Back in September, Generation Opportunity, a “liberty-loving,” “non-partisan,” “youth advocacy group,” made a name for itself with two viral videos, each featuring a character named Creepy Uncle Sam.
The clips were a minute long, and offered the group’s take on what would happen after Obamacare—officially known as the Affordable Care Act—went into effect. In one scene, a woman in her twenties sits back on a gynecological exam table, her feet set in stirrups. The doctor leaves her alone in the room, and Creepy Uncle Sam rises from between her legs, causing her to shriek. In the other, a man of the same age is inexplicably told by his general practitioner to drop his pants, get on the table and bring his knees to his chest. Again the doctor leaves, only this time Creepy Uncle Sam rises from behind, as if he were about to check the patient’s prostate. Both videos end with the same warning: “Don’t let government play doctor.”
These ads, ironically a kind of reverse-communist agitprop, were part of the group’s “Opt Out” campaign, which suggested to uninsured young people that it would be better not to enroll in the new healthcare exchanges.
The videos’ dark, mixed metaphor and the campaign’s message caused an uproar. But in terms of publicity, both were a success. Collectively, they’ve been viewed more than 3 million times.
At one point, the noise reached such a fever pitch that President Obama felt compelled to comment. “Some of the wealthiest men in America,” he said, “are funding a cynical ad campaign trying to convince young people not to buy health care at all.”
The men in question were Charles and David Koch, two conservative billionaire brothers who, since Obama’s election, have been supporting conservative libertarian causes—often covertly—through layers of benignly named non-profits. One of these non-profits is Freedom Partners, a trade group that provided more than $5 million to Generation Opportunity.
COMMENT FROM THE KOCHS
Vocativ reached out to representatives for the Koch Brothers and Freedom Partners. Neither commented in time for publication. But this position may stand at odds with what is best for young Americans, and that is Generation Opportunity’s challenge: to reach a typically liberal demographic and convince them that Obama’s agenda is harmful.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Evan Feinberg, the president of Generation Opportunity, stood before a dry erase board at the group’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. His hair was impeccably coiffed, as if the gel had held firmly since his senior prom. And his attire—blue blazer and tan corduroy pants—reinforced the notion that he was a figure of maturity in the room.
“You know the rules,” he said, holding a marker in one hand and a Ping Pong ball in the other. “No judging. If you judge, you get a ball thrown at you.”
Around 10 members of his staff were seated in front of him on boxy leather furniture, and they all chuckled. The group was fresh-faced and eager, full of earnest, post-college spirit. The boys were either dressed in form-fitting khaki pants or the rumpled tech attire made familiar by Mark Zuckerberg. The girls, however, were more uniformly well put-together, tending toward business casual—skirts and power suits—except one, who wore designer jeans and equestrian boots.
The theme of today’s meeting was government spending, and how it adversely affects young men and women. “So what are the problems that face our generation?” Feinberg asked.
There was a freeform exchange, the staff members calling out a barrage of answers. “Generational theft,” one said. “The Federal Reserve,” said another. “Cronyism.” “Credit cards.” “Student loans.” “What about the Chinese threat?” one girl asked.
Feinberg recorded the answers on the wall and said, “Okay. Do you guys think there are any underlying messages here? Anything that could be the backbone of a campaign?”
They all seemed to agree on “generational theft.”
“So what does that mean?” Feinberg prodded.
“I think it means there’s someone stealing from another,” a young man volunteered. “It’s like what the left does with women’s issues. The left does a really good job at identifying that. We could say it’s like a war on youth.”
The staff nodded. “But no one thinks this is grandma’s fault, right?” Feinberg asked. “Who is waging the war?”
“Politicians!” someone yelled.
“I’d be wary of any kind of generational warfare language,” cautioned David Pasch, Generation Opportunity’s 25-year-old communications director. “We don’t hate our grandparents or our parents, like maybe our parents hated their parents.”
The whole team erupted in laughter, and Feinberg chimed in: “It really is the politicians. They’re the ones choosing to pay off certain constituencies that they can’t keep.”
