The Lavatories of Democracy

by Henry Farrell on July 10, 2019

[being a review of Alex Hertel-Fernandez’ State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States ,“ and the Nationcross posted from HistPhil]


A couple of months ago, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Rob O’Dell wrote a long journalistic article on the influence of ALEC, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, on legislation in U.S. states. ALEC has had enormous influence on state legislatures by providing model bills and courting lawmakers. O’Dell suggested on Twitter that this marked “the first time anyone has been able to concretely say how much legislation is written by special interests.” This … wasn’t exactly accurate. Columbia University political science professor Alex Hertel-Fernandez, who is briefly quoted in the piece, had recently published his book State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States,” and the Nation, which applied similar data to similar effect.

It was a real pity that the book didn’t get the credit it deserved, and not just for the obvious reasons. While the article was good, it focused on describing the outcomes of ALEC’s influence. The book does this but much more besides. It provides a detailed and sophisticated understanding of how ALEC has come to have influence throughout the U.S., how it is integrated with other conservative organizations, and how progressives might best respond to its success.

It’s a great book – crisply written, straightforward, and enormously important. It is energetic and useful because it is based on real and careful research. Hertel-Fernandezâ’s politics are obviously and frankly on the left. But even though his analysis starts from his political goals, it isn’t blinded by them so as to distort the facts.

Like Sanchez and O’Dell’s piece, Hertel-Fernandez’s State Capture spends a lot of time documenting how ALEC has indeed had influence. His work received no cooperation from ALEC itself, which declined his request for records (another organization cancelled his visit to a nominally open conference, when they realized he was a lefty rather than a true believer). This led him and his collaborator, Konstantin Kashin, not only to build on leaked data from within ALEC itself, but to visit state legislative libraries and other repositories, and copy, scan and convert proposed legislation that had been archived (when members of state assemblies donated their records) into machine readable text. They then used plagiarism-detection software to find the similarities between ALEC-proposed legislative language and the actual legislation. They found approximately 10,000 bills, and 1,500 pieces of enacted legislation that visibly included text from ALEC models. Much of this legislation is on important topics – e.g. efforts to privatize government functions, and to make voting more difficult and gun ownership easier – and has had important consequences in pushing a conservative anti-government agenda.

ALEC played a key role “ together with the State Policy Network (SPN), an association of conservative think tanks? in pushing legislation that was deliberately designed to undermine public sector unions. Notably, this was intended to help change the structural conditions of America’s politics. As SPN’s head emphasized, these reforms had the promise of “permanently depriving [italics in original] the Left from [sic] access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle, and making it far easier to pass other “pro-freedom initiatives.” It plausibly succeeded. Hertel-Fernandez’ work with James Feigenbaum and Vanessa Williamson suggests that such measures led to a 3.5% drop-off in votes for Democratic candidates, and a 2% drop in voter turnout.

The book does far more than just to detect influence. It also inquires into the conditions that enabled that influence. These include, most obviously, the infrastructure of ALEC itself. It’s notable that instead of treating the American conservative movement as monolithic, Hertel-Fernandez looks carefully at its fissures and internal disagreements. The book has a lot of highly valuable information on the Koch organization, and the state level activities of the Koch-funded organization, Americans for Prosperity. However, in Hertel-Fernandez’ description:

[i]t is certainly true that ALEC has been supported by the Kochs’ main corporate arm. But … [i]t is neither simply a front for corporate lobbying nor another piece of the Koch network. Instead, it is best seen as a coalition that has attempted to reconcile the varied preferences of big businesses, firebrand conservative activists, and wealthy donors. That task has not always been easy. ALEC has at various points leaned too far toward favoring one set of constituents over the others ” sometimes resulting in backlash.”(p.24)

ALEC has been extraordinarily influential, but it has also been very fragile and at various times, could well have fallen apart.

Hertel-Fernandez also details the internal structures of ALEC. Policy formation is delegated to “task forces,” where businesses that contribute more to ALEC and have a higher membership status have the last word on legislative recommendations. This has created “bidding wars” that brought in more revenue. The pay-to-play approach heads off a lot of potential dispute by making it clear how disputes will be resolved. Furthermore, many divisions are manageable. Businesses might like higher healthcare spending (if it doesn’t hurt their bottom line) opposed by others in the conservative coalition, but it is rarely an urgent priority for them.

However, managing the internal tensions within ALEC has become more difficult in the very recent past, as ALEC has become more publicly controversial. For example, ALEC began to press for social conservative priorities as well as business goals, as the NRA and its chief lobbyist Marion Hammer became more involved in ALEC’s criminal justice group, and as conservative activists and legislators became more influential in its internal deliberations. This did not present a major problem for more mainstream businesses involved in ALEC, so long as no one paid much public attention to what ALEC was doing. However, after the death of Trayvon Martin, progressive groups such as Color of Change began to inquire into ALEC’s role in pressing for “stand-your-ground” rules and mounted a public campaign against businesses that were members of ALEC, leading to a substantial decline in membership and fall in revenues. The businesses that left tended to be exposed to consumers, or to have shares owned by public employee pension funds. Groups like ALEC work best when they are in the shadows.

