Watching left-wing groups gang up to falsely yell “racism” in a crowded political theater is an ugly thing to see. Too often there is a race for the exits by some people who should know better.
That’s what just happened with the liberal assault on the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of conservative state legislators which was founded in 1973 to promote Jeffersonian principles of small government. A concerted effort by ALEC’s adversaries to accuse it of supporting “voter suppression” laws and “Stand Your Ground” laws such as the one in place in Florida where Trayvon Martin was shot helped rattle some major corporations and foundations into withdrawing their support for ALEC. Yesterday, the group responded by shutting down the task force that had promoted laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls (supported by over 75 percent of Americans in polls) and “Stand Your Ground” laws (which have been signed into law by such Democrats as Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan).
ALEC’s retreat isn’t likely to satisfy its critics, which prominently include former Obama White House aide Van Jones and The Nation magazine. As John Nichols of The Nation reported yesterday. “ALEC remains a prime proponent — via task forces working in other areas — of state-based assaults on labor rights, environmental protections and public education.”
ALEC’s decision to focus on its core areas of restraints on government spending and pro-growth policies is somewhat understandable given how quickly some major corporations ranging from Coca-Cola, Mars, Wendy’s, and Kraft caved into threats by Jones and his ilk that economic boycotts would be launched against them if they continued to support ALEC.
But ALEC could have reacted more vigorously to defend itself and its mission. Over the years, such distinguished governors as Michigan’s John Engler, Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson and Texas’s Rick Perry have come from the ranks of ALEC. It has tirelessly warned for a decade that states were spending themselves into a deep hole, and has promoted measures such as school choice and privatization to improve the quality of government services. (Disclosure: I have spoken at several ALEC events over the last 20 years without receiving any compensation.)
But ALEC’s recent successes in the wake of the 2010 tea-party election have infuriated liberals and unions, who have been looking for a convenient crowbar to club it with. They found it in the Trayvon Martin killing and the completely false claim that voter-ID laws discriminate against minorities and block people from voting. Both arguments have little basis in fact. Over half of the states have passed “Stand Your Ground” laws with bipartisan support, and in Georgia and Indiana, the two states with the earliest and toughest voter-ID laws, minority-voter turnout went up significantly in both 2008 and 2010.
ALEC’s major service to members is its development of model legislation, which can then be adapted to the needs of each state. Its truth-in-sentencing legislation has been adopted by a majority of states, and many states have followed ALEC’s lead in expanding property rights or creating state versions of medical savings accounts to expand consumer choice in health care.
Seventy years ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the states “laboratories of democracy.” It’s precisely the success ALEC has had in introducing bold ideas in the states which challenge the status quo that convinced the Left that they had to hurl the ugly charge of racism against the group. Conservatives need to understand just how their cynical game was played in this case and find effective countermeasures against any future use of it.