Inside ALEC's Powerful, Right-Wing Indoctrination Machine
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It was jarring to hear an ALEC speaker discussing public education as a worthwhile social good. This year ALEC's Education Task Force focused on a bill opposing common national standards that would impede state-level privatization, and another pushing for virtual charter schools. For several years until this summer, ALEC's education task force was co-chaired by a virtual school corporation.
That very morning over breakfast, former Democratic U.S. representative Artur Davis addressed the conference on the need for radical "educational reform" and the transfer of vast amounts of public education funds into private hands through voucher programs and for-profit digital education. Davis' ALEC speech doubled as a ceremony marking the completion of the former Alabama Democrat's shift to the right. Davis, who nominated Barack Obama at the party's '08 convention, began his conservative turn after losing his primary race for governor in 2010. Soon he was declaring his support for voter ID laws, which ALEC loves, and contributing to National Review. The audience in Salt Lake welcomed Davis into his new political home, where it sounds like he is preparing to stay busy on the growing education privatization circuit. His education reform talk was extremely polished for a newbie to the cause.
ALEC's efforts to direct important policy shifts on a state level have often received little local news attention, as coverage of state politics has waned due to major budget cutbacks at newspapers around the country. Helping to fill that gap has been the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, an ALEC sponsor and close ally that oversees 55 news sites covering state governments in 39 states.
On the last day of the conference, I returned to the café lobby to interview a new ALEC legislative member named Don Shooter. A farmer by profession from Yuma, Arizona, Shooter won his election as a write-in candidate. He says he hates politics but felt the call of duty. After his election he was naturally drawn to ALEC by a philosophical kinship with the group's limited-government principles. When asked about the role of corporations within the organization, he described corporate power as being "the natural order of things."
"The way that you beat too much corporate or governmental power is to be decentralized," he said. "If the multinationals want to do something crooked, they have to make 50 attempts to be crooked, [instead of] just bribing one outfit. I don't think ALEC is mysterious, or subversive to democracy, the way the Bilderburgers are. ALEC is a way for likeminded people to get together and consolidate approaches to all these problems on a limited-government basis. All we want is to keep the deal in the Constitution. The amazing thing about the founders was that they knew history."
Which is more than you can say for ALEC. The group's dominant propaganda theme, pummeled into conference attendees from the moment they walk in the door, is the appropriation of Jeffersonian federalism in the defense of policies that concentrate national wealth rather than distribute it. At daily award ceremonies (ALEC gives out a lot of awards) small busts of Jefferson are presented to public and private sector Members of the Year for "advancing Jeffersonian principles" -- which really means advancing legislation that reinforces exactly the kinds of power skews loathed by the egalitarian-republican Jefferson.
Jefferson's vision was not ALEC's. He spoke for many of his Revolutionary peers when he hoped that "we shall crush... in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." Jefferson always held a dim and anxious view of the development of powerful commercial interests. Gordon S. Wood, our greatest living historian of the Revolution and early America, writes in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, "To his dying day Jefferson believed that the state legislatures should grant [corporate charters] only sparingly and should be able to interfere with them or take them back anytime they wished."