Media Mouse has launched a new database examining the far right in West Michigan. The database looks at the racist, economic, and religious right and focuses on the activities of organizations in these areas, the individuals involved, and the foundations that fund them. As such, we examine everyone from the Dick and Richard DeVos to Elsa Prince and other prominent Grand Rapids and West Michigan members of the far right.
Today Media Mouse is launching a new database—“The Far Right in West Michigan”—that examines the West Michigan “far right” and their involvement at the local, state, and national level. The database tracks organizations, individuals, and foundations ranging from explicitly white supremacist groups to anti-gay religious right groups funded by wealthy families such as the DeVos and Prince families. Our broad definition of the far right—encompassing anti-gay groups, anti-immigration organizations, anti-tax organizations, anti-choice organizations, advocates of religious involvement in government that borders on theocracy, and the individuals and foundations working with and funding these organizations—is designed with three primary goals; to educate people about the activity of the far right in West Michigan; to encourage further research; and to inspire people to take action to confront the far right.
The impetus behind this project was the noticeable increase in activity coming from the far right in Grand Rapids, Michigan over the past year or so, particularly with regard to groups involved in the racist right. These groups, from the Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM) to the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC) have promoted anti-immigrant views in response to the organizing that swept across the country in support of immigrants rights. They have attempted to channel legitimate economic concerns over lost jobs into the scapegoating of immigrants, and as the underlying agendas of the NSM and CofCC indicate, towards what is ultimately a racist or white supremacist view that opposes not just undocumented immigrants, but all immigration. While the extreme views of the NSM may be somewhat new, they fit within a context of activity by racist groups in West Michigan including the National Alliance, White Voices of America, and the Ku Klux Klan, all of whom have been active over the past few years in West Michigan. Moreover, with respect to anti-immigration organizing, Michigan is home to one of the initial founders and organizers of the anti-immigration—John Tanton—who has funded anti-immigration groups ranging from the benign sounding Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and US English to the more extreme Social Contract Press. Such groups often have ties to the racist right, with FAIR accepting money from the Pioneer Fund who funded efforts to scientifically “prove” biologically differences between races or the Social Contract Press who distributes racist anti-immigration literature. The Tanton-founded US English—which has worked to pass “English as official language” laws—has sought to disassociate itself from the racist right and avoids language such as “English-only” although for all practical purposes its activities say the same thing to immigrants “you are not welcome here,” and the difference may be more in terms of tactics—much like the difference between the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens—than in ideology.
While overtly racist and fascist organizations will likely remain marginal for some time, the far right in West Michigan has considerable power through the right-wing and fundamentalist Christian beliefs of some of the Grand Rapids area’s wealthiest families. Amway co-founders Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel (Van Andel died in 2004) have extensively funded the religious right through the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation and the Jay and Betty Van Andel Foundation, respectively. The two have given to a variety of far right organizations ranging from rightist economic organizations such as the Michigan-based Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center for Economic Policy to groups on the religious right including those seeking to scientifically prove Creationism, working to restrict access to abortion, and attacking gays. In the case of the DeVos family, the funding of the right has continued with all of the DeVos children operating foundations that give at least part of their money to the religious or economic right. Of course, the DeVos and Van Andel families are not the only ones, the Prince family of Holland—and specifically the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation—has given the religious right millions of dollars and have been joined by the DeWitt family and Kalamazoo’s Miller family. This funding has not been limited to the local level and the DeVoses and Princes in particular are known for their support of the religious right on the national level. Richard DeVos, Dick DeVos, Elsa Prince, and Peter Cook are all members of the secretive Council for National Policy, an organization bringing together prominent radical right activists, politicians, and funders for the purpose of coordinating strategy.
Of course, with Richard DeVos’ son Dick DeVos running for governor, both his family’s and his own connections to the religious right should be news, but at this point, there has been little attention on this subject. Especially locally, the news media, when it talks about how the DeVos family uses its wealth for political ends, focuses on campaign contributions rather than looking at the organizations funded by the family. While the DeVos family has given millions of dollars towards electoral campaigns, it also generously supports the rightist infrastructure that exists outside of the realm of electoral politics. This network, consisting of foundations, think-tanks, activist organizations, and public policy groups has been able to shape the discourse around a range of state and national issues including abortion, gay rights, welfare reform, and public education. The left—to whatever extent one can say there is a functioning left in the United States—(and even the well-known liberal organizations and institutions) have been unable to develop such an extensive network, and the absence of such coordinated national efforts may explain the success of the right in recent years. Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy DeVos have funded this network through their Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, especially those involved in the movement to privatize public education. This does present a dilemma for Democrats and progressives, because even if DeVos is defeated in November the influence of the right of which he is a part will continue unabated.
Lastly, when examining the “philanthropy” of the various far right foundations in West Michigan, we have included all of the grants awarded for a particular year. This of course means that a number of grants to civic institutions—theatres, museums, and symphonies—are included in the database despite the fact that they have no clear relationship to the right. However, we feel that seeing the total of all contributions is instructive and allows for the examination of how much of their money goes towards civic institutions compared with far right causes. It also raises questions with regard to what degree the media and the West Michigan community focus on the civic contributions, rather than the funding of the far right. So, for example, we collectively remember Jay Van Andel most for the buildings that bear his name in downtown Grand Rapids rather than his funding of the Creation Research Society, a “Young Earth” organization that believes that God created the Earth within the past 10,000 years and spends his money trying to scientifically prove this fact. Moreover, seeing the total grants awarded by the foundations raises questions about when institutions and organizations should be accepting funding from these foundations, as they may be simultaneously giving to highly objectionable causes.
In the coming weeks and months, Media Mouse will be expanding the database as it is an ongoing work in progress. We would like to encourage people to contact us with information that we should include. We are looking for everything from your favorite Betsy DeVos quote (our favorites are her comments from the 2004 election indicating that Michigan workers are paid too much) to information on some of the obscure religious right organizations being funded by area foundations (please, include verifiable citations). For our part, we will be doing a series of articles in the next few weeks exploring the “philanthropy” of area foundations and how it has much more to do with promoting a specific set of ideologies than with benevolence.