“From a design and marketing perspective,” a girl said, testing the waters. “The ‘you’ jumps out at me in the ‘youth.’ So it’s kind of like many against the singularity—against the individual.”
After another 10 minutes of call and response, Feinberg brought the meeting to an end. “This is a lot of fun,” he said. “But I will say that it lacks pizzazz. Someone’s gotta come back to me and the team with something that really sizzles.”
The meeting broke, and nearby two young men in khakis began playing Ping Pong.
In December, Feinberg appeared on Fox to discuss the Opt Out campaign. At one point in the segment, the host, Greta Van Susteren, pointedly asked him about who was backing Generation Opportunity.
“Oh,” he said. “We’ve got a variety of donors.”
Van Susteren, seeming to know better, persisted: “I’m wondering if there is some very influential group that funds you” and, “as a consequence, you’ve got to take some marching orders from some other group.”
“Oh no,” Feinberg said. “We’re an independent organization that’s able to fight for our peers. These ads are really creative opportunities to very inexpensively reach millions of young people.”
Van Susteren, perhaps not wanting to shake the tree too hard, let the matter drop. Feinberg, a former Republican candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania, was being opaque, as Freedom Partners does technically consist of “a variety of donors”—roughly 200 in all. The $5 million that they gave to Generation Opportunity between November 2011 and October 2012 accounted for a small fraction of the quarter-billion donated to various conservative causes within the same timeframe. Still, none of them have been disclosed except for the Koch brothers. Shortly before the Creepy Uncle Sam videos began, Marc Short, the president of Freedom Partners, told Politico that the they “provided a ‘minority’” of the money.
The acknowledgement seemed to be a half-hearted bid at transparency.What he didn’t say, though, is that the vice president of Freedom Partners is Richard Fink, a man whom Jane Mayer, in a story for the New Yorker, once called “the central nervous system of the Kochtopus,”— the vast network of tentacles dispatched to jam up holes that might leak liberalism.
Generally speaking, “liberalism” accounts for any government regulation that potentially poses a threat to the business interests of Koch Industries—a multi-national corporation that deals in petroleum, energy, chemicals and gas liquids.
None of this, however, is mentioned on the website of Generation Opportunity. Instead, the page offers a tour of the personalities of the group’s staff. A headshot of every team member appears on a page accompanied by a quirky Q&A. One question asks, “If you could have a beer with one historical figure, it would be?” The replies vary, and include James Madison (“I already named my dog after the man”), Richard III (“I’m a huge British Monarchy dork!”), and Tina Fey (“Should probably say Margaret Thatcher”).
After the brainstorming session, I sat with Pasch and Feinberg in Feinberg’s sparsely decorated office. There was a big window, a bare blonde wood desk, and a golf putting mat rolled out on the floor, beside which was a putter. Feinberg drank from a bottle of Poland Spring water and crossed one leg over the other, briefly exposing a brown loafer.
“What we want to figure out is how we cut through the noise,” he said. “We’re not a political group, we’re an advocacy group. It requires us to do things differently.”
Feinberg was referring to Generation Opportunity’s status as a 501(c)(4) non-profit. In IRS code, it is labeled as a “social welfare” organization, which means it is tax-exempt and under no obligation to reveal its donors. Because the law governing such organizations is loosely defined, it remains unclear when a group stops getting social and starts getting political.
This is the cause of much consternation at the IRS. Last year, the agency came under fire for attempting to narrow the criteria, which happened to ensnare a number of conservative groups, though liberal ones were caught up in the mix as well. As a result, the guidelines still haven’t been refined.
Generation Opportunity is aware that it could jeopardize its status if its members explicitly advocate for a particular candidate during an election season. The IRS, at least in theory, might flag them for potentially running afoul of the rules. But the group is, it seems, within its rights to thwart, and advocate against, the agenda of a sitting president and his party, which ultimately amounts to the same thing.
