When Michele Bachman crowed in September that the exposure of alleged illegal activity by the anti-poverty group ACORN was just the start of a campaign to "defund the left," she may have revealed more about current Republican strategy than she intended.
“Defunding the left is going to be so easy,” Bachmann told the audience at a conservative conference, “and it’s going to solve so many of our problems.”
The Senate and House had just voted to cut off ACORN's federal funding in what CBS/AP called "a GOP-led strike against the scandal-tainted community organizing group" that followed the release of video showing ACORN employees apparently endorsing illegal activities, The bills passed by lopsided majorities, with many Democrats joining Republicans, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told a news conference, "We have to have our own scrutiny of an organization with an allegation of this kind against it."
The initial Congressional defunding of ACORN was scheduled to expire at the end of October, however, causing Bachman to warn a bloggers' conference at the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, "This is the biggest trick or treat. On November 1 the prohibition will lift."
The Capital Research Center
The idea of starving the Democratic Party of donations by defunding the progressive non-profits that form a central pillar of its support is not new. It goes back to at least 1981, when the Heritage Foundation published a set of over 2000 policy recommendations for the Reagan administration. According to SourceWatch, "One challenge, as Heritage saw it, was to counter the rise of its ideological opponents by whittling away their status as 'public interest' organisations and eliminating federal financial support for 'liberal' groups."
The Capital Research Center (CRC) was founded in 1984 by a former Heritage Foundation vice president to implement this agenda by uncovering the presumably questionable funding sources of progressive groups. CRC's central assumption has always been that "a unified, sophisticated and well-funded philanthropic elite is dedicated to imposing on us the doctrine of 'progressive' philanthropy, doctrines that would reorder our political, economic and cultural priorities."
The CRC selected ACORN as a favored targed long before almost anybody else had heard of the group. In January 2005, Bill Berkowitz, who regularly reports on right-wing organizations, wrote:
"In mid-October of last year, the Center's president, Terence Scanlon, launched a pre-emptive strike against ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and its voter registration efforts. Scanlon cast a shadow over ACORN's reports that it had registered over one million new voters. He charged that because of irregularities, the organization was coming under scrutiny by lawmakers 'in state after state [where] allegations are surfacing that ACORN activists are padding the registration books'
"As a non-profit community-based organizing group, ACORN has been on the CRC's radar for several years. According to Scanlon, ACORN, with some 150,000 dues-paying members organized into 65 city chapters, 'is better known for public disruption.' Its so-called community organizing 'has relied on in-your-face confrontation,' including a 1995 demonstration targeting then House Speaker Newt Gingrich. 'In 2002 it burst into the Heritage Foundation to harangue welfare reform expert Robert Rector. Dozen of city councils and state legislatures have had to face angry ACORN protesters demanding higher minimum wages and more welfare entitlements. Banks have been pressured to change their lending practices or face ACORN charges of discrimination before regulators.'”
Currently, CRC senior editor Matthew Vadum -- who describes himself as "America's foremost expert on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)" -- seems to be carrying much of the weight of the anti-ACORN campaign through his blog, Twitter feed, and frequent appearances with Glenn Beck and other right-wing TV hosts.
Last May, Vadum told Beck, "ACORN is an immense crime family ... that has tentacles all though the United States, and now it's trying to spread to India and Canada and other places. ... They're engaged in racketeering. ... They break the law constantly."
"Something that needs to be explored is the roots of ACORN in the 1960s," Vadum continued. "It grew out of the radical welfare rights movement. And the idea behind that was that not enough people were on welfare and that you needed to pack the welfare rolls with as many people as possible in order to overwhelm the governments -- the various levels of government -- and cause social chaos. ... I guess you could say it was a Marxist-anarchist idea."
Vadam's latest entry at his CRC blog attempts to drag progressive filmmaker Brave New Films into his ACORN-related conspiracy theories. "Unwilling to admit it’s an ongoing criminal conspiracy to defraud the people of the United States of America, ACORN has retained Bolshevik Brave New Films to do some of its dirty work for it," Vadam writes. "The leftist propaganda factory headquartered in Culver City, Calif., has launched a new website, DeFOXamerica.com, which is an effort to shoot the messenger. Fox is the only television network that has taken much of an interest in covering the ACORN scandal which some commentators say is bigger than Watergate. ... It’s not known how much ACORN had to pay Brave New Films, a 501(c)(4) advocacy nonprofit, to shill for it."
