The Anti-Government Campaign
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The Role of Big Business
The other main funder of the anti-government campaign is big business. But its motivations differ substantially from that of many philanthropists. While the Koch family is clearly opposed to government as a matter of deep political principle, business is not. The opposition of corporations to government is based almost entirely on economic selfishness – they are concerned about their own bottom line. Their lack of principle is obvious in their inconsistency – if not to say hypocrisy – when it comes to opposing government programs. The business community is adamant about opposing taxes or regulations that cut into their profits, but it is more than willing to take government subsidies and other forms of “corporate welfare.” And many businesses are not opposed to government interference in free markets as long as they themselves benefit. Their selective opposition to government is thus a matter of self-interest, not ideology.
As mentioned earlier, business began funneling large amounts of money into anti-government efforts as far back as the late 1970s and has long played a crucial role in the growth of this movement. For example, hundreds of millions have been invested in anti-government think tanks and corporations now play a major role in governing many of these organizations. Today, for instance, most of the board of directors of the American Enterprise Institute are CEOs of major companies, including American Express, ExxonMobil, Motorola, State Farm Insurance and Dow Chemicals.
Business has also ramped up its incredibly powerful lobbying machinery to support various anti-government efforts in Congress. Corporations and industry trade groups far outnumber all the other lobbies in Washington put together, and these well-heeled organizations are also able to employ more lobbyists and better-paid lobbyists than anyone else. Corporations lobby on a wider variety of anti-government measures than any other conservative interest group. They not only pressure lawmakers to lower corporate taxes, they also strongly oppose environmental and consumer protection regulations. They work against pro-labor policies like the minimum wage and workplace safety rules. They even push for cutbacks in social programs like welfare and unemployment insurance because these give workers a temporary alternative to working, and thus increase their bargaining power with employers. No other lobby matches the business community in either its resources or its wide-ranging policy agenda.
Corporations also funnel money to various other “advocacy” groups that promote their anti-state agenda of cutting taxes and reducing regulations. For example, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform tries to portray itself as a grassroots organization, but it really relies on business to survive. A mere forty corporate donors supply fully a third of the budget for Norquist’s organization. Or consider another advocacy group, Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain, one of the most active lobbies working against air pollution regulations in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, this group had no citizen members at all and was entirely funded by the utility and coal industries.
Business also invests heavily in anti-government politicians, mostly in the form of campaign contributions that help these candidates win office. One conduit for this money is corporate political action committees, where their donations have far outpaced the spending of any other interest group. In the 2008 election cycle, for instance, environmental PACs donated $813,000 to Congressional candidates. But donations from just four industries likely to oppose environmental regulations (oil and gas, chemicals, forest products, and mining) exceeded $16 million – twenty times that of the environmental groups.14 And none of this takes into account the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizen’s United that has now opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited corporate spending in elections.
And we need to also count the large individual donations given to campaigns by business owners, executives, and managers. We like to think of individual campaign donations as representing a broad cross-section of Americans, but this is not true. Close to eighty per cent of the billions given in individual donations for federal elections come from big donors – donors who make up only 0.2% of the population, and four out five of whom earn more than $100,000.15 Needless to say, most of these well-off donors are likely to have strong corporate connections, to be conservative, and to support an anti-government agenda.
In short, the business establishment has not only been the chief pressure group in the anti-government movement, it has also served as its cash cow. For the past 30 years, it has been a generous and dependable source of financial support for the attack on government. It is not an exaggeration to say that the anti-government movement would not be as influential as it is today in American politics without the constant and massive infusions of money that it has received from corporations and business owners.
Government Bashing as a Political Smokescreen for Elite Interests
The role that business and wealthy philanthropists have played in providing the financial life blood of the anti-government campaign betrays its elitist underpinnings. Despite the presence of some grassroots elements like the Tea Party in this political movement, it has been largely created and supported by rich individuals and organizations, largely for their own interests. Irrespective of its populist rhetoric, this movement is clearly working to promote the agenda of some of the most powerful and moneyed interests in American society.
In fact, one of the main reasons the anti-government crusade is so popular among well-to-do interests is because it provides them with a smokescreen that they can use to obscure their real political goals. For example, drug companies and the health insurance industry have constantly exploited people’s misgivings about big government as a way to promote their own economic self-interest in maintaining private control over the health system. In debates about health care reform, these businesses and their conservative allies have constantly raised the specter of “government bureaucrats controlling your health care decisions” as a way of scaring people away from reform plans that might cut into their corporate profits.
