Intimidating democracy

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The notion that a healthy democracy is based on the free exchange of ideas and that citizens should be able to freely organise to influence public policy is under attack.

The dominance of the Republican Party and an increasingly assertive conservative movement, has led to a growing intolerance for allowing dissenting voices to speak, let alone be listened to. Fuelled with funds from foundations and corporations, the conservative movement is attempting to silence its critics.

With Republicans controlling the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and increasingly state governments, conservative activists believe they have an opportunity to intimidate democracy by restricting who qualifies for tax-exempt status, undermining government and foundation funding sources for non-profits and restricting attention grabbing civil disobedience protests.

What started as a plan to 'defund the left' in America has also inspired their counterparts around the world to adopt and adapt the same strategy.

From Reagan to Bush

For over twenty years there has been repeated attempts in the United States – initiated by the Heritage Foundation - to ‘defund the left’. The first two full frontal attacks - in 1981 and 1995 - that were aimed at stripping public funding from non-profit groups, were rebuffed by Congress. Subsequently conservative groups have developed a broader range of long-term strategies.

Following the defeat of Reagan era proposals, a handful of conservative foundations funded the establishment of the Capital Research Center, founded by former Heritage Foundation and Reagan administration staffer Willa Johnson.

CRC’s role has been to criticise mainstream foundations deemed to be too 'liberal' and attack non-government organisations critical of the groups corporate sponsors. (An insight into CRC’s view of the political spectrum was contained in a 1995 list it prepared, obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which tagged the American Enterprise Institute as in the political “center”).

While the 'defund the left' campaign strategy was developed by the Heritage Foundation or the Reagan and subsequent Republican administrations, it has permeated through the ranks of the conservative movement. In 1991 Ron Arnold, one of the founders of the Wise Use Movement, told the New York Times “we want to destroy the environmentalists by taking away their money and their members”. In 1995 Grover Norquist, a leading conservative activist, bluntly stated that "we will hunt liberal groups down one by one and extinguish their funding sources”.

By mid-February 2001, the conservative movement was emboldened by its electoral success. The President of the Capital Research Center, Terrence Scanlon, appearing on a panel titled "De-funding the Left" at the 28th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) rallied conservative activists. "For the first time since 1952, we have a Republican Congress, House and Senate, we have a Republican President, so the agency heads will be hopefully mostly conservatives. So for the very first time we have an opportunity to go after these groups and take away their federal money. Let's do it," Scanlon said.

To starve non-profit groups of funding though, requires a multi-layered strategy. Some groups are heavily reliant on foundations, some get government grants, others rely overwhelmingly on contributions from individuals. Nearly all are registered with taxation authorities as incorporated tax-exempt non-profit groups.

Amid the de-regulatory, anti-Washington euphoria of the Republicans winning control of the House of Representative in 1994, Gingrich sought to target non-profit advocacy groups. Gingrich used the term ‘iron triangles’ to describe Congressional liberals responding to calls from activist groups, especially in the social welfare sector, to establish government programs and include funding for non profit groups for services and other projects. In the conservatives assessment this freed up funds raised from other sources to allow them to increase the lobbying of government for policy change or more government programs.

The electoral success of the Republicans also had the effect of de-mobilising many in the local grass-roots ant-environmental groups comprising the Wise Use Movement, at least in terms of the focus on the federal government. The Executive Director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise Ron Arnold, one of the ‘wise use’ movements most prominent leaders, re-invented himself as a critic of ‘liberal’ foundations and gained a foothold with the national conservative network as a regular contributor to Capital Research Center publications. (See Ron Arnold and Teresa Heinz Kerry).

Testifying before a U.S House of Representatives committee in February 2000, Arnold invoked Gingrich’s ‘iron triangle’ analogy to portray the environmental movement as doing the bidding of foundations. “The foundations direct their funds to the second leg of the triangle, environmental groups with insider access to the third leg, executive branch agencies. This powerful ‘iron triangle’ unfairly influences federal policy to devastate local economies and private property,” he said. [1]

Arnold’s strategy is to portray acceptance of foundation funding by environmental groups as evidence that they lack local grass roots support and that they are simply the puppets of wealthy, distant interests. Not only does portraying foundations as all-powerful play to the populist ‘wise use’ networks but Arnold seeks to use it to support the case for greater regulation of both non-profits and foundations.

