The racist roots of the right-wing agenda gripping Illinois

Photo by Max Herman

Gov. Bruce Rauner signs SB 1947, a bill establishing a new funding formula for Illinois public schools and creating a tax credit for donations to private school scholarships, at Ebinger Elementary School in Chicago on August 31, 2017.

Facing a revolt within his own party, and with a record of budget gridlock and little else, Gov. Bruce Rauner just announced he is running for re-election.  What record will he run on? In three years, he’s achieved precisely none of the items on his Turnaround Agenda.

By my count, he has one major accomplishment, maybe two by the November 2018 election. In both, he’s a bit player in a bigger national drama.  I’m talking about the scholarship tax credit program – appropriately dubbed “neovouchers” – that recently passed in Springfield, and the lawsuit now before the U.S. Supreme Court that would weaken public employees’ unions.

Historian Nancy MacLean, formerly of Northwestern University and now at Duke, sheds light on the background and context of these two issues. Both are priorities for the right-wing libertarian movement, whose tremendous and frightening growth she delineates in her book, “Democracy in Chains.”  [MacLean is a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award in non-fiction.] MacLean gave a talk last week for Chicago Teachers Union members, and I later I spoke with her at CTU’s office.

“I’m really concerned because this movement is trying to undermine public education in this country, including higher education, and they’re not honest about what they’re doing and why,” MacLean said.

MacLean’s book focuses on the vast network financed by right-wing billionaire Charles Koch and the strategy it developed under the guidance of a previously obscure southern libertarian economist, James Buchanan.  Buchanan argued that politicians and their constituents would never be voluntarily weaned from relying on government programs. So cutting government would require a stealth program to undermine faith in public programs (as they’ve done quite effectively with Social Security) and install legal and ultimately constitutional limits on popular initiatives.  Koch adopted this strategy enthusiastically.

Using Buchanan’s ideas, MacLean said, Koch has “launched this audacious bid to transform our government and institutions that has many elements,” including voter suppression, “radical gerrymandering” and “privatization as a strategy to alter power relations.”

In this state, the Koch network is represented by the Illinois Policy Institute, part of the Koch’s State Policy Network. Before he became governor, Rauner donated a half million dollars to the Institute, and he recently replaced top staff in his administration with Institute personnel. Another Koch-funded network, the American Legislative Exchange Council, provided the language for the scholarship tax credit.

Vouchers for private religious schools are unconstitutional in Illinois, and vouchers are not particularly popular ­here. But the tax credit scheme accomplishes the same goal, and the term “scholarship tax credit” has a virtuous ring to it.  The program provides a hefty tax credit to anyone donating up to $1 million for scholarships to public or private schools.  It’s a back-door scheme to divert public funds to private education, just like vouchers.

Like anti-union right-to-work laws, vouchers were first introduced in the South as a way of blocking racial integration.  As MacLean details, after the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, southern states instituted tuition subsidies for students of newly-spawned private “segregation academies.”  Libertarians enthusiastically backed the idea.  They shared with the segregationists an analysis that exalted state’s rights and property rights, an analysis that had served southern elites since the days of slavery.  For the libertarians, it was a step toward their goal of eliminating the public school system.

“What we see is a group of people that is so determined to reach a goal that they know most of the population won’t support, that they’re willing to use white supremacy, whether they personally believe it or not,” MacLean said.

For his part, Rauner seems to be motivated above all by hostility to unions, and to the Chicago Teachers Union in particular.  But his recent opposition to school funding reform as a “Chicago bailout” clearly played to downstate racial animus, not to mention his opposition to equal funding for the school system with the largest number of students of color in the state.

“Tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, they’re all part of a right-wing program to chip away at public education,” said Donald Cohen, longtime privatization watchdog at In the Public Interest. Meanwhile, Cohen’s organization has argued, privatization schemes like charter schools actually result in increased racial segregation.

The Koch network is also driving a lawsuit initiated by Rauner to challenge the right of public employee unions to collect fees from non-members to cover the costs of administering contracts that non-members benefit from (but not the costs of political activity).

Rauner first issued an executive order barring the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees from collecting the fees, then filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce it, but a court ruled he had no standing.  The Illinois Policy Institute’s legal arm, the Liberty Justice Center, then found a state worker to act as a plaintiff, and the Koch-funded Right to Work Foundation is supplying additional legal muscle.

As internal documents published by the Guardian in August showed, the State Policy Network is pushing a national campaign to “defund and defang” public sector unions.  When Rauner talks about the lawsuit as an effort to protect “First Amendment rights” of union members, he’s following the network’s talking points: “Be pro-worker, not anti-union….Don’t rant against unions.”  Rauner has been considerably more forthcoming in less public venues, such as the Hoover Institute. There, he acknowledged the lawsuit has “nothing to do with the budget, nothing to do with reform,” but is intended to “change the power structure.”

MacLean points out that Koch involvement in anti-union activity goes back a generation. When Charles Koch’s father founded the Wichita chapter of the John Birch Society in 1958, its first project was promoting right-to-work legislation.

And, she argues, the lawsuit reflects the Buchanan strategy: Work to undermine the institutions that allow people to demand that government do more to address society’s problems, but don’t be upfront about it.

What’s scary is how successful they’ve been, especially at the state level, which flies under many people’s radar.  Their ultimate goal, MacLean said, is a constitutional convention that would pass a set of amendments reflecting their agenda: requiring voter ID and restricting early voting; limiting the power of the judiciary; allowing states to nullify federal laws; and strictly capping the federal budget, so it would have no way to respond to economic recessions.

Clearly, our governor is not entirely on board with this plan. He’s signed automatic voter registration and pushed redistricting reform, ideas that are definitely not on the Koch agenda.  He supports protections for immigrants and abortion rights. That’s caused him some problems.

But Rauner’s core mission, which is his economic agenda, is right in line with the larger movement.  And his attempt to use his millions to dominate the political system, and foist on the state a program that leaves behind working people and people of color, is completely in the spirit of Koch and Buchanan.

Rauner will have many millions of dollars to shape an alternative reality during the governor’s race. The Democratic establishment may help that along by promoting its own wealthy candidate with ethics or public perception problems and no notable program except opposing his opponent. That formula didn’t work out so well in the last presidential election.

  • tiredofit

    How can you have a “Right Wing” agenda driving Illinois with Madigan holding and exerting veto power over everything in Springfield?

  • ConPatriot1234

    The overuse of the “Racist” cannard is giving cover to real racists. I wish the ultra left would stop calling everything and everyone it disagrees with “Racist.”

    • Ernie922

      Tell us how you describe/define racist or racism AND what do YOU propose as an effective remedy to racism in our society?

  • one of many

    Omg, what a pile of crapola! “The sky is falling, the sky is falling, big conspiracy!” Relax, MacLean.

  • printf5

    Nobody needs to be putting together a plot to do away with public education. Public schools are already being sunk by their unfunded pension liabilities, courtesy of pensions rung up by union teachers. For example, Philly School District has $2 billion in assets and $7 billion in debts and unfunded pension liabilities on its balance sheet. PSD’s $5 billion negative net position is why its schools are crumbling.

    • Kevin Schmidt

      Pretty pathetic for you to blame it on the teachers, who by the way, are underpaid.
      But it must be OK with you for the US to spend over $700 billion on war mongering to prop up the global warming fossil fuel monopoly.
      Guns over books! Got to have our priorities!