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[Paul Levy © 2019]

Part 7:  Brief Case Histories

Tea Party Origins, Welfare Reform; Climate Change Denial


This Part contains several case histories of Movement initiatives; namely:


    Case History #1: the early partnership of the Movement and the tobacco industry (1980s-90s) which                         provided precursors for the rise of the Tea Party around 2009; 

    Case History #2:  welfare reform in 1996; 

    Case History #3: the advance of climate change denial in the first decade of the 21st Century. 


Case History #1

Tea Party Origins and the Movement’s Tobacco Partnership

The Movement has shaped a grassroots in part through partnering with other organizations.  An interesting piece of research has documented the partnership between an early Koch effort at grassroots development, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and tobacco interests that were fighting government regulation.  In the 2000s, a portion of that partnership provided a base for launching the Tea Party Movement, promoted as and previously felt to be more or less spontaneous.

 The Movement and Tobacco Companies  

In 1984, the Kochs created the Movement think tank, Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) with a strong interest in deregulation.   In the late 1980s and 90s, the tobacco industry was fighting smoke-free laws and regulation of secondhand smoke.  It partnered with CSE, granting it over $5 million (primarily from Philip Morris) in exchange for advocacy.  A 1999 report by Philip Morris’s Vice President for Government Affairs described CSE’s support:

They have provided significant grassroots assistance, in the nature of several thousand calls to the Hill (and) direct lobbying (on a matter), some media as well as continuing (lobbying) … on FET [a federal excise tax on tobacco to be used to expand Medicare and fund prescription drugs]… (and) very active on our behalf in the field in key states with key (Congressional) Members.”[1] 

The Movement and the Tea Party

In the late 1990s, Philip Morris began to envision an ambitious strategy for removing FDA tobacco regulations, namely starting a larger anti-regulation movement in the mode of the Boston Tea Party.  It looked to CSE for help, and in 2002, CSE opened a U.S. Tea Party Website that promoted this larger approach:[2] 

Think taxes are too high and the tax code too complicated?  Register your protest by dumping some tea at US Tea  This great site is a modern-day tax protest in the spirit of the original Boston Tea Party.  It's sponsored by the Citizens for a Sound Economy and is a lot of fun.


In 2003, CSE split into two major grassroots organizations: (1) Americans For Prosperity (AFP) which is the major grassroots state network of the Movement and controlled by Charles Koch; and, (2) Freedomworks, co-chaired by Dick Armey who had just retired from the House of Representatives after serving as its Majority Leader.  AFP continued the partnership with tobacco.


The Tea Party seemed to emerge suddenly in 2009 in response to President Obama’s election and his early initiatives.  Bloomberg News noted the relationship of AFP and the Tea Party, reporting that AFP “harnessed Tea Party energy in service of their own policy goals including deregulation and lower taxes… (and) the Kochs positioned AFP as the Tea Party’s staunchest supporter.”[3]   But the deeper story was that tobacco interests and CSE/AFP had played an important role for years shaping the Tea Party.  Also, many people involved in fighting tobacco regulation became leaders in the Tea Party.[4]






Case History #2

Welfare Reform (1996)

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (Welfare Reform) was adopted.  Although President Clinton would claim it as his victory, it was clearly a victory of the Right and, in a very real sense, Ronald Reagan’s legacy rather than Bill Clinton’s.

As noted earlier, the end game of the radical right is to eliminate essentially all public programs.  Among income maintenance programs it would love to terminate Social Security Retirement, but a long-desired step in that direction has been to at least decimate welfare (now TANF and formerly AFDC).  The 1996 Act went a long way in this direction.  It restricted eligibility, cut benefits, added work requirements, and block-granted the program to states. 

In 1997, Lucy Williams, a law professor at Northeastern Law School, described the history that led to this historic shift in a well documented article (18 pages of text and 335 endnotes) entitled, Decades of distortion: The Right’s 30-year assault on welfare. In this description, I borrow heavily from it.
In the 1960s and into the 1970s, welfare attacks increased as African Americans increasingly gained access to AFDC.  Much of that access arose through court decisions that reversed barriers that had kept Blacks off the rolls; e.g. residency requirements, morality tests, and discretionary rejections.  

As welfare rolls grew, attacks became more callous.  Ronald Reagan would become the lead megaphone for these attacks.  When he appeared on the national scene in 1976 in a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Governor Reagan loved to describe a Chicago woman who had defrauded the government of millions through such schemes as collecting AFDC checks under numerous aliases.  Referring to her as a “welfare Queen,” he intimated that she typified recipients.  In this, he was merely adopting the increasingly popular image of recipients -- that they were mostly cheaters, black, lazy, with big families, and immoral.

