The conservative class war on the American middle class and poor has seen three stages, with each building on the previous one. The first, begun in the late 1960s and early ’70s, involved the creation of a series of right-wing institutions to undermine the bipartisan establishment and recast its view of reality. Next came a sustained and successful effort to rewrite the tax code to shift the burden away from corporate America and the wealthiest Americans toward the rest of us, together with the weakening of the case for government responsibility for programs that serve the less advantaged. The arguments for these changes originated with the same think tanks and media organizations that were founded in (or helped guide) the creation stage. Third came the final attack on the legitimacy of all groups in society that might prove to be impediments to the new right’s influence. Members of the media, academia, the labor movement and the nonprofit sector were all considered targets, as they were seen to be advocates for causes and people deemed to be beyond the purview of legitimate government action.
Recent events in Wisconsin provide a textbook example of how the process has worked until this point. Governor Scott Walker’s assault on the right of public workers to bargain collectively, among other clearly punitive restrictions, comes despite the fact that they have already conceded the givebacks he has demanded for budgetary purposes. That’s because the savings are not the point; the politics are. Walker’s campaign is, as Politico reported, the “result of methodical polling, lobbying, messaging, grassroots organizing and policy crafting by a coterie of well-funded conservative groups.”
Private sector unions have already been decimated by changes in the global economy, but also, significantly, by the rewriting of labor law in Congress and the courts, which have crippled their ability to organize in the workplace. This relentless assault on unions was facilitated by the appointment of countless conservative judges to the state and federal judiciary under Presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush. (Reagan’s 1981 firing of America’s air-traffic controllers and busting of PATCO was merely the opening salvo in this war.) As not more than 7 percent of the private workforce are now unionized, their public counterparts are perhaps the final barrier to the unchallenged domination of American politics by the power of money.
Any number of right-wing billionaires and institutions over the past few decades have invested millions, occasionally tens or even hundreds of millions, to reach this moment. These include individuals like Nelson Bunker Hunt, Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and Rupert Murdoch, and organizations like the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, etc. The men of the hour, however, are the energy moguls David and Charles Koch. They helped fund Walker’s campaign and the Republican Governors Association, which pitched in as well. Upon Walker’s victory, David Koch sent executives from Koch Industries to try “to encourage a union showdown,” as Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, helpfully explained to the New York Times. AFP has spent more than $340,000 on television and radio ads in support of Walker’s bill, and bused in Tea Party supporters to hold pro-Walker demonstrations. But this is just the tip of an extremely costly iceberg that involves coordinated efforts by dozens of right-wing organizations working in conjunction with one another, both locally and nationally.