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In this week’s New Yorker

August 8, 2021

The most important story in the issue comes from Jane Mayer, The New Yorker‘s intrepid Washington reporter. As with her 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer collects all the receipts to tell a crucial story for right this minute: “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie.”

“Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote,” Mayer writes.

One of the movement’s leaders is the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. It has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (alec)—a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators—on ways to impose new voting restrictions. Among those deep in the fight is Leonard Leo, a chairman of the Federalist Society, the legal organization known for its decades-long campaign to fill the courts with conservative judges. In February, 2020, the Judicial Education Project, a group tied to Leo, quietly rebranded itself as the Honest Elections Project, which subsequently filed briefs at the Supreme Court, and in numerous states, opposing mail-in ballots and other reforms that have made it easier for people to vote.

Another newcomer to the cause is the Election Integrity Project California. And a group called FreedomWorks, which once concentrated on opposing government regulation, is now demanding expanded government regulation of voters, with a project called the National Election Protection Initiative.

These disparate nonprofits have one thing in common: they have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.

It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries. In 1903, Lynde Bradley, a high-school dropout in Milwaukee, founded what would become the Allen-Bradley company. He was soon joined by his brother Harry, and they got rich by selling electronic instruments such as rheostats. Harry, a John Birch Society founding member, started a small family foundation that initially devoted much of its giving to needy employees and to civic causes in Milwaukee. In 1985, after the brothers’ death, their heirs sold the company to the defense contractor Rockwell International, for $1.65 billion, generating an enormous windfall for the foundation. The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence.

Mayer’s article builds a case for these people as the real “enemies of the people.” She focuses at length on Cleta Mitchell, a fiercely partisan Republican election lawyer; J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky, “who are members of what [has been] termed the Voter Fraud Brain Trust; John Eastman, co-director of The Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group funded by the Bradley Foundation; and Tyler Bowyer, CEO of Turning Point, “which has received small grants from the Bradley Foundation, is headquartered in Arizona, and it has played a significant role in the radicalization of the state, in part by amplifying fear and anger about voter fraud.”

Every accusation of substantial voter fraud has been solidly debunked.

“What explains, then, the hardening conviction among Republicans that the 2020 race was stolen?” Mayer asks.

“Michael Podhorzer, a senior adviser to the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which invested deeply in expanding Democratic turnout in 2020, suggests that the two parties now have irreconcilable beliefs about whose votes are legitimate. “What blue-state people don’t understand about why the Big Lie works,” he said, is that it doesn’t actually require proof of fraud. “What animates it is the belief that Biden won because votes were cast by some people in this country who others think are not ‘real’ Americans.” This anti-democratic belief has been bolstered by a constellation of established institutions on the right: “white evangelical churches, legislators, media companies, nonprofits, and even now paramilitary groups.” Podhorzer noted, “Trump won white America by eight points. He won non-urban areas by over twenty points. He is the democratically elected President of white America. It’s almost like he represents a nation within a nation.”

Mayer explains a somewhat arcane point of constitutional law that clearly drives this movement for voter suppression: “for conservative state legislators to reëngineer the way the Electoral College has worked for more than a hundred years, in essence by invoking the Independent Legislature Doctrine. The Constitution gives states the authority to choose their Presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Since the late nineteenth century, states have delegated that authority to the popular vote. But, arguably, the Constitution permits state legislatures to take this authority back. Legislators could argue that an election had been compromised by irregularities or fraud, forcing them to intervene.”

I hope my summary encourages you to read the whole story or at the very least listen to Jane Mayer interviewed about the story by Terry Gross for “Fresh Air.”

Some other excellent stuff in the magazine this week:

  • it feels a little weird to refer to David Sedaris’s writing as “sweet,” but “Happy-Go-Lucky,” his remembrance of the last chapter in the life of his father, who died recently, is remarkably affectionate and, we could say, forgiving;
  • “Manufacturing Nature,” Eric Klinenberg’s article about Kate Orff, a landscape architect who has made a tremendous impact on New York’s aquatic ecosystem, including using oyster reefs to mitigate storm surges; and
  • “On an Epic Scale,” a profile of epochal painter Kerry James Marshall (see his “Past Times,” below) by the great chronicler of artists, Calvin Tomkins.

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