The National Education Association just filed its latest financial disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor, and as you would expect, it spent big on its efforts to preserve its influence over education policymaking. The union spent $131 million on lobbying and contributions to what are supposed to be like-minded organizations in 2014-2015, just slightly less than the $132 million spent during the previous year. This doesn’t include the $40 million it spends on so-called representational activities, which are often just as political in nature.
One of the big recipients this year: The Center for Popular Democracy, the progressive outfit which has become a key player in efforts by both NEA and the American Federation of Teachers to oppose the expansion of public charter schools. The outfit and its political action fund collected $570,900 from NEA last fiscal year, double the $250,000 collected from the union in 2013-2014. This is certainly good news for AFT President Randi Weingarten, who sits on Popular Democracy’s board and whose own union poured $160,000 into the outfit and its political wing.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia
Another top recipient of NEA largesse is Democracy Alliance, the secretive progressive outfit which has become a major player in national and Democratic Party politics. NEA Executive Director John Stocks chairs the organization’s board of directors. Democracy Alliance and its Committee on States collected $214,000 from the union last fiscal year. This is a 64 percent decline from the previous year. But given the stakes for next year’s presidential and congressional races, expect NEA to bolster its support for the outfit next year.
Meanwhile NEA is giving big to Democracy Alliance’s wider network, many of which are already longtime recipients of the union’s largesse. The union gave $225,000 to Progress Now, the outfit chaired by Stock’s predecessor as Democracy Alliance chairman, John McKay; poured $200,000 into David Brock’s Media Matters for America (which disgraced itself as a paragon of progressive politics over the last year with scandals such as its effort to oppose unionization of its own staff); $27,400 into Netroots Nation; and $13,300 into Progressive States Network. NEA also spent heavily with Catalist LLC, the data outfit for the Democratic National Committee that is a lynchpin in Democracy Alliance’s campaign efforts; the union paid $726,566 to Catalist last year, double its spend in 2013-2014.
The biggest single recipient of all? Patriot Majority USA, the outfit founded by political strategist Craig Varoga that has also become a key player in Democratic Party politics. NEA gave Patriot Majority $1.4 million to the outfit in 2014-2015, 27 times more than it gave in the previous year. Given that huge boost in contributions, expect Patriot Majority to be another lynchpin in the union’s efforts to beat back the influence of Centrist Democrat school reformers within the party. The second-biggest recipient was America Works USA, a super-PAC which has garnered attention for helping Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf pressure the state’s Republican-controlled legislature into approving his tax increases; NEA poured $1 million into the group last year.
NEA poured $355,000 into America Votes, another progressive group whose “partners” include AFT and Center for Popular Democracy’s action fund. The Sixteen Thirty Fund, a endowment developed by former Clinton Administration mandarin Eric Kessler’s Arabella Advisors, received $450,000 from NEA; that’s plenty of money that will be funneled to progressive groups on the union’s behalf. Another outfit with ties to Kessler, New Venture Fund, received $117,000 from the union. And Network, a social justice group with ties to the Catholic Church got $50,000 from NEA last year.
Meanwhile, NEA is adding new vassals. One of them is the Progressive Inc., the outfit that publishes the Progressive, a key outlet for traditionalists such as Jeff Bryant of Campaign for America’s Future (a longtime NEA dependent) and Julian Vasquez-Heilig. It picked up $100,000 from the union in 2014-2015. Campaign for America’s Future, by the way, got $55,000 from NEA last fiscal year. Another new dependent is Center for Media and Democracy, the parent of PR Watch and once a unit of Progressive Inc. before splitting apart over a variety of issues. NEA gave CMD $100,000 in 2014-2015.
Then there’s State Voices, the Detroit-based progressive outfit which focuses on faux-grassroots voter outreach efforts. NEA gave $378,966 to the group last fiscal year. Another voter advocacy outfit, Voter Participation Center, collected $170,000 from the union. The Tides Foundation’s Advocacy Fund, which provides dollars to various grassroots and progressive groups, received $25,000 from NEA last year.
At the same time, NEA bolstered its giving to black and other minority-oriented groups. It gave $250,000 to Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; this is 16.7 percent less than what the outfit received in 2013-2014. Despite the decline, Schott has done plenty on behalf of the union and AFT to oppose systemic reform; this includes Schott President John Jackson, co-writing a letter with Pedro Noguera and Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project (which received $150,000 from the union in 2014-2015) criticizing civil rights groups for supporting standardized testing and the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. On the other hand, NEA gave just $20,000 to Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, 83 percent less than it gave to the affiliate of the federal legislative caucus in 2013-2014.
