The Turtle And The Trucker: A Parable *

Day One
A Republican state representative introduces a bill to end freight taxes, saying, “big government’s job- killing tax-and-spend politics are hurting American families.” The local ABC, NBC and Fox TV affiliates carry the story, dutifully quoting the Republican.

The coverage goes like this:

1) Opening headline: “A new proposal for tax relief.”

2) Reporter explains the details: “20% of freight tax revenue goes to environmental programs; the rest pays for roads.”

3) Clip of an “environmentalist”: “Those taxes are important for environmental mitigation.”

4) Wrap up with a clip of a trucker in a blue work shirt who says, “In these times, I just can’t afford to
give my paycheck to big government.”

ABC and Fox go on to emphasize that “$30,000 a year from freight taxes goes to turtle-crossing culverts.” Fox shows an environmentalist saying “turtles are one of the species most likely to be affected by
climate change.”

The newspapers quote leaders from both sides of the aisle: Democrats are divided while Republicans tout tax relief, badmouth government waste, and say they won’t put turtles before families.

The Governor says, ”I’m looking into it, but my priority is making sure government is efficient.”

Day Two
A national NPR program asks three freight tax proponents to weigh in. One touts protection for critical species, one talks up clean energy funding to combat climate change, and the third promotes transit programs. The single anti-tax guest gets equal air time and has a simple free market message: that government is wasteful and that freight taxes are job-killers that fund special interests at the expense of hard-working American taxpayers.

A right-wing radio celebrity boils it down to truckers vs. turtles, repeatedly playing a wet cracking sound, which he calls “a liberal turtle being smashed by conservative tax relief.” He calls the Governor “a job-killing, turtle-loving tax-and-spend Democrat.”

The Following Weeks
After hundreds of citizen calls about waste and loopholes for turtles, the Governor maintains she’s looking into it, but denounces taxes that hurt families.

At the legislative hearing, environmentalists testify in favor of culverts for threatened species. Transit groups testify that more cars would be on the road if transit options were defunded. Choosing their battles, other progressives stay out of it. Teamster leaders, oil and gas lobbyists and telegenic truckers testify in favor, framing it as protection for families and job creators from unfair taxes.

When the bill passes 58 to 40 in the house, 38 to 9 in the senate, despite Democratic majorities, the Governor gives a speech about eliminating government waste. (Environmentalists feel like the radio host’s squashed turtle.)

What Happened?

The Day The Bill Was Introduced:
The Heritage Foundation — a conservative think tank — briefs television and radio producers on freight taxes from a free market perspective, providing access to their multi-media resources, including the clip of the trucker.

In coordination, another conservative think tank, Americans for Tax Reform, puts a talking points memo in the hands of producers at ABC and Fox, as well as state Republicans and the oil and gas lobbyists. The trucker is recruited and coached. Everyone’s on message. The Teamsters say their hands are tied because their membership is in favor of the bill.

The environmentalists on the front line scramble for a message. When asked about the “wasted money on turtles,” the environmental spokesperson tries to give context, but he has no powerful sound bite. He says, “The figures are an exaggeration; those dollars are intended to mitigate the many harmful effects that gas- powered vehicles have on the environment, especially climate change. Scientists say that turtles are one of the species most likely to be affected by climate change.” But Fox cut everything before “turtles.”

The Week Before The Bill Was Introduced:
The Heritage Foundation issues a memo on tax reform to an enormous list of media contacts across the country, using this state’s freight taxes as a case study. Oil, gas, and building industry lobbyists and the Chamber of Commerce help get the brief to every friendly Republican.

3 Months Before The Bill Was Introduced:
At a weekly gathering of more than 150 conservative office holders, think tank staff, and movement leaders, attendees brainstorm rallying cries against big government. A Republican legislator mentions that freight taxes fund turtle culverts in his state, and the gathered free market powerbrokers recognize a golden opportunity to pit Americans against obscure environmental issues and our government. They agree to coordinate an all-hands-on-deck attack.

The Year Before The Bill Was Introduced:
The local ABC affiliate hires a graduate of the National Journalism Center as a new producer. The National Journalism Center offers scholarships for future conservative reporters which promote instruction, ideological orientation and internship placements.

10 Years Ago:
The Heritage Foundation begins a program to advance free market policies at the state level, inspired by a ten-year grant from the Philanthropy Roundtable, the conservative funders’ forum.

30 Years Ago:
Ronald Reagan launches a defining conservative narrative by saying “Government is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem.”

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.
This Heroes’ Narrative is the beginning of a new story- the story of how we take back our country, together.

*For the sake of parable, the policy parts of this story are invented, but the data on the pieces and players of the conservative system is accurate and drawn from “Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America Into a One Party State” by Sheldon Rampton, and John Stauber, Tacher/Penguin, 2004.