So why has ALEC had such influence on state legislators? Hertel-Fernandez has a straightforward answer. These legislators are very often amateur politicians, badly paid, with very few resources of their own to make good laws. This means that a little bit of money to fund conferences in nice places, with opportunities to bring spouses and family along, can go a long way. This isn’t straightforward corruption: it is the building of relationships, and the cultivation of influence at the stage where legislation is first considered, rather than the more obvious forms of home-stretch lobbying. And when legislators do not have the resources to research issues themselves, it is easy to lean on proposed legislation provided by others to solve a given problem.

Hertel-Fernandez does a series of statistical tests to establish whether these arguments are plausible, and the results are striking. Unsurprisingly, party affiliation, and the number of public employees in one’s district, affect the willingness of legislators to sponsor ALEC-provided bills. But lack of experience counts too: inexperienced legislators are more likely to sponsor ALEC legislation. States with lower pay for legislators, shorter sessions and less research assistance are substantially more likely to introduce and pass ALEC-drafted bills that could be identified by plagiarism software. A relatively small amount of resources can have big consequences, especially because ALEC faces no organized competition from liberals or the left. There is no progressive counterpart to ALEC, and various efforts to build one have foundered, because small-‘L’ liberal funders tend not to care very much about state level politics, dislike overt partisanship, and have short attention spans.

This is a book that everyone on the U.S. left and center should read to understand what to do, while those on the right will read it to see what has been done. Its key lesson is that American politics is being transformed on a level that few pay attention to. State level politics is less glamorous than federal politics and national policy-making. Yet precisely because it is so starved of attention, it is easy for organized actors to do a lot with a little. ALEC is one of a “troika” of rightwing organizations identified by Hertel-Fernandez, that has appreciated this opportunity, and taken advantage of it.

One key message of the book is that ALEC and similar groups think a lot about structural politics: reengineering politics to advantage groups that promote their interests, and disadvantage or destroy groups that oppose them. As Hertel-Fernandez describes it: “the troika thinks about policy not just as a means of achieving substantive goals but as a way of explicitly reshaping power relations.” It uses “policy as a means of reshaping political power.” What this means is that political power can be path dependent, and a product of increasing returns to a feedback loop in which policy changes reshape power relations allowing further opportunities to reshape policy, and so on. Hertel-Fernandez’s book suggests a sharp asymmetry in American politics. Even in an America where the left is re-energized, it is nearly impossible to imagine Democratic linked organizations seeking to destroy conservative powerhouses such as ALEC or the Federalist Society in the ways that ALEC and the Federalist Society have worked to destroy unions.

Hertel-Fernandez presents strong evidence that ALEC and its sister organizations pull U.S. politics away from the democratic preferences of citizens. He suggests that one plausible way to counter their influence would be to professionalize state legislatures: give legislators higher pay and much more resources to research and write their own bills, with longer legislative sessions. Higher publicity can increase the costs to businesses of remaining in ALEC – but many powerful businesses are still members, even after years of terrible publicity. Hertel-Fernandez argues that the best response would be for liberals and the left to create their own cross-state networks of organizations, learning both from ALEC’s successes and its mistakes. This will be hard – but perhaps not as hard as it might have seemed a few years ago. Foundations are now paying more attention to what is happening at the state level, even if their efforts are still disjointed, while Sean McElwee and other members of the new left are pressing for attention and money for state-level organizing. For progressives, the greatest difficulties, as always, are in disrupting the incumbent economies of money and attention and in rebuilding them so that they are better fit for the purpose of representing ordinary citizens’ democratic choices.



John McGowan 07.10.19 at 8:30 pm

Thanks, Henry. Like many of the politically obsessed, I know about ALEC. But I hadn’t seen or heard about Hertel-Fernandez’s book. In North Carolina (where I live) ALEC has been very influential, even as current progressive efforts are shifting toward a state court challenge of our extremely gerrrymandered state legislature districts (not to mentions our absurd congressional districts).


Antoine 07.10.19 at 8:38 pm

I don’t see how this analysis squares at all with the facts on the ground, namely the depth and permanence of the “blue/red” divide . Politically , America is deeply polarized “culturally” , i use this word in the broadest possible sense , as a placeholder for a long list of antagonisms: racial, social , demographic (urban/rural). Setting aside the fact that , factually, ALEC organizing, to the extent it is a decisive factor, wouldn’t be at all as effective as described since it doesn’t work in the 50% of areas that vote blue , do the authors think that somehow organizational tweaking will overcome this polarization? The reasons ALEC isn’t effective in the blue states shows why it can’t be a factor in the red states. The underlying ideological/cultural conditions can’t be overcome. The analysis described here assumes red voters somehow are being misled (what’s wrong with Kansas?) but this seems like wishful thinking , even delusional. The better explanation is that the political choices on offer that these voters respond to are simply better aligned with their desires.


Max Sawicky 07.10.19 at 11:30 pm

It isn’t quite right to say there have been no liberal counterparts to ALEC. There was the Center for Policy Alternatives, which was significant for a while but eventually fizzled in the 90s. Presently both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute have networks of state-level policy organizations (some groups belong to both networks).

As an irrelevant aside, when many moons ago I worked at the U.S. ACIR (see Wikipedia), I called our bathroom the Lavatory of Federalism.


Dr. Hilarius 07.11.19 at 1:14 am

Thank you for this. The role of ALEC and the reach of its influence is not well appreciated even by people who are generally well informed on domestic US politics.