While attempts to block groups accessing federal funds have largely been rebuffed, conservative foundations and corporations have funded a range of projects in an attempt to ‘chill’ foundations from funding advocacy groups. Some are designed to fuel adverse media coverage of foundations while others provide information for lobbying of foundations.

The attack on non-profit advocacy continues, with ongoing attempts to amend legislation governing non-profit information disclosure and lobbying. However, where early unsuccessful attempts targeted all non-profits, a narrower more opportunistic approach is being adopted to whittle provisions away sector-by-sector.

Nor are conservative foundations, activists and corporations content to focus solely on extinguishing funding sources for advocacy groups. For years Ron Arnold and others have been using the rhetoric of 'Eco-terrorism' to smear groups engaged in peaceful protests. The consequences of such accusations, no matter how ill-founded, can be devastating for individuals and damaging for the environmental movement generally.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, accusations equating civil disobedience with terrorism have become more potent and gathered momentum. Arnold has stepped up his efforts while the American Legislative Exchange Council has developed model legislation to criminalise civil disobedience protests by environmental and animal rights groups altogether. (See The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act).

Conservative think tanks, governments, corporations and public relations companies have embraced a crackdown on public interest groups as a way of silencing critical groups permanently.

The main strands to the conservative movement's attack on public interest groups are:

The campaign countering non-profits goes global

The ripple effects of the U.S. campaign to 'defund the left' have been felt around the world. A U.S. mining company succeeded in having USAID funding for an Indonesian community group pulled. [2] A Fulbright scholarship to the U.S., helped the Senior Fellow at the Australian Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), Gary Johns develop a good working relationship with the American Enterprise Institute and escalate their emphasis on curtailing the activities of public interest groups.

The IPA themselves have targeted public interest groups in Malaysia and those working on issues in Indonesia. In mid-June 2004 the conservative Australian government released a consultancy report by the IPA's Gary Johns and John Roskam proposing the first steps to reduce the access that non-government organisations have to government decision making. [3]

In May 2002 Canadian PR consultant Ross S. Irvine, who approvingly cites Johns views in his articles, was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand. In his presentation Irvine identified "charitable organization legislation", now before parliament, as one of the key focal points to consider in New Zealand.

In August 2004, the New Zealand Greens Green MP Sue Bradford warned that the proposed charities legislation "poses a real threat to one of the cornerstones of our democracy - the ability of people to come together and advocate for all manner of social, economic and environmental causes. Freedom of speech would be clouded because organisations that speak out on political issues would risk being deregistered by the Charities Commission." [4]

In early September 2004, the Director General of the New Zealand Health Ministry, Karen Poutasi, sent a draft instruction to health and disability NGOs revealing that it was proposed that "the Ministry does not fund lobbying activity and such activity will not be included in any contracts". The instruction, however, did not propose that organisations would be excluded from government funding if funds raised from other sources were used for lobbying. See Intimidating democracy/New Zealand Health Ministry memo to NGOs for the full text.


The campaign to intimidate foundations from supporting public interest groups and preventing non-profit groups from effectively articulating their concerns is little more than an attempt to prevent democracy from working. Their strategy in large part relies on 'chilling' their targets without necessarily having any outright wins. 'Chilling' public interest advocacy works most effectively where the victims are, or feel, isolated. In the absence of exposing attacks as part of a broader strategy against all public interest groups, those targeted respond the best that they can in the circumstances. Some assertively defend their rights while others tone down their advocacy.

Intimidation strategies are least effective where public interest groups are well prepared in advance of attacks and where they can quickly access support and advice on the most effective responses. Making such attacks visible allows those targeted to interpret them as being aimed at not just them but at all public interest groups. The visibility of the attack strategy can also lead to the development of effective counter-strategies.

For example, while legal threats against activists in the 1980's and early 1990 were invisible, each individual or group was left to fend for themselves. After they were publicised, documented and analysed, protective strategies soon emerged. The term SLAPPs was coined - the acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation - and legislative proposals to render them ineffective soon emerged and, in some states, passed into law. Elsewhere, the risk of adverse publicity - as in the infamous McDonald's libel case in the UK - was enough to persuade many corporations and others that resorting to legal action was a high risk strategy.

While conservative groups talk of 'transparency', 'accountability' and guarding taxpayers dollars, what they are really mean is 'do what I say not what I do'.

What they don't want is scrutiny of their own lack of accountability, their lobbying, or lack of transparency on who funds them to do what. Nor do they want their largely invisible corporate funders to lose their ability to deduct contributions against corporate tax.

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