The doldrums of the 2012 campaign season between the end of the primaries and the start of the conventions got a little tempestuous this week with the leaking of a planned super PAC assault on the president via his former association with Jeremiah Wright. (Charles Blow, as usual, provides a cogent distillation of the issues lurking in the leaked memo.) This campaign, fundamentally based in provoking and exploiting white racial resentment, was to be funded by billionaire and Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, who has now had to publicly repudiate this plan.
At first glance, this looks to be just another sign of the power of super PACs and their plutocratic benefactors since the infamous Citizens United decision. However, when viewed in historical perspective, these most recent outrages are actually part of a much longer history of conservative oligarchs using their fortunes to manipulate the masses.
This has been on my mind of late because I recently read Allan Lichtman's history of the conservative movement, White Protestant Nation. As the title implies, Lichtman argues that modern conservatism, with its origins in the post-WWI period's orgy of nativism and racist violence, has at its core the idea that the "real America" is under threat by enemies both political and racial. Lichtman does not rule out its economic philosophy, however, and rightly distinguishes between free markets and private enterprise. The latter is actually what conservatives are interested in, since they'd rather have the government intervene to protect their economic interests than to have it go away. This helps explain while Ricketts could simultaneously plan an attack on president Obama due to his fears of government expansion while petitioning the city of Chicago and state of Illinois for public funding to renovate Wrigley Field, where the team he owns plays baseball. Ricketts and his ilk do not want a true laissez-faire system, but prefer that the government socialize the risk as long as the profit is kept in their hands.
Lichtman's book abounds with examples of similarly politically engaged millionaires attacking liberal presidents and causes. Back in the 1930s, business supported groups spent time and money trying to convince America that FDR was some kind of dangerous "socialist." (Sound familiar?) The American Liberty League, which pushed many of these claims, was almost wholly financed by the DuPont family. Astroturfing is not new, and has been a crucial tactic in the conservative movement going back at least to that time. The practice continued in the 1950s, with Texas oil tycoon HL Hunt's LIFE LINE, which broadcast its Christian fundamentalist, radical anti-Leftist views over five hundred radio stations. The National Review could not have been born or kept alive through decades of unprofitability without the support of wealthy donors. During the 1990s Richard Mellon Scaife spent millions trying to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency through lies, scurrilous rumors, and outrageous accusations. We know the Koch brothers today for their interventions in Wisconsin, but they have been massively funding radically partisan Right-wing causes since the 1970s.
The examples I've listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Conservative causes and publications have relied for decades on the largesse of a few wealthy donors, and have slung plenty of mud against any president who dares to defy their will. Without these moneymen corporate overlords, who have been few in number but big in influence, I really doubt that political conservatism would be as dominant a political ideology as it is today. (Consider Rupert Murdoch's role in funding and overseeing a cable network that is essentially a Right-wing Pravda capable of framing public debate.)
Ricketts is cut from their cloth, in ideology as well as tactics. The memo outlining the proposed propaganda campaign against the president seeks to portray him as an alien figure steeped in radical thought who has "brought this country to its knees." The apocalyptic rhetoric and paranoid hatred of those who do not fit into a conservative definition of "real American" (read: white) pretty much matches that of the Scaifes, DuPonts, and Hunts of times past. I also found it interesting how the proposal contained several attacks on John McCain for failing to let loose the dogs of radicalized political war. The radical conservative millionaires of times past also criticized moderate Republicans in the starkest terms. They hated Wendell Wilkie and Dwight Eisenhower, even though the latter won the White House for the GOP after twenty years of being shut out.
As is so often the case, what we think is new is actually quite old. If progressives are to withstand the current assault by well-funded legions of ideologues, they need to remind Americans who the real elites are. They are not Ivy League educated law professors living in big cities, but the billionaires who are so wealthy that they can throw money around and treat the political system of this country as their personal plaything. The plutocrats always outspent FDR when it came to campaign dollars, but he kept beating them because the people were well aware of who was on their side and who isn't. If modern liberal politicians want to pull off a similar coup, they better start giving the public more than just promises.