As for other groups? NEA gave$100,000 to National Urban League, $100,000 to NAACP, $51,000 to Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, $45,000 to League of United Latin American Citizens and its institute (which backed the false accountability effort pushed by the union and AFT), $20,000 to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies; $30,000 to Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance, and $5,000 to National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
The union gave $200,000 to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network even though the civil rights leader is a strong supporter of charter schools. NEA also gave $255,000 to Center for American Progress, another strong reform-minded outfit, and handed out $54,625 to teacher quality reform outfit Teach Plus. Another reform outfit, Alliance for Excellent Education, received $200,000 from NEA last year.
As for the usual suspects? NEA gave $250,000 to Economic Policy Institute, while giving another $250,000 to the National Education Policy Center through the University of Colorado-Boulder’s foundation. Learning First Alliance collected $68,400 from NEA, while Education Law Center collected $75,000 from the union. FairTest, the traditionalist outfit which has been a key player in NEA’s efforts to roll back No Child’s accountability provisions and standardized testing, received $40,586 in 2014-2015, while National Board for Professional Teaching Standards collected $310,000 during the same period.
Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation, the group that represents the nation’s woeful university schools of education, received $388,363 from the union, while Barnett Berry’s Center for Teaching Quality got $438,837 from the union’s coffers. Voices for Education, the parent of Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, collected $25,000 from NEA last year, while People for the American Way and its foundation collected $175,000 from the union during the same period. The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, which serves as a go-to institution for NEA and other traditionalists, received $250,000 from the union.
What about the top honchos? NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia collected $416,633 in 2014-2015, a 21 percent increase over the previous year, and more than enough money to buy herself some new guitars. The union’s number two, Becky Pringle, was paid $371,278, a 10 percent increase over 2013-2014; while Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss was compensated to the tune of $429,851, a three-fold increase over her previous salary as a member of the union’s executive committee. Altogether, NEA’s big three collected $1.2 million in 2014-2015, barely budging over previous year’s levels. Not one thing wrong with NEA leaders drawing six-figure sums. But the high salaries (and the corporate ways the NEA and the AFT engage in their defense of traditionalist policies and thinking) should be kept in mind any time Eskelsen Garcia and AFT counterpart Weingarten use class warfare rhetoric to oppose systemic reform of American public education.
The corporate nature of NEA can be seen in the 395 staffers earning six-figure sums, a 21-person increase over levels in 2013-2014. Among the big check collectors is Stocks, who earned $407,264, a slight decline over the previous year; another is Alice O’Brien, NEA’s general counsel, who picked up $242,768, or 4.1 percent more than last year. The union’s membership czar, Bill Thompson, collected $271,024; that’s 17.9 percent more than in 2013-2014. Marcus Egan, one of the union’s top lobbyists, was compensated to the tune of $181,968, a 5.3 percent increase over the previous year. Once again, it is clear that being an NEA staffer is lucrative work. Whether the teachers who are often forced by compulsory dues laws to pay those salaries are benefiting is a different story.
About the Author: RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.
The teacher union war on charter schools ramps up with empty billionaire and accountability accusations.
Charter schools are like pesky chewing gum that the teachers unions just can’t quite get off their shoes. They have been persistent in trying to just get rid of the alternative public schools – except for the few they have managed to organize. The problem they’re having is that charters are very popular with parents and kids, especially with those who reside in the inner cities which are home to the worst traditional public schools. The latest pathetic attempt by union command-central to destroy charters emanates from the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), which, as investigative reporter Eric Owens points out, is a reliably pro-union advocacy organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.
Perhaps “reliably pro-union” is an understatement. The American Federation of Teachers gave CMD $30,000 for “member related services” in fiscal year 2015. Also, one of the biggest funders of CMD is Democracy Alliance, which boasts AFT president Randi Weingarten as a member and National Education Association executive director John Stocks as its president. The dark money group also includes old leftwing billionaire George Soros and new leftwing billionaire Tom Steyer.
