In the last few years, political organizations of various kinds have proliferated, as all kinds of people seek to take advantage of the post-Citizens United world in which money can flow in so many directions. This has provided a splendid opportunity for the participants in an old game, one in which gullible conservatives are scammed out of their money by a seemingly limitless number of con artists.
Some of those con artists are obscure consultants and operators, but some of them are quite famous, which we’ll get to in a bit. But today, John Hawkins of Right Wing News released a report on a group of conservative PACs that took in millions of dollars in contributions in 2014, ostensibly for the purpose of electing Republicans, but spent almost none of it on actual political activity. Instead, the money went into the pockets of the people who run the PACs and their associates. Jonah Goldberg, reacting to the report, calls this the “right wing scam machine.”
his, I’ll argue, is in some ways a microcosm of the entire conservative movement. But first, Hawkins explains how it works:
For example, let me tell you how conservatives can be (and have been) ripped off by scam groups. Let’s say Ronald Reagan is still alive and someone starts the Re-Elect Ronald Reagan To A Third Term PAC. Because people love Reagan, let’s suppose that conservative donors pony up $500,000 to help the organization. However, the donors don’t know that Ronald Reagan has nothing to do with the PAC. Furthermore, the real goal of the PAC is to line the pockets of its owner, not to help Ronald Reagan. So, the PAC sets up two vendors, both controlled by the PAC owner: Scam Vendor #1 and Scam Vendor #2. Let’s assume it costs $50,000 to raise the half million the PAC takes in. Then, the PAC sends $100,000 to the first company and $100,000 to the second company to “promote Ronald Reagan for President.”
Each of the companies then goes out and spends $1,000 on fliers. The “independent expenditures” that show up on the FEC report? They’re at 40%. That’s because the FEC doesn’t require vendors to disclose how much of the money they receive is eaten up as overhead. The dubious net benefit that Ronald Reagan receives from an organization that raised $500,000 on his name? It’s $2,000. On the other hand, the net profit for the PAC owner is $448,000. Is that legal? The short answer is, “It’s a bit of a grey area, but, yes, it is legal.”
For the most part, the bigger and more elite PACs Hawkins looked at are the ones that spent money in the way they said they were going to; for instance, Club for Growth Action spent 88 percent of its contributions on candidates. On the other end, the Tea Party Express spent only 5 percent of its contributions on candidates; Hawkins even found a couple of smaller PACs that spent nothing at all on candidates.
This particular con is just one variant of a wider system, one that has been in operation for decades. While there may be some cases of similar scams on the left, they’re absolutely rampant on the right, because they’ve been so central to the conservative movement for so long. In the 1960s, conservatives realized that the nationwide grassroots network that activists built to support Barry Goldwater could be an ongoing source of funds, not only for conservative causes but for people wanting to sell snake oil. Lists of names and addresses became a valued commodity, built, bought and sold again and again for the benefit of those who controlled them and those who used them (Rick Perlstein lays out that history here).
That tradition continues, but in new and more complicated ways that I like to call the circle of scam. Organizations like the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks pay radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity big money to offer on-air endorsements that are the radio equivalent of “native advertising.” Future presidential candidate Mike Huckabee sells his email list on “miracle cancer cures” hidden in the Bible. Conservative media figures like Dick Morris solicit contributions that somehow are never turned to the political ends they claim. Nobody wants to upend the system, because too many people are getting a taste.
The common thread can be found in the marks: the little old lady in Tupelo who sends in $50 thinking that she’s striking a blow against Barack Obama, the couple in Topeka who hopes Mike Huckabee’s biblical cancer cure can save their daughter’s life, the man in Toledo who thinks that the group with “Tea Party” in its name is going to have an impact on his state’s races. What none of them know is that their money is just going to make somebody who’s already rich a little bit richer.
And that’s where we get to the larger picture. There’s a line that runs from those donors to the biggest players in conservative politics and the politicians they support. When thousands of volunteers set out to knock doors on behalf of Americans for Prosperity, what are they seeking? A better America, more freedom, a return to the simpler time they remember from their youth? All that and more. But what are they actually going to get? They’ve been set to work by AFP’s prime donors, Charles and David Koch (whose combined net worth may exceed $100 billion), to elect candidates who will work tirelessly to lower investment taxes, destroy the right of workers to bargain collectively, and lessen the terrible burden of environmental, consumer protection, and worker safety regulations that so oppress the likes of the Kochs.
We see the same process again and again. The tea party rises up to turn back government overreach, and what do its participants get in exchange for all their money and labor? In the end, they get a Republican Party that is more ideologically radical, to be sure, but one that continues to hold the interests of corporations and the wealthy as its top priority. Social conservatives are assured by party leaders that if they get out and work in the next election, the tide of modernity can be turned back; it never happens, but you can bet that the people the elect will move heaven and earth to protect low capital gains taxes.
If there’s one thing conservatives of all stripes hate, it’s redistribution. But within their movement there’s a never-ending redistribution at work, in which the money and efforts of ordinary people feed the interests of those who enlist them, or in many cases just prey upon them. I’ve often wondered why conservatives themselves aren’t angrier about the most appalling scams, not only because of the opportunity cost when a donation goes to some consultant instead of to an effort that could have a real political impact, but also because it’s their people who are getting fleeced. I think the reason is that so many people are, in one way or another, in on the game.