September 6, 2016; New York Times
The Koch brothers and their network of conservative donors are funding a new initiative, the Grassroots Leadership Academy, under the leadership of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity related to the 501(c)(4) Americans for Prosperity (AFP). According to their GuideStar listing, the foundation’s mission includes “educating citizens about economic policy and a return of the federal government to its Constitutional limits” and “restoring fairness to our judicial system.” In fact, the AFP Foundation is so closely related to AFP that the two nonprofits share headquarters and several of their key executives, including their CEO, CFO, general counsel, and chief marketing officer.
Key elements of the academy’s curriculum include reference to 20th-century Democratic Party grassroots successes and study of Saul Alinsky, identified in the Times article as an icon of the left. The three-level training begins with six weeks introducing participants to the principles of economic freedom and addresses lobbying techniques, followed by six weeks of training for community activism, with a goal to build leadership capacity to motivate others. The third and final level of training is provided in an intensive three-day session at Americans for Prosperity’s headquarters near Washington, D.C.
Interestingly, one justification of the need for training conservative activists is Donald Trump as the GOP presidential candidate. Trump’s opposition to free trade agreements and willingness to depart from conservative free-market orthodoxy concerns the AFP Foundation.
“This Republican nomination battle for president has demonstrated that no issue is ever fully won,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “You must keep competing and explaining. For example, why free trade is better, why entitlement reform is necessary.”
NPQ readers may remember that the Koch donors were split on supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy and split on the Koch decision to focus their political support on Congressional races.
AFP Foundation has committed at least $3 million to the training program so far, with 10,000 participants in about 35 states. There are plans to expand the program in 2017.
This type of grassroots training is beyond the capacity of the Republican Party and is further evidence that a shrinking proportion of political education and activism is happening within national, state, and local political parties. It also carries forward a tradition of conservative grassroots education that includes GOPAC (best known for Newt Gingrich’s cassette tapes) and the evangelical focused Christian Coalition founded by Pat Robertson in the 1990s.
The academy’s leaders have learned lessons they intend to turn to conservative benefit.
Mr. O’Brien, the Grassroots vice president, said he hoped the program would pay dividends over the long term. “You can’t just show up at somebody’s door six weeks before an election and build a relationship with them,” he said. He added that Mr. Obama’s grass-roots wing was “magnificent at building up their volunteers and relationships over a period of time, and you have to give them credit.”
Education and political activism are laudable goals. The close relationship between AFP and the AFP Foundation bears watching, as does their dividing lines between education, issue advocacy, and partisan political activity.—Michael Wyland