersoll writes in her 2015 book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, many of these “solutions,” which are rooted in a strictly literal interpretation of God’s law in the Bible, have filtered into the policy platforms of conservative political figures, most notably Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum.

According to the Reconstructionist and Dominionist worldview, only the elect, or God’s chosen few in the church, get to govern.35 These elect see it as their duty, Ingersoll writes, to “transform every aspect of culture to bring it in line with [the] Bible.”36 This follows from a Calvinist interpretation of the Bible, which posits that only the elect will get into Heaven.

“Retirement is not a Biblical concept. That is a pagan concept.” – Tea Party “Historian” David Barton

A recent example of this vision came in a July 6 video interview that self-styled Tea Party “historian” David Barton gave,37 in which he helped amplify the conservative chorus for cutting Medicare. “Retirement is not a Biblical concept,” Barton said. “That is a pagan concept.” Barton seems to be in favor of doing away with retirement altogether. But despite this hardline—and surely unpopular—position, Barton’s political star appears to be on the rise. In September, Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz hired Barton to lead his superPAC. Time will tell whether Barton can parlay his grassroots Tea Party network into votes for Cruz.38 But with Barton granted such an influential platform, other Christian Dominionists will likely be emboldened to promote their version of biblical government.

Faith-washing inequality

Since even a shrunken, limited government would have to remain as part of a Dominionist transformation, in recent years the Christian Right has had to address the sticky question of how government should behave toward the poor—especially within the context of unfettered global capitalism. In other words, how can the Christian Right reconcile Christ’s admonition in Matthew 25:40 to care for “the least of these” with a system of global capital that allows the one percent to hoard trillions while 16.4 million U.S. children are living in poverty?

Enter the Koch brothers and Christian free enterprise. As Peter Montgomery wrote in The Public Eye’s Spring 2015 issue, “The Koch brothers, who describe themselves as libertarians uninterested in social conservatives’ culture wars, are more than willing to use Christian Right voters as well as mountains of cash to achieve their anti-government, anti-union ends.”39 Through the use of obscurely-named trust funds such as Themis, ORRA, and EvangCHR4,40 the fossil-fuel tycoons have established the Christian free market think tank Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (IFWE), which has set about resolving this area of potential tension between the Corporate and Christian Right.

Koch-funded theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

Beyond advocating simple charity, IFWE theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies—the preordained, saved “elect” vs. the rest of us41—with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, an economist and former advisor to Charles Koch,42 offers the fullest version of this argument, writing in a recent paper, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist?,”43 that people are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.”

Much of Bradley’s theological justification for this claim rests on her Calvinist interpretation of the Bible’s “Parable of the Talents,” and how it provides for what she calls “a diversity in income.” Also known as The Parable of the Bags of Gold, Matthew 25:14-30 tells of three servants and their master, who, before departing on a journey, leaves the servants to guard his wealth. To the first, he gives five bags of gold. To the second, he gives two. And to the third, only one—“each according to his ability.” Upon his return, he finds his first two “good and faithful” servants have invested and doubled the amount of gold that each was given. The third buried his master’s gold in the ground and naturally retrieved only what was given to him. This servant, who merely saved the money, was chastised as wicked and lazy, and sentenced to be thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

People are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.” – IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, former advisor to Charles Koch

Bradley sees in this parable a lesson about God-granted “diversity in abilities,” which in turn justifies and normalizes income inequality. Those who gain wealth have done so because they applied their God-given abilities. Those who have not lack the ability to do so. Bradley’s interpretation also rationalizes the perpetuation of income inequality because, had the master “given each man an equal amount, putting equality over ability,” Bradley writes, “he would have squandered his resources” by limiting his potential profits. (AEI’s Arthur Brooks echoed this point in a July interview with The Christian Post, saying, “I think Christians, in particular, can design their own thinking about politics around the 25th Chapter of Matthew, and thinking about people with less, and especially people with less power.”4546)

Using the Parable of the Talents to inform policy decisions is just the latest in a long series of Christian and Corporate Right intellectual projects. Marvin Olasky emphasized the importance of the business-faith alliance in a 2010 essay titled “Prophets and Profit,” in a Heritage Foundation anthology called Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty. “Social conservatives who revere the Bible can learn much about how to apply it from economic conservatives who share a realistic outlook,” he wrote. “Economic conservatives also can learn from biblically motivated conservatives the importance of ethical and other non-economic factors in determining economic success.”47

And for those who find themselves on the short end of the “talents”- and profits-stick? For those, Bradley and fellow IFWE theologian Art Lindsley prescribe charity, citing Proverbs 14:30 in their book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty: “whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” But they make clear that the Bible’s instructions for people don’t apply to governments, or government aid.48 Such arguments help set the table for political debates that devalue the role of government and make it easier for conservative politicians to carve into programs such as Medicare.

Christian free enterprise has thus made significant inroads in policy circles. The “bad guys” in their poverty narrative may have changed; they are no longer the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era so much as liberals accused of a “lack of civility”49 for calling free market capitalists greedy, or progressives labeled fiscally irresponsible for refusing to cut Medicare. But the narrative follows a familiar formula—one that Jean Hardisty identified in her 2000 book Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers: “skillful leaders recruiting discontented followers by offering simple explanations, complete with scapegoats, for their resentments.”50 We can see the progress this new coalition has made when even the President of the United States is compelled to defend the country’s continued investment in established public benefits on a stage with the head of the American Enterprise Institute.

SIDEBAR: Jay W. Richards: The Free Market's Culture Warrior (click to expand)

One of the “skillful” leaders—as PRA founder Jean Hardisty characterized right-wing strategists who mobilize conservatives’ resentment against poor people and communities of color—who has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream press is Jay W. Richards, a conservative Catholic who currently holds an assistant research professorship at The Catholic University of America’s School of Business and Economics. Richards has been a guest lecturer at the anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council as well as a former visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Richards, who earned his Ph.D in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, has also worked stints as a fellow at other right-wing think tanks, including the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, where he edited a book defending creationist curricula. He has authored around half a dozen other books, including the 2009 Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem.63 From his current perch at Catholic University, Richards now focuses on the Christian defense of free market capitalism.

