When Hillary Clinton lashed out in 1998 at "the vast right-wing conspiracy," most people laughed. I certainly did. Then I returned to Phoenix two years later to see how correct she was. Exhibit A was the "Goldwater" Institute, motto: "Where freedom wins." Before he died, Barry wanted his name removed from the organization, but he backed off because it was dear to his brother. So I have always referred to it with Goldwater in quotes or as the Bob Goldwater Institute. Either way, it has played a pivotal role in damaging Arizona and holding back progress.
After its founding in 1988, local media accorded the institute respect as a "think tank." Robert Robb, a political operative who came out of the "Goldwater" Institute, was hired as an editorial columnist for the Arizona Republic. After the departure of Ricardo Pimentel and me, he became the only real editorial columnist after the 2007 newsroom organization. Unlike most entrusted with a position of such influence, Robb did not spend 20 years gaining experience and accolades as a journalist for a major newspaper. He was always a member of "the vast right-wing conspiracy." And the institute itself was regularly quoted in news stories as an authority on virtually every issue.
The trouble is that the "Goldwater" Institute is not a think tank as conventionally understood, an organization where scholars pursue research with open minds and produce material that is vigorously peer reviewed (think The Brookings Institution). Instead, it is an advocacy organization such as the NRA or the Sierra Club. It is rarely identified as such in the media — unless I am writing about it, which I try to avoid, aside from one takedown in the early 2000s.
The institute first tried to get my mind right, sending emissaries to meet me over lunch and coffee. I was invited to soirees at its Midtown headquarters, an ironic location considering its anti-city bias. When this failed, it made me a regular target of attacks on its Web site and its publications as a tax-and-spend liberal enemy of freedom, as well as pressuring the Republic to silence or fire me (it joined a long line). My sins included pointing out that Arizona's tax revenues were inadequate to the needs of a populous, highly urbanized state; that the "conservative" policies followed through the previous decade had left the economy narrow and uncompetitive outside of housing; that they had ensured the state would be on or near the top of every measure of social and environmental ills, and my support of such public projects as T-Gen, the Phoenix Convention Center and light rail (WBIYB). I was the one voice demonstrating how these policies had utterly failed. I remember early in the 2000s, a source told me of a high-level meeting of economic-development leaders and other officials looked at the data and one exclaimed, "My god, Talton is right."
The "Goldwater" Institute is unwilling to approach any issue with an open mind, assessing the most trusted data and evidence, looking at the situation on the ground and reaching conclusions. Instead, it starts with the conclusions — basically, government and taxes are always bad, charter-schools racket and privatization hustles good — and cherry picks evidence and arguments to support it. Still, as stated above, this has been treated with great respect by the media. ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, which was a real think tank, is considered the "liberal" alternative to "Goldwater," even though Morrison doesn't use the same modus operandi and its only dogma is to avoid antagonizing the Real Estate Industrial Complex, hence cheerleading for the "Sun Corridor" (the reader should know that I had a one-year fellowship at Morrison).
Back when I was considered by some a conservative commentator, I had friends at the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, both of which do have some able people and at least a veneer of conventional scholarship. They laughed indulgently about the "Goldwater" Institute, considered it bush league. It took me awhile to realize that the institute was not really about intellectual inquiry, even from a stunted, one-sided approach. It was just a cog in a national machinery.
"Goldwater's" conclusions and talking points bear a close resemblance to those of think tanks seeded in virtually every state in the 1980s and 1990s by "conservative" money. They are intended to look like grassroots local organizations. In fact, they are part of the — let's put on a more precise definition — vast right-wing infrastructure. Together with Fox "News," talk radio and organizations such as ALEC, they turned formerly competitive states red, red states more extreme and even hold great power in many supposedly blue states. ALEC, you will recall, writes reactionary corporatist legislation to be passed, as is, in states throughout America — it was especially effective in Wisconsin, but the template is applied nationwide.
Who is really behind the "Goldwater Institute"? It has worked hard to keep its backing secretive. Yet the Center for Media and Democracy recently published a helpful Reporter's Guide to the Goldwater Institute. Shamrock Farms and Norman McClelland, its CEO, give a good deal (make your shopping choices accordingly). But out-of-state donors are instructive; they include the Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation with its Wal-Mart heir money. Another biggie is the Donors Capital Fund, which gives big money to these right-wing pods nationwide and is a major player in climate-change denial propaganda. So much for the claim that the institute is funded only by individual donations. Every Arizonan should read this exemplary piece of investigation.
Allied with this money and ALEC, the institute has exerted tremendous influence in the Legislature. It has been at the forefront of holding back funding for education and gutting the public schools to use taxpayer money for the charter-schools racket. It has carried on a vendetta against cities — local power is only good for "freedom" when it in the hands of reactionary Republicans. Thus, it was instrumental is getting highly restrictive bills on use of eminent domain and other measures passed, which would likely preclude cities from using tax-increment financing to help their downtowns or to compete in providing economic-development incentives. It is working to gut sales taxing power by cities. Measures to protect workers or respond to climate change are affronts to "economic freedom." The institute can thus claim credit for perpetuating and exacerbating virtually every problem in the state.
A few years ago, the "Goldwater" Institute came out of the closet and began filing lawsuits to further its dogma and do the bidding of the plutocrats. Any project of state or civic betterment faces the possibility of being hauled into court by the institute. I admit we were on the same side in opposing the CityNorth fiasco. But in general, the institute's efforts are nearly always reactionary and the chilling effect is real. And nevermind that Arizona is a creation of activist government, a net taker state, and Barry supported every bond issue ever done by the city of Phoenix. The institute retains the strange respect accorded by the media. If anything its power keeps growing, despite the failure of every right-wing policy. "Liberals" or even reality minded people have nothing to match it.
The "Goldwater" Institution did overreach recently in threatening to sue Gilbert over a city recreation center it claimed was competing against private-sector health clubs. Yes, you dupes, city parks, recreation centers, libraries and especially "government schools" have us well along on the road to serfdom. Gilbert has Mormons and other influential white people to push back.
The rest of Arizona will keep paying the price of "freedom."
Read more about the (mostly fixable) mess in the Grand Canyon State in Rogue's Arizona's Continuing Crisis.