In a nutshell, the report asserts that the American public “does not have ready access to key information about how their federal and state taxes are being spent to fuel the charter school industry. Peppered with terms like “lack of accountability” and “flavoring flexibility over rules,” the summary is an indicator of how off-target the sloppy and factually-challenged report really is. As reported by LaborPains.org, for example, it attacks charter-friendly Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, offering reporters a misleading story about secret meetings and plots.
Emails obtained by CMD from Gov. Ducey’s office reveal that he (and his predecessor) helped propel a secret ‘School Finance Reform Team’ … The stated goal was for everyone on the school reform team to use their ‘different contacts to help get …legislation,’ which would effectively divert more money from public schools to charter school coffers passed.
But the Arizona Republic then printed the rest of the story. After reviewing the “secret” emails themselves, they found “nothing of the kind.” CMD was forced to issue a correction admitting that their reported premise was wrong. In the Republic’s words, CMD “used a handful of innocent emails to spin a conspiracy that just wasn’t real.
Of course there is nothing new about the unions and affiliated groups savaging charters with lies, using “unaccountable” and “billionaires” as their essential buzzwords. In June, NEA’s Brian Washington wrote, “…pro-charter forces are putting more money behind efforts to elect and lobby politicians who will implement policies resulting in unaccountable charter schools that threaten the futures of our students.”
The billionaire bash-of-the-week (seasoned with a dab of “accountability”), comes from Capital and Main, a union-friendly progressive website. There, Donald Cohen, founder and executive director of In the Public Interest, writes “Billionaires Can’t Teach Our Kids” which slams Eli Broad and a few other philanthropists for initiating a plan that would double the number of charter schools in Los Angeles. He claims, “Broad and his billionaire friends have decided that instead of investing in our public schools, they’ll just create new ones with less accountability and fewer standards ….” But a little digging reveals that In the Public Interest, which partnered with the American Federation of Teachers last year to push for more charter accountability, is a project of The Partnership for Working Families. An ACORN-like group, PWF hates anything capitalist and is a card-carrying member of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, whose raison d’être is to vilify “one percenters.” Not surprisingly, several of PWF donors are rich philanthropists, including the aforementioned billionaire George Soros and other wealthy globalist/socialists.
Their billionaires don’t count, of course.
The very day CMD came out with its bogus report, reform-minded Ed Trust-West released “More Than Half of the Top California Schools for Low-Income Students Are Charter Schools.” This report highlights the top 10 highest performing schools for low-income 3rd, 8th and 11th grade students in California and finds in 3rd and 11th grade, “five of the top ten are charter schools. In 8th grade, seven of the top ten are charters.” (Education Trust-West analyzed data from schools where “at least 60 percent of the students qualify as low-income in order to determine the top 10 performers by subject matter and grade,” reported Kimberly Beltran.)
Additionally, a recent Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) report shows that across 41 regions, “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in both math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” The CREDO report is certainly in line with the results of the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) test in Los Angeles, where Mr. Broad and his “billionaire friends” are seeking to make improvements. The results, released in September, show that only one-third of LA students in traditional public schools performed up to their grade level in English and one-fourth did so in math but that the city’s charter school students did much better.
Are charter schools perfect? Hardly. Not even all are wonderful. But as Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, notes in a rejoinder to the CMD report, when charters don’t do the job, they can and should be shuttered. “The public charter school bargain (has) more flexibility to innovate in exchange for accountability for higher student achievement. When public charter schools fail to meet their goals – whether for academic, financial or operational reasons – they should be closed, even if we have invested federal dollars in them. If we don’t close them, we undermine the whole concept of public charter schooling.” While there are a few exceptions, that’s the way charters schools operate.
The teachers unions and their fellow travelers would be best served if they’d stop their billionaire bashing and their tiresome accountability accusations. In fact, if traditional public schools were held to the same level of accountability as charter schools, the world will be a much better place. Why am I not holding my breath?
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.
The unions preen and posture as political underdogs, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Thanks to the teachers unions and the American left, the term “dark money” – political spending by groups whose own donors are allowed to remain hidden – is most closely associated with two successful industrialists from Kansas – the Koch brothers. But what many don’t know is that the teachers unions are involved in dark money – and worse – big time.
First, last fall there was a mysterious $480,000 ad buy which helped propel Martin Walsh to a Boston mayoral victory over John Connolly, a longtime adversary of the teachers unions. Turns out that the donated money, having taken a circuitous and sneaky path, was a gift from the American Federation of Teachers.