When he isn’t building bridges between the Corporate and Christian Right, Richards is a culture warrior. He expresses transphobic, homophobic, and anti-abortion views on his social media pages. On April 10, he posted an article bearing a photo of concrete gargoyle-demons on his Facebook and Twitter pages with the caption, “The subject few are willing to broach: The Attack on Marriage Is Diabolical”—a suggestion that the devil is behind the push for same-sex marriage. On May 24, he snarked on Facebook and Twitter about the news of the Boy Scouts allowing gay troop leaders by commenting, “Sticking a crow bar in the Overton Window” next to the article title, “‘Be Prepared’: ‘Gay Men’ with Boy Scouts in Tents,” equating openly gay Scout leaders with sexual predators entering Scouts’ tents.

More recently, though, Richards has shifted his emphasis from social and cultural sniping to economic and political issues. The Christian Right is increasingly turning to Richards as a thought leader on reconciling biblical economics with homophobic, white nationalist-tinged Producerism.

Moment of opportunity

Christian Right politicians sometimes acknowledge a personal wish to help the poor. Former Virginia Congressmember Frank Wolf, speaking at an AEI event in May 2013, offered such a platitude: “I am compelled because of my faith,” he said, “to have compassion for the weak and vulnerable in our midst.”51

Working class and poor people form a diverse grassroots base that can mobilize to win political power; they may not be quite as “weak and vulnerable” as Wolf supposes. Leaders on the Right have in some ways learned to harness this power. While the 2008 economic crash led, on the Left, to the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin pro-labor uprisings of 2011 and 2012, the Tea Party used populist anger over the economy to marshal White working-class voters to sweep the state and federal legislatures in 2010. But after Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential campaign, following his tone-deaf comments about working Americans “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,”52 conservative candidates are working harder than ever to appeal to working-class voters.

As historian Bethany Moreton, author of the 2009 book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, has observed, Tea Party leaders gained ground by building a voter base through local town hall events and involvement with White cultural institutions such as conservative churches and corporations like Walmart. Because Tea Party populism included Christian free market principles among its broadly shared core values, it has been difficult for dissenting Left groups such as the union-backed Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and the Fight for 15 movement to disrupt Tea Party populism with a call for better treatment of workers. Thanks to Walmart’s cultural innovation of “blending Christian service ideals with free market theories,” Moreton has written,53 the company has given rise to an entire low-wage workforce in the retail sector that prefers Christian ideas about charity to collective action or government reform. “The same retail workers that progressive unions sought to organize,” writes Moreton of Walmart’s exponential growth in the 1970s and ‘80s, “report that they are more likely to turn to God for help on the job than to a union, a feminist organization, or a government agency.”

But where there are still unions, the grassroots political power of the working class still militates toward the Left. In the face of a jobless recovery and historic inequality, economic justice arguments are making an impact. The 2009-2014 decline in median wages across all income groups,54 along with high-profile demonstrations by low-wage workers, has left the Corporate Right politically vulnerable. An August Gallup poll showed that one in five U.S. workers worry they will have their hours and wages cut at work (up from the teens before the 2008 recession).55 Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer: between 2009 and 2012, one study showed that the top one percent captured 95 percent of total income growth.56

Even in non-union regions and sectors of the workforce, movements for economic justice have gotten more sophisticated, sometimes with an analysis that appeals to Christians. The North Carolina-based Moral Mondays movement, for example, has built a robust activist base through progressive pastors and faith leaders calling for broad-based economic justice, investment in public education, and an end to inequality. Further, about a year ago, the Fight for 15 fast-food campaign began involving home care workers,57 who represent a workforce, two million strong, of mostly low-wage women, immigrants, and people of color. Although home care workers’ campaign for public support—a moral appeal called Caring Across Generations—has been underway for years, they had never before combined forces strategically to stand with other low-wage workers. The marriage of a bad mood among the voting public with effective economic justice organizing has created a moment of opportunity for mass political mobilization.

Whose vision will prevail?

Industrialist donors are not waiting around for the Christian Right to step in and help them sell their policy agenda of dismantling government benefits. Instead, as demonstrated above, they have begun recruiting—and funding—experienced Christian scholars and public relations experts to make their case in the media and on college campuses. The Koch-funded IFWE is one center for this activity; so is the Foundation for Economic Education, a project of the ultraconservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy run by libertarian leader Lawrence Reed58; and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that takes aim at mainline churches with funding from neoconservative and Christian Right groups.59

But their victory is by no means assured. Communities of color who were pilloried and thrown off the welfare rolls under President Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act were, it turns out, the canaries in the coal mine. Now, most of the White workforce finds its wages cut; many have had to go on food stamps or apply for other benefits. Indeed, 40.2 percent of 2013 food stamp recipient household heads were White60; in addition, more than half of 2013 Medicare beneficiaries were White in all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia.61

Now, while Producerist right-wing populists like Trump demonize immigrants and liberal elites as moochers (and worse62), some Corporate and Christian Right leaders are offering another line: that everyone flourishes according to his or her talents. This approach could appeal to those conservative Christians unconvinced by market logic and resistant to the mean-spirited attacks of Trump and the Tea Party..

Christian Right and Corporate Right thought leaders like Barton, Bradley, and Brooks may use gentler language that strikes a chord with some conservatives, but the policies they promote bespeak a different vision. The elitism that undergirds their collaboration is fundamentally at odds with the equality of economic opportunity that liberals, and even some Republicans, hold as a core value.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves.

The coalition of Christian conservatives and free market fundamentalists promotes a vision that elevates property rights—rather than human rights—to the level of sacred principle. With wages continuing to fall even as the business world recovers from the Great Recession, it is clear that enacting policy according to this principle leads to profit for a few, and suffering for many.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves. But there is another way. It is not enough for those who desire economic justice to ridicule or denounce the overtly racist rhetoric of a Donald Trump. Politicians also need to hear a full-throated rejection of the narratives that treat poor people, immigrants, and people of color as “the least of these” or “assets to develop.” Such messages infantilize everyone who may one day rely on widely supported social safety nets; they are also portents of the broader benefit cuts that conservatives hope to enact. Now that billionaires have already purchased many of the mechanisms of democracy, people who do not want a future without programs such as Medicare and Social Security must act quickly to join and strengthen the collective movements that can defend them.


Mariya Strauss is PRA’s Economic Justice Researcher. 

Jaime Longoria contributed research and reporting to this article.


Endnotes:

1 “The Facts on Medicare Spending and Financing,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, July 24, 2015, http://kff.org/medicare/fact-sheet/medicare-spending-and-financing-fact-sheet/.

2 Philip Moeller, “Medicare coverage for aging parents’ care is not nearly enough,” PBS.org, July 22, 2015, www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/medicare-coverage-aging-parents-care-nearly-enough/.

