Jesus, just how many of these things are there? Jane Mayer introduces us to the State Policy Network:
At the annual meeting, which took place in Oklahoma City this past September 24th through 27th, Sharp explained what she called The IKEA Model. She said that it starts with what she described as a “catalogue” showing “what success would look like.” Instead of pictures of furniture arranged in rooms, she said, S.P.N.’s catalogue displays visions of state policy projects that align with the group’s agenda. That agenda includes opposing President Obama’s health-care program and climate-change regulations, reducing union protections and minimum wages, cutting taxes and business regulations, tightening voting restrictions, and privatizing education. “The success we show is you guys,” she told the assembled state members. “Here’s how we win in your state.”
Sharp went on to say that, like IKEA, the central organization would provide “the raw materials” along with the “services” needed to assemble the products. Rather than acting like passive customers who buy finished products, she wanted each state group to show the enterprise and creativity needed to assemble the parts in their home states. “Pick what you need,” she said, “and customize it for what works best for you.”
During the meeting, Sharp also acknowledged privately to the members that the organization’s often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda. “The grants are driven by donor intent,” she told the gathered think-tank heads. She added that, often, “the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.” She said that the donors also sometimes determined in which states their money would be spent.
The S.P.N. operates as a tax-exempt nonprofit, allowing it to take tax-deductible contributions that it does not have to publicly disclose. According to the study by the Center for Media and Democracy, the donations include more than a million dollars run through the organizations DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which serve to erase the donors’ names, operating, as Mother Jones put it, like a “dark-money ATM for the conservative movement.” Numerous wealthy conservative individuals and foundations pass money through those two groups. In addition, according to the Center for Media and Democracy study, corporate donors to the S.P.N. have included many of America’s largest companies, such as Facebook, Microsoft, A.T. & T., Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Philip Morris and Altria Client Services (both subsidiaries of Altria), GlaxoSmithKline, Kraft, and funds from various entities linked to the fossil-fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch. Melissa Cohlmia, the director of corporate communication for Koch Companies Public Sector LLC, told me, “We think State Policy Network is a worthy organization that is focussed on creating more opportunity for everyone, thereby making people’s lives better.”
Asked about the IKEA model and her contention that each state’s think tank was an independent entity, free to pursue its own scholarly research, Sharp answered with a prepared statement. In it, she stressed that “State Policy Network is a 501(c)3 service organization dedicated to providing state-based, free-market think tanks with the academic and management resources required to run a non-profit institution. Because we are legally and practically organized as a service organization (not as a franchise), each of the 64 state-based think tanks is fiercely independent, choosing to manage their staff, pick their own research topics and educate the public on those issues they deem most appropriate for their state.”
The statement went on, “Every think tank, however, rallies around a common belief: the power of free markets and free people to create a healthy, prosperous society. They eschew a top-down DC-centric approach to running peoples’ lives.”
Well, except for the top-down instructions from the billionaires and corporations that are funding this thing. But that’s completely different. Unlike the government, they don’t even have pretensions to democracy so they’re actually much more like drones doing the bidding of their masters. Not that they care, obviously.
I guess it’s to be expected. When you have as much money as the upper 1% have, this stuff is just pocket change. They might as well follow their bliss. And for corporations it’s really great. They can fund their pro-corporate agenda and get a nice tax write-off.
In a way, it makes me feel a tiny bit better knowing about it. After all, you’d think with all that money and all that clout they’d have been able to totally turn the US into a free-market dystopian hellscape by now. That they’ve only partially achieved their vision is a testament to the resilience of whatever democracy we have left.