By Joel Rogers, who teaches law, political science, sociology and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also directs COWS, a high road think-and-do tank. He’ll be leading a breakout session on “ALICE” at the ACS National Convention next week.
ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), for nearly 40 years the best kept open secret of the American Right, has certainly been in the news lately, with reporting from Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and many others. ALEC’s authorship of much of the GOP legislative playbook last year -- to obliterate public sector unions, restrict voting by students and the poor, roll back environmental and consumer protections, and privatize much of government -- spurred press attention. As the Times remarked afterward, “it is no coincidence that so many state legislatures have spent the last year taking the same destructive actions.” So did, more recently, ALEC’s promotion of the ”stand-your-ground” law made famous by Trayvon Martin’s killing. Special credit for increasing public knowledge of ALEC’s antics should go to ALEC Exposed, which last year published several hundred of ALEC’s model bills, helped organize a special issue of The Nation devoted to them, and has kept up a drumbeat of ALEC-watchdogging ever since. Worried about the publicity, a growing number of household name corporations, most recently Walmart, have ended their membership in the group.
This new awareness and scrutiny of ALEC is all to the good. But even better would be a progressive counter to its influence. What that would really require is probably beyond anyone’s immediate means, as it would mean matching the vast political infrastructure the Right has built in states over the last 40 years. Along with ALEC’s conferences and library of model bills, this includes broad and deep networks for mass and internal communication, staff and leadership development, candidate recruitment and training, enough recognized leadership to permit assessments of progress and strategy discussion, and a dedicated pool of patient capital for all these things. National progressive donors and institutions have never shown commitment to matching this machine, much less the coordination that such matching would require.