An extraordinary investigative report from documented.net tells how morbidly rich families, their companies, and their personal foundations are funding efforts to limit or restrict democracy across the United States.
In an article co-published with The Guardian, they noted:
“The advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, the powerful conservative think tank based in Washington, spent more than $5m on lobbying in 2021 as it worked to block federal voting rights legislation and advance an ambitious plan to spread its far-right agenda calling for aggressive voter suppression measures in battleground states.”
Their efforts have had substantial success, as you can read in Documented’s article.
This effort, of course, is not unique to the one think tank they called out. From Donald Trump all the way down to the lowest Republican county official, efforts to make it harder for what John Adams called “the rabble” to vote and otherwise participate in democracy are in full swing across America.
But why? Why are some wealthy people so opposed to expanding democracy in America?
Most Americans — and lots of editorial writers — are convinced it’s simply because rich folks want to influence legislation to benefit themselves and keep their regulations and taxes down. I proposed a motive like that in yesterday’s Daily Take.
And surely, for some, that’s the largest part of it. But that’s not the entire story.
I can’t claim (nor would I) to know the exact motives driving the various wealthy individuals funding efforts to reduce the Black, Hispanic, senior, and youth vote. But history does suggest that many are trying to “stabilize” America rather than just pillage her.
They are worried that America is suffering from too much democracy.
The modern-day backstory to this starts in the early 1950s when conservative thinker Russell Kirk proposed a startling hypothesis that would fundamentally change our nation and the world.
The American middle-class at that time was growing more rapidly than any middle-class had ever grown in the history of the world, both in terms of the number of people in the middle class, the income of those people, and the overall wealth that those people were accumulating.
The middle-class was growing in wealth and income back then, in fact, faster than were the top 1%.
Kirk and colleagues like William F. Buckley postulated that if the middle-class and minorities became too wealthy, they’d feel the safety and freedom to throw themselves actively into our political processes, as rich people had historically done.
That expansion of democracy, they believed, would produce an absolute collapse of our nation’s social order — producing chaos, riots, and possibly even the end of the republic.
The first chapter of Kirk’s 1951 book, The Conservative Mind, is devoted to Edmund Burke, the British conservative who Thomas Paine visited for two weeks in 1793 on his way to get arrested in the French revolution. Paine was so outraged by Burke’s arguments that he wrote an entire book rebutting them titled The Rights of Man. It’s still in print (as is Burke).
Burke was defending, among other things, Britain’s restrictions on democracy, including limits on who could vote or run for office, and the British maximum wage.
Burke and his contemporaries in the late 1700s believed that if working-class people made too much money, they’d have enough spare time to use democratic processes to challenge the social order and collapse the British kingdom.
Too much democracy, Burke believed, was a dangerous thing: deadly to nations and a violation of evolution and nature itself.
Summarizing his debate with Paine about the French Revolution, Burke wrote:
“The occupation of a hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler [candle maker], cannot be a matter of honour to any person—to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively are permitted to rule [by voting]. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.”
That was why Parliament passed a law making it illegal for employers to pay people over a certain amount, so as to keep wage-earners right at the edge of poverty throughout their lives.
It was explicitly to avoid too much democracy and preserve the stability of the kingdom. (For the outcome of this policy, read pretty much any Dickens novel.)
Picking up on this, Kirk’s followers argued that if the American middle-class became wealthy enough to have time for political activism, there would be similarly dire consequences.
Young people would cease to respect their elders, they warned. Women would stop respecting (and depending on) their husbands. Minorities would begin making outrageous demands and set the country on fire.
When Kirk laid this out in 1951, only a few conservative intellectuals took him seriously.
Skeptics of multiracial egalitarian democracy like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater were electrified by his writings and line of thinking, but Republicans like then-President Dwight Eisenhower said of people like Kirk and his wealthy supporters:
And then came the 1960s.
— In 1961, the birth control pill was legalized and by 1964 was in widespread use; this helped kick off the Women’s Liberation Movement, as women, now in control of their reproductive capacity, demanded equality in the workplace. Bra burning became a thing, at least in pop culture lore.
— By 1967, young people on college campuses were also in revolt; the object of their anger was an illegal war in Vietnam. Along with national protest, draft card burning was also a thing.
— The labor movement was feeling it’s oats: strikes spread across America throughout the 1960s from farm workers in California to steel workers in Pennsylvania. In the one year of 1970 alone, over 3 million workers walked out in 5,716 strikes.
— And throughout that decade African Americans were demanding an end to police violence and an expansion of Civil and Voting Rights. In response to several brutal and well-publicized instances of police violence against Black people in the late 1960s, riots broke out and several of our cities were on fire.
These four movements all hitting America at the same time got the attention of Republicans who had previously ignored or even ridiculed Kirk’s 1950s warnings about the dangers of the middle class and minorities embracing democracy.
Suddenly, he seemed like a prophet. And the GOP turned on a dime.
The Republican/Conservative “solution” to the “national crisis” these movements represented was put into place with the election of 1980: the project of the Reagan Revolution was to dial back democracy while taking the middle class down a peg, and thus end the protests and social instability.
Their goal was, at its core, to save America from itself.
The plan was to declare war on labor unions so wages could slide down or at least remain frozen for a few decades; end free college across the nation so students would study in fear rather than be willing to protest; and increase the penalties Nixon had already put on drugs so they could use those laws against hippy antiwar protesters and Black people demanding participation in democracy.
