The American Propaganda Machine.
Summary: In this essay of Unf*cking the Republic®, we dive into the American system of propaganda and pull back the curtain on the tangled web of think tanks, lobbying groups, media organizations and corporations that live to fuck over the American people. We’ll demonstrate how dark money works its way through a labyrinth of special interest groups and emerges as public policy that looks and sounds patriotic and helpful, but is actually designed to strip away your rights and generate profits for a handful of assholes. And we’ll show how groups like the Heritage Foundation help craft and sell these messages to turn people against their own best interests and make you believe the horse shit they’re peddling.
In order to unf*ck such fuckery we’ll have to be methodical, so settle in because this will be a little longer than usual. We’ll start by identifying what our best interests actually are as individuals and as a civil society. Then we’ll walk through how these ideas are manipulated into adverse public policy and by whom. Lastly, we’ll show how identities are created, cultivated and sold back to us to try on in the political fitting room.Will you emerge with a Trump flag waving from the back of your pickup truck or a ‘coexist’ bumper sticker on your Honda Accord? No matter how you lean, there’s an app for that, a logo and a whole bunch of data to help support your views, even if they run counter to your best interests.
If it sounds like the art of propaganda, that’s because it is.
One of the concepts behind the American experiment is the proposition that each generation can do better than the one before. Upward mobility. Increased comfort and leisure. The framework for this was to create a system of opportunity for all citizens with certain inalienable rights. (For the sake of this analysis, we’ll move past the whole "people-as-property, Black people are 3/5ths human concept and rights extending only to white male landowners." So inconvenient.) Let’s just acknowledge that our imperfect union was demonstrably imperfect from the outset.
The premise of this polemic will center on a particular phrase that is ever present in our founding documents: General Welfare. The American system of government, as intended by the framers and expanded since, was designed to provide certain liberties that allowed for the pursuit of economic mobility for its citizens.
One of the most critical portions of the Constitution as argued in the Federalist Papers and codified in various Supreme Court rulings allowed for states and the federal government to pursue taxation as a means to support the “General Welfare” of the people, particularly, in Hamilton’s view at least, where education and agriculture were concerned. So from this, let’s assume that part of our belief system of what comprises a productive society includes those two things—the production of, and access to, food and state-sponsored education. These are fundamental rights.
I will argue a step further that the nature of the word “welfare” also extends to the health of the population. After all, a sick population, as the Founders no doubt understood considering their generation was born with the scars of empire-ending plagues, is an expensive and doomed population. Lastly, the Founders explicitly included the right to raise money for the common defense of the nation.
So, in this, we have set the basis for our understanding of what is necessary and elemental to a functioning society. Health, education, food, security and the right to economic mobility.
It’s a hackneyed trope, but a useful one, nonetheless: Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to the famed psychologist and Brooklynite, humans required fulfillment of basic needs before being able to attain higher levels of personal and psychological achievement. Basically, enlightenment and self actualization aren’t all that important if you’re hungry and don’t have a place to shit. I might be paraphrasing, but you get the point.
The groundbreaking part of Maslow’s theory wasn’t acknowledging that these things matter, but that the order mattered most. Anyway, at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid are things like food and water, and the ability to rest. He calls these basic needs. Next up are psychological needs like relationships and accomplishments. If you’re lucky enough to check these boxes, then you get to work on yourself and be creative, the self actualization part of the pyramid.
Picking these apart, we can see that the needs of the individual align pretty closely with the desired outcome of a proper republic as the founders saw it. Food. Education. Security. Opportunity. A truly healthy person and society could focus on self actualizing measures if only we could build a stable foundation to our pyramid. Now we can move on to how exactly individuals and whole populations can somehow be convinced they don’t need the government to provide these things at all.
We’ve established that it should be fairly unassailable to say that the concept of general welfare includes things like food, shelter, safety, education and economic opportunity. And that if we provide these things, we as humans and we as a society will be better suited to tackle the top of the pyramid. To create, find love, achieve peace and fulfillment.
So let’s talk about where this all comes apart and who’s pulling on the threads.
Enter the so-called think tank. For every important public initiative, there’s a policy institute that advocates for or against it.
