Here Come the Shills

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The subtext of the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay scandals now roiling Washington is that there’s a lot of corporate and lobbyist money sloshing through Congress, and it’s having a pernicious effect on good, clean, democratic government. That’s an important story, but it’s even more important to note that the “money in politics” problem isn’t just limited to politicians. As Frank Foer outlines in the New Republic this week, there’s also a tremendous amount of corporate and lobbyist money sloshing through right-wing think tanks and media outlets, which means that more and more, it’s not just conservative politicians but conservative ideas themselves that are being hijacked by what Jacob Weisberg calls “interest-group conservatism.”

To some extent, this process isn’t yet complete. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, came out strongly against both the corporate goodie bag known as the 2003 Medicare bill, and have condemned the yet-to-be-passed energy bill in Congress on similar grounds. Principled small-government conservatism still exists, at least in the think tanks. But it’s not at all clear how long this purity will last. Foer notes that after a few Abramoff-financed junkets to the Marinaras, think tanks from CATO to AEI to Heritage were all more than willing to tout the virtues of the odd labor regulations there. And Abramoff’s moneyed connections helped reverse the longstanding conservative think-tank hostility to the Malaysian government in the late ’90s.

Is it so off to think that, with a bit more money and a few industry-funded “educational trips abroad,” groups like Heritage could be convinced of the virtues of massive taxpayer subsidies to the pharmaceutical and coal industries? Hardly. Already, as Chris Mooney reported in the cover story of the latest Mother Jones, an entire ExxonMobil-funded “think-tank” network has sprung up to “debunk” the science of global warming. (Those scare quotes are there for a reason.) At the rate we’re going, soon there will no longer be any principled conservative ideas or sound policies, only unprincipled shilling for the highest bidder.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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