Actually, most regular readers of this blog–at least those who comment–have heard of Americans for Prosperity, and understand what it is intended to do. But with midterms rapidly approaching, it may be useful to revisit what we know about the organization.
The article began by recapping Scott Walker’s attacks on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions.
At first blush this might seem like a years-old local issue in a US state that rarely lights up the international headlines. Yet events in Wisconsin are crucial to understanding how a little-known, billionaire-funded organization, called Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has tilted American politics to the right. It is intertwined with, and rivals in size, the Republican party itself.
Where did Walker’s ultra-conservative labor agenda come from? As a candidate, Walker barely mentioned collective bargaining or union busting. And we know this plan did not come from voters. Before the legislation popped up on the agenda, Wisconsinites generally supported collective bargaining. Nationally, only about 40% of American adults favor curbs to public sector bargaining rights, and in Wisconsin, this minority level of support was about the same.
The article in the Guardian was the product of a group of Columbia and Harvard-based researchers who spent five years investigating precisely how the Koch brothers have used Americans for Prosperity to influence US politics, and especially how they have managed to destroy unions. (The Koch’s desire to make lasting changes to the American political system requires permanently weakening organizations supportive of liberal candidates and causes – especially the labor movement.)
That war on unions, waged by politicians like Walker who are beholden to the brothers, has largely succeeded.
Since the passage of the anti-union bill, public union membership rates in Wisconsin have plummeted by more than half, falling from around 50% in 2011 to around 19% by 2017. With fewer members and revenue, the political clout of the labor unions has fallen sharply. Campaign contributions by teachers’ unions to state and local races have fallen by nearly 70%.
In presidential elections, Democrats lose around three percentage points after the passage of anti-union legislation, and turnout dips by around two points. So while there are many factors that might explain Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin in 2016 by a mere 23,000 votes, a weaker labor movement less able to turn out Democratic voters might have been one important contributor to Trump’s victory.
As the article points out, wealthy people have always thrown their weight around to influence elections and policy. What is new, and painfully effective (especially at the state level) is the rise of organized big donor collectives through which hundreds of billionaires and millionaires invest in organization-building intended to change the electoral landscape.
Organized political mega-donors can get much more leverage through persistent organizations than from scattered, one-time contributions to particular politicians.
The Kochs are fantastically wealthy and their generous funding of Americans for Prosperity has allowed them to influence policy in ways that have increased that wealth. It has been a very good investment for them.
The article is lengthy, but well worth reading in its entirety. I do think the following paragraphs sum up the threat Americans for Prosperity poses to working-class Americans and to democracy itself:
The Koch brothers have created a vehicle that is perfectly positioned to reshape American politics. AFP focuses on both elections and policy battles at all levels of government, from city councils to Congress and the White House. Although its activities are mostly centrally directed from its headquarters in Virginia, AFP has active local, state and regional offices that reflect the federated nature of US politics. And even though grassroots participants do not have much say in the direction of the group, AFP has nearly 3 million citizen activists signed up to mobilize for candidates and policy causes. Activists participate in rallies or protests and contact elected officials at the direction of more than 500 paid staffers nationwide.
Taken together, AFP’s grassroots volunteers and staffing rival those of the Republican party itself. However, AFP is not a free-standing political party – but instead is an extra-party organization that parallels and leverages Republican candidates and office-holders. By providing resources to support GOP candidates and officials, and exerting leverage on them once elected, AFP has been able to pull the Republican party to the far right on economic, tax and regulatory issues.
The Koch network has retarded the implementation of the Affordable Care Act–especially the expansion of Medicaid in states like Missouri and Tennessee. It has succeeded in rolling back state efforts to address climate change in Kansas and West Virginia, and of course, it has succeeded in passing state and federal tax cuts that have primarily benefitted wealthy individuals and companies.
The love of money evidently leaves no room for consideration of the public good.