Massachusetts legislators didn’t think much of the AFT gambit, and are trying to pass laws requiring more transparency. But according to a Boston Globe report, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s National Education Association affiliate, is balking at the legislation and trying to eviscerate it, citing “technical issues.” The MTA can balk till the 12th of Never, but a couple of weeks ago AFT’s dark (and illegal) money groups got dinged to the tune of $30,000 for “failure to organize as a PAC, failure to disclose finance activity accurately, contributions made in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the contributions, receipt of contributions not raised in accordance with campaign law, and use of wire transfers.” Given that their illegal gift was a roaring success, the $30,000 fine was a slap on the wrist.
Then there is AFT president Randi Weingarten, who as a member of George Soros’ left-wing Democracy Alliance (whose president is NEA executive director John Stocks), was criticized for her participation in the dark money group. In response she tweeted, “…spending it to ensure reg folks had access to democracy…and a fairer economy.” (How she can say things like this with a straight face is beyond me.)
For the unions, the Kochs’ bête-noire status is only outdone by Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the door to the creation of “super PACs” and an accompanying uptick in dark money expenditures. The ruling especially benefited corporations – and unions – which had spending restrictions removed. But never missing an opportunity to twist the narrative by telling a blatant half-truth, Weingarten warned, “Citizens United and our failure to enact campaign finance reforms have led to an improper influence of corporate power. If the Supreme Court now strikes down aggregate contribution limits, it will further privilege wealthy donors in the political process and further undermine working people’s confidence that government is serving the public interest.” Loosely translated: “We can’t stand any competition.”
What the union leaders don’t tell us is that they have used Citizens United to their great advantage. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks the political spending of groups and individuals who wrote checks of more than $10,000 to super PACs and other political committees, found that “big labor outspent big business by a margin of more than 2-to-1 during 2013.”
‘When it comes to writing big checks to favored candidates and causes, unions last year seemed to be taking greater advantage of the landmark Citizens United decision than corporations,’ said Jacob Fenton, an editorial engineer for the Sunlight Foundation.
That might come as something of a surprise, because the union — like many of its brethren — has publicly spoken against Citizens United and even called for Congress to overrule the Supreme Court on the issue.
AFT continued to bellyache, and in a 2012 statement called for the case to be overturned:
The Citizens United ruling has opened the floodgates to massive spending by corporations and even more so by wealthy donors. They are pouring money into our electoral system and threaten to drown out the voices of hard-working Americans.
Yet another flagrant half-truth. Looking at political spending in aggregate reveals a very different story. According to Open Secrets, from 1989-2014 12 of the top 17 “heavy hitters” are unions (NEA is #3 and AFT is #12) – all of which donate almost exclusively to Weingarten’s team – Democrats. ActBlue, which is by far the biggest spender sees over 99 percent of its largess go to Democrats. The other four major players (Goldman Sachs, AT&T, JP Morgan and the National Association of Realtors) disburse money to both parties. (Spending since the advent of Citizens United is in line with the 25-year numbers.)
In keeping with the unions grousing, victim-speak, disinformation and cheating, it should come as no surprise that CTA and SEIU led the charge against SB 52 in California. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News, the Democrat-sponsored bill would have let voters know who is paying for ballot measure ads – on the ads themselves. “Companies and unions could no longer hide behind front groups to keep their identities secret from voters. No more tiny on-screen text. TV ads would show the top three funders in big, readable letters on a black background.” But the unions got their way, managing to get the bill tossed in the “inactive file” this past Friday.
So while the unions join Harry Reid in excoriating the Koch brothers, they ultimately “out-Koch” them. They screech over Citizens United while at the same time taking maximum advantage of it. Then when a bill comes along to promote political donation transparency, they lobby to kill it. The unions are not about fairness; they are about power plain and simple – and using it in any way they can to force their agenda down our throats.
“…spending it to ensure reg folks had access to democracy…and a fairer economy.” I mean, really, Randi??!! All the faux appeals to “reg folks” can’t hide the exceedingly hypocritical dark side of unions – especially the teacher variety, which hose the “reg folks” on a daily basis. Fortunately the “reg folks” are figuring that out and the unions’ popularity with them is at an all-time low.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.
You seem to be very unhappy lately, but cheer up – things aren’t nearly as bad as you think!
In your recent foray into BuzzFeed, you seemed a bit verklempt (for you non-Yids, that means overwrought) and I would like to help you feel better!
