Sometimes it only takes a handful of brave people to stand up to the most powerful forces and change society.
Think of the young Ralph Nader taking on General Motors, remaking consumer protection laws and inspiring a generation of activists.
Think of Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers, provoking the wrath of the U.S. military and eventually helping bring down the Nixon administration.
Think of Lisa Graves, executive director of Madison's own Center for Media and Democracy, which last week unleashed ALEC Exposed, a website that uncovers, in detail, the blueprint for the corporate takeover of our democracy.
What Graves, Mary Bottari, their colleagues, and the whistleblower who leaked thousands of documents to them have done is as significant - and as potentially world-changing - as those historic examples of citizens standing up to immense corporate and government power.
It's also damn courageous.
For many years, the biggest corporations in America, including Kraft, Pfizer, WalMart and AT&T, have been paying hefty dues to belong to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which gives them access to state legislators. The legislators, for a much smaller fee, attend conferences, receive briefings from ALEC, and get the honor of putting their names on boilerplate legislation the group drafts.
ALEC has been in the news before, but much of the nuts and bolts of how the group works was a secret. Until now.
`When Graves received a leak of thousands of pages of never-before-seen documents from someone inside ALEC, she knew she had something big.
"The importance of it was its sheer magnitude," she says. "It was the breadth and depth and duration of this extreme, reactionary and shadowy corporate effort to wrench away people's rights and extract from taxpayers profit from public institutions."
One of the many new pieces of information to emerge from the leak: Corporate members of ALEC vote on bills before they are ever taken up by state legislatures.
It's bad enough that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence elections. The revelation that corporate heads actually vote on legislation is the icing on the cake.
"The fact that politicians would go along with the notion that corporations should be voting on anything is outrageous," Graves says. "Voting is a sacred right of free people - human beings, not corporations."
Here in Wisconsin, the results of this corporate takeover of our democracy are all too evident.
ALEC legislation - privatizing the public schools, taking away collective bargaining rights, loosening environmental regulation, even suppressing the vote - got a huge boost when ALEC foot soldiers Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers took power. ALEC Exposed makes clear the origins of the head-spinning, all-fronts attack on ordinary citizens we are currently enduring.
On ALEC Exposed, which posts and analyzes more than 800 bills produced by ALEC, the center provides text of the actual ALEC bills, information about the corporate membership of ALEC's task forces on particular issues, the names of ALEC's state chairmen, and the effects of the bills: on working people, schools, the environment, consumer rights and our democracy.
Reporters and citizens can look at bills that were introduced in their states under the names of their elected officials and trace the actual, corporate origins of these efforts.
"We know, for example, that Kraft has been the head of the task force for ALEC responsible for anti-union bills," Graves said.
It also turns out that Connections Academy, the company that runs Wisconsin's virtual charter schools and is poised to displace bricks-and-mortar public schools throughout the rural parts of the state under a new law, is the head of ALEC's task force on education.
"Some of these bills, when you look at them in isolation, maybe there's a sympathetic angle to it," Graves says. "But when you see the whole, you see that this is an effort to privatize our public institutions, block by block."
Graves took over as head of the Center for Media and Democracy in 2009. Leaving a 14-year career at the Justice Department and as chief counsel for nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the UW-La Crosse grad arrived just in time to see Wisconsin become ground zero in the battle between corporations and the public interest.
She immediately took to the battlefield. As Wall Street melted down, Graves' colleague Bottari began a comprehensive website on the crimes that sank the economy: BanksterUSA. When Walker seized power, the center organized a team of reporters and analysts to cover every aspect of the crisis in Wisconsin. Center fellows like health insurance industry whistleblower Wendell Potter filled in context.
"We are seeing this winner-take-all, corporate mentality - if you win you loot," Graves says. "You take over a company and do what you want to it. That's not a legislative point of view - you have to negotiate with people. If you're in power today, they may be in power tomorrow."
Graves attributes the extreme brazenness in politics to ALEC alumni - not just Walker, but, at the federal level, John Boehner and Eric Cantor.
"This is an emboldened, extreme group that thinks they'll never lose power," she says.
Thanks to the leadership of citizens like Graves and the hardworking staff at the Center for Media and Democracy, they may have a new think coming.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.