How to Problematize Issue Advocacy

A recent Pacific Standard article offers a master class in how to spin run-of-the-mill issue advocacy into a spectacular conspiracy. “Awash in Dark Money, a Western Think Tank is Leading the Charge Against the Antiquities Act” is a must read, though not for the reasons the author intends.

The subject – or target – of the screed is the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based state think tank that promotes free markets and limited government. Sutherland is active on a number of issues, one of which is the process for designating public lands as national monuments. The Antiquities Act grants the president unilateral authority to declare national monuments on public lands, which effects rules for land use that can dramatically impact local communities. Sutherland believes vesting this power unilaterally with the president is incompatible with the principle of checks and balances.

So, naturally, Sutherland has worked to change the way lawmakers and the public think about this power. When President Obama designated 1.35 million acres of land in Utah as a national monument in December 2016, Sutherland opposed it. When President Trump recently signed an executive order directing the Secretary of the Interior to review newly-created national monuments, Sutherland supported the directive as a step in the right direction.

You might think this story lacks some juice. That’s where the Pacific Standard and author Jimmy Tobias come in. His version of events, while factually the same as mine, is framed to convince the reader that the Sutherland Institute is actually a nefarious group of anonymous rich guys pulling the levers of power behind the scenes – without ever coming close to proving that bold claim.

Tobias creates this charade by sandwiching the boring facts between an introduction that primes readers’ expectation of a grand conspiracy and a damning conclusion built off speculation about the motives of Sutherland’s supporters.

Here is how Sutherland is introduced in the article:

As anyone familiar with Western politics knows, Trump’s executive order is the culmination of a concerted right-wing campaign to turn our country’s conservation laws, and particularly the Antiquities Act, into objects of toxic controversy. No group has been more committed to this effort – no group more zealous in its opposition to conservation – than the political leaders of Utah and their allies, including a little-known but influential Salt Lake City think tank called the Sutherland Institute.

Indeed, shortly after Trump’s announcement, in a fancy glass-paneled office, a Sutherland Institute staffer named Matt Anderson stood in front of a camera and celebrated…

Sutherland blasted the video over its Facebook and Twitter feeds, just the latest addition to an impressive portfolio of anti-Antiquities Act content it has produced in recent years. Above all else, the group aims to eliminate the Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.35 million acre sprawl of ancient buttes, deep canyons, and sacred Native American sites, which President Barack Obama, using the legitimate authority granted to him under the law, designated in southern Utah toward the end of his term.

These paragraphs are heavy on color and light on substance. “A concerted right-wing campaign,” “objects of toxic controversy,” “no group more zealous,” “a fancy glass-paneled office,” etc.

This suspicious tone is almost laughable when compared to the mundane details of Sutherland’s activities. When Tobias has to say what Sutherland actually does, the air comes out of the balloon:

To achieve its purposes, Sutherland and affiliates have set up a website calling on the federal government to rescind the new national monument. They have produced anti-monument video advertisements. They have organized a petition drive. They have testified before the Utah legislature. They have traveled to Capitol Hill. They have churned out op-ed after op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune and other Utah papers. They have, in short, helped create a narrative meant to make people despise national monuments and their labor has paid off.

Got all that? They set up a website, produced issue ads, organized a petition drive, testified before legislators, and wrote op-eds about their cause. And… that’s it. Apparently this is supposed to be frightening, but where I come from we call that democracy in action.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to describe a more peaceful and socially beneficial means of advancing a cause than the efforts of groups like Sutherland to persuade voters and policymakers to their view. But because Tobias opposes Sutherland’s goals, he can’t help but demonize their tactics. In order to not dwell on these decidedly noncontroversial details too long, however, Tobias quickly turns to Sutherland’s motives.

“The Sutherland Institute says these efforts are about lifting up local citizens, whose voices have been smothered by outside influences,” he writes. That’s not the story he wants to tell, though, so he pushes on: “But what other interests does Sutherland serve?”

Here and for the rest of the article, Tobias exploits the privacy of Sutherland’s donors to imply that their arguments cannot be sincere. It’s standard you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide stuff, but unfortunately that can be effective, particularly when armed with IRS data that the public has little context for. Tobias identifies several donor-advised funds as sources of Sutherland’s support, then turns his firepower on them, with help from one of the least serious books on money-in-politics to date.

According to investigative journalist Jane Mayer, in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund, and the State Policy Network are closely aligned with powerful billionaires like Charles and David Koch, the DeVos Family, and their political allies in the fossil fuel and finance industries. Together they regularly funnel millions of dollars to far-right organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, as well as thousands of dollars more to state-based think tanks like the Property and Environment Research Center.

For Sutherland, dark money often constitutes a significant chunk of its budget. In fiscal year 2010, for instance, Sutherland took in approximately $1.3 million in total revenue. During the 2010 calendar year, meanwhile, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, funneled $596,000 to the organization, a quantity equal to more than one-third of its 2010 income. In other years, like 2013, dark money made up approximately 10 percent of the group’s revenue. The unaccountable cash flowing into Sutherland’s coffers is regularly earmarked for general operations as well as journalism programs and federalism projects, among other purposes.

Nowhere is an argument advanced that Sutherland uses its support to do anything other than pursue its mission in legitimate ways. Instead, Tobias plays guilt by association, tying Sutherland to other groups he hopes readers will frown upon. If Sutherland’s ideas are bankrupt, as Tobias appears to believe, he should be able to attack them head-on rather than smear the organization’s supporters.

But that’s wishful thinking. People who are convinced of the righteousness of their cause will sometimes decide it is okay to use unfair tactics to win the day. The twisting of information produced by disclosure laws can be a powerful weapon to that end. In a world where “dark money” has become a slur for groups that protect the privacy of their donors, even groups like Sutherland aren’t safe.

For people who follow political speech issues closely, and for people who have worked in advocacy organizations, conspiratorial screeds like this elicit nothing more than an eye roll. We are used to “money in politics” being invoked to challenge the legitimacy of any and every organized advocacy group, left, right or center.

For people who come to articles like these with little background, however, the “money in politics” frame can be highly effective. It can turn nonprofit advocacy groups like Sutherland, and even the First Amendment, into “objects of toxic controversy” themselves. In all likelihood, that’s exactly what Tobias intended.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.