Regarding Common Core, the piece reads:
‘The right’s vitriol is ideological. The losing of parents and teachers is a matter of incompetence, Weingarten said. She attributed the program’s poor reception to groups like the Gates Foundation ‘wanting to measure more than wanting to teach.’
Oh my goodness! You mention Bill Gates and “the right” in the same breath. Surely you know that Mr. Gates is hardly a part of the vast right wing conspiracy. And if you think the right is vitriolic on the subject, let me introduce you to one Karen Lewis who has cornered the market on vitriol. Just watch any one of dozens of videos where the Chicago Teachers Union leader lashes out at, well, just about everyone, regularly dumping on rich people, white people, Common Core, Arne Duncan, et al. And if you want more vitriol about Common Core, a trip to the Bad Ass Teachers Facebook page will undoubtedly sate you. You will then see that being anti-Common Core certainly isn’t just a rightwing thing. I hope this lightens your mood, Randi.
Then, of course, is the inevitable swipe at the Koch Brothers.
All these conservative governors left to their own devices initially supported the standards… What changed? The Koch brothers decided not to support the standards, ALEC didn’t support the standards, others who fund right-wing causes don’t support the standards.
Fiddlesticks! You seem to think that the right does what only the Kochs want them to do. (Seems that you have become afflicted with the Harry Reid’s Koch-o-loco Syndrome.) Actually, most folks came to their anti-Common Core position without Charles’ and David’s help. In fact, you and many others on the left greatly exaggerate the power of the Brothers. And I’m sure you simply forgot to grouse about Tom Steyer and other hypocritical, crony capitalist power-brokers on the left.
As I’m sure you know, our political contribution rules are quite arcane and are taken advantage of by both the right and the left. When teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci was asked how much the National Education Association spends on politics, he responded, “What do you mean by ‘NEA’ and what do you mean by ‘politics?’ As an example, he says, “If NEA sends a mailer to a member calling for the election of Candidate X, or the passage of Measure Y, it is probably not a campaign expenditure. But if NEA sends the same mailer to me, it is.” He ends his piece with, “As you can see, there isn’t a sound bite reply to the headline question, ‘How Much Does NEA Spend on Politics?’ But you wouldn’t be far wrong if you simply answered, “As much as it wants to.” His article gets deep into the weeds on this issue and is very informative; I suggest you read the whole thing, Rand, it will brighten your day.
Perhaps we can best put the whole campaign finance mess into perspective by looking at actual dollar amounts. Gateway Pundit did just that and found via Open Secrets that between 1989-2014 the “‘Evil’ Koch Brothers Rank 59th in Political Donations Behind 18 Different Unions.” And this is sure to bring a smile to your face: NEA is #4 at $53,594,488 and your American Federation of Teachers is 12th at $36,713,325 (#12, Randi!) and the Kochs are way down the list in 59th place, having spent a measly $18,083,948 during that time period. (Am I hearing a big sigh of relief, Randi?!)
And homegirl, the news gets even better!! You recently joined Democracy Alliance, an organization that “takes pains to ensure that its work disbursing millions of dollars to top left-wing organizations remains secretive and free from public scrutiny.” So when it comes to “dark money,” you can out-Koch the Kochs every day of the week and thrice on Sunday! (Btw, it was a shame that someone was so careless to leave a list of new DA members lying around at that gathering last month, subsequently winding up on the internet. I can imagine you must have been very ticked off. But frankly as a 1%er who pulls in over a half a million a year, you can just put that behind you, especially since that $30,000 entry fee to join DA is really sofa cushion change for you.
And there’s even more good news! As you perhaps know the new president of this club for filthy rich, dark money-loving lefties is none other than NEA executive director John Stocks!! Isn’t that terrif!! An organization with people whose last names are Munger and Soros is being led by a union guy!!! C’mon, that should chase those dark clouds away!
Once you got off Common Core, your comments in the BuzzFeed piece took a worrisome turn, but again, I am here to help!
There’s not anything I stand for that [people on the right] like… From the fact that I’m a gay leader of a teachers union, to the fact that I’m Jewish and actually religious about that, but not in the orthodox kind of way. My partner’s the rabbi of a gay temple…and I’m the head of a labor union and I’m a public schoolteacher. So there’s just nothing about me that the Tea Party will ever like.
