The American Legislative Exchange Council: 50 Years of Making America Less Fair, Less Safe, Less Democratic

Image from ALEC Exposed video.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a major force behind harmful legislation enacted at the state level, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an Oct. 4 gala in Washington, D.C.

ALEC, founded in 1973 by right-wing political operative Paul “We Don’t Want Everyone to Vote” Weyrich, is a key part of the massive political infrastructure that corporations and right-wing foundations began building after the distribution of what is known as the “Powell Memo” – a warning from future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell that leftist ideology hostile to the free market was infesting America’s colleges and other institutions and a call for corporate America to fight back by creating its own institutions. People For the American Way documented these political investments in “Buying a Movement: Right Wing Foundations and American Politics,” published in 1996, which noted that ALEC’s executive director had declared, “This is the infrastructure that will reclaim the states for our movement.”

Many of the organizations created in answer to Powell’s call, including ALEC and the Heritage Foundation, are now preparing to flex their political muscles in an all-out war on the federal agencies that protect American workers, consumers, communities, and the environment to be carried out by the next Republican president.

What is ALEC?

You can think of ALEC as a matchmaker between corporations and right-wing lawmakers willing to do their bidding. Or you can think of it as a form of conspicuous corruption, a pay-to-play arena in which corporate sponsors buy the opportunity to write business-friendly legislation and present it to legislators eager to endear themselves to potential funders. Legislators often return home after ALEC gatherings and introduce copies of ALEC’s model bills.

ALEC is one of the major forces behind the push for a “Convention of States” that would invite state legislators to rewrite the U.S. Constitution in order to dramatically limit the power of the federal government—and “reverse 115 years of progressivism.”

The Center for Media and Democracy and its ALEC Exposed project have published hundreds of bills promoted at ALEC meetings and introduced in state legislatures. Lisa Graves, president of the board of CMD and president of True North Research, described how ALEC operates in an article published this year, which focused in part on ALEC’s support for state “preemption” laws as a tool to strip local elected officials of their power to protect their constituents and communities.

ALEC’s scope has occasionally shifted, with the group sometimes dropping certain categories of legislation in response to pressure brought by progressive activists against its corporate funders. But ALEC has maintained a core focus on gutting limits on corporate behavior.

In the 1980s, ALEC campaigned against anti-apartheid divestment campaigns and against the very idea of social impacts playing a role in investment decisions; recently it has promoted legislation to ban state pension funds from considering social and environmental impacts when making investment choices.  Not surprisingly, ALEC has been a big promoter of legislation designed to obstruct union organizing and limit unions’ political power.

ALEC has sometimes been aligned with religious-right culture war priorities. A particularly offensive 1985 “policy memo” promoted egregious stereotypes to justify opposing the gay rights movement’s goal of passing anti-discrimination legislation. For example, the ALEC memo falsely claimed that pedophilia was “one of the more dominant practices within the homosexual world.”

In her article, Graves described how ALEC plunged even further to the right after former Newt Gingrich staffer Lisa Nelson took over as CEO in 2014. Right Wing Watch has documented evidence of that shift in recent years:

  • In 2018, anti-Muslim far-right activist David Horowitz was introduced as “one of America’s heroes” at ALEC’s annual meeting. That same year, Right Wing Watch noted ALEC’s participation in the religious-right Faith and Freedom Coalition’s activist conference, noting that it underscored right-wing operatives’ success in “merging the messaging and organizing energies of the overlapping religious right and Tea Party wings of the conservative movement.”
  • An ALEC leader took part in a Ginni Thomas-organized dark money operation to “protect Trump” that was presented at a 2019 meeting of the secretive and influential Council for National Policy.
  • Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, ALEC’s Nelson joined other right-wing leaders to create the “Save Our Country” coalition, which sought to use the public health crisis to promote its long term agenda of cutting taxes on the wealthy, deregulating businesses, and limiting people’s access to the courts.
  • ALEC played a part in promoting the manufactured panic about critical race theory that right-wing groups have used to sow distrust of public schools and encourage right-wing activists to take over local school boards. ALEC’s anti-CRT efforts fit within the group’s history of promoting profit-making privatization of education while resisting accountability for private schools.
  • In 2021, a group that seeks to “disciple” public officials into a right-wing Christian religious worldview promoted its “discipleship” Bible studies at an ALEC meeting and distributed copies of its handbook for Christian public officials, which argues that the Bible requires legislators to support right-wing economic, social, environmental, and criminal justice policies.

Graves noted that ALEC’s Nelson has promoted Trump allies’ narratives about election fraud and “began effectively outsourcing some of ALEC’s work on election laws to groups like the so-called “Honest Elections Project,” a group tied to Federalist Society operative and dark-money mastermind Leonard Leo.

A Progressive Challenge

 Over the years, People For the American Way has worked with allies to expose and challenge ALEC’s harmful agendas and anti-democratic practices. A 2011 Right Wing Watch In Focus report, “ALEC: The Voice of Corporate Special Interests in State Legislatures,” detailed ALEC’s work to undercut health care reform, privatize public education, obstruct environmental protection, and undermine the right to vote to protect Republican political power. Journalist Bill Moyers produced investigations of ALEC in 2012 and 2013.

After Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2012, a coalition of activist groups called attention to the group’s support for “Stand Your Ground” laws, leading a number of major corporations to withdraw from ALEC. Other companies cut ties over the group’s “lying” about climate change, but ALEC is still backed by many corporations and members of the Koch right-wing funding networks.

In advance of ALEC’s celebration, progressive leaders held a press briefing on ALEC’s agenda, actions, and impact. From People For the American Way President Svante Myrick’s statement:

ALEC has been forcing its pro-corporate, anti-democracy agenda down our throats for 50 years, and it’s time for it to stop.  In exchange for millions of corporate dollars, ALEC gives big business a direct hand in writing legislation that pollutes the environment, puts Americans behind bars in private prisons, and destroys voting rights for Black Americans. And right-wing politicians are all too happy to pass those bills in their home districts without thinking twice.  Now ALEC has its sights set on the 2024 elections and how to push its agenda even farther. This isn’t how our democracy was supposed to work, and we need Congress to step up and pass the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to curb ALEC’s power and put the people, not corporations, in charge of our democracy. 

People For the American Way and a broad coalition of organizations also distributed a video commemorating ALEC’s 50 years.

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