As Nixon‘s right hand man, John Ehrlichman, told reporter Dan Baum:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. Do you understand what I’m saying?
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.
“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
While it looks from the outside like the singular mission of the Reagan Revolution was simply to help rich people and giant corporations get richer and more powerful (and that’s certainly been the effect), the ideologues driving the movement also thought they were restoring stability to the United States, both socially, economically, and — most important — politically.
The middle class was out of control by the late 1960s, they believed, and something had to be done. There was too much democracy, and it was tearing America apart.
Looking back at the “solutions” England used around the time of the American Revolution (and for 1000 years before) and advocated by Edmund Burke and other conservative thinkers throughout history, Republicans saw a remedy to the crisis. As a bonus, it had the side effect of helping their biggest donors and thus boosting their political war-chests.
If working people, women, minorities, and students were a bit more desperate about their economic situations, these conservative thinkers asserted, then they’d be less likely to organize, protest, strike, or even vote. The unevenness, the instability, the turbulence of democracy in the 1960s would be calmed.
— To accomplish this, Reagan massively cut taxes on rich people and raised taxes on working-class people 11 times.
— He put a tax on Social Security income and unemployment benefits and put in a mechanism to track and tax tips income, all of which had previously been tax-free but were exclusively needed and used by working-class people.
— He ended the deductibility of credit-card, car-loan and student-debt interest, overwhelmingly claimed by working-class people. At the same time, he cut the top tax bracket for millionaires and multimillionaires from 74% to 27%. (There were no billionaires in America then, in large part because of FDR’s previous tax policies; the modern explosion of billionaires followed Reagan’s massive tax cuts for the rich.)
— He declared war on labor unions, crushed PATCO in less than a week, and over the next decade the result of his war on labor was that union membership went from about a third of the American non-government workforce when he came into office to around 10% today.
— He brought a young lawyer named John Roberts into the White House to work out ways to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision. His VP brought in his son, George W., to build bridges between the GOP and the most fanatical branches of evangelical Christianity, who opposed both women’s rights and the Civil Rights movement.
— He and Bush also husbanded the moribund 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT, which let Clinton help create the WTO) and NAFTA, which opened a floodgate for American companies to move manufacturing overseas, leaving American workers underemployed while cutting corporate donor’s labor costs and union membership.
And, sure enough, it worked.
— Reagan’s doubling-down on the War on Drugs shattered Black communities and our prison population became the largest in the world, both as a percentage of our population and in absolute numbers.
— His War on Labor cut average inflation-adjusted minimum and median wages by more over a couple of decades than anybody had seen since the Republican Great Depression of the 1930s.
— And his War on Students jacked up the cost of education so high that an entire generation is today so saddled with more than $1.7 trillion in student debt that many aren’t willing to jeopardize their future by “acting up” on campuses.
The key to selling all this to the American people was the idea that the US shouldn’t protect the rights of workers, subsidize education, or enforce Civil Rights laws because, Republicans said, government itself is a remote, dangerous and incompetent power that can legally use guns to enforce its will.
As Reagan told us in his first inaugural, democracy was not the solution to our problems, but democracy — government — instead was the problem itself.
He ridiculed the once-noble idea of service to one’s country and joked that there were really no good people left in government because if they were smart or competent they’d be working in the private sector for a lot more money.
He told us that the nine most frightening words in the English language were:
“I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, wealthy people associated with Kirk’s and Reagan’s Republicans built a massive infrastructure of think tanks and media outlets to promote and amplify this message about the dangers of too much democracy.
As the reporting from documented.net indicates, they’re working at it with as much enthusiasm today as ever.
It so completely swept America that by the 1990s even President Bill Clinton was repeating things like, “The era of big government is over,” and “This is the end of welfare as we know it.” Limbaugh, Hannity and other right-wing radio talkers were getting millions a year in subsidies from groups like the Heritage Foundation, the group documented.net wrote about yesterday.
Fox News today carries on the tradition, warning almost daily about the danger of “people in the streets” or political movements like anti-fascism and BLM.
When you look at the long arc of post-Agricultural Revolution human history you discover that Burke was right when he claimed that oligarchy — rule by the rich — has been the norm, not the exception.
And it’s generally provided at least a modicum of stability: feudal Europe changed so little for over a thousand years that we simply refer to that era as the Dark Ages followed by the Middle Ages without detail. It’s all kind of black-and-white fuzzy in our mind’s eye.
Popes, kings, queens, pharaohs, emperors: none allowed democracy because all knew it was both a threat to their wealth and power but also because, they asserted, it would render their nations unstable.
These historic leaders — and their modern day “strongman” versions emerging in former democracies like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, The Philippines, and Russia — are the model for many of today’s conservatives. And not just because they were rich.
Understanding this history gives us clues to how we can revive democracy in America. Step one is to help people realize that instability, like labor pains before birth, is not a bad thing for a democracy but most frequently is a sign of emerging and positive political and social advances.
Hopefully one day soon our vision of an all-inclusive democracy — the original promise of America, to quote historian Harvey Kaye — will be realized. But first we’re going to have to get past the millions of dollars mobilized by democracy’s skeptics.
I believe it’s possible. But it’s going to take all of us getting involved to make it happen. As both Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama were fond of saying: “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”
Tag, we’re it.