Randi, Randi, Randi … that’s such poppycock! In fact, here you sound just a tad meshugana (Yiddish for whacky). As a Jew who has been to many Tea Party events (I’ve spoken at several: here, here and here), I can tell you that I have never heard one disparaging word about Jews … or gays either, for that matter. Tea Partiers don’t get into religious or sexual orientation issues. Their mission is actually fairly narrow: they champion fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets – you know, the principles our country was founded on. Whom you play with behind closed doors and whether you pray on Saturday or Sunday are of absolutely of no interest to them. I sincerely hope this offers some solace to you. In fact, since you are very fond of Twitter, please follow national Tea Party leader Jenny Beth Martin (@jennybethm). You will learn a lot and be disabused of so many things that bring you unnecessary angst.
And in my never ending quest to bring that twinkle back in your eyes – you are just going to love this! – the Koch Brothers are not actually conservative, but are in fact libertarian. As such, they are in favor of gay marriage. Now I don’t expect you to send the brothers a gift basket (however, if you do, please use my wife’s company, The Lone Arranger; she’ll give you a 20% discount!), but, in any event, maybe you could lighten up on the Brother-bashing?
See, now, don’t you feel better?!! The poor Kochs can’t compete with the unions and their fellow travelers when it comes to political spending. And along with the Tea Partiers, they couldn’t care less about your religion or sexual orientation. Best of all, unlike most of us, you are a 1%er, have access to the rich and famous and of course, as a teacher union boss, you have the tools – really blunt instruments – to inflict education policy on millions of school children nationwide. Pop the champagne!!
As always, looking out for you!!
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.
Think rich conservatives rule the world? Think again.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell famously wrote, “needs a constant struggle.” In front of my nose as I write this is a copy of last Sunday’s New York Times. I have opened it to the business section. Below the fold isone of many Times articles on Thomas Piketty, the French economist and author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which argues that America has entered a second Gilded Age of vast inequality, inherited fortunes, and oligarchic politics, where the shape of public discourse and public policy is determined by a wealthy few. Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the Timessays, “follows in a tradition of works on political economy” that includes The Wealth of Nations, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Principles of Political Economy, Das Kapital, and The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. They’re not kidding.
Above the article on Piketty is another profile, headlined “Comcast’s Real Repairman.” Its subject is David Cohen, the executive vice president of the communications giant Comcast, who wants the government to approve the proposed merger between his company and Time Warner Cable. The deal would make Comcast the largest cable provider in America, with some 30 million customers.
Last year Cohen made about $14 million. He began his career as chief of staff to Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. And while he backs some Republicans, mainly Pennsylvania politicians who stand to make life easier for his Philly-based conglomerate, Cohen leans left. His political giving favors Democrats, as does the overall giving of his company. President Obama, who appears frequently on Comcast-owned networks, has golfed with Cohen’s boss. Obama has been to Cohen’s house. “I have been here so much,” he said during a 2013 visit, “the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have Seder dinner.” There is always next year.
If the business editors of the Times were aware of the irony of lamenting the political influence of great wealth on one half of their page while handling it with kid gloves on the other, they gave no sign. “Mr. Cohen says he understands the criticism that he has access most citizens do not,” says the article, before handing Cohen the microphone. “But I also don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” he said. Two paragraphs earlier, he had said, “My priorities in political giving are Comcast priorities. I don’t kid myself. My goals are to support the interests of the company.”
There you have it: A wealthy Democratic donor admits he funds candidates to improve his bottom line. And yet I hear from the Senate floor no denunciations of his attempts to buy American democracy, no labeling of him as un-American. I have not received a piece of direct mail soliciting donations to fight David L. Cohen’s hijacking of the political process, nor do I wake up every day to investigations of the Cohen political and charitable network. Why?
My confusion only grows as I turn the pages of the paper and come to an article in the Sunday Styles section headlined “Including the Young and the Rich.” Here I learn that last month the White House held a secret meeting with “an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes.” This “discreet, invitation-only summit” was intended, the author says, “to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.” Media were not allowed, the author says in a parenthetical, but he was “invited to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.” The author’s name is Jamie Johnson, he is worth around $610 million, and as of 2011 he was, I see, one of the world’s most eligible bachelors.