Its Facebook page, for instance, is a virtual cornucopia of anti-Obama propaganda, which is almost certainly why it is crucial, both in its tax filings and on its website, that it maintains that it is “non-partisan” and avoid drawing attention to its affiliation with Freedom Partners. But what allows the group to conceal its donors’ identities is an inadvertent benefit of 1958 Supreme Court case involving the NAACP. The judges ruled, wisely at the time, that the organization did not have to reveal its members because disclosure could lead to harassment.
For the next hour Feinberg detailed the myriad ways in which our generation is under attack. He was polished and practiced, seemingly groomed for politics. For him, the word “freedom” is synonymous with “laissez-faire”—the bedrock of traditional conservative thought.
But Feinberg sees his mission more through the lens of revolution. “The opportunity to reshape this country,” he said, “is going to come from young Americans saying, ‘We want our country back; we want freedom.’”
Conservatives, whatever the strain, are not known for connecting with young Americans. In the 2012 Presidential election, for instance, Barack Obama captured 60 percent of the votes from those between the ages of 18 and 29. Generation Opportunity, then, is a sort of bridge, spanning the abyss between Grover Norquist and spring break in Acapulco.
At 5 o’clock, Pasch cut into our conversation and said, “Want to grab a beer and continue this in the lounge? We don’t have an actual clock on our beer fridge, but we try not to dip in too early in the afternoon.”
As we walked to the lounge, where the brainstorming session had taken place, Feinberg offhandedly mentioned the group’s State of the Union Party. The event was reminiscent of the Opt Out tour that took place last fall. Generation Opportunity travelled to 20 colleges around the country, spreading their message. In November, they threw a tailgate party at the University of Miami. “We rolled in with a fleet of Hummers, F-150’s and Suburbans, each vehicle equipped with an 8’ [foot] high balloon bouquet floating overhead,” Pasch wrote, in a press release. “We hired a popular student DJ…set up Opt Out cornhole sets, beer pong tables, bought 75 pizzas, and hired eight ‘brand ambassadors,’ aka models with bullhorns to help out.”
In one photo, Creepy Uncle Sam has an arm around a female student, his hand on her stomach, seemingly moving toward her waistline. In another, a girl has the words “Birthday Bitch” scrawled on her bare midriff.
Feinberg took a Sam Adams, and the three of us sat down. I asked him about the meaning of the Creepy Uncle Sam ads.
“There’s nothing more private than an exam between a young person and their doctor,” Feinberg said. “And having the government sort of interject itself in the middle of that relationship, visually, would communicate just how intrusive Obamacare is in a young person’s life.”
I pointed out that the law had several commonalities with past proposals from conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, where he once worked. But Feinberg brushed off my comment.
“Our goal,” he said, “is not really to undermine Obamacare. Our goal is to educate and empower young people to make a good decision.”
“But you were literally telling people to ‘opt out,’” I said. “Isn’t that, by definition, undermining? Isn’t that subversive?”
“I would not, in any way, classify the Opt Out campaign as subversive,” Feinberg countered.
“Okay,” I said. “Then what about the ads? Did it occur to you that there might be a rape connotation?”
Feinberg took a pull off his beer and answered in an even tone. “We were a little surprised by what I would classify as the MSNBC attacks on the videos—the ones that suggested we were insinuating anything other than Creepy Uncle Sam playing doctor.”
“We don’t make videos for Rachel Maddow,” Pasch said, adding: “Getting young people to pay attention to healthcare is something that’s very difficult. So we like to think we’ve come up with a way to get young people engaged.”
There was a long silence, and I decided to change the subject. “You guys really consider yourselves non-partisan?”
The employment history of the staff of Generation Opportunity reads like a tribute to the Republican Party. Pasch himself worked for Rick Santorum’s national advance team, and just about everyone else in the organization has paid their dues in the conservative cause, too—from the Republican National Committee to the Charles Koch Institute, where Feinberg worked until January of last year, when he took the job at Generation Opportunity.
“We’re non-partisan in every way, shape, and form,” Feinberg said.
I mentioned their relationship with Freedom Partners, and Feinberg acknowledged the link, but declined to discuss the matter further.
“We are offering an opportunity to get the next generation involved and motivated,” he said. “We advocate for their future.”