A Surprisingly Effective New Path to Neutralizing the Political Influence of Big Business
Every four or five years, it seems, progressives and the media discover ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, anew. I’m old enough that the latest “OMG!” reaction to the existence of the conservative legislative network, following the revelation of its role in promoting voter ID laws and the “Stand Your Ground” gun laws that briefly shielded George Zimmerman, is probably the third “discovery” of ALEC I’ve witnessed. (ALEC played a significant role the PowerPoint presentation called “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix,” created by Rob Stein in 2004 and that led liberal donors to organize The Democracy Alliance.)
In the past, progressives have responded by trying to create a “counter-ALEC,” a network of progressive and moderate state legislators, though they’ve never quite reached the necessary scale. (I served on the board of one such counter-ALEC, the Center for Policy Alternatives, which dissolved in 2008.) And they’ve tried various means to expose ALEC’s operations to scrutiny, publicizing its role in drafting and promoting model legislation at the state level, and its funding by the now-notorious Koch brothers. This time, progressives tried a new tactic, encouraging a boycott of the mainstream corporations that fund ALEC. And it seems to have worked: Coca-Cola, Kraft, Wendy’s, and several other large corporations on ALEC’s “Private Enterprise Board” announced they would drop their support of the organization.
Conservatives have responded with harrumphing about “the liberal boycott machine.” Brad Smith, a former member of the Federal Election Commission and opponent of nearly all regulation of campaign money, wrote on the blog of the libertarian Center for Competitive Politics that calls to boycott ALEC supporters constituted “intimidation” to suppress political speech and were a good reason to oppose even campaign contribution disclosure requirements, because they would enable “harassing, bullying and boycotting” of companies. “Society is going to have to ask itself whether it wants the meanness of its current trajectory,” Smith wrote, in an unsually civic-minded tone. But what’s actually been remarkable about the corporate reaction is how little meanness and acrimony there has been. And therein lies an important lesson about corporate money in politics.
IT WAS A FAIRLY modest consumer action that spurred the corporations to respond quickly and decisively to detach themselves from ALEC. The boycotts were organized by colorofchange.org, an organization co-founded by Van Jones which claims 900,000 members, with a budget of roughly $500,000, making it 8 percent the size of ALEC. No disrespect to the organization, which is remarkably effective for its size, but it’s hard to imagine that its boycott threat alone, coupled with meetings with company executives (the strategy is described well by Nancy Scola in The Atlantic) could convince a company to do something it really didn’t want to do, and certainly not this quickly.
It’s pretty easy to imagine what actually did happen when corporate executives heard about the boycott: They called the director of their Washington office (that is, their in-house lobbyist) and asked why the company was supporting the policies advocated by ALEC. Consumer-oriented companies in particular don’t want controversy and tend to avoid getting involved with issues that don’t affect the company directly—even if the executives are conservative and might personally favor policies that would help conservatives gain power, such as voter ID laws.