“I was a little worried they were going to get a bunch of rich kids in the room and fundraise for the Democratic Party,” said one of the participants. “But they didn’t.” The quote comes from 30-year-old Liesel Pritzker Simmons, whose billionaire cousin is the secretary of Commerce, and who along with her brother earned a $560 million inheritance by suing her dad. The Obama team did not have to hit up Pritzker Simmons for cash. She and her husband, an heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats and liberal groups in recent years, including to ActBlue, the DSCC, Harry Reid’s Majority PAC, Priorities USA, Elizabeth Warren, and congressional candidate Sean Eldridge. Like Eldridge needs the money. He is married to Chris Hughes, who lucked into rooming with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and now is worth around $400 million.
Not every attendee at the trust-fund summit was an Obama donor. Zac Russell, “an eloquent 26-year-old” who recently joined his Russell Family Foundation, is “not an ardent supporter of the Obama administration.” Indeed, not even 30 years old, he speaks “with an air of cynicism” befitting his “scraggy Brooklyn-style facial hair” and “loosely fitting suit without a necktie.” He told Jamie Johnson, “Their head of public affairs contacted me and said, ‘Let’s talk,’ and so we’ll talk.” What they talked about was climate change and “grass-roots efforts to improve water quality in Puget Sound.” You know: real Tea Party stuff.
The world of unequal incomes that liberals self-righteously lament, the world of concentrated, inherited wealth, of politics dominated by the concerns of a few, is a world constructed by liberal methods according to liberal ideals. “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” Marx and Engels wrote in 1848. And there can be no denying that the ruling ideas of our age—diversity, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, gun control, free trade, unrestricted migration, sexual autonomy, feminism, environmentalism—are liberal ones.
The popular rhetoric of income inequality, the attacks on Charles and David Koch, the assertion that the system is rigged against the common man, the accusations that a vast right-wing conspiracy has despoiled the American landscape and society and polity—these are the means by which the ruling class masks its true position and justifies its continued agglomeration of power and of wealth.
The campaign against inequality and the call for higher taxes and the regulatory burdens placed on extractive industries further the self-interest of the liberals who rule our world partly because those liberals are already established in society and have already made their money, partly because like David Cohen or Tom Steyer or George Soros or Elon Musk or Warren Buffett they stand to benefit financially from their preferred outcomes, but also because there are fortunes to be made, there is status to be gained, in justifying the continued expansion of the welfare state, in designing plans for the redistribution of tax dollars, in demonizing those sections of the elite, and that minority of Americans, which dissent from the ruling ideas.
Seven of the 10 richest counties in the country voted for Barack Obama in 2012, many of them by huge margins. Six of the 10 are in the Washington, D.C., metro area, which has benefited from government employment and payment regulations, from government contracting, and from consulting, lobbying, and lawyering for clients petitioning the government. The median income of Falls Church City, Va., is $121,250 dollars. In 2012, Falls Church City voted for Obama 70 percent to 30 percent.
Democrats represent eight of the ten richest congressional districts in the country. Democrat Carolyn Maloney represents the district with the highest per capita income of $75,479. Outgoing congressman Henry Waxman represents the district with the second-highest per capita income of $61,273. The only two Republicans on the list are Rep. Leonard Lance, whose New Jersey district ranks seventh, and outgoing Rep. Frank Wolf, whose Virginia district ranks tenth. The average per capita income of Democratic House districts is $1,000 more than Republican ones.
Congressional Democrats have a higher median net worth than congressional Republicans. House Democrats have a higher median net worth ($929,000) than House Republicans ($884,000), while the median net worth of Senate Republicans ($2.9 million) is higher than that of Senate Democrats ($1.7 million). But it is not like the Senate Democrats are hurting financially. They have lost some wealthy members in recent years (Herbert Kohl, John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg). Of the 10 richest members of Congress, only three are Republicans.
The top 20 entries in the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans include conservative bogeymen such as Charles and David Koch (tied at number 4) and Sheldon Adelson (number 11). But these men are overwhelmed by Democratic fundraisers such as Warren Buffett (number 2), Michael Bloomberg (number 10), Jeff Bezos (number 12), Larry Page (number 13), Sergey Brin (number 14), and George Soros (number 19), as well as by billionaires who have donated more evenly between parties, such as Bill Gates (number 1) and Larry Ellison (number 3). Members of the Walton family, who fill four of the top 10 spots, have also donated to both parties, but in recent years have leaned Republican.