3 Philip Rucker, “Sen. DeMint of S.C. Is Voice of Opposition to Health-Care Reform,” The Washington Post, July 28, 2009, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/27/AR2009072703066_2.html.

4 David Weigel, “Poll: 70 percent of ‘Tea Party Supporters’ oppose Medicare cuts,” Slate, April 19, 2011. http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/04/19/poll_70_percent_of_tea_party_supporters_oppose_medicare_cuts.html

5 Amanda Becker, “Americans don’t like big government–but like many programs: poll”, Reuters, April 30, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/30/us-usa-election-libertarians-idUSKBN0NL15B20150430

6 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Locations 333-335.

7 Molly Moorhead, “Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax,” PolitiFact.com, September 18, 2012, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/sep/18/mitt-romney/romney-says-47-percent-americans-pay-no-income-tax/.

8 William Greider, “Why Today’s GOP Crackup Is the Final Unraveling of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’,” The Nation, Oct. 12, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/why-todays-gop-crackup-is-the-final-unraveling-of-nixons-southern-strategy/.

9Jeb Bush: We Need to “Phase Out” Medicare  [Video] Retrieved September 21, 2015, from https://youtu.be/Ry_fRjLyE68.

10 Jonnelle Marte, “Marco Rubio’s plan to fix America’s Retirement System,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/05/13/marco-rubios-plan-to-fix-americas-retirement-system/.

11 “Walker had proposed forcing tens of thousands of participants in the state program to enroll in private plans through the federal Medicare Part D benefit.” See: Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, “GOP Lawmakers Restore SeniorCare Benefits,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 21, 2015, http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/joint-finance-to-deal-today-with-troubled-wedc-cuts-to-seniorcare-b99504512z1-304551231.html.

12 For a fuller discussion of how free market economic ideologues co-evolved with the Christian Right, see: Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against The New Deal. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

13 Kevin M. Kruse, “A Christian Nation? Since When?,” The New York Times, March 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/a-christian-nation-since-when.html?_r=0 and http://religiondispatches.org/capitalism-and-christianity/.

14 Tara Culp-Ressler, “Jeb Bush Quietly Suggests ‘Phasing Out’ Medicare,” ThinkProgress.org, July 23, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/07/23/3683804/jeb-bush-medicare/.

15 Geraldo L. Cadava, “Will Latino Voters Support Jeb Bush?,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/jeb-bush-inadequate-latino-ties/402748/.

16 As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out, Putnam’s latest book suffers from an unwillingness to confront the root causes of inequality; yet Putnam is still viewed by many as an authority on the subject. See: Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “Lost Opportunity,” Democracy Journal 38 (Fall 2015), http://www.democracyjournal.org/38/lost-opportunity.php?page=all.

17 “Obama at Georgetown: Now is the Time to Invest in Helping the Poor,” Georgetown University, May 12, 2015, https://www.georgetown.edu/news/poverty-summit-2015-with-obama.html.

18 One example of this reviling of the poor can be found in this white paper from an AEI scholar: Nicholas Eberstadt, “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State”, American Enterprise Institute, January 5, 2015, https://www.aei.org/publication/american-exceptionalism-entitlement-state/.

19 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Edition (Locations 410-413).

20 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

21 Brooks is referring to a strain of neoliberal economics that focuses on maximizing what late 20th century economists such as Gary Becker termed “human capital,” or the education and job skills of members of a given population. The human capital of a country is one yardstick that international financiers such as the World Bank uses to measure how developed that country is for the purposes of calculating how much austerity to impose on that country as part of economic restructuring. See: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/1995/03/01/000009265_3970702134116/Rendered/PDF/multi0page.pdf.

22 Arthur C. Brooks, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, (New York: HaperCollins, 2015), 68, http://www.amazon.com/dp/0062319752/.

23 Sean Sullivan, “Jeb Bush: Win Black Voters with Aspiration, Not Free Stuff,” The Washington Post, September 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/24/jeb-bush-win-black-voters-with-aspiration-not-free-stuff/.

24 Patricia Cohen, “Public-Sector Jobs Vanish, Hitting Blacks Hard,” New York Times, May 24, 2015, http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/25/business/public-sector-jobs-vanish-and-blacks-take-blow.html.

25 Andy Kroll, “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement,” Mother Jones, February 5, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/donors-trust-donor-capital-fund-dark-money-koch-bradley-devos.

26 Center for Media and Democracy, “Ties to the Koch Brothers,” SourceWatch.org, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/American_Enterprise_Institute#cite_note-7.

27 Joseph E. Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, (Michigan: Yale University Press, 2008).

28 Ben Koons, “Compassionate Conservatism: An interview with Marvin Olasky,” The Princeton Tory, April 22, 2012, http://theprincetontory.com/main/compassionate-conservatism-an-interview-with-marvin-olasky/.

29 Bill Berkowitz, “Tilting at Faith-based Windmills,” The Public Eye, July 1, 2002, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2002/07/01/tilting-at-faith-based-windmills/#sthash.fLhY6V1P.dpbs.

30 Clarkson, Frederick. “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/.

31 President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Conversation on Poverty at Georgetown University,” The White House—Office of Press Secretary, May 12, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/12/remarks-president-conversation-poverty-georgetown-university.

32 Jean V. Hardisty and Lucy A. Williams, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor, Applied Research Center, Gary Delgado, ed., 2002, http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/articles-chapters-and-reports/the-rights-campaign-against-welfare/.

33 Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War, (Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 1983).

34 Chip Berlet, “The Roots of Dominionism,” Political Research Associates, http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/dom_roots.html.

35 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

36 Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 49.

37 “RWW News: David Barton Says God Opposes Retirement Because It ‘Is A Pagan Concept.’”  YouTube video, 1:55.  Posted by “RWW Blog,” July 6, 2015, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/barton-god-opposes-retirement-because-it-pagan-concept

38 Zachary Mider, “PAC Built by Ted Cruz Mega-Donors Gets Evangelical Leader,” Bloomberg Politics, September 9, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-09-09/pac-built-by-ted-cruz-mega-donors-gets-evangelical-leader.

