Monday, April 15, 2013

Slimy and Dark Arts: Texas GOP State Chairman Munisteri's Desperate Database Deception

by Nomad
The Wall Street Journal reported last week about a fundraising letter by the Texas GOP state chairman, Steve Munisteri.

Although you might not have heard of him, as an activist for conservative grassroots movements, Munisteri has been around forever. According to his bio:
As State Chairman of the Texas chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, Munisteri begun the practice of issuing legislative rankings for members of the Texas House of Representatives and State Senate. In 1980, Munisteri founded Young Conservatives of Texas, a group which continues to produce the future generations of our conservative leaders and elected officials in college campuses across the State.
Most recently he was elected to chair the Republican Party of Texas in 2010. For a conservative in Texas, the future looks rather grim. 
Texas is slowly but surely turning from a conservative red to a decidedly liberal blue. Apparently, as Texas slips from the Republican fingers, Munisteri is ready to pull out all stops; hence the letter. 
That letter, aimed at poaching the last dollar from the Texas rich, was full of the predictable fear-mongering about Democrats “ coming to take away your guns,” and more than that, “they’re coming to hijack your rights and freedoms.” 
He called the new Democratic voter-mobilization effort, Battleground Texas, “a clear and present threat to you and your family.” 

It’s the kind of rhetoric that doesn’t hold up to too much analysis or critical thinking but, to a certain type of Texas Republican, it really tends to stir the blood. To outsiders, it just smells like the sour BO of desperation. (At least the Texas Democrats behind Battleground thought so.)

However, there was another detail in the article about the letter that caught my eye.
To fight back, the GOP letter urges Republicans to give anywhere from $15 to $5,000 so the party can “immediately undertake our own effort to identify thousands of Texas conservatives.”
The letter warns that the former Obama operatives “have become masters of the slimy ‘dark arts’ of campaigning: creating massive databases; collecting information on every voter and non-voter; and then using that information to do whatever it takes to drive these voters away from Republican candidates and principles.”
That’s a rather interesting claim for Munisteri to make against the Democratic Party. While there is nothing illegal about collecting information in “massive databases,” Munisteri is playing on the ignorance of his constituents about modern political campaigning. As Mr. Munisteri well knows, these so-called dark and slimy arts have become a long feature of the Republican campaigns since the Bush administration. 

Munisteri's claim is pretty shocking not because either party would never engage in building massive databases but that Munisteri would assume that the people in Texas would not understand how long this practice has been going on.

Since 2000, the Republican Party has had no objections about the using this campaign tool. Originally used in business, the technique, called Micro-targeting, allowed corporations to keep detailed records on both their potential or long-standing clients. The aim is NOT just to learn what voters are thinking about issues but to find those with opposing or undecided views and "flip" them.

Steve Munisteri and Karl Rove

Munisteri and Karl Rove
Pinpointing the Targets
First we must take a step back in time to see the full scope of the deception.

Right after the 2000 presidential election the founder of TargetPoint Consulting, Alexander Gage, sold the skeptical Karl Rove, then George W. Bush’s senior advisor, on applying this marketing idea to campaigning as a way to connect to individual voters. One glance at the polls and the Republican Party needed only a little convincing.

Incidentally, when it comes to using technology in the Bush campaigns, Rove's name has come up in this blog before. Namely in the Mike Connell series

Compared to the voter profiles that the GOP had created in the past, TargetPoint’s scope was breathtaking. It was to become an integral part of Rove's formidable political machine.

As the LA Times reported, the information helped the Republican party find weak points in the Democratic base and to then undermine them:
The new-and-improved GOP database helped Republicans begin to peel away select pieces of the old Democratic base, such as politically conservative and pro-Israel Jews, as well as socially conservative blacks, Latinos and blue-collar workers. In Cleveland, Republicans in 2004 compiled a list of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants who they knew backed Bush's stance against Islamic terrorism, then organized a rally entirely in Russian on the Sunday before the election.
Bush and other Republicans have also sought support from highly influential African American pastors, who are gaining power in swaying votes. The courtship of the pastors has come in part through a special office in the White House devoted to funneling government money to church-based social service organizations — a program that has drawn enthusiastic support from black churches that have, in turn, provided GOP candidates entree into terrain long dominated by Democrats.
According to a 2006 Washington Post article, TargetPoint didn’t amass information merely from political surveys. It was as able to cross reference extensive commercial consumer databases too. The database, known as The Voter Vault, reportedly comes from various other sources such as credit reports, magazine subscription, and even vehicle registrations. One source alleges:
There are consumer polls that you’ve answered or mailed in for a coupon to get something free and they can even gain access to your buying preferences that those pesky discount cards record at the grocery store.
Data miners, collectors of this information, can legally use public records, such as voter registration logs and census records. Information from every innocuous survey you have ever innocently participated in could, in theory, be sold and bought and used by politicians, both Republican and Democrat.

