ALEC: Tool of business interests, but which business interests?

by Matthew N. Lyons

If you follow leftish exposés of money and politics, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is the powerful right-wing group that brings together capitalists, foundations, and state legislators to rewrite laws at the state level. ALEC wrote Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 and strongly influenced the recent Wisconsin budget plan that gutted collective bargaining rights for public employees. Founded in 1973, ALEC has gotten increasing attention thanks to a series of investigative efforts by the National Resources Defense Council, the Progressive States Network, People for the American Way, and others. The Center for Media Democracy’s SourceWatch and ALEC Exposed projects probably offer the most extensive information about the group’s membership, organizational structure, goals, and activities. (Other useful discussions of ALEC have appeared in AlterNet, The Nation, and the Orlando Weekly.)

To some extent, ALEC operates as a massive pay-to-play scheme. For a generous fee, capitalists can sit with lawmakers in private and draft “model legislation” that benefits them directly: the Corrections Corporation of America gets prison privatization bills, Connections Academy (which runs a network of private and charter schools) gets school voucher schemes, tobacco companies get “tort reform” (which would limit class-action lawsuits), energy and chemical companies get plans for industry to regulate its own pollution, and so on. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Beyond these specific measures, ALEC pursues a broader, coordinated agenda to dismantle all vestiges of the welfare state — reduce and delegitimize government regulation of business, privatize public services, cut taxes on corporations and the rich, and bust unions. This is anti-New Deal economic conservatism with a vengeance.

At first glance, ALEC seems to bolster the common-sense liberal assumption that corporate money always flows to the right. For one thing, ALEC’s private enterprise board includes executives from some of United States’ largest and most powerful companies — firms such as Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Altria (formerly Phillip Morris), AT&T, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, and State Farm Insurance. Couple that with the fact that ALEC’s biggest backers include Charles and David Koch, the free-market ideologues who have been high-profile funders of the Tea Party and many other rightist initiatives. Other ALEC-affiliated firms with a history of right-wing activism include Coors Brewing, Amway, and duPont.

But it would be misleading to say that this picture represents something inherent in capitalists’ political nature. We live in a period when the business community is weighted heavily to the right, but this has not always been true and won’t always be true in the future. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — to name two of the U.S. government’s most important liberal initiatives — wouldn’t have gotten very far without support from the most powerful factions of the ruling class. Even today, let’s remember that Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign raised $745 million compared with John McCain’s $368 million. You don’t raise that kind of money just from small contributions and labor union PACs.

Capitalists support political initiatives that serve their interests — Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, authoritarian and pluralistic, depending on the historical situation and the specific interests involved. To focus only on capitalists’ rightist connections lets Democrats off the hook and masks the many ways that liberalism serves and protects an exploitative, unjust economic system.

Contrary to what liberal common sense might dictate, many of the corporations involved in ALEC are not committed to right-wing politics, but spread their political support opportunistically. And while ALEC’s base in the business community is wide, it’s not all encompassing. Looking at which sections of the business community tend to support ALEC and which don’t may tell us something useful about U.S. capitalists’ relationship with right-wing politics at this historical moment.

Using the information on, we can analyze ALEC’s business support by industry. Among ALEC’s business members, the industries most strongly represented are, in order, (1) energy (oil & gas, electrical utilities, coal), (2) pharmaceuticals, and (3) food/beverage, transportation, insurance, and communications/electronics in an approximate four-way tie. Other industries with lighter representation include non-food agribusiness (notably timber), retail, financial services (such as credit card companies), manufacturing, and commercial banking (mostly smaller firms).

Where do these industries fall on the political spectrum? One measure is provided by the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website. The CRP rates each industry on a partisan political scale ranging from “strongly Republican” to “strongly Democratic,” based on a compilation of political contributions over $200. Among the top six industries represented in ALEC we see the following:

  • energy — strongly Republican
  • food/beverage — leans Republican
  • transportation — leans Republican
  • pharmaceutical — on the fence
  • insurance — on the fence
  • communications/electronics — leans Democratic

This suggests that while ALEC-affiliated capitalists lean conservative on average, many of them are not ideologically committed rightists. The CRP data that is available for individual ALEC member firms is consistent with this picture — in other words, ALEC doesn’t just draw the most rightist firms within moderate-to-liberal industries. For example, most of the individual ALEC members on the CRP chart for pharmaceuticals — Pfizer, Abbott Labs, Astrazeneca, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Eli Lilly — are themselves “on the fence” between Republicans and Democrats. Among ALEC-affiliated communications/electronics firms, AT&T leans Republican, but Microsoft is on the fence, Comcast leans Democratic, and Time Warner is strongly Democratic. So some of the companies that have signed onto ALEC’s right-wing anti-“big government” crusade are the same ones funding Democratic candidates for congressmember, senator, and president.

Further confounding common stereotypes about right-wing capitalists, two industries that are conspicuously under-represented among ALEC members are aerospace/military and securities/investment firms. While I’m sure there are other factors, this might have something to do with the fact that both industries depend so heavily on government money — aerospace companies for military contracts, and brokers/investment bankers for federal bailouts to deal with periodic financial crises (as in 2008, but not only then).

These comments about the American Legislative Exchange Council aren’t intended as any sort of definitive statement about business and right-wing politics. ALEC is only one organization, and the tools I’ve offered here for understanding it are fairly crude. There is a whole body of literature that analyzes capitalists’ involvement in politics, relating political clashes between business factions to objective factors such as industry, region, markets, type of company, and so on. Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers’s Right Turn and Ferguson’s Golden Rule and apply this approach to U.S. electoral politics. Others authors who have written in the same vein include Mike Davis (Prisoners of the American Dream), David Gibbs (The Political Economy of Third World Intervention) and Ronald Cox (Power and Profits: U.S. Policy in Central America). A comparable study of ALEC and related business forces today hasn’t been written yet. But if it’s done well, it will almost certainly challenge standard liberal assumptions.

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