That does not include the Waltons’ charitable giving, however, which includes sizable donations to the left-wing Tides Foundation and Obama aide John Podesta’s Center for American Progress. Indeed, the partisan makeup of the super-rich is less interesting, and less important, than their ideological unity. The issues that the richest Americans care most passionately about, from gay marriage to comprehensive immigration reform to gun control to drug legalization to foreign aid, are liberal issues. Only the Kochs and Adelson are famous for making defiant and public stands against the spirit of the age.
The list of the 20 most highly compensated CEOs contains many Republicans, and some conservative ones. But it also contains plenty of Democrats and liberals. Ticket-splitter Ellison, who was paid $78.4 million in 2013, tops the list. Next is Disney CEO Bob Iger, who received $34.3 million in compensation in 2013, and is a generous Democrat. Other highly paid CEOs whose giving since 2009 has favored Democrats include outgoing Ford chief Alan Mulally, Larry Merlo of CVS, Kenneth Chennault of American Express, and Paul Jacobs of Qualcomm. When you make more than $19 million a year the line separating Democrats from Republicans becomes hazy. Is Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs a movement conservative? Is GE’s Jeffrey Immelt?
Eight of the 10 largest private foundations are liberal. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest foundation with $37 billion in assets, to which Warren Buffett has pledged his trust, has delivered grants to the Tides Center and the Center for American Progress. So have the Ford Foundation ($11 billion in assets), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ($10 billion), the Hewlett Foundation ($8 billion), the MacArthur Foundation ($6 billion), and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation ($6 billion). The Kellogg Foundation ($8 billion) has donated close to $30 million to the Tides Foundation and to the Tides Center, and the Packard Foundation ($6 billion) has chipped in another $30 million to Tides affiliates, as well as founding, at a cost of $71 million, the environmentalist Energy Foundation.
Of the top 10 foundations, only number 7, the Lilly Endowment (with $7 billion in assets) leans conservative. Other notably liberal foundations in the top 100 include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Kresge Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and Soros’s Open Society Institute. The notorious conservative foundations that constitute the “counter-establishment” do not even crack the top 100. The Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, the largest conservative foundation, has assets of $640 million. The Charles G. Koch Foundation in 2012 had assets of $277 million. Conservative foundations are out-gunned.
So, too, are conservative media. The right has talk radio, Fox News Channel, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, National Review, and a bunch of plucky websites. Liberals have the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, MSNBC, BBC, the Huffington Post, Slate, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, GQ, Esquire, Time, Vogue, and many, many others. Not a single prominent institution of higher education, not a single prominent institution of high culture, can be described in any way as conservative. New York magazine admits that the “vast left-wing conspiracy is on your screen.”
The campaign of Barack Obama outraised the campaign of Mitt Romney. Overall, in 2012, the “red team” slightly outspent the “blue team” by a little more than $100 million. It made no difference. Not a single one of the top “all-time” institutional donors between 1989 and 2014 tilted Republican, according to a list compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Senate Democrats arewinning the 2014 money race. Even as they denounce Supreme Court rulings that loosen restrictions on political speech, liberal billionaires pledge gifts of $100 million and $50 million to Democrats in the 2014 election, and meet anonymously and in secret to coordinate giving to the multitude of organizations that make up the professional left. So effective has been the fundraising of hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer that President Obama, having delayed the Keystone pipeline yet again, is likely to kill it.
“It’s very difficult to make a democratic system work when you have such extreme inequality,” Piketty told the Times last Sunday, “and such extreme inequality in terms of political influence and the production of knowledge and information.” In fact the mechanisms of democracy seem to be working precisely as the capitalist and petty-bourgeois liberals would like them to work: the question among Democrats these days is just how permanent their majority is likely to be.
What we are in danger of losing because of the “extreme inequality in terms of political influence and the production of knowledge and information” are the classical liberal values of negative freedom, of religious liberty, of equality before the law, of free markets. The inequality of income our bipartisan ruling class sanctimoniously condemns is the very tool it uses to shore up the inequalities of power and communication from which it benefits. Affluent, self-righteous, self-seeking, self-possessed, triumphalist, out of touch, hostile to dissent—this is what oligarchy looks like in the twenty-first century. And it is all in front of one’s nose.
About the Author: Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon, he was opinion editor of the Weekly Standard, where he remains a contributing editor. The author of The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine (Doubleday, 2006) and The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star (Sentinel, 2009), Continetti’s articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. This article originally appeared in the Washington Free Beacon on April 25, 2014 and appears here with permission.