Even casual observers of politics and policy will likely recognize the big names in the game. Brookings, The Cato Institute, Human Rights Watch, Council on Foreign Relations. It’s estimated that there are more than five thousand active think tanks in the world and, as usual, the United States dominates the arena with more than one third of them. Of the 1,800 or so registered think tanks in the U.S., more than half of them sprung up over the past quarter century.
The funding for these programs is a spider web of dark money from public and private donors with agendas to push and white papers to publish. They range from university appendages like Mercatus at George Mason University and large foundations with policy arms to small single-issue, one-person shops. Some have fairly obvious names that portend an agenda like the Center for Muslim Jewish Engagement. Others have patriotic sounding names like the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which promotes offshore tax havens. That’s all they do.
If you can think of an issue, there’s a think tank attached to a foundation funded by someone who has a bone to pick.
Now, I’m not saying these are all bad institutions that do the bidding of some shadowy figure intent on destroying the world. And then again, sometimes that’s exactly what’s going on. Some of these think tanks boast enormous funding and outsized influence. And one of the keys to their Machiavellian approach is to turn the benign into the malignant and cause you to fear the very thing that you need.
The left and right both have their boogeyman. It’s the Koch Brothers on the right (one of them is now dead) and George Soros on the left. Hysteria reigns on both sides when these guys come up in conversation. They’re not wrong. But the influence is deeper, more insidious and a lot broader than just these guys. If you want to understand just how much money the billionaire class wagers in bending public policy, read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. It will keep you up at night. Or, at least it should.
There are billions of dollars coursing through the system every year to prop up think tanks and policy centers that perform research intended to promote or destroy social, economic, health, environmental, international, technological and military policies. And their designations allow them to accept funds from individuals, corporations and the government without necessarily disclosing the funding sources.
Then there’s the messengers. With 1,800 think tanks pumping out information on a daily basis, it takes a highly effective and coordinated network to carry the water. Have no fear, as there are nearly 12,000 registered lobbyists in the United States for just that reason. These lobbyists are often funded by the same sources, but empowered to carry these grotesque pieces of policy information and somehow turn them into law. Everyone likes to talk about the lobbying influence and power of the unions and how they have screwed the country, but on sheer numbers alone, of the top 11 sectors—with labor coming in at #11—unions represent about 1.5% of all lobbying activity. It’s actually the pharmaceutical industry, banks, oil and gas, defense contractors, and tech companies like Facebook and Amazon that make up the bulk of lobbying. Makes sense, no? After all, who is more protected these days? Corporations or workers? The math bears out the answer you probably came up with in your head just now.
To get the point across, let’s talk about one of the heavyweight champs of public policy: The Heritage Foundation. Sounds homespun and charming, doesn’t it?
The Heritage Foundation and its sister lobbying arm, Heritage Action for America, openly develop public policy for so-called conservative issues and lobby conservative lawmakers to adopt them. The main foundation receives funding from a labyrinth of conservative donors, several billionaires, other foundations, foreign entities, the oil and gas, defense, tobacco and technology industries, and other undisclosed donors.
Here’s a fun one. Did you know they were the chief architects of what became known as Obamacare? Yup. They lobbied for universal privately insured healthcare with an individual mandate because they wanted more people paying for insurance, and to stop undocumented immigrants and poor people from using emergency rooms as primary care doctors. You didn’t think Mitt Romney came upon that all by himself, did you? Then, the second it was adopted by a Democratic (read: Black) president, it became the third rail, and Heritage promptly reversed course.
Beyond this seismic flip flop, the Heritage Foundation greatest hits include fighting against taxes on cigarette companies, blasting immigration reform measures, railing against climate change legislation and advocating for covert military funding and operations in foreign nations—among other pet projects.
One of the most effective ground strategies these organizations have is the creation of what’s called “model legislation.” In other words, they write the legislation they want to see, leave the sponsors blank, and circulate them throughout the states hoping their measures will be turned into law.
Let’s put some real numbers to this to demonstrate just how little influence voters have on what their legislators actually do and propose. In 2019, the Center for Public Integrity published a report generated by USA TODAY and the Arizona Republic which found at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced nationwide in the past eight years, and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law. Here are a few highlights from the report:
- “Model bills passed into law have made it harder for injured consumers to sue corporations. They’ve called for taxes on sugar-laden drinks. They’ve limited access to abortion and restricted the rights of protesters.”
