Political front groups have always been a part of the American landscape, but ever since the Citizens United decision, they are rampant. They have been donating money to candidates (heavily on the Republican side), pouring money into passing pro-corporate ballot initiatives or lobbying against allowing truly grassroots ballot initiatives getting a vote. With names designed to lure gullible Americans into believing they are genuine organizations representing the everyday guy and gal, they likely do draw in “members” who actually buy into their story that they started when some concerned neighbors decided to tackle an issue. As the groups are cooked up in boardrooms and lobbying firms, the cynical individuals forming them no doubt justify their deceptive practices by declaring that since they are citizens, there’s a grain of truth to their story. Their millions and millions in dark money are going to have some influence on the elections in November, though how much remains to be seen. The only good news is that recently one of these fake citizen’s groups was forced to shut down following an exposé.
The granddaddy of all front groups has to be Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and its twin organization, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, well known to be founded by the Koch brothers. It’s their stock and trade to deviously create front groups. AFP was actually splinter group of yet another Koch front group called Citizens for a Sound Economy formed in 1984, whose citizens were Amoco, General Electric, and Citibank. This two-man Koch juggernaut of anti-progressive policy formed these groups with the obvious intention of dictating their pro-corporate, conservative agenda to the populace in a seemingly innocuous form. Allegedly a non-for-profit organization, AFP spent millions telling people that health care reform is like the Holocaust, all while having the privilege of keeping its donors anonymous. Dick Armey’s Freedom Works maintains a similar model, operating as a front group for corporations like the Medical Savings Insurance Company. One of the worst individuals on the far right, Gary Bauer, has created a group called, “Campaign for Working Families,” that actually just focuses on tormenting Obama by ending his “socialism.”
In Michigan, “Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility,” became an important player in state politics when they tried, nearly successfully, to challenge the efforts to put an initiative on the ballot in November that would appeal Michigan’s draconian Emergency Manager laws. These anti-democratic laws allow entire cities, and sometimes school districts, to be taken over by an unelected “manager” (appointed by the Governor) who has the authority to dictate policy, completely bypass elected officials, sell off public assets, and fire hundreds of people. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility turned out to be merely an extension of the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests. The organization was literally housed in a lobbying firm.
In Missouri, another ballot initiative aimed to limit the amount payday loan lenders can charge in interest. But, it was immediately challenged as well. This time, two organizations, Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity and Missourians for Responsible Government, spent millions of dollars fighting to keep the initiative off the ballot, and they were successful, winning lawsuits they filed against moving the initiative forward. There is little doubt that the Missourians comprising each of these groups were payday loan lenders and others with a vested interest in keeping interest rates high. Everyday citizens concerned about responsible government? Get real.
Relatedly, during the Chick-Fil-A uproar, it was frustrating one morning to hear a local morning deejay stupidly saying that he had looked up the groups that the business donates to, and, “based on the names,” he “didn’t see any evidence of a hate group.” Yes, genius, hate groups advertise their slimy intentions in the names of their groups. It brings to mind the fact there are also issue-based groups that hide their true agenda behind inoffensive names: Focus on the Family, The American Family Association, and The Family Research Council. ” These reminded me of the time when I was teaching a social work class and a student from Africa was using Focus on the Family as a source. He had no idea what type of group they were, and he was horrified when he found out their actual beliefs. He did not share their anti-gay agenda, but based on the name believed they were merely a family advocacy group. While these groups are not necessarily sham groups, they illustrate how the deceptive naming your organization can dupe unsuspecting Americans.
Recently, the Chicago Tribune revealed the truth behind another phony citizen’s group, Citizens for Fire Safety, in their series “Playing with Fire.” In this case, the front group was actually representing chemical companies that manufacture highly toxic flame retardant products. The group was started in 2007 by Albemarle, Chemtura, and ICL Industrial Products. Numerous previous exposés have been published on the products’ established links to cancer, neurological disorders, problems with fertility, and developmental issues. The exposure of the group as a fake citizen’s group has led it to shutter its doors and close down its website. Unfortunately, these chemical companies haven’t ended their crusade to influence politics and keep their dangerous flame retardants on the market. They have been giving large sums of money to political candidates like Republican Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin ($648,600) through the American Chemistry Council. But at least it is easier for activists to identify the enemy to an otherwise lethargic public who are inclined to be duped by innocent names like Citizens for Fire Safety.
The astro-turfing tactics of these front groups are everywhere nowadays. Low-information voters and those who are just easily swayed by the lure of words, like ‘citizen’, ‘American’, ‘freedom’, ‘growth’, ‘ family’, ‘equal’, ‘responsibility’, or ‘enterprise’, will continue to be gullible to fake citizen’s groups. Many of them will actually join these organizations. And as a result, corporations will continue to take advantage of their ignorance.
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