39 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

40 In an August 22, 2015 blog post at PRWatch, Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy and an expert on the Koch brothers, wrote that EVANGCHR4 “is legally tied to a mysterious limited liability corporation called ‘ORRA LLC,’ which received more than $5 million from the Kochs’ Freedom Partners operation.” Graves also established that Family Research Council Action, the nonprofit arm of the Family Research Council, received funding from EVANGCHR4 between June 2013 and May 2014, when disgraced TV reality star Josh Duggar was head of FRC Action. See: http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

41 Researcher Chip Berlet explained the basis of Calvinist theocracy in this magazine in 2004: “These ‘Elect’ were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God’s wayward children?” See: http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v18n3/berlet_calvinism.html.

42 Lisa Graves, “Josh Duggar-led Group Funded via Koch Brothers Freedom Partners Operation,” PR Watch, August 22, 2015, http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

43 Anne R. Bradley, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? – Part Two,” Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, June 5, 2012, http://tifwe.org/resources/income-inequality/part-two/.

44 Ibid.

45 Napp Nazworth, “Arthur Brooks: Conservative Policies Help the Powerless, Christians Can Lead the Way (Interview),” The Christian Post, July 15, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/arthur-brooks-conservative-policies-help-the-powerless-christians-can-lead-the-way-interview-141520/.

46 Contrary to the teachings of the “prosperity gospel” popularized in the mid-2000s, this version of Christian capitalism says that those of any faith, not just Christianity, can become wealthy. Where Prosperity Gospel held no hope for non-Christians, this defense of inequality encourages the listener to aspire: if I have the right skill sets and abilities, I too can one day “flourish,” or amass wealth.

47 Marvin Olasky, “Profit: Prophets and Profit,” in Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty, (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2010), 41.

48 Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, Eds., Forward by Arthur C. Brooks, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), http://www.amazon.com/For-Least-These-Biblical-Poverty/dp/0310522994#reader_0310522994.

49 Jim Wallis and Jay Richards: The Common Good and the Church. YouTube video. Posted by “Henry Center,” July 6, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnV7jvroX6U.

50 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 12.

51 “Competing Visions of the Common Good: Rethinking Help for the Poor,” American Enterprise Institute, May 23, 2013, http://www.aei.org/events/competing-visions-of-the-common-good-rethinking-help-for-the-poor/.

52 David Corn, “Secret Video: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters,” Mother Jones, September 17, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/secret-video-romney-private-fundraiser.

53 Moreton, Bethany and Voekel, Pamela. “Learning from the Right: A New Operation Dixie?” in Katz, Daniel and Greenwald, Richard A., eds., Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 26-36.

54 National Employment Law Project, “Occupational Wage Declines Since the Great Recession,” NELP Data Brief, September 2015, http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Occupational-Wage-Declines-Since-the-Great-Recession.pdf.

55 Rebecca Riffkin, “One in Five Employed Americans Worried About Wage Reduction,” GALLUP.com, August 31, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/185000/one-five-employed-americans-worried-wage-reduction.aspx.

56 Estelle Sommeiller and Mark Price, “The Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2012,” Economic Policy Institute, Jan. 26, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/income-inequality-by-state-1917-to-2012/.

57 “Mr. Reed runs Mackinac (pronounced MAK-in-aw), the largest of the right’s state-level policy institutes. The center started its training program eight years ago, and it has alumni in nearly every state and 37 countries, from Uruguay to Nepal.” See: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/17/us/politics/17thinktank.html?ex=1321419600&en=3b6af3fbfa4ff01e&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss%C2%A0&_r=0.

58 Frederick Clarkson, “The Campaign to Undermine Pro-LGBTQ Churches,” Political Research Associates, March 29, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/29/the-campaign-to-undermine-pro-lgbtq-churches/#sthash.tmXZsvUY.dpbs.

59 Alissa Scheller and Arthur Delaney, “Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/28/food-stamp-demographics_n_6771938.html.

60 The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Distribution of Medicare Beneficiaries by Race/Ethnicity,” http://kff.org/medicare/state-indicator/medicare-beneficiaries-by-raceethnicity/#map.

61 Jen Hayden, “Trump supporters behaving badly, several immigration activists assaulted at rallies,” Daily Kos, September 14, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/09/14/1421139/-Trump-supporters-behaving-badly-several-immigration-activists-assaulted-at-rallies.

62 Kyle Mantyla of Right Wing Watch reviewed Money, Greed, and God in 2010, and summarized its premise: “As Richards explains, any inequality that results from unrestricted, deregulated free trade is part of God’s will because the entire system of free market capitalism is God’s means of working his will in the world.” See: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/random-book-blogging-money-greed-and-god.

 

GOP Lawmaker Reveals ALEC-style Group Pushing Model Anti-Worker Bills

Co-authored by Eli Lee

Even as ALEC, the infamous bill-mill that produces right-wing model legislation for state lawmakers, hemorrhages corporate members and is discredited as a neutral voice in politics, other groups are adopting its tactics. PRA interviewed one conservative California lawmaker who said that SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, has begun using ALEC’s playbook to court lawmakers and push anti-worker policies.

Pictured left to right: CalSHRM Director-elect Patti Blosser, California Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee), SHRM A-team Captain Hector Moncada and Mike Letizia, CalSHRM’s state director.

Pictured left to right: CalSHRM Director-elect Patti Blosser, California Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee), SHRM A-team Captain Hector Moncada and Mike Letizia, CalSHRM’s state director.

SHRM, which PRA has reported on in recent months, has spent several years building a lobbying infrastructure on the state level, and—especially in California—it is seeing those efforts bear fruit in the form of close relationships with lawmakers and legislative victories over organized labor and workers’ rights.

SHRM deploys its full-time lobbyists and nationwide network of member lobbyists to push back against any expansion of the overtime laws that would ensure workers putting in more than 40 hours actually receive their due overtime pay. They’re also fighting against paid sick days laws (which have repeatedly been shown to have a low-cost public health benefit to employers, workers and communities), and against any expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). For example, in 2013, SHRM testified against a proposal in Pennsylvania that would have allowed workers to use unpaid FMLA leave to care for their ailing siblings as well as parents or children.

Now, it appears that SHRM is not only opposing workers’ rights, but it is also taking a page out of the ALEC playbook and beginning to use model bills.

California Assemblymember Brian Jones, a Republican from eastern San Diego County, spoke with us about how SHRM’s lobbyists are not only advocating for employer-friendly policies, but are actually offering legislation to lawmakers to change workplace rules to give employers more control over their employees. According to Jones, the association for human resources professionals engages in intense lobbying to try to tilt the public policy playing field more in employers’ favor.

“The first step is they contact my office, and they ask if I would be interested in sponsoring the legislation, and if I say yes, then we introduce the legislation,” says Jones.