The Heritage Foundation publishes a series called Mandate for Leadership usually timing issues to coincide with incoming presidents.  In January, 1981 it published the first of these (a 20 volume, 3000 page publication) to coincide with the Reagan Presidency.  It provided an agenda for the President which he used extensively.  With respect to welfare, Williams tells us, it “’discussed fraud, waste, and abuse’ in AFDC and other social welfare programs and emphasized the need to distinguish deserving and undeserving poor people.”  It was one of three books Williams identified as being particularly important in the assault on welfare.

The other two were George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty (1981) and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984).  Both were financed and promoted by another of the Movement’s activist foundations, the Manhattan Institute (the Scaife Foundation was its major founding and on-going funder).   Williams says, “Gilder described the ‘life of the poor’ as characterize[d] everywhere by ‘resignation and rage, escapism and violence, short horizons and promiscuous sexuality.’”  

In Losing Ground, Murray argued that all progressive programs (welfare, education, health…) had made problems worse rather than better.  With welfare, Williams says, he used a hypothetical couple, Phyllis and Harold, to ‘prove’ how illegitimacy, crime, and family deterioration are caused by AFDC….  He ended by advocating the abolition of AFDC.’”


Heritage and other think tanks added articles to the attack in their role as idea developers for the Movement.  And, they also fulfilled their activist role, promoting the attacks through multiple newspaper articles, spokespersons on TV and radio, and testimony to Congress (Williams gives multiple examples of each of these efforts).

Although Reagan obtained some welfare reforms, his welfare legacy is that he set the stage for the 1996 reforms.  On February 15, 1986, he addressed the nation on welfare reform, and excerpts give a sense of the themes and tenor that would remain in place until reform was achieved a decade later: 

Today I'd like to speak to you about a gathering crisis in our society… the crisis of family breakdowns, especially among the welfare poor, both black and white.  In inner cities today, families, as we've always thought of them, are not even being formed.  Since 1960 the percentage of babies born out of wedlock has more than doubled. And too often their mothers are only teenagers. …

We're in danger of creating a permanent culture of poverty as inescapable as any chain or bond; a second and separate America, an America of lost dreams and stunted lives. The irony is that misguided welfare programs instituted in the name of compassion have actually helped turn a shrinking problem into a national tragedy. From the 1950s on, poverty in America was declining. American society, an opportunity society, was doing its wonders. Economic growth was providing a ladder for millions to climb up out of poverty and into prosperity. In 1964 the famous War on Poverty was declared and a funny thing happened. Poverty, as measured by dependency, stopped shrinking and then actually began to grow worse. I guess you could say, poverty won the war.

There are a lot of false and misleading claims in these statements.  For example, single motherhood was growing among non-poor women as well as poor ones and poverty rates had fallen with Great Society programs.  The perception that poverty had disappeared in the 1950s was exploded when the 1960 census showed it was rampant and studies such as Hunger USA suggested its breadth and depth.


But the themes were perpetuated during the early 90s.  For example, Williams notes Lawrence Mead’s popular book The New Politics of Poverty, which, she says, could simply conclude that “the main cause of poverty [is] simply the reluctance of increasing numbers of poor people to work.”

The sharp right turn of the Gingrich Congresses led to the Contract With America,  a series of ten acts that Republicans would seek to obtain.  Item #3 in their list was:

3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT:  Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility. 

Conservative Republican congressmen dialed up the rhetoric. Williams offers some examples.  In 1995, referring to AFDC recipients, one held up a sign in Congress saying “don’t feed the alligators,” another spoke of recipients as “wolves,” and another as people “you wouldn’t leave your cat with on a weekend.”

Welfare and illegitimacy were frequently linked.  For example, the director of Heritage, Robert Rector, called illegitimacy “America’s Number 1 problem.”  This connection helped solidify the backing of religious right and family values groups in the welfare attack.


Racism also was regularly linked to welfare reform.  A dramatic example was a 1996 TV campaign ad in New Hampshire by Phil Gramm for President.  The Washington Post described it this way:

Gramm also plays the values card with an ad condemning "five trillion dollars of welfare." As eerie, black-and-white footage moves from graffiti-scarred neighborhoods to handcuffed criminals, the ad says: "Washington is paying millions who could work, not to work, not to marry, to have more illegitimate children."[6] 

The article should have said “the race card” instead of “the values card,” and Williams makes clear the linkage all along of welfare reform and racism.  Incidentally, the cost of AFDC in 1996 was $20 billion dollars, a far cry from $5 trillion.  It is at least interesting to note that Gramm’s wife, Wendy, a noted economist, became a staffer at the Mercatur Center at George Mason University in the late 1990s when the Kochs escalated their contributions there.


The Heritage Foundation continued to lead the Movement charge on major, national issues, but by the 1990s, other elements of the Movement were beginning to flex their muscles as well.
The reform themes continue; e.g. a recent proposal to expand work requirements in food stamps is especially being advanced by a Movement think tank in Florida.  And Charles Murray has made news recently by urging that all Americans get $1000 per month I believe as a way to eliminate all social programs (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, AFDC, etc.)




Case History #3

Climate Change Denial 

Prior to 2000 there had been a growing, bipartisan concern about climate change (CC). For some, this continued longer.  For example, in John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, he talked of the need to address climate change.  But any consensus that remained by then, quickly eroded, and by 2010 the Republican Party had adopted a CC denial stance.  The force behind this abrupt change was The Movement.  

Researcher Robert Brulle[7]  looked at 91 nonprofit think tank and advocacy organizations leading the denial charge and at their donors between 2003 and 2010.  He found that 140 conservative foundations had given these entities 5299 grants during the period totaling $558 million.  The dominant donor was Donors Trust (the pass-through entity to which many big donors shifted much of their giving in order to protect their anonymity). Other leading donors included the Scaife, Koch, Bradley, Pope, and Searle foundations. [8]

The largest grants went to the Hoover Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute as well as to Americans for Prosperity (AFP) largely due to a Donors Trust grant to it of $7.7 million in 2010.  AFP is the national network of state grassroots entities formed in 2004 by Charles Koch.

In an article assessing the shift from nonpartisan climate change belief to partisan denial, the New York Times saw 2007 as a critical moment.[9]   That year, AFP asked congressmen to sign a “no climate tax” pledge.  The first signer was in July 2008, and by Election Day 2010, there were 165 signers.  Climate change had become a major national political issue, and denial had become the Republican position.  

The Movement’s action abruptly altered a growing concern and national consensus to address CC.  As we all know, in the current Trump administration, the denial movement has led to our exit from the Paris Accord, new drilling rights in national parks and the Arctic, termination of federal aid to CC research, etc.  It also has expanded into an attack on clean air and water regulation. 

The Heritage Foundation has been a particularly adamant promoter of reducing the U.S. commitments to address CC that were developed largely during the Obama Administration.  So, for example, its 2016 budget blueprint called for backing out of the Paris Accord, severely reducing the EPA, virtually eliminating research on CC, cutting or eliminating regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, etc.  That blueprint was essentially adopted in the initial Trump Budget (2017), and much of it has been secured.

A very interesting development with respect to CC denial has focused on the Cato Institute.  It is the Libertarian think tank and longtime favorite of the Koch brothers.  In 2015, a group of longtime Cato staffers and committed Libertarians broke away from Cato and formed the Niskanen Institute.  They rejected Libertarianism and established a seemingly middle-of-the-road policy stance that favors big social welfare and big free enterprise.

But what particularly motivated the Niskanen breakaway was Cato’s defense of CC denial despite massive evidence to the contrary and simply, apparently, to promote the wishes and interests of its big donors.[10]  






 [1]  Amanda Fallin, Rachel Grana, and Stanton A. Glantz (2013).  ‘To quarterback behind the scenes, third-party effort’: the tobacco industry and the Tea Party.

 [2]   The website was still online as of 1-20-19 at:

 [3]  From:  Wikipedia (“Americans for Prosperity, Programs and Advocacy”) at:  
This entry cites:  Julie Bykowicz (2015).  Scott Walker is King of Kochworld, at:


 [4]  Amanda Fallin, Rachel Grana, and Stanton A. Glantz, supra.

 [5] The Republican “Contract with America” (1994) at:

 [6] Howard Kurtz (1996). Beneath ads veneer, candidates promote values, at:

 [7]  Robert J. Brulle. 2013. Institutionalizing delay: Institutional funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations, at: file:///C:/Users/Paul/Downloads/Institutionalizing%20Delay%20-%20Climatic%20Change%20(1).pdf

 [8]  Brulle noticed that Koch, Scaife, and certain other foundations suddenly stopped and that, simultaneously, Donor’s Trust contributions rose in about the same amount.    He surmised that these donors wanted to hide their contributions as can be done with donor-advised funds.

 [9]   How G.O.P. leaders came to view climate change as fake science.  New York Times, June 3, 2017 at:

 [10]  Jerry Taylor (2018). The alternative to ideology. Niskanen Center at:


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