Saturday, September 18, 2010

Operation Chaos: Corporate America Goes for Broke

To listen to beltway pundits, you would think that the GOP had shot itself in the foot—overplayed its hand, if you will—in its effort to regain popular momentum in the wake of a humiliating electoral defeat. Across the country, Tea Party activists have challenged, many times successfully, incumbent Republicans in primary contests. In this view, the GOP plot to rev up the Tea Partiers with an eye toward coopting them in the fall midterms backfired spectacularly. They instead midwifed a movement that threatens to destroy the GOP itself.

A related narrative (not inconsistent with the first) is that there is a civil war underway between old guard „establishment Republicans” and hardcore GOP extremists. The metaphor here is that of Republican standard bearers struggling with radical secessionists in a contest over who are the biggest psychopaths. The result of this „outbidding” war is that the GOP is moved even further to the right—right off a cliff.

Either way, pundits agree, the Tea Party movement has seriously undermined the GOP’s electability this fall. It is possible that Democrats will screw up what amounts to an unexpected and undeserved gift and are sure to lose seats in any case due to the principle of divided government, but there is little doubt that the GOP has played an extremely poor hand.

I contend, however, that this conclusion depends on the heroic assumption that either the GOP or the secessionist agitators are in the driver’s seat.

But what if the GOP were not in charge of this movement—indeed were never in charge? And what if this were less a civil war over the „soul of the GOP” than a scheme by economic elites and corporations to throw everything they’ve got at Obama and his liberal allies with the aim of derailing even the most modest Democratic reforms?

The game is Operation Chaos. The goal? Not revitalizing the Republican Party or even introducing an alternative plan of governance. The goal instead is destruction, pure and simple, let the chips fall where they may. It is, as Senator Russ Feingold put it, a „systematic, conscious” effort to „destroy” Obama and his presidency.

Who is playing the game? Those who have the most to lose if Obama and his liberal allies win: a select group of corporations and very very rich individuals.

After all, just because the GOP carries water for the wealthy does not mean that the wealthy look after the GOP. If the GOP can’t deliver, moneyed interests will find someone who can—whether or not this hurts the GOP, its leadership, or its institutions. Since Democrats became friendlier to business in the early 1990s, corporations have become ever more willing to split their campaign contributions between the two parties.

Indeed, the past three years actually saw the Democratic party rake in more corporate money than the Republicans. Particular now, corporate dollars tend to follow whomever looks likeliest to win office—the winners (democrat or republican) are then beholden (to a greater or lesser extent) to those who bankrolled their campaigns.

Heads I win, tails you lose. Nice to have money...

The consequences of increased corporate backing is all to obvious to those who remember when Democrats pushed for truly liberal reforms. The last two Democratic administrations have been extra friendly to Wall Street interests in particular. The Clinton administration dismantled crucial Depression-era banking regulations, opening the door to the Wall Street shenanigans that brought us the global financial meltdown of 2008. The very same Clinton-era de-regulators—Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner—became top economic advisors for the Obama administration, ensuring that the much-touted financial reforms would be very weak indeed. Corporate Dems are also largely to blame for our weak health care reforms, as well as continued lax environmental regulation held over from the Bush administration, making possible—among other things—the horrific mining accidents by the criminally negligent Massey Energy company and, most famously, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf.

Amazingly, the corporations and individuals who made out like bandits during the Bush years are not inclined to lie low as America reels from their most recent sucker punch—even in the wake of the financial meltdown and subsequent taxpayer bailout, the wholesale destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, and the spiralling health insurance premiums that are directly responsible for thousands of deaths every year. Even with a looming economic depression, they are not willing to compromise. They view the slightest tax increases and the most modest constraints on profit-seeking behavior as their own personal Alamo:

Truly, Ben Stein is a greedy, loathsome troll. While most corporate miscreants are not quite as cartoonish as Stein is here, he nicely illustrates their whiney „why me” attitude toward a government preparing to take away the punch bowl just as the party is getting started.