Over the last several years I’ve noticed an increase in attacks on local land use and zoning predicated on the creation of affordable housing. Much of the language and policy justifications mirror papers done by economists associated with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. One paper suggested that developers form an ALEC-like organization to strip cities of zoning and land use authority. A bill to do this was introduced in the Washington State senate this year but failed to clear the house. I don’t know who wrote the bill but the details (on things like sewer connection requirements) were clearly beyond the ability of it nominal sponsors.

I should note that the zoning is not the only foe identified by these mostly hidden friends of private profit, public sector unions are blamed for high housing costs by virtue of union workers making too much money. Really. The infrastructure of right-wing influence in the US continues to grow even as our physical infrastructure degrades.


Alan White 07.11.19 at 4:31 am

A small response to Antoine@2. There’s some merit in your point, but ALEC’s work in Wisconsin in, for example, abolishing the strong tenure of UW System (which I was directly involved in as a member of what I now call the Tenure Task Farce) was to strike previous law protecting tenure and push new language placed into law with a Republican legislature and Governor and sympathetically appointed Regents that did not have any exposure to public input whatsoever–no hearings, nothing. ALEC might align with some attitudes of voters who I may also say constitute the slimmest of majorities in recent elections, but given any chance, they push their agendas without the slightest regard to truly democratic (small “d”) concerns.


J-D 07.11.19 at 4:40 am


As far as I can tell, the argument being made is not, as you seem to think (unless I have misunderstood you), that ALEC has played an important role in winning elections for Republicans, but rather that ALEC has played an important role in determining the content of legislation by Republicans once they have won elections. These seem to me clearly distinct assertions.

If that is in fact the case, that ALEC has this important influence over Republican legislators, then the more it’s true that Republican voters are going to vote Republican regardless of the actions of the people they elect (which seems to be your point), the more important the influence of ALEC will be.

Maybe I have misunderstood your point, though.


anonymousse 07.11.19 at 10:15 am

Why should we care? Conservative activists working for conservative causes is a dog bites man story, isn’t it?

As one counter example:

On Wikipedia, about George Soros
“…according to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2003–2004 election cycle, Soros donated $23,581,000 to various 527 Groups (tax-exempt groups under the United States tax code, 26 U.S.C. § 527). The groups aimed to defeat President George W. Bush. After Bush’s reelection, Soros and other donors backed a new political fundraising group called Democracy Alliance, which supports progressive causes and the formation of a stronger progressive infrastructure in America.[98]
…On September 27, 2012, Soros announced that he was donating $1 million to the super PAC backing President Barack Obama’s reelection Priorities USA Action.[101]
In October 2013, Soros donated $25,000 to Ready for Hillary, becoming a co-chairman of the super PAC’s national finance committee.[102] In June 2015, he donated $1 million to the Super PAC Priorities USA Action, which supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. He donated $6 million to the PAC in December 2015 and $2.5 million in August 2016.”



SamChevre 07.11.19 at 11:39 am

I interned at ALEC the summer after my freshman year of college. I think one factor that mentioned, but underemphasized, is this one: “And when legislators do not have the resources to research issues themselves, it is easy to lean on proposed legislation provided by others to solve a given problem.”

I spent the whole summer researching state laws and regulations relating to used tire disposal, and trying to find data on how effective it was (newspaper reports of illegal tire dumps and fires, etc.) If you are a state legislator who thinks illegal dumping of used tires is a problem, a “here’s what works and a draft bill to accomplish it” is really helpful. (The key feature: charge at the point where used tires are generated–repair shops–and pay out only when the tires have been destroyed or refurbished NOT when they’ve been transferred to someone who’s supposed to destroy them.)

I must say–this comment made me say “on what planet”? Even in an America where the left is re-energized, it is nearly impossible to imagine Democratic linked organizations seeking to destroy conservative powerhouses such as ALEC or the Federalist Society in the ways that ALEC and the Federalist Society have worked to destroy unions. That’s been the Left’s primary activity for the last 50 years, and has been overwhelmingly successful: Heart of Atlanta, Bob Jones, United States Jaycees, Meritor Savings Bank–not to mention the across-the-board destruction of any conservative policies or leaders in government schools, even if they were popular witht he public.


Pseudo gorgias 07.11.19 at 1:14 pm

This really points up the inability of the Hillary era democrats to conceive of politics as anything other than control of the presidency, and only makes more shocking and scandalous their inability to win it.


Marc 07.11.19 at 3:03 pm

@2: ALEC and the affiliated organizations really did make a difference, by passing laws that had never had local support before (basically, nationalizing issues that were previously local.) Let me give you a local example. My county in Ohio supports the local zoo and we had a zoo levy. This is usually a low key affair, but for some reason we made it onto the Koch foundation list (because evil tax), and a national organization came in and dumped a ton of money into defeating the levy. The supporters didn’t have a chance, not having a million dollars at hand to counter a massive, externally funded drive.

Now multiply this by a lot – local and state races are historically small-d democratic with small campaign budgets. A quarter of a million dollars is an order of magnitude more than typical spending, and you can simply bury your opposition – either in-party (not pure enough) or out of party. The mere threat of deploying these tactics can then serve to bring everyone else into line.

The polarization is imposed by things like this, not an impersonal fact of nature. Because it wasn’t like this in the past and there is no reason why it has to be that way in the future.


Anarcissie 07.11.19 at 4:52 pm

‘Hertel-Fernandez argues that the best response would be for liberals and the left to create their own cross-state networks of organizations….’