CRC and its allies
For an organization whose mission is to expose the funding sources and organizational ties of the left, the Capital Research Center is ironically protective of its own connections. As a non-profit organization, for example, it is not obliged to report the names of its donors, only its total revenue -- which amounted in 2007 to about $2.5 million.
The CRC's tax filings similarly include the name of its officers, its directors -- who include former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III -- and its two highest-paid employees,
but the membership of its National Advisory Board has not been revealed since 2001. At that time, however, the board was heavily loaded with individuals tied to both the Reagan administration and the Heritage Foundation, as well as to various other right-wing publications, think-tanks, and legal foundations.
Although the evidence is skimpy, it suggests that many of the same people who were involved with CRC when it was founded in 1984 may have continued to be connected with the group and its ongoing agenda.
One of the more interesting names on the 2001 list is that of T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr., a former Reagan adviser and president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Although it is not well known, ISI is one of the largest recipients of grants from conservative foundations, having been listed a few years ago as second only to the Heritage Foundation.
Much of ISI's activity is carried on through its Collegiate Network, which creates and subsidizes conservative student publications on college campuses. James O'Keefe -- the young filmmaker whose sting operation allegedly caught ACORN employees endorsing illegal activities -- was the founder of one such publication when he was a student at Rutgers University.
O'Keefe had also received advice and a start-up grant to help launch the Rutgers Centurion from Morton Blackwell's Leadership Institute -- which has been training young Republican dirty tricksters since the 1970's, ranging from Karl Rove to Jeff Gannon. Blackwell himself appeared on a "Defunding the Left" panel at the 2001 Conservative Political Action Conference, along with CRC president Terrence Scanlon.
Both Cribb and Blackwell have strong ties to the Heritage Foundation as well. Blackwell was a close associate of the late founder of the group's founder, Paul Weyrich, for over 40 years. Cribb is a good friend (pdf) of former Heritage president Edwin Feulner.
These multiple cross-connections again suggest that the goal of defunding the left has been carried along by a small, tightly-knit group of conservatives for over 25 years, and that James O'Keefe's sting operation against ACORN is merely the latest step towards that goal.
Dick Armey, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Baggers
The crusade to defund the left has not been limited to attempts to discredit progressive organizations. The so-called K Street Project of the 1990's, which was intended to steer lobbyist contributions more towards Republicans and to shut out Democrats, had the same objective. So did Jack Abramoff's courting of Indian tribes in order to cut off payments that had previously gone largely to Democrats.
Even calls for "tort reform" -- which are now being raised again in connection with health care -- are intended to prevent trial lawyers, who are often generous Democratic donors, from receiving a share of large settlements in personal injury cases.
Attacks on federal funding of liberal non-profits, however, are particularly attractive as a strategy because most conservative non-profits receive the bulk of their funding from corporations and right-wing foundations and not from the federal government.
In 1995, the new Republican majority in Congress took part in a particularly ambitious -- though ultimately unsuccessful -- attempt to defund the left. According to a May 30, 1995 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (which does not appear to be available online except through subscription-only sources):
"Congressional Republicans -- with the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas playing a key role -- are preparing a new budget-cutting assault on scores of government-funded nonprofit groups whose liberal views are considered a threat to the conservative agenda. ... The effort, referred to by conservatives as 'defunding the left,' is intended to take aim at what they consider advocacy groups that lobby for liberal social programs from which they receive grants and contracts."
The story went on to say, "Led by Virginia Lamp Thomas, the wife of the Supreme Court justice, a special group of senior House Republican experts and staff members has been quietly working under the auspices of House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. Their aim is to identify nonprofit organizations whose funding should be cut and to plan a strategy to end their grants or contracts with the government or the programs for which they provide services."
Thomas, who was then a policy analyst for Rep. Armey, later went to work for the Heritage Foundation. Armey himself left Congress in 2003 and became the co-chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy -- one of whose representatives had participated in that same 2001 "Defunding the Left" panel as Morton Blackwell and CRC's Terrence Scanlon. Armey's organization is now known as FreedomWorks and is the principal astroturf backer of the teabagger protests.
Muriel Kane is director of research for Raw Story.