“We change the language a little bit … we really tried to package it as an employee bill, so that it benefits employees, whereas previously it had been packaged as an employer bill.” -CA Assemblymember Brian Jones

According to Jones, in recent years these efforts have included working on a bill that would relax the overtime rules to allow for an”employee-selected” schedule of ten hours a day, four days per week instead of five eight-hour days.

Workers’ rights advocates have pointed to two types of problems that could arise from such legislation.The National Partnership for Women and Families cautioned that workers might be coerced into adopting this schedule, explaining that “employers would be able to implement this schedule without any obligation to pay overtime.” Teamsters Joint Council 7 of California agreed in a statement, saying that “This would allow an employer to circumvent the 8-hour day as long as an individual employee ‘voluntarily’ agrees to work more than 8 hours without overtime pay. We know how this would go in workplaces where workers are routinely exploited … everybody would be forced to work extra hours and nobody would be paid overtime.”

Another potential problem with AB 1038 was that it could introduce confusion about which workers are eligible to receive overtime pay, potentially undermining the more stringent federal laws governing the right to receive overtime. “We opposed it and so did the California Labor Federation and other unions,” said Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work & Family Coalition. “It is what we in the work-family world call ‘bad flex’ because it is designed to chip away at overtime rights. A lot of employer groups support ‘flex’ that benefits employers more than workers.”

But with the help of Corporate Right lawmakers such as Jones, SHRM managed to spin this bill, deceptively called the Workplace Flexibility Act, as a boon to workers. Jones introduced the bill in its present form in 2012 and 2013, but it has yet to pass. Jones said that even before 2012, he and SHRM already had support from “the different pro-business associations” for the bill. “CalChamber—California Chamber of Commerce, they’re the big one, CMTA, the manufacturer’s association… a lot of the associations are helping out with it.”

Jones described how SHRM and lawmakers market such bills to Democrats and others in the CA legislature who may be more labor-friendly. “We change the language a little bit,” Jones says. “The main thing that we did in 2012, compared to prior attempts at the legislation, is we really tried to package it as an employee bill, so that it benefits employees, whereas previously it had been packaged as an employer bill. So that’s kind of how we were able to get more press this time and more notice from interest groups who hadn’t taken a look at it before.”

SHRM has recently taken a lead role nationally on other workplace policy issues, siding firmly with the employer community against workers’ right to unionize and earn overtime. As PRA reported in July, SHRM has pressured the Department of Labor to stop promulgating its new rule expanding overtime protections to a greater number of workers. And in California, according to Jones (who says he is a member of ALEC himself), SHRM is actively working the statehouse, promoting bills that would restrict workers’ rights and leave them open to employer abuses. “There’s lots of conversations that take place between their legislative director and my legislative director, on tactics and how we’re going to get it publicized, how we’re going to get it noticed by the members, who’s going to talk to which members about getting votes, and that sort of thing,” Jones said.

One may not think of a professional association for human resources specialists as having ALEC’s level of access to, and influence over, lawmakers. But, if California is indicative of how SHRM lobbies nationwide, SHRM does appear to be moving in that direction.


Eli Lee is a junior at Harvard University, currently studying history. He was a PRA research intern during the summer of 2015, investigating labor rights and economic justice.

The Long Hurricane – 10 years later

It’s been ten years since the Category 3 hurricane named Katrina came ashore in Louisiana, causing over 1,800 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. Five years after the storm, Political Research Associates published the below piece in The Public Eye magazine as a recap of how the U.S. Right had used Katrina as leverage to institute new neoliberal policies. A public hospital that had served the majority of the emergency services for low-income New Orleans neighborhoods was torn down in favor of a much more expensive facility (which opponents dubbed “The Taj Ma-Hospital”). Public schools were shuttered in favor of a charter school system that today boasts some of the lowest educational levels in the country. Union teachers were effectively banned from the system as the State took advantaged of the cheap labor provided by well-meaning young college grads who were flocking to New Orleans to help after the storm. The state also leaped at the opportunity to gentrify some poor neighborhoods, relocating the former residents to various upper-middle class areas where they could be “taught” to live “better.”

Ten years later, New Orleans remains a Black-majority city, and tens of thousands of its working-class citizens have returned in spite of all the exclusionary obstacles and dangers. Movements to re-establish the public schools, health system, and affordable housing are opposing privatization and continuing to organize. Yet many are still battling Hurricane Katrina – a storm that hasn’t yet ended. The storm waters may have receded, but as Darwin BondGraham wrote for us five years ago, the tidal wave of Economic Right policies has yet to retreat. -PRA

The Long Hurricane

The New Orleans Catastrophe Predates Katrina

By Darwin BondGraham, Nov 1, 2010

Members of Survivors Village, an organization of displaced New Orleans public-housing tenants, and their supporters occupy the Columbia Parc rental office in June 2010.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the “federal flood,” as locals call the disaster, the new New Orleans is as much the product of decades of antiwelfare ideology in local and national governments as it is of the unique circumstances of the disaster. Since the storm, a resurgent racist business elite has gained power in the city and region, and instituted a new era of urban renewal—or, as community activists termed it the first time around, in the 1960s, “Negro removal.” Privatization of New Orleans’ public sector has proceeded to a degree that real estate, banking, and industry leaders in other regions only dream of. Federal disaster subsidies have enabled reinvestment in the state’s major economic sectors—oil and gas, shipping, military, and tourism. Characterized by low wages and ecocidal byproducts, these industries dominate state and city politics. Yet New Orleans is held up as a model of redevelopment, its innovations made possible by an unfortunate storm called Katrina.

Concurrent with this neoliberal economic project is a neoconservative cultural project, the goal of which is to remold impoverished Blacks and other underclass people—who are portrayed by the redevelopers as living in a pathological state of dependency, turned into irresponsible burdens on society by decades of failed big government—into “productive citizens.” Foundations both liberal and conservative have converged on New Orleans to experiment with housing, schools, parks, and economic development.

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HR Lobbying Group Leading the Charge Against Labor Department’s Overtime Expansion

With few exceptions, it’s been decades since U.S. employers have had to sit across the bargaining table with their employees’ unions. Now that workers have less ability to protect their own interests, they are more vulnerable to the tricks businesses use to extract ever-greater profits from them, such as wage theft, forced overtime, and other abuses.