I wonder if, before suggesting liberals-and-the-left (heh — I’m biting my fingers to keep from scare quotes) imitate some rightist organizing practices, a more fundamental assessment of the political situation isn’t desirable. Back in the day, ALEC and the like comported with the Republican Party-Democratic Party dichotomy. Things seem to have broken up somewhat since then. The Republicans have lost control of their base to a loose-cannon demagogue and his pack, and the Democratic Party is severely split between its right and left wings, as will become plainer as we progress toward November 2020. The neoliberal/neocon/Deep State tribes still dominate the party organizations and the government, but they are losing support among the proles they despise and abuse. The careful coalition-building of ALEC may now be passé. Surely someone more reliable than I should look into this.


alfredlordbleep 07.11.19 at 6:32 pm

ALEC not needed when the NYT does its one-sided editing.

Pushing Fed rate cuts to boost worker wages? That’s as convincing as bringing corporate profits parked “overseas” home was to float everybody’s boat. And we all knew how well the latter worked under Bush-Cheney.

We get that the NYT has a Wall St. constituency. Asset inflation forever!


arcseconds 07.12.19 at 1:58 am

So, what do Americans want?

Quite different things from one another, probably, so let me put it another way: what policy (?) platform could attract the majority of eligible voters?

US elections have tended to get a bit higher than 50% turnout for some time, and they are usually closely fought, so actually only 25%-30% of people are interested enough to turn up for a particular party. So attracting half the current non-voters, roughly speaking, is enough for an existing party to gain true majority support (and to get a landslide victory, assuming the other half of the non-voters continue not to vote).

There seems to be a bit of an undercurrent here (maybe I’m imagining things?) that centrism is a bad electoral strategy and more left-wing policies is a good electoral strategy, but I’m yet to be convinced. Are the ~45% of people who don’t vote, or even half of them, really just hanging out for the end of two flavours of neoliberalism and the rise of a genuinely democratic socialist party before showing up to the polls?

Do we even know that they want something that’s coherent or possible? Some of Trump’s supporters appear to think that there’s a literal utopia just around the corner, that only the evil Deep State is preventing from being achieved, many seem to be supposing that steel working and car manufacturing and so forth can just magically return somehow (and there’s more than a little utopic thinking surrounding Brexit).

For those who complain ‘both parties are just the same’, do we know what a genuinely different party, one worth voting for, would look like to them? And does it look the same to enough of them for there to be one such party that they’d all support?

(At the moment this seems like a ridiculous remark to make, as their current forms seem to stand for noticeably different values and policies, so I’m wondering whether this indicates something other than what it looks like on the surface, perhaps “no party represents my most cherished values and ideas exactly” or “I really just find politics boring and/or distasteful” or perhaps “this is a way I can not bother thinking too hard about the situation and take the moral high-ground!”. These kinds of attitudes are pretty difficult for any party to work with, although perhaps a party committed to honesty and transparency could make a degree of headway.)

It’s true that polls sometimes show that Americans are more left-liberal than anyone usually imagines them to be, but it does depend on the question. My understanding is that they tend to be more conservative-sounding with abstract questions, and more left-liberal sounding on specific policies, so e.g. people who say they’re strongly against abortion in the abstract are actually in favour of policies that allow for controlled access, sometimes in fact things that sound like the status ‘Roe vs wade’ quo.

Unfortunately this doesn’t at all mean that they’ll vote for a party that espouses those policies, as elections aren’t generally fought on the basis of specific policies so much as ‘values’ (when it’s not personalities or simply tribalism), so will presumably tend to activate the ‘abstract question’ response more than the ‘specific policy option’ response.

(Also: is it always the same people who don’t vote?)


derrida derider 07.12.19 at 3:45 am

Yeah, I don’t get it. So there is a conservative lobbying institute that as part of its lobbying prepares draft legislation to make life easy for the non-lawyer targets of their lobbying. No doubt they also provide advice on procedure and provide draft speeches too.

This is pretty commonplace for lobbyists of all kinds worldwide wherever there is a parliament.


Ray Vinmad 07.12.19 at 4:50 pm

To amplify Marc’s point in 10 above, I’m surprised by all those comments that seem sanguine about ALEC’s role in state politics. ALEC writes bills directly intended to benefit very particular business interest. E.g., ‘the Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act’ to prevent companies from having to disclose the content of fracking fluids. This was brought to ALEC by Exxon, and became law in Ohio.

ALEC enables very specific corporate interests to write bills targeted directly to their interests, and get them passed into law. This is not something most citizens (and perhaps even some legislators and public officials) have any idea is happening. Even bills which benefit from pre-existing race or class or cultural divides aren’t passed for reasons that ‘values differ’ but are fundamentally helpful to the bottom line of the corporations that fund ALEC. So ALEC seems to have played a significant role in the growth of the prison population, and the expansion of the private prison industry. The Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group are ALEC sponsors. The bills ALEC has successfully passed into law have not only expanded the number of prisoners but loosened restrictions on prison labor, and what can be done with the proceeds from prison labor. They also wrote state bills designed expand the incarcerated population to undocumented immigrants by requiring local law enforcement to arrest immigrants, thus forcing the federal government to incarcerate them while their cases were sorted out. (This effort failed partly because many in local law enforcement believed it would be contrary to their role to become responsible for what ICE is currently doing now.) A few news outlets discovered that while the bills were going through the state legislative process, the prison corporations were scouting land to build holding facilities.

