The conservative political Goliath known as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) may have met its David in the guise of Unitarian-Universalists and other progressives. ALEC has been wounded not with a sling and stone, but knowledge and organized financial pressure on its corporate backers.
On October 17, ALEC sent a fundraising email to its members and supporters that starts off:
“Professional activists ranging from Common Cause to the Unitarian Universalist Church just won’t stop. As part of their misleading smear campaign, these activist groups demand members stop working with ALEC.”
It sounds, almost, unfair. “Professional activists” picking on poor ALEC.
But it’s important to remember what ALEC is. ALEC is a an organization that provides boiler-plate legislation, written by its corporate and foundation members, to dues-paying legislators. Backers of ALEC include Charles Koch, Charles Lambe, and many other conservative superstars. They pay thousands of dollars a year in membership and participation fees that guarantee access to legislative members, who pay $50 annually in dues. ALEC has various meetings through the year where members of all sorts gather as equals to create legislation that can be taken back to state legislatures and turned into law. ALEC even offers “scholarships” so that poor, hardworking legislators will be able to rub elbows with members in appropriately luxurious locations.
What kinds of bills have ALEC roots? Bills promoting “Stand Your Ground,” expanding “right to work,” supporting car title loans, opposing interest rate limits on credit cards, limiting collective bargaining by public employees, opposing regulations aimed at counteracting climate disruption, voter ID laws, and many more topics. Many people first became aware of ALEC when its ties to the for-profit prison movement and Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant SB1070 came to light.
The high degree of similarity between, for example, voter ID laws, in North Carolina and Texas, should not be surprising, given ALEC’s involvement in this issue. This and similar issues have washed across the country in waves.
In its fundraising email, ALEC asserts:
ALEC plays a vital role in the democratic process, because we bring together legislators and industry experts to discuss policy and learn from one another. Lawmakers have the responsibility to consider information and opinion in an open exchange – and that information should never be limited.
These professional activists exert pressure to silence competing ideas and speech. But our movement is more powerful. [emphasis added]
The double-speak in the solicitation is mind-boggling. “[V]ital role in the democratic process?” ALEC promotes in its logos “Limited Government. Free Markets. Federalism.” and “Return Sovereignty to the States.” Conservatives have been reminding us for years that the US “is still a representative Republic, not a Democracy.” Let’s be very clear: ALEC is not about promoting democracy. “Return[ing] Sovereignty to the States?” ALEC works nationally to promote their national agenda to benefit large national and multinational corporations. ALEC opposes state laws that create compliance “nightmares” for big corporations, so “sovereignty” means convincing states to gut their own regulatory structures. As for “information should never be limited,” ALEC promotes teaching “both sides” of the climate disruption issue in schools and features climate change deniers such as the Heartland Institute at its energy policy workshops.
Finally, Unitarian-Universalists (UUs) as “professional activists?” Really? Granted, they have a long history of liberal activism, from abolition to suffrage to civil rights to anti-war movements. Many people are attracted to Unitarian-Universalism by its history of activism. The UU Fifth Principle promotes “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Most UU congregations are involved in local, and often national, social justice movements, such as the Greater Cleveland Congregations movement and Standing on the Side of Love. And some professional activists may be UUs, but it’s a far cry from the movement being, as a whole, about “professional activism.”
The only piece of pure, unvarnished truth in the paragraphs above is ALEC’s assertion that “our movement is more powerful.” That’s true–or at least it was. Backed by some of the most influential and determined conservatives in the country and supported by many of the best-known corporations in the US, ALEC grew since its founding in 1973 to a think-tank legislation factory of astounding reach and influence.
Then, in 2010, NPR did a series of stories on ALEC and its connection to Arizona’s SB 1070 and the state’s for-profit prison industry.
Since the bright light of scrutiny began shining on ALEC corporate members, pressure in the form of bad publicity and threats of divestiture has caused many companies to cancel their memberships or allow them to quietly lapse. The list of former ALEC members includes Coca-Cola, General Motors, and Bank of America. ALEC is so bad that even Wal-Mart cut ties with them. At the end of September, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Yelp all announced that they were cutting ties with ALEC.
In 2013, ALEC had to move from its inside the Beltway DC offices to one just outside in Crystal City, Virginia. But still, in a town and organization where access is the product, that kind of move hurts.
And now, ALEC, despite its wealth and connections, purports to feel threatened by one of the smallest worldwide religious movements present in the US, Unitarian-Universalism (with under a quarter-million members). That ALEC resorts to specious claims of victim-hood is not surprising, as the US conservative movement routinely trots out its “War on Christmas,” “War on Christianity,” and other memes designed to distract and scare people who share in majority-privilege. Some conservatives have criticized UUs for believing everything or nothing–both of which are false assertions. They blame UU activism on a denial of theism or, conversely, an embrace of all theologies.
The truth, of course lies somewhere between and beyond those simple answers. UU Minister Richard S. Gilbert described the role of theology in Unitarian Universalism as “the reflection upon and criticism of meanings, values, and convictions.” He goes on to explain how theology leads to action, “Conviction combines reason and feeling with the will to act.”
It’s that combination of conviction, powered by reason and exposure to many schools of belief, that encourages UUs to embrace the role of David, even in the face of the Goliath-like champion of conservative values and might, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Unlike the original confrontation, this one will not be one by a single stone to a single forehead, but by a long confrontation of ideas and values.