This week, Americans for Prosperity -- a right-wing political powerhouse funded by the billionaire Koch brothers -- started running anti-union TV ads in Wisconsin. The ads allege that Wisconsin's public workers, protesting Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to dismantle their right to unionize, "walked off their jobs, abandoning our children." The ads ask, "Who decides Wisconsin's future? Voters or government unions?" Unsurprisingly, the TV spots don't go into detail about who paid for them -- viewers might be less likely to trust faux-populist rhetoric if they knew it came straight from the mouth of a corporate front group run by a pair of billionaires.
The story of the year since Citizens United v. FEC may be perfectly crystallized in the fight that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is waging against his state's public employee unions. Organizations like Americans for Prosperity spent millions of dollars in 2010 running misleading ads bashing health care reform, progressives, immigrants, and American Muslims in order to elect politicians who would stand up for the interests of big business. Now those interests are working hard, and spending a little extra money, to make sure they collect on their investments.
The real story behind the protests in Wisconsin has little to do, as Gov. Walker would have you believe, with a state-level push for fiscal responsibility. It has everything to do with the changing dynamics of money and influence in national politics. Pro-corporate politicians have never liked the power wielded by unionized workers. Last year, in Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court handed them the tools do to something about it, paving the way for a wave of corporate money that helped to sweep pro-corporate politicians into power in November. Citizens United also increased the power of labor unions, but union spending was still no match for money pouring into elections from corporate interests. As Rachel Maddow has pointed out, of the top 10 outside spenders in the 2010 elections, 7 were right-wing groups and 3 were labor unions. Gov. Walker's attempt to obliterate Wisconsin's public employee unions, if it succeeds, could be the first of many attempts across the country to permanently wipe out what are the strongest political opponents of the newly empowered corporate force in American politics.
Citizens United alone did not win the 2010 elections for Republicans. But the money it let loose helped ensure that those swept to power by widespread voter dissatisfaction would be eager to pander to the interests of corporations and the wealthy, and to demonize those who oppose them. Instrumental in this movement were David and Charles Koch, the manufacturers behind Americans for Prosperity and central organizers in the movement to create a government more concerned with corporate profits. Americans for Prosperity, freed by the new rules governing corporate spending and unencumbered by financial disclosure requirements, spent millions of dollars on federal races in 2010, including over $350,000 in Wisconsin congressional races. Koch-backed groups were even implicated
Koch Industries, through other means, was also directly involved in the election of Walker. The company's political action committee was the fourth largest contributor to his campaign, contributing $43,000, nearly the maximum amount allowed. It also contributed $1 million to the Republican Governor's Association, which in turn spent millions on ads attacking Walker's opponent. These kinds of direct and indirect contributions to candidates were legal under Wisconsin's campaign finance rules even before Citizens United. But they illustrate the enormous stake that corporations like Koch have in who controls state governments--and the amounts they are willing to spend to elect sympathetic candidates. And, as the recent prank call to Walker shows, that money buys more than a sympathetic candidate. It buys the ultimate access.
What is perhaps most troubling about the post-Citizens United flood of corporate money in politics is the free rein it has given for corporations to hide behind front groups to run misleading ads without ever being held accountable for their content. Americans for Prosperity is now employing the same tactics it used to smear health care reform in key House districts in its ad campaign against Wisconsin unions. Like in its ads falsely claiming that health care reform hurt Medicare recipients, the group's ads in Wisconsin pretend to champion populist values while pushing a decidedly anti-populist agenda. The ads seek not only to misinform voters, but to blame ordinary Americans for problems they did not cause.
Wisconsin's budget shortfall was not caused by greedy government workers. It was caused by the current recession combined with Governor Walker's massive tax giveaways to corporations and the wealthy. Walker's demonization of teachers, public safety workers, and other public employees conveniently deflects attention from the people who are really benefiting from the state's current budget priorities: the corporations that are bankrolling Republican campaigns.
The Wisconsinites marching in Madison have called Gov. Walker's bluff on this blatant campaign to get rid of a political adversary, and citizens across the country are joining them. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana decided this week that it wouldn't be so smart politically to pull a similar move in his state. Workers in Pennsylvania are preparing to fight another. The right to associate and to form a union is fundamental--and, as a recent USA Today/Gallup poll found, is recognized by a wide majority of Americans.
While most Americans support the right for workers to organize, corporate interests will continue to work -- and spend money -- to dismantle that right. We have to stop Gov. Walker from busting the unions in Wisconsin. But then we must deal with the bigger issue behind his efforts: the increasing power of corporate interests in deciding who benefits from the government, and who becomes a scapegoat.
Follow Michael B. Keegan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peoplefor