As Marc says, none of this is a ‘natural outgrowth’ of cultural divides or a commonplace thing worldwide. Most citizens are completely unaware that the bills are being written in a targeted way to benefit particular corporations, and when they do discover this, it tends to be harmful for the popularity of ALEC’s initiatives.

Whatever the red-blue divide, most citizens do not want Exxon directly shaping the environmental regulations of their state. There’s a reason that President Trump is (misleadingly) lauding the cleanliness of the environment under his administration. There’s a reason that there is such dramatic misinformation presented to the public about, e.g., the real beneficiaries and purpose and effects of legislation and the lax enforcement of prior regulations–this is not what the public wants. It seems like a good first step to counter the power of ALEC is increase transparency around these laws, and their beneficiaries. Unfortunately, getting facts to the public has become much harder than it used to be.


Mooser 07.12.19 at 5:00 pm

“Hertel-Fernandez also details the internal structures of ALEC. Policy formation is delegated to “task forces,” where businesses that contribute more to ALEC and have a higher membership status have the last word on legislative recommendations. This has created “bidding wars” that brought in more revenue. The pay-to-play approach heads off a lot of potential dispute by making it clear how disputes will be resolved. ”

Shorter: ALEC sells to the highest bidder.


dbk 07.12.19 at 6:12 pm

Thanks for this, Henry, I very much look forward to ordering/ reading it.

I think one really does have to be obsessed by state politics to understand how ALEC and its “think tanks” function in a particular state’s political climate. And sometimes even state politics experts are loath to admit that ALEC is writing and tweaking its bills, as the regional member of the SPN is rousing voters to accept something they’d never normally go for (or in some cases, even think of).

Two examples – one quite (in)famous, the other infamous but not at all famous in the state I happen to be obsessed by, Illinois: (1) Janus vs. AFSCME – probably the biggest “accomplishment” of Bruce V. Rauner and the right to work forces in the U.S. to date. You can’t move a case like this to SCOTUS through a pro-union state without a really well-oiled propaganda arm – the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI) spent the entirety of Rauner’s short tenure devoted to cultivating voter hostility towards public sector unions.

(2) The other case was related to an education tax credit program which was added to a K-12 education bill whose main sponsors had spent years working on (IL had one of the least equitable K-12 funding systems in the country). In the dead of night, more or less, a rider was added to permit up to $100 million in donations (75% tax deductible) to charitable “foundations” which could in turn distribute scholarship monies to private schools. The rider came from ALEC but had been tweaked for the Illinois context. What the ETCs ended up as was a re-financing plan for the state’s Catholic schools, the great majority of which are located in Chicago and have been hemorrhaging students for decades. The state has a politically-savvy Cardinal, four GA leaders all of whom are graduates of Catholic schools, and a legislature which essentially was tricked into voting for the main bill (years in the making) because the clock had run down.

Even experienced Illinois politics commentators and journalists were shocked, shocked by what looked to them like a rider that had come from nowhere, because they, understandably, don’t follow the progress of bills introduced in other state legislatures that provide workarounds for states whose constitutions have a variant of the Blaine amendment (as Illinois). Betsy DeVos considered this one of her major success stories in 2017.

For those who are interested and who follow closely one or another state’s politics, I would suggest they begin with Jane Mayer’s book and then proceed to the volume recommended here – ALEC is the “legislative arm” of what Mayer details, but she gives the historical background and the various initiatives of the “founders,” which also include the Federalist Society / economics and law movement, the American Enterprise Institute, and others.


Matt 07.12.19 at 6:26 pm

That [Democratic linked organizations seeking to destroy conservative powerhouses] has been the Left’s primary activity for the last 50 years, and has been overwhelmingly successful: Heart of Atlanta, Bob Jones, United States Jaycees, Meritor Savings Bank

Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States “A landmark United States Supreme Court case holding that the Commerce Clause gave the U.S. Congress power to force private businesses to abide by Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.”

Bob Jones University v. United States “A decision by the United States Supreme Court holding that the religion clauses of the First Amendment did not prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from revoking the tax exempt status of a religious university whose practices are contrary to a compelling government public policy, such as eradicating racial discrimination.”

Roberts v. United States Jaycees “An opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States overturning the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit’s application of a Minnesota antidiscrimination law. The Eighth Circuit had concluded that, by requiring the United States Jaycees to admit women as full voting members, the Minnesota Human Rights Act violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the organization’s members.”

Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson “Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), is a US labor law case, where the United States Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, recognized sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Supreme Court decisions against sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and racial discrimination (including a 9-0 case) undermine conservative institutions the same way that ALEC tries to undermine unions? Sexual harassment and racism are as beloved to conservatives as labor unions are to leftists? I would call this a cartoonishly uncharitable description of conservatism except that you seem to be conservative yourself.


John Quiggin 07.12.19 at 10:35 pm

On the various “dog bites man” comments above, ALEC’s biggest successes came in the early 2000s, when it had a significant number of Democrats on board and was able to present itself as non-partisan. The cumulative effect of exposures, notably including that of ALECs role in “stand your ground” laws in relation to the Trayvon Martin case has been first to drive away nearly all Democratic membership and then to make ALEC toxic enough that an ALEC backed bill automatically generates opposition. But the point still needs to be hammered home.


The Lunatic 07.12.19 at 11:38 pm

States with lower pay for legislators, shorter sessions and less research assistance are substantially more likely to introduce and pass ALEC-drafted bills

There are ten states with full-time legislatures (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin); in the last eight presidential elections, those states were carried by the Democrat candidate a cumulative 62:18 ratio, with never more than half voting Republican.

