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Bush's Back-door Political Machine

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a longer essay at MediaTransparency.org, which covers the organized radical right.

On a Tuesday evening in mid-January, a right-wing Washington writer-for-hire named Clark Judge appeared on public radio's Marketplace.

In a commentary heard by an estimated five million people, Judge complained that the philanthropist George Soros was engaged in an "unethical" effort to outwit legal restrictions on campaign contributions.

Judge huffed that Soros, along with the Democratic Party, was "ponying up" millions of dollars in funding to tax-exempt, liberal advocacy organizations to prevent the re-election of George W. Bush. He labeled Soros and the Democrats "prime abusers," for using barely legal tactics to evade the contribution ceilings of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law.

Judge was correct when he implied that legal and IRS regulations that are supposed to curb political activities by tax-exempt non-profit organizations are riddled with loopholes. Judge went much farther, though, implying that Soros and the Democrats had cornered the market on cheating. He warned his listeners to "brace...for the biggest tidal wave of political sewage in American history" from these Soros-supported organizations.

In political parlance, Judge was acting as a surrogate. He had no apparent connection with the Bush campaign. But he had struck a blow for Bush's re-election on behalf of the political propaganda machine of the organized right. To the uninitiated, Judge's credentials seemed to lend throw-weight to his attack: managing director of the White House Writers Group, an umbrella firm of former ghostwriters for Republican presidents and bureaucrats now at the service of anyone willing to pay.

But only those in the know would understand the flaws in Judge's statements. He failed to mention that hundreds of tax-exempt organizations of the far right have been exploiting the twilight zone of campaign and IRS regulations for three decades – receiving billions of dollars in grants and contributions to wage ideo-political warfare for far-right ideas, causes, and Republican candidates. Liberal political organizations resort to the same shortcuts, but they pale when compared to the scale and duration of right-wing mischief. Judge is one more cog in a vast machine that, in the judgment of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) has "played a critical role in helping the Republican Party to dominate state, local and national politics." It is now operating at full throttle to keep Bush in office.

Though its activists like to call themselves conservatives, there is nothing they wish to "conserve" beyond their power, status, and wealth. They are right-wing radicals who have stolen the GOP away from the true conservatives who once dominated it.

This constellation of ideology is counter-revolutionary and anti-Constitutional. Its strategic endgame is a one-party state. It dominates the three branches of the federal government, and undermines Constitutional safeguards against rampant power.

In terms of the state power it wields, the activist apparatus of the American far right has a modern historic parallel to its left, the Apparat, the vast web of bureaucracy and radical politics that ran the old Soviet Union. It stood on triangular legs: the dominant Communist Party, the organs of state security, and the military. The organizations that constitute the American model lay down the broad, strategic aims of the governmental wing, the Bush Administration. The third branch, the Republican Party, is limited to serving as a money funnel of campaign cash and election machine on behalf of candidates with the American Apparat's good housekeeping seal of ideological purity.

In a new study called "The Axis of Ideology," the NCRP tracks the funding of the right-wing machine, noting that "it has played a critical role in helping ... dominate state, local, and national politics." The Apparat's activist groups labor from the same page to roll back the gains of center-to-left politics. Its power has tilted American governance, economics, education, social policy, the media, and the law rightward.

NCRP finds that between 1999 and 2001 alone, $253 million flowed to the Apparat's 350 organizations from 79 private grant-making organizations. The Heritage Foundation, the senior cadre of the Apparat, was lead recipient, at $25,500,000. Heritage drew up the main agenda of the Bush Administration and serves as its employment and personnel vetting arm. The NCRP report concludes that the right-wing establishment, fertilized by multiple millions, has "undoubtedly helped to advance, market, and strengthen the conservative agenda in all policy realms," from civil rights to international relations.

The apparatus leads the assault against affirmative action and abortion. Its policy and lobbying operations drive the privatization of Medicare and Social Security. Two think tanks – the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for the New American Century – housed leading planners of the Iraq War prior to Bush's inauguration. They include Lewis I. "Scooter" Libby, now Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff, Richard N. Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, and Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense.

Major media ignore the unitary existence of this hydra-headed force. Thus, it operates invisibly – in the open. Individually, its "fellows" and "experts" deluge op-ed pages, interview programs and talk shows, and produce an unending stream of books and magazine articles. Rob Stein, a Washington researcher who lectures on the activities of the far right, estimates that since 1972, a total of $2.5 billion to $3 billion has flowed to its leading 43 affiliates. He terms these "the cohort, an incubator of right-wing ideological policies that constitute the Bush administration's agenda."

The cohort, he says, is "a potent, never-ending source of intellectual content, laying down the slogans, myths, and buzz words" – such as the myth of the liberal media – "that have helped shift public opinion rightward." Representatives of affiliated far-right organizations hold planning meetings each Wednesday in Washington under ad hoc director Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, to hone strategy, coordinate agitprop, and refine talking points.

The main organs of the Apparat are well known as stand-alone operations. But the public is unaware of the powerful combine of which they're a part. They include the multiple-issue think tanks mentioned above, the Manhattan Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Reason Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy (lobbying for Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy), the Cato Institute (leading the charge for privatization of Social Security), the Lexington Institute (larger defense budgets), the Federalist Society (propounding legal theory for right-wing litigators), the American Legislative Exchange Council (influencing state policies), the Young America's Foundation (student recruiting and training on campuses), and the National Association of Scholars, (assaulting affirmative-action programs in higher education).

The Apparat's ideological platform includes "less government" (a euphemism for corporate socialism), lower taxes for the wealthy, restrictions on the public right to sue, and "pure" free marketry unfettered by regulations or public-interest concerns. Bush campaigns to empower the ideological agenda of the apparatus, and, in turn, as his base, it campaigns for Bush.

In the early 1970s, when the movement was spawned, seed funding came from a relative handful of private foundations established by far-right industrialists and inherited wealth. They included the Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, the Olin Foundation of New York, the quartet of foundations controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife of Pittsburgh, the Smith Richardson Foundation (Vicks), the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors beer), and the Koch family foundations (energy).

The movement was energized in the '70s by a future Supreme Court justice, Lewis Powell, and mobilized by former Treasury Secretary and energy czar, William Simon. In 1973, as ferment raged over consumer rights, Vietnam, racial injustice, and Watergate, Powell, a Richmond attorney, wrote a memo that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce distributed widely, calling for an organized assault against what Powell saw as the ramparts of the "Liberal Establishment" – politics, media, courts and campus. He exhorted big business to become active politically. His memo became the organizational blueprint for the movement. In the late '70s, Simon wrote two highly influential books calling for business leaders, intellectuals, and students to create a "counter-intelligentsia" to roll back the "despotism" of liberalism.

The response to their efforts, spurred by the election of Ronald Reagan, evolved into what Sidney Blumenthal calls the "counter-establishment." Since the 1980s, its base of hard cash has grown even larger under the philanthropic ministrations of private foundations, corporations, and individuals.

As they belatedly begin to organize an activist front to offset the Apparat, some progressive leaders wonder if it's too late.

Jerry M. Landay, a former journalist for ABC and CBS, is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Illinois.

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