However, corporate flaks well understand that the woes of uber-wealthy Steins of the world are unlikely to resonate on Main Street.

Enter the Tea Partiers...

I noted in an earlier post that although there is a strong grassroots impetus for the Tea Party movement—largely fueled by amorphous rage over economic dislocation and the racial anxieties of a white majority gradually losing ground—the Tea Party movement would have had very little impact without the organizational muscle of seasoned PR flaks.

Corporate front groups such as Koch Industries-funded FreedomWorks have trained activists, organized protests, liaised with the media, and transported protesters to Tea Party events. Without their backing, the Tea Party movement would surely remain incoherent and fragmented--the most successful Tea Party candidates would have gone down in history as obscure also-ran candidates.

The principal organization behind a number of the ascendant Tea Party candidates is the Tea Party Express, established by the same veteran GOP operative—Sal Russo—who created the Our Country Deserves Better PAC in 2008 to defeat then-candidate Obama. Russo’s California-based GOP political consultancy is the principal financial beneficiary of both organizations and is known by some as the man behind the curtain. But who is footing the bill?

CSMonitor notes that “the problem for those trying to ferret out where the money comes from…is that it's getting harder to do so." Citing the New York Times: "Federal campaign spending by groups other than candidates and parties this election cycle has far outpaced similar spending from the last midterm election and could rival the 2008 presidential campaign. But with recent decisions by the Supreme Court and the Federal Elections Commission, it has become harder to know whose dollars they are."”

Even without hard figures, it does not take a sleuth to identify the special interests behind the movement. According to SourceWatch, the Tea Party Patriots (TPP) was “initially organized by FreedomWorks” and in 2009, an affiliated off-shoot, the Tea Party Express (TPE) helped organize a public relations bus tour across the country. TPE events were co-sponsored by the „American Grassroots Coalition,” which includes organizations either established or funded by Koch Industries. One thing is clear: a grassroots organization the TPE is not. Mark Mekler, spokesperson for the rival Tea Party Patriots, said that the Tea Party Express is run by “old-school, top-down, political operatives who are using the Tea Party movement for their own purposes.” That is, GOP strategists.

The surprising twist—given that the Tea Party movement is largely organized and funded by veteran GOP operatives—is that the insurgency is taking aim at the Republican Party itself. But again, the impetus for the insurgency comes not from within the GOP itself, but from their corporate backers.

In fact, the mainstream GOP looks more and more like the dowdy wife who was thrown over for her younger, sexier Tea Party rival. Corporations supporting right-wing candidates in this election cycle have largely eschewed Michael Steele’s Republican National Committee, which is widely viewed as irrelevant and is in fact broke. They have instead bestowed their largesse on 527 organizations like FreedomWorks and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which support hard right Republican candidates, including the Tea Partiers and other Tea Party favorites. American Crossroads receives much of its funding from companies controlled by Texas billionaire, Harold Simmons—the man behind the ads linking domestic terrorist Bill Ayres to Barack Obama. The corporate advocacy group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is also a major contributor and supporter of Tea Party insurgents.

It cannot be stressed enough that the name of the game is not helping the Republican Party—it is destroying Obama’s presidency, and with it, his momentum (however halting) toward reining in corporate power. Moneyed interests back Tea Party candidates against more qualified GOP contenders because Tea Party positions dovetail perfectly with the interests of the richest people in America: cutting taxes for the wealthy, slashing social programs, reducing unemployment benefits, repealing health care reform, opposing cap and trade legislation, blocking environmental and financial regulation, privatizing and/or drastically cutting Medicare and Social Security, and opposing immigration reform. The Tea Party candidates are a corporate wet dream.

