Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Defunders of Liberty -- Hurting the Left

by Thomas Frank

Before he became K Street’s most enterprising racketeer, Jack Abramoff was best known as a sort of young Robespierre of the Reagan Revolution. In 1983, as chairman of the College Republicans, he declared that he and his minions did not “seek peaceful coexistence with the left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently.”

By all accounts, Abramoff carried out this mission with a Ramboesque single-mindedness. A ferocious latter-day red-baiter, he seems to have encountered Communists everywhere he went in early-80’s America, fighting them (literally, with his fists) on campus, detecting their influence in the nuclear freeze movement, scheming to checkmate students worried about El Salvador by calling attention to the crimes of “their beloved Soviet Union.” As a reward he got his handsome mug on the cover of the John Birch Society’s Review of the News.

Abramoff’s remark about liquidating the left was not just the intemperate raving of a hot-blooded youth. It also expressed the essence of the emerging conservative project: You don’t just argue with liberals, you damage them. You use the power of the state to afflict their social movements, to wreck their proudest government agencies, and to divert their funding streams. “Defund the left” was a rallying cry all across the New Right in those heady days; Richard Viguerie even devoted a special issue of Conservative Digest to the subject in 1983.

Abramoff and his clean-cut campus radicals pushed their own “defund the left” campaign with characteristic élan, declaring war on Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRG, environmental and consumer activist outfits that were funded by student activity fees on some campuses. The young conservatives were always careful to cast the issue as a matter of “student rights” versus political coercion, but Abramoff clearly saw it as an avenue to ideological victory. “When we win this one,” he boasted in 1983, “we’ll have done more to neutralize Ralph Nader than anyone else, ever.”

What the young conservatives of those days understood was that slogans are cheap, but institutions are not. Once broken or bankrupted, they do not snap back to fight another day. Cut off PIRG’s supply lines and the groups must dedicate their resources to justifying their existence, making it that much harder for them to agitate against nuclear power. It’s the political equivalent of strategic bombing, in which you systematically blast the rail junctions and ball-bearing factories of the other side.

Examples of such B-52 politics are all around us today. There are “paycheck protection” and school voucher campaigns, which are sold as rights issues but which are actually megaton devices to vaporize the flow of funds from labor unions to Democratic candidates. Social Security privatization, promoted as a way to make our retirements cushier, will also divert billions of dollars away from the welfare state and into the coffers of the G.O.P.’s allies on Wall Street.

Then there is the K Street Project. Almost as soon as they took control of Congress in 1995, Republican leaders began leveraging their newfound power to transform the corporate lobbying industry into a patronage fiefdom of the G.O.P. Lobbying firms were urged to hire true-believing Republicans or lose their “access”; once the personnel were Republican, the money followed. The result for the other side was also predictable: less money flowing to Democrats and a severe devaluation of a career in progressive politics. If Democrats have no place in Washington’s private sector, then the attractiveness of being a liberal is diminished by just that much more.

What is most ingenious about all this is not so much its destructiveness but the way it appeals to mainstream notions of fairness. Consider another of Jack Abramoff’s remarks from back in the days when he raged against PIRG. The groups, he said, should “compete in the free marketplace of ideas” just like the College Republicans did, where attracting private funding was what proved an idea to be “truly good and truly worthwhile.”

In Washington today, where each bad idea to rattle through the nation’s billionaire class seems to have a dedicated think tank to push it along, we are living out Abramoff’s dictum: that an idea is not worth hearing unless a large amount of somebody’s money is behind it.

Thomas Frank is the author, most recently, of “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.’’