So, what’s actually demonstrated by looking at those variables is that states with unusually-liberal electorates (compared to the median state) are less receptive to conservative-drafted legislation than the median state, rather than demonstrating that professionalized state legislatures are less vulnerable to organizations proposing draft legislation.

So, given every dime spent on state legislatures has to come out of something else in a balanced state budget (infrastructure, education, social spending, etc.), perhaps pushing Texas to give its Republican-dominated legislature more money and more time in-session to pass laws is not really a sensible way to support progressive priorities.


SamChevre 07.13.19 at 12:22 am


I’d respond that whether agreeing with the elites (AKA “compelling public policy”) is more important than free exercise of religion, or whether single-sex organizations for men (but not for women) constitute “sexual discrimination”, are contested between the Left and the Right.


Chetan Murthy 07.13.19 at 4:11 am

SamChevre @ 21:

That’s *amazing*! How do you do that? You cite a bunch of decisions, and when somebody has the temerity to actually investigate, and finds in pretty much each of them, decency and equity won, you just *skip* past it all and go back to “old time religion” and “freedom”. It’s impressive, really it is.

Thing is, you just proved Matt @ 18’s point. Indeed, for you, keeping us darkies down [viz. Heart of Atlanta, Bob Jones], and ensuring that the womenfolk can be beaten, raped, and harrassed as much as you want [viz. Meritor], IS the crux of what defines “the Right”, and separates them from “the Left”.



billcinsd 07.13.19 at 5:54 am

Sam @21 and @8 maybe you should learn more about at least some of those court cases before you attribute them to the works of the left.

Bob Jones vs. the US was begun in 1970 by Nixon’s administration pursuant to a reinterpretation of the private university tax exempt status. Their tax exempt status was revoked January 19, 1976 after BJU lost at the US District, Appeals and at SCOTUS (8-0). They then paid $21 in taxes and sued to get that money back. The US countersued for unpaid taxes. The US District Court agreed with BJU in 1978, but the Appeals Court sent the judgement back to the District Court. The final SCOTUS decision came down in 1983 with an 8-1 ruling that the US’ interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education . . . “substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the University’s] exercise of their religious beliefs.”

So the only input from the left was to lose at the district court level and to continue the case from Nixon and Ford through to Reagan. Now a bunch of cynical manipulators who were trying to activate the evangelicals to support Republicans used the 1978 case to tar Carter and pry these evangelicals away from supporting Carter as they did in 1976. It worked because, most people, as you did, did not check out the entire history of the case, which was at worst bipartisan and certainly was started and was ended by the right.


Larry 07.13.19 at 12:09 pm

Its lazy scholarship to say there’s no progressive or liberal alternative to ALEC. As someone who has attend ALEC’s conferences and worked in state government affairs, there’s dozens of organizations like ALEC that put on conferences for state legislators, adopt model policies, and are funded by corporations. There’s the National Conference of State Legislators which is structured to be more bipartsian but leans left. There’s the Council on State Government which is includes the executive branch in addition to state legislators. CSG also leans left. ALEC, CGS, and NCSL, all receive funding from private donors, but CSG and NCSL also get funding from the states. Amazingly, its largely the same donors. Here is the list of companies that donate to NCSL
Also, having attended conferences for all three, its the same people. If you are doing state government affairs for a company, there’s a 25 to 30 conference circuit that you do. ALEC, CSG, and NCSL all do multiple issues, but there’s a whole slew of single issue state legislature focused groups. There’s the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, State and Agriculture Rural Leaders, Southern States Energy Board, National Association of Counties, State Legislative Leaders Foundation, National Association of State Energy Officers, National Association of State Agriculture Commissioners, National Association Of Regulatory Utility Commissioners… to name just a few. All of these groups have discussions on public policy and companies attend to network with regulators and legislators to advocate for their preferred public policy. If you care about the influence of corporations on public policy, you have to focus on all of these groups. If you care about owning those crazy right wingers, focus just on ALEC.

Also, there is a progressive version of SPN as others have talked about. The Center for Budget Policy and Priorities is a progressive organization that does research for state based affiliates and provides other types of support. I don’t know if they do conferences and events like SPN does.

A bigger issue though, is there might not be a progressive ALEC because progressives and conservatives may have different structures and historical accident. If you want to talk about energy and environmental issues, ALEC does both, but its one of many they do. Compare that to the Sierra Club on the left which does energy and environmental issues. It seems the left has more single issues organizations where as the right has larger coalitions. ALEC does labor and energy policy, the left has Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO which has chapters in both states. Its probably historical accident that coalitions and groups formed differently on each political side, but it shouldn’t be surprising. A serious effort at exploring these issues, would look to see if there a different structures.


J-D 07.13.19 at 1:02 pm


Conservative activists working for conservative causes is a dog bites man story, isn’t it?

Here’s an investigation of the origins of that saying:

Later versions of the saying suggest that it’s not a news story when a dog bites a man, but only when a man bites a dog, but the earliest traced version in print (which may derive from still earlier oral sources) says this:
‘A dog bites a man’—that’s a story; ‘A man bites a dog’—that’s a good story

As a matter fact, a dog biting a man is frequently a news story: here are a couple of recent examples:

As one counter example:

George Soros’s donation of money to progressive causes is not a counterexample to Henry’s assertion that there is no progressive counterpart to ALEC. Henry is obviously aware that there are people working for progressive causes and people donating money for those causes, because he mentions them explicitly; what he asserts is that they don’t have a counterpart to ALEC, and George Soros certainly isn’t one.