These are just some of the highlights:

Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle won the GOP primary in Nevada and will challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his seat in the fall. She has attracted attention for her extremist and/or batty positions, such as outlawing abortions even in cases of rape and incest, promoting Scientology-inspired "sweatboxes" for prison inmates, advocating a ban on alcohol, and pulling the U.S. out of the UN. More recently, she warned that if the Tea Partiers did not achieve their aims through the electoral process, they may need to explore „second Amendment remedies.” Second civil war, anyone? What fun.

Although Angle is obviously certifiable, her economic positions perfectly align with the interests of the wealthy—more tax cuts for the rich, less business regulation, less government spending, and lower capital gains and property taxes. She has gone on record as saying that the unemployed are „spoiled” and shouldn’t be coddled. She has also called for the repeal of Obama’s health care legislation and the elimination of the IRS, EPA and the Departments of Education and Energy. Since many of these positions belie her populist credentials, she is now madly backpedaling on social security while employing the tried and true GOP technique of fear-mongering to appeal to Nevada voters.

Angle would certainly have gone down in history as an obscure also-ran candidate were it not for the support of conservative pundits Mark Levin and Phyllis Schafly, the anti-tax Club for Growth, and the TPE. Due to a massive last-minute infusion of cash from the TPE, Angle was able to outspend the more moderate (and favored) Republican rival, catapaulting her into the lead. Said one analyst, „The turnaround for Angle has been remarkable. She netted just 5 percent in a Review-Journal poll in early April, a week before the Tea Party Express' endorsement; Lowden [the moderate rival] led that survey at 45 percent.”

In Alaska, meanwhile, Tea Party upstart Joe Miller beat out more moderate incumbent GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was seen as insufficiently aligned with business interests on climate change legislation. In addition to opposing cap and trade, Miller favors extending tax cuts for the wealthy, privatizing Social Security, and massively cutting Medicare (creating significant business for Wall Street and health insurers, respectively). He also questions whether unemployment does not actually prolong unemployment because unemployment is nothing if not one long stress-free vacation from life.

Miller, a virtual unknown, would have certainly lost to Murkowski were it not for the intervention of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, which pumped $600,000 into the campaign—permitting him to eke out a victory. Spending such an amount to sway the Alaskan electorate, said one pollster, is equivalent to pumping 10 million dollars into a primary contest in California.

The most recent Tea Party upset is that of Christine O’Donnell, who won the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in Delaware over more the moderate GOP politician, Mike Castle. It was during the race that O'Donnell's bizarre statements against masturbation came to light. More oddly, she apparently „dabbled in witchcraft, but never joined a coven” in high school, and thinks evolution is a „myth.” It is easy to let these amusing details distract from her hard-right economic agenda, which is deadly serious. She opposes cap and trade legislation, favors repealing health care reform, wants to raise the retirement age on social security benefits, opposes any and all tax increases on the wealthy, and wants to eliminate all earmarks and balance the federal budget through spending cuts. Disaster.

Early in the race, O'Donnell was dismissed as a far-right religious zealot with little to no job experience, poor life management skills, and questionable ethics (she was behind on her mortgage payments, failed to graduate college because of unpaid tuition fees, and was under FEC investigation due to improper use of campaign funds from her earlier runs for office). She had little hope of winning the primary challenge against Castle until the TPE blanketed the state with 350,000 USD of ads, and Sarah Palin and Mark Levin actively lobbied on her behalf. In the end, O'Donnell won the election, and the skeptical GOP standard-bearers were forced to back her candidacy.

By supporting extremist GOP candidates against merely right-wing GOP candidates, moneyed interests send the message that those who go against the wishes of tax corporations and rich people—even a little bit—will face humiliating primary defeats.

But what if Tea Party candidates flame out in the general elections because they are simply to extreme for American voters, leading to more Democratic victories? GOP strategists concede this possibility, but once again, helping the GOP was never the aim of their corporate backers. Changing the political discourse and destroying Obama’s agenda is the name of the game. Says Tea Party Express architect Sal Russo:

“What’s success for the Tea Party Express? I would say we’ve already achieved it,” Mr. Russo said. “Because today you can’t find a candidate running anywhere in America — Republican or Democrat — that doesn’t sound like they belong to the Tea Party movement."

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Tea Party Movement: Grass Roots Phenomenon or Corporate Fifth Column?

American economic elites have a long and storied history of recruiting suckers and mercenaries to do their dirty work. In a practice known as “astroturfing,” an interested party (often a corporation) clandestinely organizes an apparently grass roots movement to give the appearance that their agenda is shared by millions of ordinary people. That the rich find a need to engage in such tactics in a democratic society is understandable—there is no natural mass constituency for economic conservatism, which basically serves the interests of the richest 1-5 percent of the country. They must therefore trick ordinary Americans to lobby for their interests and elect movement leaders (generally Republicans and conservative Democrats).

Why do I say that economic conservatism has no natural mass constituency? Because it is so obviously geared toward the rich and against the working and middle classes. In a recent article, Media Matters listed 13 progressive reforms that conservatives have long fought against, including eliminating or drastically scaling back Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (60 percent of America’s seniors get three-quarters of their income from Social Security, and 20 percent rely solely on Social Security); reducing or eliminating the progressive federal income tax in favor of a flat tax (which places the burden of taxation disproportionately on the poor); eliminating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the right to unionize, worker’s compensation, and other workplace regulations that empower employees; scaling back unemployment benefits and the minimum wage (which would force many workers to accept low-paid jobs); and loosening environmental regulations (allowing industries to pollute freely and forcing taxpayers to clean up the mess). Talk about class warfare.

In fact, America has a rich history of corporate astroturfing aimed at killing progressive legislation. In a set piece of historical irony, the original Boston Tea Party of 1773 was itself astroturfed. What the Sons of Liberty were protesting when they dressed up as Native Americans to pour tea into the Boston Harbor was not a hike in British tea taxes, but rather the opposite. Britain had recently eliminated the tax on British tea in the colonies, thereby undercutting the lucrative business in smuggled tea from Holland that many colonial merchants depended upon; these same colonial merchants backed or took part in what became known as Boston Tea Party. Thus, the tea party was not a protest against taxation without representation, but against cheap imported British tea that threatened to put American tea merchants out of business.

Skipping ahead to the twentieth century, in the 1930s, the uber-rich du Ponts mobilized an apparently grassroots American Liberty League to bury New Deal Social Security program, child labor prohibition, and the Security and Exchange Commission. In the 1960s, the John Birch Society helped Barry Goldwater to mount an attack on the “socialist” Medicare program. The 1990s saw Richard Mellon Scaife (the billionaire heir of the Mellon oil and banking fortune) contribute heavily to bringing down the Clinton administration. And in the 2000s, the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch teamed up to astroturf TeaParty protests against the “socialist Obama regime.”

One can only surmise that “freedom” for these economic elites is freedom from living in an advanced society, which is all very well for those who can afford to live in gated communities. But what about the rest of us? Would these conservatives object to the return of debtors’ prisons, child labor, workhouses for the poor, and a life of begging for the aged, sick, poor, orphaned or infirm? I doubt it, seeing as how they have a track record of fighting against legislation that ameliorated these problems. I am sure that many conservatives believe these are the costs of living in a meritocratic capitalistic society, which rewards the industrious and punishes the lazy. And for those who cannot compete—the mentally and physically disabled, the orphaned, the sick—well, there are always charities, churches and prisons. It is the kind of social Darwinism favored by Wall Street tycoons and other economic elites who worship at the alter of Ayn Rand.

Conservative astroturfing has come into its own since the inauguration of the Obama administration. The town hall protests of summer 2009 that took aim at heath care reform was a top-down coordinated effort by GOP strategists and corporate funders, as revealed by a strategy memo leaked by a volunteer for FreedomWorks. Some protesters were even reportedly bused in to disrupt the town hall meetings of mainly democratic representatives.