Similarly, when businesses want to reduce regulatory protections for workers, they argue that they are only trying to reduce the government red-tape and bureaucracy. They are not putting their workers at risk; they are simply “opposing unreasonable intrusions of big government into the private sector” and “getting government off the back of businesses.” Who could complain about that? Similarly, conservative consultant Frank Luntz has told business lobbyists and Republican lawmakers that when they are trying to weaken environmental protections, they should describe their activities as “streamlining” and “modernizing” government. They can thus seem to be attacking “excess government,” not the environment.
Anti-government rhetoric also allowed Republicans to sidestep the accusation that their policies are a form of “class warfare.” Clearly, most of the benefits of the Republican tax cuts during the Bush administration fell to the rich and to corporations, and the costs of cuts in social programs fell disproportionately on working people, minorities, and the poor – the very definition of class warfare. But such criticisms were blunted by Republican claims that they were only waging war on government. President Bush claimed that his numerous tax cuts were simply an effort to reduce the onerous burden of government taxes – and everyone knows taxes are bad. And cuts in social programs were portrayed as simply “reining in out of control government spending” and “reducing big government.”
This anti-government spin on conservative policies works to obscure the fact that an attack on government is often an attack on those Americans who are least well-off. In reality, reducing government takes power away from those in society who most need the government to protect their interests – those who are most vulnerable to job layoffs, those who need to protect themselves from workplace discrimination and dangers on the job, or those who need government to ensure equal educational opportunity or a fair minimum wage. As Max Neiman explained in his book, Defending Government, shrinking government not only eliminates programs that aid the less well-off, it also reduces their political power as well.
The attack on government has involved … a focused effort to make it more difficult for the less privileged of society to have access to governing authority. If the assault on public programs and the capacity to produce them is permanently and broadly successful, then making life fairer and better for the least advantaged and less politically connected members of society will be more difficult.16
The basic point is this: the deeply disturbing nature of many conservative policies is being hidden behind a political smokescreen – an effort to portray these policies as mere attempts to reduce government and the “bad effects” it is having on society. The whole anti-government campaign has become a very handy way for some powerful and well-off groups to disguise the true intentions of their policies and to deflect potential public opposition.
Even More Worrisome
This has been the story of where the anti-government movement came from and how it came to be such a powerful force in American politics. But even more disturbing is what it wants to do with that power – how it is committed to undermining many of the essential progressive government programs that have been created during the last 100 years. To see just how radical the anti-government agenda really is and how it conflicts with the political views of most Americans, turn to the next article, “The Anti-Government Movement’s Radical Agenda.”
1. Quoted in Robert Dreyfuss, “Grover Norquist: 'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan,” The Nation, April 26, 2001.
3. For a summary of Libertarian philosophy and policy positions, see the Libertarian Party’s website, http://www.lp.org/issues/issues.shtml.
4. Dick Armey, The Freedom Revolution (New York: Regnery Publishers, 1995) p. 304.
5. Urban Institute, “Bush Tax Cuts,” January 16, 2008. http://www.urban.org/decisionpoints08/archive/01bushtaxcuts.cfm
6. Daniel Schoor, “Bush’s Social Security Plan Carries Ideological Underpinnings,” All Things Considered, March 7, 2005.
7. Paul Krugman, “Spearing the Beast,” The New York Times, February 8, 2005, p. A25.
8. Karen M. Paget, “Lessons of Right Wing Philanthropy” The American Prospect, Number 40, September-October 1998, p. 92.
9. David Brock, The Republican Noise Machine (New York: Crown Publishing, 2004), p. 48.
10. This figure is for 1988. See Sourcewatch, “Heritage Foundation,” http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Heritage_Foundation, June 17, 2006.
11. People for the American Way, “Buying a Movement,” http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=2052, June 17, 2006.
12. Media Transparency, “The Koch Family Foundations,” http://www.mediatransparency.org/funderprofile.php?funderID=9, June 15, 2006.
13. Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2010.
14. Open Secrets, “PACs by Industry," http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/list.php
15. Public Campaign, “Hard Facts: Hard Money in the 2000 Election,” http://www.publicampaign.org/publications/studies/hardfacts2000/fullreport.htm, June 17, 2006
16. Max Neiman, Defending Government: Why Big Government Works (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000) p. 2.