In politics and public policy, it’s important to build alliances that bridge philosophies and partisan allegiances. Moreover, ethics dictate that when such alliances are being built, that those seeking to bridge gaps are honest about who they are and their motivations for trying to bring people together.
Take the effort to rein in the IRS on its targeting of activist groups. That effort would not have been successful were it not for people working to bridge gaps between conservative groups, like the Tea Party Patriots, and liberal groups like the NAACP. In those efforts, both sides were open and honest about who they were and why they needed help from “the other side”.
But what happens when people aren’t so honest about their identities and motivations? It's a trend that should worry us: twice in recent months, left-wing activists have been able to successfully infiltrate the conservative news cycle, essentially pretending to be conservatives and finding their words quoted prominently in key policy debates. In both cases, readers had no clue these “experts,” cited as authoritative sources of information, had long pedigrees as liberal agitators.
It's unknown whether there is an organized effort afoot, although Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has openly discussed efforts to target Donald Trump supporters.
The first case surfaced during the fight over Trade Promotion Authority. At the time, there was a fierce debate on the right over TPA. Much of it was healthy, but while conservatives fought with each other a predator stepped into the fray as well.
Curtis Ellis, a long-time Democratic operative with close ties to organized labor, launched a campaign against “Obamatrade,” targeting conservative outlets and readers. Ellis was purportedly the leader of “American Jobs Alliance,” an organization that actually only existed on paper. He had previously described himself as a progressive Democrat. In 2011, Ellis was behind a long-time Democratic congressional candidate purportedly switching allegiances to the Tea Party, which split the Republicans and handed a special election in New York's 26th district to Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul.
In the midst of heated battle amongst themselves, conservative reporters and commentators fighting against the TPA were either carelessly ignorant or recklessly indifferent to Ellis' past. The left-wing activist found his op-eds in Breitbart and WorldNetDaily, and his words broadcast by talk radio hosts across the country.
Eventually, a number of commentators on the right began to notice Ellis' past. For example, the venerable Moe Lane of Redstate.com warned conservatives they were being taken advantage of. Ellis “thinks you are an idiot,” Lane wrote, citing a quote from Ellis mocking Tea Party activists as “self-absorbed, privileged children.”
And celebrated investigative journalist Lachlan Markay did a lengthy expose of Ellis’ background and activities in the Washington Free Beacon last June… underscoring that Ellis described himself as a “progressive Democrat” on the TalkingPointsMemo.com website!
The second instance of a left-wing activist infiltrating the conservative media is new and has yet to be flagged on the right: namely, another union-connected expert who has been filling up conservative media outlets with his views on immigration.
Ron Hira is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which, if you haven't heard of it, is a “think tank” funded by, and serving the purposes of, organized labor. Richard Trumka is chairman of the board, which pretty much says it all in terms of whether this is a place motivated by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Hira's employer is also funded by George Soros.
Yet, Hira has been repeatedly cited as an expert on immigration in the pages of National Review, The Daily Caller, Breitbart and others. He has been cited as an authority on complicated policy issues without reference to his ideological background.
Now, there's two possible takeaways from this trend. If you were for TPA, or aren't quite as hardline on immigration as the Breitbart crew, you might say these incidents raise troubling questions about the ideological implications of the populist (Trumpian?) trends in the conservative movement we've seen in the past several years.
If left-wing activists have no trouble posing as Breitbart op-ed writers, what does that say about how conservative the publication's stance was on TPA?
Such was the tack taken by Scott Lincicome, a scholar at the libertarian (and pro-TPA) Cato Institute, who connected the dots when the Ellis incident bubbled to the surface.
“One would think that supposed supporters of fiscal conservatism and limited government would look at their protectionist allies on the left—folks with whom they disagree on almost everything—and realize that maybe, just maybe, they were wrong to oppose free trade, but so far that hasn’t really happened,” Lincicome told the Free Beacon at the time.
However, I think there is a second, more charitable takeaway that helps explain this trend in context but also shows why it is so dangerous.
Assume you generally believe, as I do, the free market has been the most important engine of prosperity in the history of the world. Along with that, you believe prices are a better, fairer way to allocate resources than government rationing in almost all circumstances; that the vast majority of attempts by the government to intervene in the economy backfire horribly; and that government programs are inherently and necessarily beset by waste and abuse.
Yet, you might believe all these things and still worry about the economic circumstances of the present day as it relates to low-wage employees in the United States. Our economic circumstances are unique: there has never been a time when it was as seamless to conduct economic activity across borders. That has caused huge disruptions, which are not equally felt by all parts of the economy: blue collar workers have seen their wages stagnate.
Immigration will increase the size of the economy, and make it more efficient, benefiting all of us in the long-run. But it might depress the wages of a small number of workers in the short-run. Is it worth harming the overall economy to protect those workers right now, under the unique circumstances of globalization?
That's a value judgment, and honest men can disagree. But for those who urge protectionist policies, it's perilous to make common cause with the left. Here's why: unlike you, Hira doesn't believe the free market is a benevolent force. He doesn't believe government intervention will be weighed down by waste. And he doesn't believe that protectionism is likely to have unintended consequences.
Hira and Ellis don't share any of the prior beliefs of the conservatives they are camouflaging themselves with. And giving them prominent platforms to reach conservative audiences gives them the power to move the debate to terms more favorable to the left. They are true, modern day Trojan Horses.
It's time for conservatives to exercise some quality control on the experts we cite. And if you must use the words of left-wingers, let your readers in on the years they've spent advancing ideas they find antithetical.