Meanwhile, employers and their corporate lobbying groups such as the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), have grown used to squeezing the most productivity out of the lowest-paid workers—without much interference. They have, either by stacking the regulatory agencies and Congressional committees with corporate insiders (such as former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao), or by presenting themselves as neutral experts on policy instead of industry shills, so successfully managed to kill any new rules or regulations on industry that they profess shock and bewilderment when one manages to get proposed.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

When the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule on June 30th to expand the pool of workers eligible to receive overtime pay, the Partnership to Protect Workplace Opportunity(PPWO), an ad-hoc (or Astroturf) coalition of employers’ lobby groups chaired by SHRM (pronounced Sherm), had its lawyers draft a letter of shock and dismay, requesting that the DOL extend the comment period for the rule to give employers more time to respond to it.

It was almost a believable performance.

SHRM: Not just a professional association

SHRM, which PRA profiled back in March, is part of the nexus of dark-money corporate lobbying groups blanketing Washington, D.C. and statehouses with talking points and testimony to kill almost every proposed workplace regulations. Though the PPWO doesn’t list any leadership on its website, SHRM revealed in a memo to its members dated November 10, 2014, “SHRM is chairing the Partnership to Protect Workplace Opportunity.”

So far, SHRM has hesitated to publicly take the lead on many anti-worker measures, preferring to allow more overt union-busting groups (such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association) to come to the fore on public policy. But, with its claim of a membership base of 275,000 human resource professionals, and a multi-million dollar lobbying operation since 2007, SHRM has invested eight years and millions of dollars carefully positioning itself as a neutral, expert authority on workplace-related policies. Yet it uses its influence in Congress to push for measures that may are so blatantly anti-worker, it might even surprise its own human resources members, such as using the appropriations process to defund the National Labor Relations Board—a fight that is indeed coming to pass as of this writing.

They are also actively lobbying to halt such basic protections as the Labor Department’s new rule to raise the threshold for who is considered “exempt” from making overtime pay. (The new rule would extend overtime protections to nearly 5 million workers, who for years have been stuck in an exception meant for high-paid executives and working 50-60 hours every week without any overtime pay.)

In anticipation of such an expansion under the regulate-and-enforce watch of Wage and Hour Division chief David Weil, SHRM has been door-knocking around Capitol Hill and in statehouses, pitching its own legislation to address American workers’ chronic overwork problem—but worker advocates say SHRM’s bill would actually drive down wages.

Replace overtime with “comp time?”

The “comp time” legislation that SHRM supports would benefit employers at the direct expense of workers. In 2012, members of SHRM’s Alabama chapter visited D.C. to meet with members of their state’s Congressional delegation. The following year, Republican Alabama Congresswoman Martha Roby introduced the Working Families Flexibility Act—a bill that would allow employers to offer workers comp time credit (where workers who put in over 40 hours per week earn credit hours to later use as leave) instead of overtime pay. The bill has no enforcement provision to ensure that workers would get anything for working over 40 hours in a week. (Similar bills were previously submitted by Republicans in 1997 and 2003.)

Congresswoman Roby specifically mentioned SHRM’s support has having been “instrumental” in the effort to pass the bill. And although the bill died in the Senate that year, Roby once again reintroduced it in early 2015 with SHRM’s support.

SHRM knew that the DOL was likely going to begin cracking down on this abuse of workers sooner or later. In November 2014, SHRM expressed its worry that the DOL might revise the overtime exemption rule in favor of paying workers more, couching its concern about how complex the law might become when it said in a statement:

“The current FLSA regulations present practical challenges when classifying positions…Rigid FLSA regulations also make it difficult for employers to provide workplace flexibility to nonexempt employees. Substantial changes to the overtime regulations could further limit workplace flexibility for employees.”

But the DOL’s new rule couldn’t be simpler, even for the smallest employers.  Employees may not be considered exempt from overtime unless they make at or above the 40th percentile of all full-time salaried employees ($921 per week, or $47,892 for a full-year worker, in 2013). If an employee makes less than that,  you will have to pay them overtime for working more than 40 hours per week. What is more, you have to pay them overtime even if they make above the 40th percentile unless they are executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, or computer employees.  Application of these criteria for exempting workers from overtime is called the “duties test.”

The new rule will serve to remedy the current situation, with workers making only $455 per week, or about $23,000 per year, being considered salaried and exempted from overtime eligibility. The fact that the exempt salary level has been stuck at this amount since 2004 means that a huge number of people are being expected to work more than 40 hours per week without any additional pay. Under the new rule, employers might be less cavalier about assigning people to come in to work on weekends or stay after hours. (While the salary threshold is definitely being raised, the DOL says it wants input from the public on whether it should change the duties test; it has opened a public comment period that will remain open until Sept. 4 of this year.)

The “regulated community” strikes back? 

SHRM’s astroturf group PPWO’s July 13 request for an extension of the comment period is transparent in its outrage at the Labor Department for having the gall to require that employers pay overtime.  What is clear in the letter is that PPWO interprets the term “workplace flexibility” to mean “flexibility in the law for employers to do as they please.”

“The Partnership’s members believe that employees and employers alike are best served with a system that promotes maximum flexibility in structuring employee hours, career advancement opportunities for employees, and clarity for employers when classifying employees. The DOL’s proposed regulation…would dramatically impact the ability of the Partnership’s members to maintain that flexibility and clarity.

“The proposed massive increase to the salary level—more than doubling the current level—is far higher than the Partnership anticipated…”

Several times in the letter, the PPWO refers to itself as “the regulated community”. This is an interesting lens through which to view the DOL’s action, which was done to update the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act in favor of giving overtime pay to more workers—not to put employers’ priorities in the foreground.

Yet having their priorities pulled into the spotlight appears to be exactly what the SHRM-led coalition expected from the DOL. The letter angrily concludes:

“The Department could have used the substantial input it received during the 15 months it spent considering the President’s directive to develop a…proposal that was…reflective of the input it received. Instead, it issued a proposed rule that it could have just as easily issued 14 months ago.”

Such posturing shows that employers have grown unaccustomed to government enforcing and updating labor law to protect workers. But given the crisis in U.S. employment, with unions in decline, wages stagnating, and workers being expected to grow the economy by working ever longer hours and increasing their productivity, it is past time for government to do just that.

Eli Lee contributed research to this article.

White House Fails to Reveal Faith-Based Initiative Budget, Though Some Agencies Will Share Theirs

President Obama may not have continued George W. Bush’s over-reliance on religious organizations to carry out the functions of government. But six years into the “most transparent administration,” the activities and budget of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships remain troublingly opaque.

