If you live in the Midwest and you're working on a home-improvement project, you're as likely to do your shopping at a Menards store as at a Lowe's or Home Depot. With 270 stores and 40,000 employees, Menards is the third-largest home-improvement chain in the U.S., and one of the largest privately held corporations in the country. But Menards stores sell more than just lumber and building supplies; their employees are sold a bill of goods in the form of right-wing ideology.
This January, as the Iowa Caucuses were underway, Menards began encouraging employees to take an at-home online "civics" course that characterizes the economic policies of President Barack Obama as a threat to the success of businesses such as Menards, and by extension, to the employees' own well-being.
The course, titled "Civics 101: The National Self Governing Will In-Home Training," incorporates much of the material comprising the Prosperity 101 program that AlterNet, working in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, exposed last year -- a program concocted by Koch-linked political operatives Mark Block and Linda Hansen, late of the now-defunct Herman Cain presidential campaign. In March, Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the FBI is investigating possible financial improprieties involving two non-profit organizations founded by Block that are linked to Prosperity 101, which is a for-profit venture.
Menards employees who sign up for the course are graded on their knowledge via a multiple choice pass-fail test, and those who pass the test are acknowledged in company publications and bulletins. While workers are not required to take the course, those who hope for promotions may feel pressure to do so, since it is clear that management is paying attention to who is or isn't taking the at-home classes, which are conducted on the employees' own time. The civics course is offered as part of a battery of courses, most of which pertain to products sold by the company, or other aspects of working at Menards.
AlterNet has obtained the online textbook for the Menards civics course. The third part of the textbok, subtitled "American Job Security," imparts a message similar to the letter sent by Koch Industries CEO Dave Robertson to retirees and employees of the company's Georgia Pacific subsidiary, as well as the e-mail sent to employees of Rite-Hite, a Milwaukee equipment manufacturer, by company owner Mark White, urging them to vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. While the Menards course doesn't offer an explicit candidate endorsement, it describes Obama policies in threatening terms, while policies that echo Romney's proposals are portrayed in a positive and uplifting light.
In our June 2011 exposé, we reported that Herman Cain and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore conducted more than a dozen Prosperity 101 seminars for the employees of companies in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states during the campaign season for the 2010 congressional midterm elections. Hansen, we reported, was looking to create an online Prosperity 101 program for the Wisconsin-based Menards, and it appears as if something like that happened just in time for the 2012 presidential campaign season. While it remains unclear whether the current Menards program was sold to the retailer by Prosperity 101, what is clear is that several sections of the program come directly -- sometimes with minor edits -- from the textbook, also called Prosperity 101, that was distributed during a breakout session that took place at an Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference in Las Vegas in July 2010. The conference, called RightOnline, took place at the opulent Venetian, owned by right-wing super-PAC funder Sheldon Adelson, and billed by AFPF president Tim Phillips as "the only non-union hotel on the [Las Vegas] Strip."
The Americans for Prosperity Foundation is chaired by David Koch, the multibillionaire funder, with his brother, Charles, of numerous right-wing think tanks and interest groups, and co-owner of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the U.S. Block is the former state director for the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the foundation's sibling organization, and was deeply involved in effecting the sharp turn to the right that took place in Wisconsin politics in 2010 with the election of Governor Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson, and Tea Party-allied members of Congress and the state legislature. (During the course of that campaign, Block was implicated in a vote-caging scheme apparently designed to suppress turnout of young people and African Americans at Milwaukee polling places. He also enjoyed a brief moment of fame as the "smoking man" in a bizarre Herman Cain campaign ad.)
Menards, as we reported last year, is notorious not just as a polluter, but as a virulently anti-labor company. One former manager told Milwaukee magazinereporter Mary van de Kamp Nohl that he wasn't allowed to hire two job candidates because, while in high school, they had worked as baggers in a union-organized grocery store. Menards threatened store managers with a 60 percent pay-cut, according to a 2003 Forbes article, if a union managed to get a foothold in a Menards store on that manager's watch.
So it was not surprising to learn that Menards' voluntary at-home civics course is part of a broader training program in which employees are encouraged to take part, unpaid, on their own time, often to simply learn about products sold in various store departments. After completing any of these courses with a passing grade, the employee is given a certificate, and sometimes a prize, such as an item of apparel bearing the Menards logo.
Attack on Obama
Among the materials the Prosperity 101 book and the Menards employee civics course both share is an article by Herman Cain, and another by Stephen Moore and Tyler Grimm (but in the Menards course, the article includes some Menards-specific references and a jokey graphic mock-up of an IRS tax-filing form that demands the filer pay his or her entire income to the government). More troubling, though, is an unsigned article not included in Prosperity 101 that is based on a study by the Heritage Foundation. The article, titled "A Path to Prosperity," characterizes Obama's 2012 budget as a "job destroying," "reckless spending spree," while laying out, in positive terms, an economic agenda almost identical to that of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (See graphic, below.)
In an article titled "The Keys to Prosperity" that also appeared in a slightly different form in the Prosperity 101 textbook, Stephen Moore offers, as I reported in 2011:
…a series of charts, some of them indecipherable, including a pie chart called "Where Your Federal Tax Dollar Goes." (Apparently derived from an earlier presentation Moore made at an AFP Foundation event, the same charts can be found here; scroll to slide no. 15/16 for this one.) Citing such official sources as the Internal Revenue Service, the Government Accountability Office, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it features eight slices labeled "Flushed Down a Toilet, "Pissed Away," "Down a Rat Hole," "Sleaze," "Corruption," "Given to 'Supporters,'" "Tossed Down the Drain," and "Postage Stamps." (The latter, Moore baselessly contends, accounts for 6 percent of your tax dollars -- which is, incidentally, six times the allotment for non-military foreign aid.)
