The Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank, held back-to-back breakout sessions on the first day of CPAC, the American Conservative Union’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Heartland promotes “free-market” ideology, school vouchers, other right-wing policy ideas and model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council on a range of issues, but may be most well-known for its attacks on climate change “alarmism.”
Heartland’s first session was seemingly designed as a response to media focus on the Koch brothers’ political networks, which funnel billions of dollars into political groups and campaigns through organizations designed to obscure the source of funds and control. The title of the presentation, “Darker Money,” may have been inspired by journalist Jane Mayer’s recent book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”
Heartland, which is funded by right-wing foundations and corporations, including organizations affiliated with the Koch brothers, used the opportunity to promote its website LeftExposed.org. Both the presentation and the website give you a sense of what constitutes “the Left” to Heartland. The organizations it covers are primarily those involved in environmental issues, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. One presenter pointed to funding for the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank. Among the foundations discussed were the Gates Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the MacArthur Foundation.
The second workshop promised to help participants never again lose an argument to a climate change “alarmist.” The Heartland Institute, which receives support from right-wing foundations and the energy industry, is a major source of material challenging the existence of a scientific consensus that human activity is leading to a climate crisis. In 2012, Heartland faced a flurry of public criticism when it launched a billboard campaign featuring a photo of “Unabomber” Ted Kacynski with the statement, “I still believe in global warming, do you?” Heartland justified the campaign, which was to include ads featuring Charles Manson and Fidel Castro, saying “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murders, tyrants and madmen” — but cancelled it in the face of widespread outrage.
Heartland president Joseph Bast moderated a CPAC panel two years ago at which climate change was denounced as a scam designed to let progressives gain control of people’s lives. This week Bast didn’t dispute that the earth is warming, or that human activity may be a contributing factor, but he argued that global warming is a good thing. Bast said that the benefits from “modest warming” of the climate will outweigh costs for the next century or two. If it turns out there are problems, say, rising sea levels, they should be addressed by “adaptation” — like building more seawalls.
Heartland has a history of arguing about science; during the 1990s the group worked with the tobacco industry to question the risks of moderate smoking and secondhand smoke. As late as 2014 it argued, “The public health community’s campaign to demonize smokers and all forms of tobacco is based on junk science.”
Bast portrays Heartland as trying to tell the truth in the face of bad science from scientists who are being paid to promote a political agenda. He suggested at CPAC that Google and Wikipedia are part of the grand leftist conspiracy to hide the truth, and that Breitbart News is an example of the Right launching its own institutions when the Left “takes over” existing ones.
Which brings us to the Andrew Breitbart Center for Freedom at Heartland’s new headquarters in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Bast launched the creation of the Breitbart-honoring event space with a poster honoring the late “fearless defender of freedom and enemy of biased, lying mainstream media.”
The flowing script, sepia tone, and heroic photo of Breitbart on the poster seem oddly out of synch with the pugnacious, take-no-prisoners, truth-be-damned style of Breitbart and the media sites he created. But the Breitbart branding may be a good fit for Heartland’s own propaganda efforts. The news outlet hasn’t toned down since its founder’s passing. In fact, Glenn Beck, who is also in attendance at CPAC, recently accused the Trump campaign of “grooming Brownshirts” and likened Breitbart’s executive chairman Steve Bannon to Hitler’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels.