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Blame Two Old Dog Dads for Claims of Voter Fraud Today
Our season finale!
Good morning, subscriber!
In the past six months, over a dozen states have passed new restrictive voting laws that favor Republicans. If you follow the money, the original source of these efforts to undermine democracy becomes clear. It all dates back to a couple of pooch-lovers...
Next season on Skipped History, beginning in March:
We’ll try to get to the bottom of the question, “To what extent has the US ever really been a democracy?” There’ll be Indigenous history, banking history, and the 1619 Project may make an appearance!
Between now and March, I’ll continue writing to paying subscribers, beginning next week with a post dispelling some of the myths around Thanksgiving. Hint: there’s a reason textbooks don’t discuss the Wampanoags beyond their hosting of the “first Thanksgiving” 400 years ago. Curious? Sign up below!
Otherwise, see you next year! Thanks so much for tuning in. This week’s transcript is below.
This week’s transcript
Hello, I’m Ben Tumin, and welcome to the season finale of Skipped History. Today’s story is about the Olin and Bradley Foundations. I read about it in Dark Money by Jane Mayer, as well as some of her more recent research.
John Olin and Harry Bradley may not have known each other, but they still had a lot in common. For instance, both were mid-westerners living in the 1950s, both ran successful businesses, and both pampered their dogs. Harry, who oversaw an electronics manufacturer, doted on his pet poodle, Dufy, named for the French modern artist, and provided him with a penthouse dog run. To gain entry, you had to sniff his butler. Not to be outdone, in 1958, John, who bred “champion” Labradors, appeared in a Sports Illustrated story that read, “To 40,000 employees in the many and varied Olin enterprises..., 66-year-old John Merrill Olin is the boss. To the 10-year-old black Labrador named King Buck… more often than not he is just a good-natured pushover,” which helps explain why John is seated in front of a portrait of King Buck rather than with King Buck, who had better things to do than pose for pictures.
Another thing John and Harry had in common? Their family foundations spent millions of dollars attacking the idea of big government, which is ironic because both men made a fortune thanks to the US government.
And to see how that now affects us all, let’s first talk about the Olin Corporation, founded in southern Illinois in 1892 by John’s father, Franklin. Originally a manufacturer of blasting powder for coal mines, the Olin Company expanded into making small arms and ammunition, and it remained a wholesome family gun company for 25 years. However, with the start of World War I, huge government arms contracts quintupled the firm’s revenues. World War II proved even more of a bonanza for John, who took over the company in 1944 when new arms contracts sent his business’s profits soaring. By 1954, the Olin Corporation, as it later became known, was one of the largest companies in the country, with revenues approaching half a billion dollars per year.
The Allen-Bradley Company followed a similar trajectory. Founded in Milwaukee in 1903 by Harry, his brother Lynde, and an investor named Stanton Allen, the company manufactured rheostats, a device used to adjust power in electronics without interruption—for instance in adjusting the speed of motors, dimming lights, or dimming people’s interest in this show as it turns into Physics History! However, Harry’s company “teetered on the edge of solvency” until, like the Olin Company, it received government defense contracts during the two World Wars. By 1944, government work accounted for 80% of the company’s orders, and Harry used this money to construct a badminton court for his employees and to hire an orchestra that serenaded them at lunch. Still, in 1939, workers went out on strike in protest of poor conditions, which is insane because, I don’t know about you, but I love being serenaded with the 1812 Overture during my downtime.
This strike likely fed Harry’s fears of collectivism, which as we’ve explored were pervasive among the business elite in the 1940s and 50s. As Harry grew more and more politically conservative, he also began supporting groups like the Manion Forum, whose followers believed that social spending in the US was part of a secret Russian plot to bankrupt America. Unsurprisingly then, Harry came to view Communism and the US government as “the two major threats” to human “freedom.” By the 1970s, John felt the same way, insisting that, “Business and the public must be awakened to the creeping stranglehold that socialism has gained here since World War II.” Why, like Harry, did John turn against the government responsible for building his fortune? Well, maybe King Buck legitimized the practice of biting the hand that feeds you—how else are you supposed to get all the crumbs?! Or maybe it was because John’s profit margins were also threatened, not by striking workers but by the EPA, which in the 70s discovered that Olin Corp was lying to government officials, dumping tons of mercury into waterways, and producing more of the toxic pesticide DDT than any other company in the country.
Whatever the rationale, John and Harry’s charitable foundations—originally set up to give back to society—became single-mindedly focused on cultivating right-wing intellectuals and ideas. The Olin Foundation took the lead. Per John’s direction, the organization gave millions of dollars to programs that promoted conservative policy ideas and jurisprudence at universities like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, U-Chicago, Georgetown, and more. The foundation also began funding conservative authors like William Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review; Dinesh D’Souza, author of Illiberal Education, which blasted “political correctness” on college campuses; and Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground, which blamed government programs for creating a culture of dependency among the poor. Though many scholars criticized Murray’s conclusions for being unsubstantiated, they still gained so much influence that, by 1996, Bill Clinton called Murray’s analysis “essentially right,” which kind of like when I listed this folding chair on Craigslist and described it as “essentially the same chair seen in Dufy’s painting of a ‘Window opening on Nice.’”
In the 1980s, the Bradley Foundation doubled down on the Olin Foundation’s efforts to inject spurious scholarship into the mainstream. By then, Harry had died, but his spirit would live on thanks to another assist from the US government. In 1985, Rockwell International, a defense contractor, purchased the family’s company, then led by Harry’s sons, for $1.65 billion. Why did Rockwell have so much money at its disposal? Well, two-thirds of its revenue came from producing weaponry for the US government. In fact, the LA Times called Rockwell a “symbol of a military-industrial complex gone berserk,” and business analysts warned that the company needed to diversify to become less reliant on government contracts. So, what did they do? They bought the Allen-Bradley Company. And inspired by Harry’s hatred of the government, the Bradley Foundation, suddenly with hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal, sought out Michael Joyce, executive director of the Olin Foundation. They told him, “We’ve got money, and we want to do what you did at Olin.”
Joyce heard the message loud and clear. Building on his work at Olin, over the next 15 years, the Bradley Foundation gave $280 million to conservative causes, two-thirds of which funded institutions dedicated to waging “a war of ideas,” including right-wing think tanks, conservative journals, and over six hundred graduate and postgraduate fellowships. The foundation also continued funding Charles Murray, who in 1994 published The Bell Curve, in which he argued that Black people are less intelligent than white people due to their genetic makeup. And notably, in the 2000s, the Bradley Foundation began promoting unfounded claims of a new kind: election fraud.
Since 2012, public records show the foundation has given millions of dollars to conservative groups concerned with election issues. Now, you might’ve heard of a wide constellation of groups working to impose voter restriction laws. For example, the American Legislative Exchange Council develops model laws for state legislators who want to impose new voting restrictions. The Honest Elections Project has filed briefs with the Supreme Court, and in numerous states, opposing mail-in ballots. And FreedomWorks, an organization that once focused on opposing government regulation, is now demanding expanded government regulation of voters.
The list goes on, and the impact of these is clear: as of the filming of this episode, 19 states have passed voting laws that favor Republicans who want to cut taxes and reduce government spending. And though seemingly only connected by ideology, in reality, all of these organizations are funded by the Bradley Foundation. In other words, a tiny but very wealthy organization that couldn’t have existed without government spending, using tactics pioneered by another organization created with government spending, is working to diminish the voting rights of people who support more responsible government spending. And this dangerous, cynical ploy was all originally inspired by two anticommunist dog dads.
Now, my point is not just to illustrate the hypocrisy of the super-rich, nor is it to point out that we’re probably all secretly controlled by dogs. You already knew both of those things. Rather, what I want to emphasize is that the erosion of democratic practices today is the product of efforts that began several decades ago. And, I’d add, those efforts were an extension of democracy-eroding practices that began long before them, raising a question of to what extent has the US ever really been a democracy?
Tune into the next season of Skipped History to find out... and give your dog more treats? Do I really have to say that? ...fine, and give your dog more treats, especially those Stella and Chewies, they are really good.
See you in 2022 :)