Changing Your Mind
Technically speaking, the range of data-mining is practically limitless.The ironic part of this is that since the actual database sources are privileged corporate information. Therefore, the average citizen- who is both the source of the data and the target- cannot know how intrusive this information actually is.
By merging information from various databases, direct mail campaigns, precinct walking and phone bank programs, campaign managers can tailor the message to individual voters. Ever since the extraordinary intrusions into individual privacy from government agencies like Homeland Security in the post-911 age, it’s impossible to know how much information has been on the average American. It is also difficult to know who is able to get their hands on the information, either in full or in part. There's no means of determining how accurate the information is since none of us can view our own files. 

What was once just a conspiracy theory about collusion between social media sites like Facebook, and the government has become increasingly plausible. According to the a New York Time article,
The Internal Revenue Service searches Facebook and MySpace for evidence of tax evaders’ income and whereabouts, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has been known to scrutinize photos and posts to confirm family relationships or weed out sham marriages.
This information is given voluntarily. Perfectly legal. However, by combining all of this relatively insignificant information from a myriad of sources a pretty exact image of you is revealed to anybody with the tech resources and the money to buy it.

In the last election, Gage had this to say about his early micro-targeting attempts:
"We thought we were pretty smart -- but today? It's mind-boggling. Someone handed us a magnifying glass and we said, 'Oh, We can see some people.' Then someone said, 'Try a microscope.' And now we're using electronic microscopes."
Gage noted how precise the message can be custom-made. 
"You used to get a tape-recorded voice of Ronald Reagan telling you how important it was to vote. That was our get-out-the-vote effort," said Alex Gage, of TargetPoint. Now, he said, calls can be targeted to specific constituencies so that, for example, a "right to life voter" could get a call warning that "if you don't come out and vote, the number of abortions next year is going to go up. " 
The problem with this is, of course, that this collection of personal information is done completely without the permission of voters who are surreptitiously under the electronic microscopes of campaign managers who as Munisteri quite rightly say, use the data-mined information to drive voters away or towards particular parties and principles. 

One article in US News quotes Joel Rivlin, the Senior Vice President of the Pivot Group, an agency that specializes in micro-targeting. 
"If you are not using these techniques you are at a major disadvantage. At the end of the day, it's the communication with voters that has the ability to change minds and behavior, and this is the best tool to find the right people to have that communication with. It would be wasting resources without it."
Note what Rivlin has said here, not to reinforce their beliefs but to change them. Isn’t that what Munisteri means when he speaks of “the slimy ‘dark arts’ of campaigning?

And the march of progress advances. In 2012, Karl Rove began building the largest database ever conceived, called DataTrust. Under contract with the Republican National Committee, this database was to contain every US voter and potential voter. 
Unfortunately in the 2012 presidential elections, with the testing of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, the question wasn’t about the slimy darkness of the arts, but who exactly the masters of that art actually were.

Big Brothers Are Watching You
In the past, the Republicans have had no qualms about accepting campaign contributions from the Koch Brothers. The Tea Party didn’t just take donations. From its inception, the Tea Party has practically been, for all practical purposes, a Koch- sponsored political organization. Texas politicians have shown no sign of rejecting even a dime of Koch financial support. 

