How A Shadowy Network Of Corporate Front Groups Distorts The Marketplace Of Ideas

20131120-P20001120-PBy Joshua Holland

In 1971, Lewis Powell, who would become a Supreme Court justice the following year, penned a memo calling on the American business community to aggressively engage in shaping the country’s political discourse and regulatory landscape. The “American economic system is under broad attack,” he wrote. He said the time had come to fight back. “Business must learn . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”

For Powell, it was all about organizing and planning over the long-term to sway public opinion and shape public policies. “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations,” he wrote.

As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in their book Winner Take All Politics, “The organizational counterattack of business in the 1970s was swift and sweeping — a domestic version of Shock and Awe.”

The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did. The number of corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of 1980. On every dimension of corporate political activity, the numbers reveal a dramatic, rapid mobilization of business resources in the mid-1970s.

And they didn’t organize only at the federal level. In 1975, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was born in order to take the fight into state houses across the country.

In a democracy, lobbying and writing model legislation isn’t enough. Big business has also invested heavily in shaping public opinion. Last week, two progressive groups, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and ProgressNow, released a report detailing another piece of infrastructure in corporate America’s political war machine. “Exposed: The State Policy Network” shines a light on a network of well-funded, ostensibly independent state-based think tanks that are hard at work undermining workers’ rights and environmental and consumer protections, and establishing a climate in which it’s all but impossible to hold their corporate funders accountable.

Moyers & Company caught up with Lisa Graves, CMD’s executive director, to discuss the report. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.

Joshua Holland: Lisa, let’s begin of a brief overview of what the State Policy Network is and how it operates.

Lisa Graves: We’ve documented, through our work at, how ALEC has been putting corporate bills in the hands of politicians. But there are also these other groups that call themselves think tanks which help push those bills into law. They provide talking points and cooked book statistics to support this legislation, and then they take credit for those bills being introduced and passed. The State Policy Network (SPN) is a group that has flown below the radar for most Americans, and yet it’s extraordinarily influential.

What we’ve uncovered is the extent of this network and how it’s growing. The State Policy Network, cumulatively — between the national organization and all 63 of its affiliates — spent more than $80 million last year to advance the ALEC corporate bill mill agenda.

It’s a huge sum. Just to put this in perspective, it came out recently that the Koch brothers — David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity — spent $122 million last year in the elections, which was a massive amount. And then you realize that beyond the money that was spent in the elections last year, there’s another $83 million going in through the SPN to support their underlying agenda.

Holland: That figure, $122 million, that’s the first post-Citizen’s United presidential cycle, and it was more than all of Americans for Prosperity’s spending in previous years combined. It was a huge amount of money.

Let’s talk a little bit about coordination. These 63 “stink tanks,” as you call them, claim to be totally independent research organizations. But that’s not what you found, is it?

Graves: They’re legally independent, as a technical matter. But as a practical matter, they coordinate very closely. We found that they were using cookie-cutter templates for reports. For a variety of materials that they produce, they basically use the same common national agenda and then paste the name of their organization to try to give it a state-based flavor. A lot of the reports appear that way.

We also document how some of their agenda items work hand-in-glove with both ALEC and Americans for Prosperity. So we traced the way these groups are using similar language to produce the same results, to promote the same legislation in various states.

While they describe themselves as fiercely independent, they work quite closely together. And what they’re doing is moving a pretty extreme agenda that has real-world negative impacts on ordinary working Americans.

Holland: Let’s talk about that. They call themselves nonpartisan. And of course, they are nonpartisan in that they’re happy to have Democrats embrace their agenda as well. But it’s distinctly ideological, right? Can you tell us about the specific agendas that these think tanks are forwarding?

Graves: They describe themselves as nonpartisan. They actually have pretty close alliances with a lot of partisan politicians, and in fact, some of them really brag about how close they are to various legislators, which has gotten them into some trouble in some states. There have been questions about whether they’re complying with state ethics or tax laws.

But on the substantive agenda, it really is quite extraordinary. A number of these groups help advance the climate change denial machine. They have been working most recently on efforts to roll back renewable energy contracts. There are a number of pieces of legislation that they’re pushing to privatize our schools, privatize Social Security and other social programs.

They also have been pushing legislation – and statewide initiatives in some instances — to roll back worker rights, to enact the so-called “Right to Work” legislation in Michigan, for example. The SPN group in Michigan called the Mackinaw Center recently won the top award from SPN for pushing Right to Work into law in Michigan, that longtime union state. It was recognized by two of the richest, most active right-wing millionaires in the country, Richard and Betsy DeVos. And yet, when we pulled the 990 tax forms for Mackinaw for 2012, they reported zero lobbying. But they’re sure as heck credited by some of these billionaire extremists for making that agenda into law in Michigan.