In a recent article entitled “Covert Operations” in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer delves into the history of the two biggest funders of right-wing causes in America: Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries (primarily an oil enterprise), whose combined personal wealth is exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. According to David Koch, their business is the “biggest company you have never heard of.” Their father—who ironically accumulated his vast fortune through oil deals with Joseph Stalin in the 1930s—would later become a rabid anti-communist. He co-founded the fringe John Birch Society, whose leadership viewed fluoridating the water as a communist plot and was convinced that President Eisenhower was a secret Soviet agent.

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, largely shared their fathers’ positions and endeavored to fight progressive policies at every turn (a commitment that Mayer notes has dovetailed nicely with their financial self-interests). However, after a failed run for president on the libertarian ticket in 1980, the brothers decided to take their fight underground, by funding right-wing institutes and think tanks. Mayer quotes Media Matters: “the Kochs’ effort is unusual, in its marshalling of corporate and personal funds: ‘Their role, in terms of financial commitments, is staggering.’”

Besides founding the CATO institute, Mercatus, Citizens for a Sound Economy (which later morphed into FreedomWorks), and Americans for Progress, the Koch brothers also have provided funding to a range of right-wing think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute. On issue-specific matters, they have given clandestine funding to front organizations that promote climate change denialism and work to defeat emissions regulations, while backing astroturfed popular rallies against health care reform and “cap and trade” legislation that would have the overall effect of forcing energy companies like Koch Industries to pay for their pollution.

What is the connection between the Koch brothers and the modern Tea Party movement? Defenders of Tea Partiers insist that the movement is as organic as they come. In exchange for a $100,000 speaking fee, Sarah Palin addressed the first Tea Party Convention in 2010, calling it is a “beautiful movement” comprised of Americans from all walks of life who want their country returned to its founding principles.

The evidence usually provided for the movement’s grass roots origins is that there are countless apparently unrelated Tea Party websites and organizations with no clear movement leader, besides which few activists claim to have benefited from corporate largesse. An obvious fallacy of this logic is that the movement of today bears very little relation to the movement in its infancy. The really pertinent question is: what was the genesis the movement? Who midwifed it or did it come into its own spontaneously?

Fortunately, the development of the movement can be traced on the internets. Tea Party nomenclature appears to date back to a Ron Paul event in 2007; however, this attracted little media attention at the time. According to ThinkProgress, the first Tea Party protests appeared in early 2009 (soon after Obama’s inauguration) and received critical organizational and financial assistance from former Republican House Speaker Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, which is backed by corporations that benefit materially from derailing Obama’s legislative agenda.

Indeed, corporate front groups were there “from the very start,” admits Mary Rakovich,a laid-off electrical engineer and volunteer for the McCain campaign who is credited with holding the first Tea Party-like event in protest of an Obama appearance in Fort Myers, Florida, on February 10. She had recently finished a training session by FreedomWorks where she was given specific instructions on how to attract protesters and was counseled that she should focus on policy and not on Obama. According to Rakovich, she was strongly encouraged by the Florida director of FreedomWorks to hold a protest at this particular event.

According to a Tea Party timeline provided by Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake, less than one week later, a conservative activist in Seattle organized the first “porkulus protest” (a term coined by Rush Limbaugh) in protest of Obama’s stimulus bill. The rally received support from the Young Americans Foundation (CPAC), conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, and the Young Republicans and was promoted by the local Fox News station. Another “porkulus” rally was then held in Colorado, organized by the Koch Americans for Prosperity and Coors’ Independence Institute, with wingnuts Tom Tancredo and Michelle Malkin in attendance. Yet another “porkulus” rally took place that week in Arizona with the backing of right-wing media conglomerate Clear Channel. However, it was not until CNBC Rick Santelli’s famous “rant” on the Chicago Exchange floor where he called for a Chicago Tea Party that the Tea Party movement as we know it emerged (with significant behind-the-scenes support):

