Rigging The Marketplace Of Ideas
Last week, sane people everywhere celebrated the withdrawal of Michael Baroody as nominee to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission, because he had made his living fighting against the commission of consumer product safety. This scion for the clan I've called the Corleone family of the right did so as lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers, which reacted thus: "The withdrawal of Michael Baroody’s nomination to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission is a sad day for consumers and everyone who cares about good government."
Such public relations absurdities are par for the National Association of Manufacturer's course. I'm glad, in fact, for this teachable moment: There is nothing more fundamental to what NAM than hustling the public about what is good for them. If you love E. coli conservatism, lift a glass daily in honor of NAM.
Come with me, then, on a journey, courtesy of historian Nancy Fones-Wolfe's outstanding Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and LIberalism, 1945-60....
It starts in 1934.
In the second year of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, NAM's annual PR budget was already hefty at $360,000 (almost five and a half million in today's dollars). It wasn't, though, hefty enough. Americans, those silly souls, thought that the government should assist them out of their Depression misery, and that unions and regulation of business could help. So, after Roosevelt's landslide re-election, they more than doubled their budget—making it over half the organization's annual income.
"In the everlasting battle for the minds of men," NAM Public Relations Advisory Committee chair J. Warren Kinsman boomed, only modern PR techniques were "powerful enough to arouse public opinion sufficiently to check the steady, insidious, and current drift toward socialism." (That his PR budget resembled the most Orwellian aspects of socialism in itself—if his ideas were, simply, true and persuasive, why would he need millions to shove them down the public's throat?—was an irony that escaped him.)
What were they buying? Press releases, pamphlets, speakers, radio shows and full-page ads like this one, placed during World War II: "I'm not playing for marbles. I'm fighting for freedom. I'm fighting for the things that made American the greatest place in the world to live in.... So don't anybody tell me I'll find America changed."
Schools were not slighted. In 1941 NAM proposed to the National Education Association, the only union they liked (it represented a potential vector with which to infect schoolchildren), joint conferences to convey "the sincerity of American business"—and the blight of federal aid to education. By 1950 NAM had circulated almost 4.5 million pamphlets to students. In 1953, two million children read the B. F. Goodrich-sponsored comic book "Johnson Makes the Team" ("Tommy Johnson, a son of a Goodrich tire dealer, learns about the American free enterprise system through teamwork in football") and saw the film "The Price of Freedom" ("the story of Fred Vollmer, a young newspaper man who joins the staff of his father's paper. He visits Germany and learns that public complacency to the exploding powers of the state fostered Nazism. Returning home, he sees the same threats to America's democratic institutions and resolves to expose them in a series of 'stirring editorials'").
In 1954, Fones-Wolfe reports, "school superintendents estimated the investment in free materials at $50 million, about half the amount public schools spent annually on regular textbooks."
The clergy was not neglected; their Committee on Cooperation with Churches drafted right-wing priests like Father Ferdinand Falque of Minnesota and Edward A. Keller of Notre Dame, a point man in their crusade against the guaranteed annual wage and for anti-union, right-to-work legislation. The NAM brass was especially worried, one internal memo revealed, about churches' "inherent sympathies" with the weak.
In 1947, fighting to end holdover wartime business regulation and against full-employment legislation, NAM pushed free material to 265 dailies and 1,876 small-town papers. As their vice president for PR implored the membership, "The story of business economics and philosophy needs to be told simply, understandably, repetitiously, and without dilution or distortion—to broad masses of people."
That's freedom for you, folks. They juked up the circulation of pamphlets from 2.5 million in 1948 to 6.5 million in 1949 to almost 8 million in 1950, adding a new, $1.4 million radio show. With the election of Harry Truman, after all, NAM's president pointed out, there was some question "whether we were so far down the road to socialism that there was no return or whether freedom still existed."
What other kind of stories did NAM push? The argument, as the chairman of their executive committee put it, that faith in government's role in prosperity was "childlike." As he put it in 1942, "It is not government that has wrought the miracle that is being accomplished today in the production of war materials but the initiative, ingenuity and organizing genius of private enterprise." As anyone who knows anything about World War II defense production knows, this notion is a childlike fairy tale in itself; America outproduced its enemies by a factor of three to one, a process for which government-business cooperation was responsible from start to finish. Good thing NAM had a lot of money with which to push it. It was a lie that couldn't have survived unless it was bought and paid for.
Harmless? Not if you consider the John Birch Society harmless. Several NAM past presidents were among the founders. My favorite is Milwaukee foundry-owner Bill Grede, whose name was pronounced like the word Merriam-Webster defines as "having or showing a selfish desire for wealth and possessions." So profoundly had their madness infested the organization, historian Jonathan Soffer has discovered, the board resolved it would "not knowingly be associated with any organization that questions the loyalty and integrity of President Eisenhower." That was one of the John Birch Society's principles: that Eisenhower may have been a "conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." Grede denounced this new "leftish trend" in the NAM board of directors represented by the anti-Birch resolution.
So there you have it: Mike Baroody's people. And a demonstration, our first, of a Big Con principle: there's no set of ideas so dangerous, inhumane, antidemocratic, or stupid that a big enough right-wing infusion of cash can't make look like it's sound.