"Our members started asking what else could be done," said Robinson. It quickly became clear that these new gun laws had found their start in ALEC. Because of the work ColorofChange.org had done on voter ID laws, "our members were prepared. Our members knew who ALEC was." The angle into the issue changed, but the end result was the same: The corporations backing ALEC started rethinking their support.
As so it has gone since. Recent days have seen major companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft, McDonalds, and Intuit back away from the group. The Gates Foundation has said that a contribution to ALEC targeted at education policy would be its last. The trick, says those leading the ALEC campaigns, was making what once happened behind closed doors public, one way or another. Publicity quickly changed the calculation of ALEC's value.
"Legislators don't want it to seem like there's a Geppetto to their Pinocchio," said Robinson. "And companies would much rather run great commercials that make you cry about their products than have to do ads about changing tax law or against soda taxes. When ALEC and its relationships are no longer secret and private, is it still the vehicle that's most beneficial?"
Or, as Common Cause's Clopp put it, "For 40 years you couldn't get the kind of accountability we're seeing know because ALEC, its members, its legislators, its bills were secret."
ALEC, of course, says its critics are missing the whole point; it's just a forum for the discussion of free-market principles dear to the private sector and to many elected officials. It's democracy in action. But nearly inarguable is that the recent attention on the group has pushed it to adapt. ALEC didn't respond to a request to talk for this piece, other than to pass along a statement. The simple fact, though, that the group is now making public statements is a sign that ALEC has been forced into rethinking the way it does business.
ALEC argues that all this recent attention is nothing but a "campaign launched by a coalition of extreme liberal activists committed to silencing anyone who disagrees with their agenda." The statement goes on, "Now more than ever, America needs organizations like ALEC to foster the discussion and debate of policy differences in an open, transparent way and not fall back on bullying, intimidation, and threats." And yet, the campaign continues, say ALEC's foes. Next up: persuading State Farm and Johnson & Johnson to cut ties with the group. Then they'll go to work on the legislators.
Common Cause's Clopp imagines a future where bills are digitized and put up online as soon as they're introduced in state legislatures, making it easier to scan for "ALEC DNA" -- or the boilerplate of any group, for that matter -- even before bills become law.
That sort of vision has prompted its own political innovation. The Sunlight Foundation, a group at the forefront of making legislation digital and public, recently rolled out from their labs a tool called Superfastmatch. The software lets you do textual analysis of multiple bills, using the comparisons to track the replication of bills from state house to state house. It's version control of legislation that makes it possible to figure out where bills are coming from, even if their sponsors remember to strip off the header language on them.
For Clopp's part, the lesson learned from the last nine months is that matching the might of a group like ALEC takes a critical mass. "You learn to do ego disarmament and say, 'Huh, we're going to need a bigger army, or this is going to be a 30-year war.'" The coalitions created aren't always your traditional ones. ColorofChange.org's Robinson credited ALEC Exposed as a tremendous resource. Graves is quick to praise Robinson's group's work. But the pair had never met in person before a march outside ALEC's D.C. headquarters two weeks ago.
That it's a dispersed but networked coalition is meaningful.
Professional Democrats in Washington and in the states have long cowered in the face of the NRA. But there are millions of other people who aren't afraid of the gun lobby's fundraising might or ability to target elections -- especially when they're just normal folks, participating in online politics as part of their routine lives, even if it's only with a tweet or a signature on an online petition.
"Part of the Internet age," Robinson of ColorofChange.org said, "is that people want a chance to be activists on issues. They're not joiners in the same way of, 'OK, I'm a card-carrying member of this organization and I'm going to be with it forever.' " People are looking for the vehicle to get done what they want done, no matter who's presenting them with the opportunity.
The story of ALEC's role in U.S. politics and government is a complicated one, making the response perhaps uniquely suited to online organizing. Research and story-telling, once done, can hang around online until needed. Databases stay at the ready. Dots are connected as more dots appear. Attention can get channeled and captured. It's hard, complex work. But it's the hard, complex work that online organizers have spent the last few years figuring out. That might not have a group like ALEC, designed to work on its own and on its own terms, scared yet. But it probably should.