The article's primary point is Moore's claim that the rich are already paying more than their fair share of taxes, and that to ask them to pay more would have a detrimental effect on the economy.
A second piece bearing Moore's byline in the Menards course, "A Nation of Takers, Not Makers," argues that the public sector is too large, and that government employees are draining the economy. The piece opens with this misleading statement:
If you want to understand better why so many states—from New York to Wisconsin to California—are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, consider this depressing statistic: Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.
If you're a person stuck in a low-paying, non-union retail job, that sounds pretty awful. But Moore neglects to mention that the percentage of the workforce made up of government workers is almost exactly the same today as it was in 1960:15.2 percent in 1960, and 15.3 percent in 2010. What's changed is the size of the manufacturing sector due to the offshoring of manufacturing jobs -- something Moore and his paymasters at Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (which owns the Wall Street Journal) and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation (from which he's collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees) are all in favor of.
The very title of the "Takers, Not Makers" piece invokes the old right-wing "producerist" trope, described this way by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons in their book, Right-Wing Populism in America:
Calls to rally the virtuous "producing classes" against evil "parasites" at both the top and bottom of society is a tendency called producerism. It is a conspiracist narrative used by repressive right-wing populism. Today we see examples of it in the Tea Party and Republican Party rhetoric, some sectors of the Christian Right, in the Patriot movements and armed militias, and in the White Supremacist Right.
Berlet and Lyons go on to explain producerism's origins during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, during which a "vision of the producing classes included white farmers, laborers, artisans, slave-owning planters, and 'productive' entrepreneurs…"
In the Menards civics course, which also addresses the nation's early history, Andrew Jackson is given an outsized role -- four pages unto himself, more word spillage than devoted to any one of the nation's founders, for instance. What makes Jackson such a hero to Menards? He paid off the national debt in full before leaving office. (The method by which he did this had nothing to do, the reader is assured, with the ensuing Depression.)
Fear-Mongering on Regulation and Environmental Protection
Other articles in the Menards civics course focus on the evils of cap-and-trade pollution-curbing schemes which, the reader is told, "have resulted in the pilfering of nearly $1 trillion from the private sector." The Waxman-Markey bill, supported by the Obama administration and which aimed to apply a cap-and-trade framework to reduce carbon emissions, is described as a threat to job security, and would, according to Menards, "destroy between 1.8 million and 2.4 million jobs."
Cap-and-trade is also a favorite bugaboo of Americans for Prosperity, and coincidentally an idea fiercely opposed by Koch Industries, whose core business is in the gas, oil and coal sectors.
Also targeted for the ire of Menards management is the auto bailout, and the TARP measures that bailed out the big banks. Meanwhile, government programs aimed at helping smaller businesses are described as a government plan for making small businesses dependent on government.
If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it's because these are the same lines that have been advanced by Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity, and the Tea Party movement that AFP shaped and nurtured. In fact, the opening volume of the course is a rather benignly told history of the nation's founding that is imbued with graphics recognizable to any Tea Party-leaning individual, thanks to the movement's co-option of some of the American Revolution's most iconic symbols, most notably the "Join or Die" cartoon published by Benjamin Franklin showing a snake cut into segments labeled for eight territories or colonies. The cartoon was appropriated by Glenn Beck for his 9/12 Project, which was a Tea Party organizing effort conducted over the cable spectrum occupied by Fox News Channel, which is also owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
When the Prosperity 101 program from which the Menards civics course is derived first launched, Linda Hansen promoted it with an endorsement from Menards' owner, J.R. Menard, who is quoted on her textbook's back cover:
"It is the duty as a responsible employer to inform employees of the current and future business climate so they may make the best decisions for their career and their families. Public policy that is not business friendly will be detrimental to job quality and growth unless we voice our concerns and make a difference."
On the inside cover, Hansen is described as the creator of Prosperity 101, and executive director of the Wisconsin Prosperity Network, one of the two non-profits founded by Mark Block that have earned the scrutiny of the feds. The other is a now-defunct entity called Prosperity USA, whose last profit-and-loss statement, as reported by Daniel Bice, revealed up to $42,000 in payments to Hansen's for-profit Prosperity 101, for which she is named as the registered agent. Prosperity USA was also revealed to have improperly covered expenses for the Herman Cain campaign. including the chartering of a private jet to ferry the former Godfather's Pizza CEO to campaign events.
When he shilled for the Prosperity 101 program at Sheldon Adelson's hotel in Las Vegas in 2010, Cain called it the right's "answer to ACORN" -- referring to the now-defunct community organizing group that was famous for registering voters, especially among the poor and communities of color.
In his article in the Menards course, Herman Cain reinforces the notion that workers' jobs are threatened by those who seek to regulate business. He writes:
There are three things you can do to protect your personal prosperity. First, you can become informed about threats to your prosperity. Secondly, be involved. Register to vote and make sure you vote in elections. You can be involved by being connected to an organization that reflects your values and helps to express your view. Last but not least, be impactful. Voting makes an impact, but also be ready to protect your right to prosperity with your voice. Your voice and your votes are the two major weapons you can use to make sure we get this nation back on track.
At Menards, the boss may step just shy of telling you who to vote for, but there's little doubt for whom he thinks you should cast your vote. Hoping for a promotion? You just may want to rethink that Obama/Biden bumper sticker.