According to a 2011 article on Daily Kos, the Koch Brothers, as Munisteri most certainly knows, have been generous to the Republican party.
They've given $174,500 to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and $40,000 to the Texas Justice Foundation. Also, the Koch brothers, their companies, and employees have donated over to $740,570 to state politicians between 2003 and 2010.
Governor Perry received $76,000 in contributions from the Koch network in the last gubernational election.
For a man with such high principles like Rick Perry, Koch dollars bought it an embarrassingly open display of affection. Perry reportedly dropped everything (in the middle of the special legislative session he himself called) and flew off to Vail, Colorado, on a donor's private airplane to a summit hosted by the Koch Brothers. (Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also have attended.) 

None of that should surprise us. In the wild presidential election year of 2012,when it came to corporate interference in the campaigns, all eyebrows remained permanently raised. 
However, in that same year, the UK Guardian reported that the oil billionaires were engaging in exactly what Munisteri is warning Texas voters about:
The secretive oil billionaires the Koch brothers are close to launching a nationwide database connecting millions of Americans who share their anti-government and libertarian views, a move that will further enhance the tycoons' political influence and that could prove significant in next year's presidential election.
The article gives more detail about the database called Themis, after the Greek goddess of divine law and order who imposes order on human affairs:
The database will bring together information from a plethora of right-wing groups, tea party organisations and conservative-leaning thinktanks. Each one has valuable data on their membership – including personal email addresses and phone numbers, as well as more general information useful to political campaign strategists such as occupation, income bracket and so on. 
Tim Phillips, the Koch political deputy, explained Themis this way to USA Today’s Fredreka Schouten: “Our geo-targeting looks at everything from voting data to Census data to consumer-purchasing information.” Phillips also said, “We know their magazine subscriptions. In some cases, we know the websites they prefer to surf.”
That project began around April 2010, and was supposed to be completed and functional by the end of 2011 in time for the presidential election. Clearly what the Koch brothers had in mind wasn’t your grandmother’s type of micro-targeting. 
(To appreciate the nexus between Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers and how the dark money is funneled into special organizations, click here.) 

Critical Thinking
But that’s not the whole story. There’s still one more point about making lists of friends and enemies. Just think of this last note as the hypocritical icing to the ironic cake. 

As mentioned in the introduction. Munisteri, after being the State Chairman of the Texas chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF),-another phony 501(3)c organization that makes a mockery of its tax exempt status- went on to found the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) in 1980. 
That was just a stepping stone in his long career. 

Munisteri perhaps looks back fondly to those days. If he is wondering about how the YCT is faring these days, he needs only to check The Daily Texan. In September of last year, it reported that one University of Texas chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas has been collecting its own lists of names. 

John Horton, Young Conservatives of Texas UT has been compiling a watch list to identify professors who the organization decides are “inappropriately politicizing the classroom.” The article explains:
Members of his organization will investigate every name submitted by auditing classes, interviewing students from the professors’ classes and evaluating the syllabus for reading materials selected..
Horton explained: 
“It is only legitimate if we do it the right way and actually find the professors that have a legitimate bias and do not allow for dissenting opinion.”
What are the implications for higher education in a state where students are being taught to spy and report on their instructors for having “unacceptable” political ideas. Especially in a state where its State Board of Education, (in defiance of education reform legislation), approved of teaching creationism in biology class. 
Notes for the instructor in one board-approved biology textbook reads: 
.”..[S]tudents should go home with the understanding that a new paradigm of explaining life's origins is emerging from the failed attempts of naturalistic scenarios.” 
That new understanding, as the writers call it, is, of course, the ancient Biblical one. The instructors are,.it seems, expected to wipe from the minds of their student all concepts of modern science (natutalistic scenarios) and replaced them with Biblical teaching (new paradigm).   
Remind me again, who is politicizing the classrooms? 

But then Steve Munisteri has some pretty interesting ideas himself when it comes to education and what should and should not be taught. He made a name for himself- (as well as a laughingstock)- with his stand against teaching “critical thinking.” In a line in the 2012 Texas Republican platform

We oppose the teaching ..critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
What's the point of higher education if not to challenge a student's fixed beliefs? And there's something else deeply deceptive about the statement. Isn't the whole purpose of micro-targeting all about modifying voter's fixed beliefs?

In any case, one thing is crystal clear: if a professor dares to teach critical thinking skills in a Texas University classroom, he or she should watch their backs. 
There are lots of small eyes watching and scribbling. And somebody is keeping a list on you.