“If the body of Christ is gonna raise its hand and strike a blow against poverty, against disease…then I want that hand to hold within it every tool at its disposal, including the tool of a servant-led government. And that’s the job of my office.” That’s how Joshua DuBois, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Barack Obama’s first term, described the role of this executive office. Today, 13 federal agencies—including the U.S Departments of Education, Labor, Justice, and Homeland Security—are home to faith-based centers that redirect millions of public dollars to religious organizations. These faith-based liaison offices serve a variety of functions for religious organizations in communities, including: offering information and technical assistance for accessing government grants, providing training opportunities, and connecting these organization with schools, businesses, prisons, and more.

In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama promised

In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to make faith-based initiatives more transparent and accountable.

But it is the White House Office that has drawn the most scrutiny, since that is where the President defines the executive branch’s relationship with religious organizations. Since their inception, faith-based initiatives have served as a means for the government to funnel public dollars to private religious organizations, raising (in some cases) issues of transparency and church-state separation. My look into this historically controversial office, now run by religious liberty scholar Melissa Rogers, reveals that unfortunately—as far as transparency is concerned—little has changed.

In a July 2014 article for The Nation, journalist Andy Kopsa exposed a continued basic lack of transparency under Obama, as well as some revelations about what alarming activities this lack of transparency has kept hidden. Political Research Associates senior fellow for religious freedom, Frederick Clarkson, also researched some dangerous implications of the faith-based privatization of public services in The Public Eye magazine last year. Kopsa and Clarkson’s work raised questions about the White House Office’s use of federal tax dollars and potential violations of both federal law and the idea—foundational to the nation—of the separation between church and state. Though the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is still funded, there is little evidence that Obama is delivering on his promise to make faith-based partnerships accountable or transparent. 

What Is the Office’s budget? 

In order to find out the current budget for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, I contacted the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute. In an emailed statement, Communications Associate Anthony Martinez replied, “We don’t have the information you requested, nor do any of our experts know of any kind of published source where it can be found.”

I also called the White House’s Budget Review Division and spoke to a representative who promised to promptly return my call. After leaving several further messages, however, she never got back in touch.

The faith-based liaison offices within the Cabinet were more responsive to my requests. Hoping to track down concrete budget information, I emailed all 14 faith-based centers, housed within 13 executive branch agencies and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“We don’t have the information you requested, nor do any of our experts know of any kind of published source where it can be found.”

I received one return-to-sender error message (the listed email address for Josh Dickson, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce Center for Faith Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, leads nowhere), and of the 13 emails that were delivered, I received four responses with direct answers to my request. The Centers for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Veteran Affairs, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development all sent me their budgets for 2014 and 2015, which ranged from $339,000 to $1,181,0001.

The remaining nine emails were not answered.

These faith-based centers operate as a liaison between religious and community groups and the federal government. They carry out executive mandates ensuring religious groups have equal access to government grants for public services within the scope of their department. Ultimately, these centers are implementing federal mandates. The drive to deepen partnerships between religious groups and government emanates from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. 

If neither a researcher nor budget policy experts are able to track down basic budget information, what else about the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is unavailable to the public?

The program’s troubled origins 

Explicit partnerships between religious organizations and government began with the passage of “Charitable Choice” legislation as part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act during the Clinton Administration. For the first time, religious institutions could compete for federal grants on an equal basis with secular groups. As Clarkson describes, Charitable Choice was the forerunner to President George W. Bush’s more explicit faith-based initiatives:

“[I]t was the first time Congress gave explicit legislative direction to federal agencies to provide religious institutions with grants and contracts to carry out federal programs on an equal basis with other groups—without requiring that religious groups separate out their religious agendas. Critics presciently observed this risked problematic entanglements between church and state. Even President Clinton was concerned enough to issue signing statements as Charitable Choice provisions were added to federal legislation. On one such occasion, he said that his administration would not ‘permit governmental funding of religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally funded program] activities,’ because such funding would violate the Constitution.”

Just nine days after President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he proclaimed faith-based organizations “indispensable,” and unveiled the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Bush adopted a controversial provision exempting religiously-affiliated grant recipients from federally mandated equal opportunity hiring practices – a matter DuBois described as “entirely unresolved.” President Bush’s exemption for religious groups continues to date.

Even more concerning, the Bush Administration never built any transparency into the Faith-Based Office, nor did it publish evidence of the initiatives’ purported positive impact on the welfare of poor communities.

Then there is the issue of religious influence. During his candidacy, Obama promised that the grant money would not be used to proselytize or discriminate against the people it was supposedly designed to help. But this promised restraint on the part of federal-funded religious groups never materialized. Abstinence-only and Responsible Fatherhood initiatives continue to secure millions in federal dollars. These in turn fund anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers and anti-LGBTQ organizations like the Children’s AIDS Fund, which advocates ex-gay therapy. Unfortunately, as investigative journalist Andy Kopsa found, “an entire federally funded evangelical economy took root during the Bush years, and under Obama it continues to thrive.”

Considering the prickly issue of government and religious entanglement embedded in these debates, the need for transparency into the activities of this office is especially pressing. We are six years into the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration.” Despite the volatile nature of these partnerships and the demonstrated need for public accountability, the President’s promise seems to have failed to materialize for this White House Office.


[1] The four departments that responded to my request provided the following information:

  • Department of HUD Faith- Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $1,170,000
    • 2015: $1,181,000
  • Department of Agriculture Faith- Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $366,983
    • 2015: $373,000
  • Department of Justice Faith- Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $339,120
    • 2015: $344,330
  • Department of Veteran Affairs Faith-Based Office Budget:
    • 2014: $620,000
    • 2015: $479,000

Neo-Confederate South Loses Again – This Time to Free-Market Neoliberalism

After nine Black churchgoers were gunned down in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag is driving a wedge between neo-Confederates and free-market neoliberals.

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

The Confederate battle flag became the banner of the White supremacist South during the desegregation of the 1960s, has since been flown on several Southern state capitols, and has become an emotionally-charged White Southern cultural icon.  In recent weeks, it has become the target of much of the country’s revulsion at the June 17 assassinations of South Carolina state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other Black citizens in a Charleston, South Carolina church.  The removal of the flag from state capitols, and its image from retail store shelves, has sparked some anger among neo-Confederates who want the symbol displayed prominently in civic and popular culture.