J-D 07.13.19 at 1:18 pm


I must say–this comment made me say “on what planet”? Even in an America where the left is re-energized, it is nearly impossible to imagine Democratic linked organizations seeking to destroy conservative powerhouses such as ALEC or the Federalist Society in the ways that ALEC and the Federalist Society have worked to destroy unions. That’s been the Left’s primary activity for the last 50 years, and has been overwhelmingly successful: Heart of Atlanta, Bob Jones, United States Jaycees, Meritor Savings Bank–not to mention the across-the-board destruction of any conservative policies or leaders in government schools, even if they were popular witht he public.

On what planet do the Heart of Atlanta motel, Bob Jones University, United States Jaycees, and Meritor Savings Bank constitute conservative powerhouses like ALEC or the Federalist Society? On what planet were the lawsuits against them brought by Democratic-linked organisations? On what planet did those lawsuits constitute attempts to destroy them?

If Henry had written something to the effect that there are efforts being made to advance conservative causes but none being made to advance liberal causes, then it might possibly have been relevant to point to these lawsuits as efforts to advance liberal causes (although if you were looking for examples to illustrate efforts to advance liberal causes, those lawsuits would be an eccentric selection). But Henry was not fool enough to write anything so silly. Henry made a much more specific assertion, and you responded with not just one but three gross disanalogies, making yourself seem like somebody whose only conception of a connected train of thought is to shout ‘Yah! You’re another!’ I sincerely hope you can do better than that, because this response is not to your credit.


anonymousse 07.14.19 at 11:44 pm


Thanks for the support. As your link explains, the whole ‘dog bites man’ analogy has been exactly as I used it, for over a hundred years (your link lists several uses, consistent with mine, dating back to 1902).



SamChevre 07.15.19 at 12:43 am

It’s obvious that I didn’t make my point clearly, so I’ll be more explicit.

Here’s my starting point: the key difference between left and right, in America over the last 50 years, is basically three questions:
1) Are traditional gender roles desirable or undesirable as societal norms?
2) Is religiously-derived morality an acceptable basis for public policy, or are non-religious ideologies the only acceptable public moralities?
3) How important is freedom of association vs some elite idea of “the public good”?
(You can think of this as Corey Robin, looked at sideways; should there be lots of little hierarchies (Anglo-American liberalism), or only one giant hierarchy which everyone else must interact with as an undifferentiated individual (French liberalism)).

Taking that as a starting point, look again at the list of cases: all of them weaken the ability of the right to form or maintain institutions that support and further their side of the controversies above. The specific questions tried are not terribly relevant; the overall effect, though, is huge. Every company has an HR department, that makes sure that leftist ideas are promoted and right-leaning ones are suppressed. (Because remember, “it seems men are more interested in X than women” is sexual harassment by current definitions.) Every non-profit has to consider whether it’s really worth getting in a fight with the IRS, the Department of Education, and etc if it wants to reflect some moral view–not advocate it, but reflect it in its internal operations–that is on the right side, while advocating for the left side is easy and common. (There’s a “Social Justice Magnet School” in my city; I think a “Traditional Gender Roles” school would be illegal.)


ph 07.15.19 at 2:49 am

Kudos, Henry. There an extremely clear connection between ALEC and the 45th president’s policies, particularly on de-regulation, unions, and the environment. But much is missed when 45 starts flapping his wings and fouling the nest.

America, Love it, or Leave It might sound silly to some/many here perhaps. Others understand full well the potency of the expression. ALEC certainly does, which is where we find the populism, anti-globalization, xenophobia, and anti-labor lobbying intersecting and fusing. Some 45 supporters are having conniptions over his supposed “Own Goal.”

The press has taken the bait, however, and is now whooping and shrieking over 45’s twitter attack on America-bashing congress-critters. Like 45 made another mistake, like 45 made another gaff, like somebody needs to take his twitter account away. ALEC understands messaging better than our current crop of media experts and (with some exceptions) academics. Perhaps one has to have sold cars, or done telemarketing to understand how emotional manipulation seizes and controls narratives and decision-making, but let’s leave the cognitive dissonance aside for the moment.

45 needs three things to win in 2020: a clear enemy – America haters, white-hot enthusiasm/anger from his base, and no viable opponent. We saw the set-up this weekend when 45 came to Pelosi’s defense. He widened the breach between progressive and establishment Dems and wrong-footed the opposition at the same time. He followed this with the attack/own goal.

When then candidate 45 announced his Muslim ban, he explained that the campaign had long known they would dump that little turd. They were simply waiting for the optimum time. Paris presented itself – ban proposal was subsequently launched to define the election on his terms.

For all his talk about sleepy Joe, 45 understands that an establishment candidate with the experience to keep capable hands on the economic tiller is the only credible threat to re-election. Progressive Dems are doing an excellent job of running against the establishment. Yet, the timing of Maureen Dowd’s most recent column suggests a serious Sister Soulhah moment looms, a major policy speech from Biden and slap-down that will resurrect Biden as a civil-liberties and working class crusader, but one with a no-nonsense backbone backbone taking no guff.