According to Mark Ames and Yasha Levine at The Exiled: "Within hours of Santelli’s rant, a website called sprang to life. Essentially inactive until that day, it now featured a YouTube video of Santelli’s “tea party” rant and billed itself as the official home of the Chicago Tea Party. The domain was registered in August, 2008 by Zack Christenson, a dweeby Twitter Republican and producer for a popular Chicago rightwing radio host Milt Rosenberg… was just one part of a larger network of Republican sleeper-cell-blogs set up over the course of the past few months, all of them tied to a shady rightwing advocacy group coincidentally named the “Sam Adams Alliance,” whose backers have until now been kept hidden from public. Cached google records that we discovered show that the Sam Adams Alliance took pains to scrub its deep links to the Koch family money as well as the fake-grassroots “tea party” protests going on today.”

In late February, the first “Nationwide Chicago Tea Party” was held in 40 cities across America—organized and coordinated by Freedom Works and Americans for Progress. This was followed by Tax Day Protests on April 15, which took place in hundreds of American cities--a coordinated effort assisted in great part by Fox News.

The next big anti-tax rally took place in September 2009 and was again heavily promoted by Fox News, particularly Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. The rally was enthusiastically covered by a Fox News reporter, as Fox News producers attempted to work up the crowd off-camera.

Fox news personalities thus played a central role in organizing Tea Party events across the country in mid-2009. Meanwhile, Freedom Works and Americans for Progress designed deliberately amateurish websites and organized local chapters of Tea Parties in order to create the illusion of a grass roots movement. These organizations also took the lead in organizing central clearinghouses of information that would direct visitors to local Tea Party events, writing press releases for the news media, contacting activists and coordinating conference calls, and helping them connect up with other organizations on the local level.

There is little doubt popular anger on the right due to Obama’s electoral victory provided the fuel for what would become the Tea Party movement.

However, it was not until FreedomWorks and Americans for Progress (both creatures of the Koch brothers) and Coors Company got involved, and Fox News began to heavily promote them, that the Tea Party events really gained popular momentum.

Today, the movement is made up of numerous factions, including The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Patriots, the National Tea Party Federation. Although this apparently chaotic make-up is suggestive of a grass roots movement (reflecting the designers’ original intent), there is a strong case to be made that the Tea Party movement was, is, and will continue to be, a corporate fifth column: every position promulgated by the movement is a CEO’s wet dream, as they are even more corporate-friendly than the water-carriers-for-giant-corporate-interests GOP. Tea partiers stand for eliminating cap and trade, eliminating capital gains and inheritance tax, instituting a flat tax, capping federal spending programs, repealing the health care reform, granting energy companies permission to conduct oil and gas exploration on federal lands, loosening or eliminating business regulations, and so on. How any of these reforms can be expected to improve the lives of even a tiny minority of Tea Party membership is a puzzle indeed.

Tea Partiers who continue to insist that their movement emerged organically because it was “long in coming,” “a product of growing popular frustration at excesses of government,” “motivated out of concern for out-of-control spending,” etc., must explain the suspicious timing of the movement. It should not be forgotten that the Tea Parties did not get off the ground until AFTER the inauguration of a new democratic president. The bank bailout worth trillions of dollars that they supposedly opposed was put in place by the outgoing Bush administration (and Obama’s stimulus bill cost a fraction of the bailout). Bush’s two wars and two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy cost the nation trillions of dollars, and counting.

Most damningly for the "fiscally conservative" Tea Partiers (most of whom strongly supported President George W. Bush during his two terms in office), the Bush administration turned a 200-odd billion surplus left by the Clinton administration into a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit by the time Bush left office. These discrepancies make hash of the Tea Party claim that the movement has nothing to do with party politics and strongly suggests that the Murdoch-Koch machine that kicked into overdrive in 2009 deserves considerable credit for their existence.