- “Models are drafted with deceptive titles and descriptions to disguise their true intent. The Asbestos Transparency Act didn’t help people exposed to asbestos. It was written by corporations who wanted to make it harder for victims to recoup money. The “HOPE Act,” introduced in nine states, was written by a conservative advocacy group to make it more difficult for people to get food stamps.”
- “Cities and counties have raised their minimum wage, banned plastics bags and destroyed seized guns, only to have industry groups that oppose such measures make them illegal with model bills passed in state legislatures.”
So who exactly is writing these model bills?
Sorry, Democrats. Outgunned again. Turns out 83% of model legislation was written either by conservative advocacy groups or directly by corporations. 92% of the bills that actually became law were from these two groups, proving once again that liberals suck at hand-to-hand combat and lack the kind of overwhelming coordination that corporations and conservative groups maintain.
So where are we…Right.
Billionaire X has a problem.
So he uses a network of shell corporations to provide funding to think tanks that generate research to support a thesis that would eliminate said problem.
The think tanks send research to lobbyists, who push it off to legislators as proof that new laws need to be passed. Then they coordinate with billionaire X’s corporation to write the legislation directly.
The biggest missing ingredient here is public sentiment. Buy in. Manufactured consent. Someone needs to sell this bullshit to the American people so the lawmaker can hold up some new bill with a patriotic title and claim that he or she is defending the best interests of the American people.
Enter the mouthpiece.
The reason I call the Heritage Foundation the heavyweight champ among the thousands of think tanks, lobbyists and corporations directly peddling influence isn’t because they’re the biggest. Yes, it’s a hundred million dollar plus organization with ties to several other closely related groups and lobbyists that pour billions of dollars into our elections. But they’re not the biggest. They’re the best, because they’re by far the most media savvy. To really sell your snake oil, you need clever spokespeople and mouthpieces.
These are folks who identify with the people and can twist that thing that’s good for you around in your brain until it no longer makes sense. And no one has fused policy with punditry better than the Heritage Foundation.
Where others rely on making their own videos, then post to YouTube and speak on panels at conferences, Heritage has a revolving door booking engine that gets their research fellows on podcasts, evening news shows and mentioned in op-eds.
Voter fraud, immigration, Black Lives Matter, Obamacare, unions, 2nd amendment, you name it. They’ve got an expert locked, loaded and ready to spray verbal bullets through the screen and into your earballs. Heritage Foundation research and mouthpieces regularly make their way onto high profile shows like Hannity and popular podcasts like Ben Shapiro. Tee up a premise, and they’ll knock it down.
Clean air and water? It’s my right to pollute if it makes me money!
Well funded education? Education is a privilege!
Access to Affordable Healthcare? Get a job with benefits, you welfare queen!
Pre-existing condition? Your diabetes is not my fucking problem.
Ranked 15th in standard of living despite being the wealthiest nation? Move to Sweden, you Commie.
Raise the minimum wage? You’re a job killer!
Background checks on weapon purchases? This isn’t North Korea!
If you can make a common sense argument based upon the concept of General Welfare, there’s a corporation funded policy group armed and ready with a white paper, a spokesperson, a sponsor for a pre-written law and talk show host with prepared bullet points, all ready to tell you why it’s a communist plot to take your guns away, kill your grandparents and turn us into Denmark. And for the record, Denmark is pretty awesome. I feel like if there was a national sponsored school trip to Denmark, everyone here would be like, “Oh. This is pretty cool.”
Listen, while so-called conservatives have the hot hand right now, both sides are engaged in pay-to-play fuckery. Over the past five years, Chuck Schumer took in $3 million from the finance industry and lobbyists alone. Mitch McConnell has raised more than $40 million in the past five years from donors and PACs. In 2019, federal lobbyists spent a whopping $3.5 billion, and that doesn’t account for state and local lobbying activities.
An ungodly sum is being poured into social media disinformation campaigns and spreading clips of think tank pundits, which is a problem because, as of 2019, more Americans admit to getting their news from social media than newspapers. News literacy is an actual college course nowadays. We have to teach people how to watch and interpret the fucking news because it’s no longer news.
It’s time to start trusting yourself and your instincts. Turn off the TV. Log off social media. Start thinking again, because the system of information is rigged. And you can trust me when I tell you that. After all, I’m a podcaster.
Here endeth the lesson.
Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).