45 smelled blood. Last week, he trolls the Dems by praising Pelosi as the victim of the bad kids, and then fires off a series of incendiary (ban all Muslims!) tweets certain to capture the news cycle, which remind his base “how much” Democrats hate Trump supporters, and which force Pelosi, Biden, Warren, and the media to tie themselves to the bad kids right up to election day. And the opportunity for the Sister Souljah moment disappears in this week’s twitter-storm. Surprise! Trump’s has his 2020 message: America, Love It or Leave It, which ALEC loves.

Such a dummy.


reason 07.15.19 at 9:46 am

At the risk of feeding a troll I’ll bite.
I don’t understand any of your points.
1. No – you don’t get it. The point is whether non-traditional are accepted or not.
2. These two things are not alternatives to one another. The point is you can’t have BOTH freedom of religion and public policy enacting the dictates of a particular religious view. Again you don’t get it at all. The key word phrase here is SECULAR which you replaced with non-religious which is bullshit.
3. The question here is not the public good (which has f-a to do with freedom of association) but where the public sphere ends and the private begins. This is quite a different and more complex question. You are just not understanding any of the issues.


Nigel 07.15.19 at 12:29 pm

’45 needs three things to win in 2020′

‘Trump’s has his 2020 message:’

Trump’s already has his 2020 message and it’s about the one thing he really needs in order to win – ‘we will disenfranchise as many minority voters as we can so it doesn’t really matter what I say so long as my base loves it and centrists and leftists, who hate the Democrats more than they grudgingly acknowledge my deficiencies except to conflate them with my brilliance, can attribute my succes to the stuff I say as dazzling strategic coups rather than acknowledge these astonishing naked and openly racist acts of opression.’

Hey, didn’t you vote for this racist guy who fires of racist tweets to fire up his racist voter base? Or was that some other Isn’t-Trump-Terrible-But-Look-How-Awesome-He-Is-Democrats-Suck guy?


steven t johnson 07.15.19 at 7:41 pm

Sam Chevre@28 wrote:
“Here’s my starting point: the key difference between left and right, in America over the last 50 years, is basically three questions:
1) Are traditional gender roles desirable or undesirable as societal norms?
2) Is religiously-derived morality an acceptable basis for public policy, or are non-religious ideologies the only acceptable public moralities?
3) How important is freedom of association vs some elite idea of “the public good”?
(You can think of this as Corey Robin, looked at sideways; should there be lots of little hierarchies (Anglo-American liberalism), or only one giant hierarchy which everyone else must interact with as an undifferentiated individual (French liberalism)).”

First, I think these must be rephrased to be honest.
1) Is it good to criminalize sexual deviance from traditional images of gender roles and give extensive liberties and privileges to support the illusion of an unchanging traditional family and to require all political figures to give lip service to them?
2) Is it good to give “religion” in general de jure liberties and privileges (while de facto repressing or allowing discrimination against minority or new religion,) while insisting on a the public affirmation of a non-denominational Christianity as a public good in itself, with tacit assumption that God did indeed give Jews Palestine, and support for all public attacks and open discrimination by acceptable denominations that support the social order as it was imagined to be, or the political order as it now is.
3) The big fish should be able to rule the little ponds as they wish, as when a boss bullies the employees or the husband bullies the wife, or the police bully the trash they are picking up (picking up trash is a commonly accurate definition of policing, instead of newfangled ideas about the equality of people interfering. I have ever increasing doubts about the utility of anything drawn from Robin, though, so perhaps I’m not getting this one, which does want to have some Robin ju jitsu on the political principles going on.

As I starting point I see two objections. First, either the lost ideal conservatives defend was not lost to tyrannical utopian planners whose minds were rotted with Satanic Enlightenment ideas, but lost to change. As in, women who earn their own money are never going to be as docile as women who depend for all their money on the husband. It was women working that created mass liberation on a mass scale, and it wasn’t left-wing politics that lowered the husband’s wage so most wives have to work. Also, as in, it is far more likely that decades of using sex to sell and commercial encouragement of consumption as personality that did more to undermine the supposed traditional morality than any catch-up legislation ever did. Or, the supposed opposition and oppression by liberals/leftists/elitists/communists/satanists/illuminati is BS. This is particularly true about the oppression of Christianity.

In the sense that real politics is about who gets what, I’d say the three biggest principles espoused by conservatives are not the quasi-theological tripe Sam Chevre spouts. But:
1)the determination to reverse the New Deal
2) the determination to break the trade union movement and an adamantine commitment to the purge of the left by “McCarthyism” where nothing to the left is actually admissible in political life and the left is defined by differences in taste, not politics
3)the determination to support presidential power in its essence, the sovereign power to make war in defense of the empire.

Again, it’s not clear how much opposition from “liberals” there is even on these points, the true hot button issues in the sense they do not even accept the legitimacy of dissent.


ph 07.15.19 at 9:15 pm

Quick follow-up. “If you’re not happy in the U.S., if you’re complaining all the time, very simply, you can leave.” UK Mail, just now. Two tweets and within hours world press provides 45 free global coverage for: “America, Love it, or Leave it.” Cost? Not one penny.

The media isn’t focusing on ALEC, the actual shortcomings of the current administration, or Dem solutions. Instead the debate is now and will be whether “America Love it, Or Leave It” is really a racist slogan – a master-class in strategic messaging and branding.

Sister Souljah who?


J-D 07.15.19 at 10:43 pm


Lots of people have said, over a period of more than a century, that when a dog bites a man it’s not a news story.

They were all wrong, though.

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