Bad for business

Walmart announced June 22 that it would move to take Confederate flag-themed merchandise off shelves, making it the first major retailer to do so. Other retailers, including Sears, eBay, Etsy and Amazon have since followed suit. Yet Walmart is a company based in the South, and has built its corporate culture around conservative Christian values. One could be forgiven for being a bit perplexed by the retail giant’s rush to be first to ban the Confederate battle flag from its supply chain.

In a similar move, albeit with less fanfare, Alabama’s Republican Governor Robert Bentley ordered June 24 that all Confederate flags—including the battle flag—be removed from the state capitol grounds in Montgomery, where they had been flown over a Civil War memorial since 19941. The AL.com news site quoted Bentley’s low-key public statement June 24 after the flags came down:

“Asked his reasons for taking it down and if it included what happened in Charleston last week, the governor said, ‘Yes, partially this is about that. This is the right thing to do. We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with. This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.’”

It is interesting that Bentley mentioned taxes and economics in his statement, rather than simply condemning the flag as a symbol of the South’s violently racist past.

In the case of Walmart, one might well ask what economic or political benefit the company gets from making such a move. In recent years, Walmart has repeatedly done the symbolic “right thing” as long as it can find another way to benefit financially. For example, Walmart announced in February that it would raise the wages of its lowest-paid U.S.-based employees to $9 per hour – a move that turned out to be mostly a symbolic gesture to counteract its anti-worker image. In the case of the Confederate battle flag, vendors are telling the press that the sales of flag merchandise were never enough to justify angering customers who have been outraged by the South Carolina massacre

What is Neoliberalism? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy. - See more at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

WHAT IS NEOLIBERALISM? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy.” – See more at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

With Governor Bentley’s move to take the flag down, and his remarks about having “taxes to raise,” we see that neoliberal politicians in the South are coming to the same conclusion. Alabama is becoming more of a player on the global economic stage, and a threat to that ascendancy has to be taken seriously. Foreign-owned corporations such as Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Airbus all have factories in the state. The Montgomery Advertiser reported recently that such foreign investments in Alabama might not have happened at all if not for the 1993 removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building. “At the groundbreaking for the plant in May 1994, Mercedes-Benz executives told [then Governor] Folsom that it would have been difficult for them to come to Alabama if the Confederate flag still flew over the Capitol.”

Governor Bentley is well aware of the optics.  In fact, travelers on United Airlines in July will find a 32-page supplement in their in-flight Hemispheres magazine titled “Dossier”, which the magazine promises will “examine Alabama’s diverse businesses and industries, and showcase the economies of the state’s major metropolitan regions.” Featured are Alabama business leaders, economic development boosters, and politicians—including Governor Bentley.

Neo-Confederates respond

Neo-Confederates, and others who have nostalgia for the vanquished Confederacy, are unhappy with this targeting of their battle flag. They have rallied in South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida. One Alabama demonstrator, Ronnie Simmons, called Governor Bentley a “scallywag” – a Civil War-era term for a Southerner who collaborated with Northern forces.

Others condemn the recent killings in Charleston, but say they feel the Confederate battle flag is being unfairly scapegoated. The New York Times reported:

“Jack Hicklin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had a knife holster and a handgun in his pocket, came in looking for Confederate flag tank tops after learning that Walmart would no longer carry them.

‘We got all these killings and people are worried about the damn flag?’ he said.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is using the flag controversy as an opportunity to fundraise and to grow its ranks; in recent weeks, it posted a video on its website offering discounted memberships.

Dr. Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate, White nationalist, and theocratic League of the South, goes further in a blog post, laying the blame for the flag’s desecration at the feet of “Southern ‘conservatives’ who blindly follow the Republican Party.” Hill continues, claiming that the GOP “take sincere Southern conservatives (and others) and lead them down blind alleys to render them harmless to the Establishment, of which the GOP is part. Their time, energy, and money is siphoned off into nothing. If this were not so, America would not be a post-Christian cultural sewer and the South’s symbols would not be under attack, largely by Republicans!” Hill’s League of the South has created an armed paramilitary unit, and he has previously called for the formation of death squads.

The disavowal of the Confederate battle flag by Republican politicians such as Governor Bentley or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley could present an opening, or signal a positive coming trend, wherein the mainstream conservative movement breaks its pattern of silence around, and implicit support of, White nationalist violence.  As Naomi Braine, assistant professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, points out in her recent Public Eye article, Terror Network or Lone Wolf?, “Right-wing militants…benefit from the power of mainstream conservatives.”  More specifically, Braine refers to “the conservative politicians and writers who see discussions of right-wing political violence as a threat to their own constituency, downplaying the severity of the threat from the Far Right.”

The Confederacy stood for the preservation of slavery, a violent, dehumanizing economic institution that treated human beings who had been kidnapped from Africa—as well as their descendants—as chattel property. In advocating a return to either a Confederate or segregationist South, neo-Confederates distort the facts about slavery and Jim Crow and, as Braine explains, the perspective they promote helps to create the conditions for a massacre such as the one in Charleston.

But neither let us applaud Bentley and Walmart too vigorously. They acted out of economic self-interest, not out of concern for Black people.  As PRA’s late founder, Jean Hardisty, noted in her 2014 essay in The Public Eye, the neoliberal project of deregulating corporations so they can compete in a free-market race to the bottom on wages has undermined democracy, and produced a present-day underclass of workers around the globe. These workers are paid next-to-nothing, forced to live in squalid and unsafe workcamps, and frequently even forced to leave their home countries in search of work. In its global enterprises, neoliberal capital discards working people, not even registering their human needs in its accounting of overhead costs.

As violent as the neoliberal free-market project is, however, its rejection of the symbols of White supremacist violence could make conservative politicians less comfortable about remaining silent in the face of neo-Confederate and other White nationalist movements.  If this happens, it could be a beneficial side effect of the scorched-earth policies of global unregulated capitalism.

PRA researcher L. Cole Parke contributed to this report.


[1] According to the Montgomery Advertiser, several different Confederate flags have been flown over the actual state capitol since the early 1960s: “Former Governor John Patterson ordered the first national Confederate flag, known as the Stars and Bars, to fly over the Alabama State Capitol in 1961, as part of the Civil War centennial. Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederacy from February to May 1861.”  Two years later, militant segregationist Governor George Wallace ordered the iconic and controversial Confederate battle flag to be raised over the state capitol as well, where the flags remained until 1993, when they were moved to the war memorial.