As the mayor of Charlotte, N.C. for over a decade, Republican Pat McCrory sought to position himself as a forward-looking leader when it came to the city's environment, championing policies on public transportation and pedestrian-friendly development that have earned national attention.
But in his current bid to become North Carolina's governor, McCrory has embraced a far-right conspiracy theory that claims an international sustainability initiative is actually a plot to impose "centralized control over all of human life," as right-wing commentator Glenn Beck put it.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reported last week:
Pat McCrory sent a tweet at the state GOP convention that drew little attention: “Proud to support @NCGOP’s resolution against Agenda 21.”
A nonbinding agreement drawn up to help governments "take a balanced and integrated approach to environment and development questions," as its preamble states, Agenda 21 was unanimously adopted at a 1992 United Nations conference n Brazil. It even had the support of former Republican President George H.W. Bush.
But over the last several years, Agenda 21 has become a rallying cry for those on the far right, especially among fringes of the Tea Party. The Southern Poverty Law Center observed that the accord "has emerged as something of a unified field theory for the antigovernment movement."
As referenced in McCrory's tweet, the N.C. Republican Party passed a a resolution on June 2 calling Agenda 21 a "comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering and global political control" that "is incompatible with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and is a danger to the American way of life."
Anti-Agenda 21 bills have also been introduced in eight state legislatures this year, including those in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee. Most haven’t fared well; Alabama
became the first to passed one last month, while Tennessee's legislature passed a non-binding anti-Agenda 21 resolution in March.
The bills draw on model language from the extreme-right John Birch Society, which has played a key role in promoting the Agenda 21 conspiracy through its Stop Agenda 21 initiative. The John Birch Society has been an outpost of the far-right fringe since its founding in California in 1958, seeking to define everything from the United Nations to civil rights at home as a communist conspiracy.
One of the founding members of the John Birch Society was Fred Koch, who also founded the Koch Industries oil and chemical conglomerate. In his 1960 book "A Businessman Looks at Communism," Koch detailed his hostility toward the United Nations, writing that the organization was a "rotten core of subversion."
Today, Fred Koch's billionaire son David, who co-owns Koch Industries with his brother Charles, have emerged as a leader of the anti-UN Agenda 21 conspiracy campaign through his work as founder and chairman of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which is furthering the Agenda 21 conspiracy nationwide through handouts and presentations.
Of course, it isn't difficult to understand why the men behind Koch Industries -- a major emitter of carbon and other pollution -- would be interested in discrediting a sustainability initiative.
For example, the Koch’s have been major funders of efforts to discredit climate science in order to scuttle regulatory action on greenhouse gas pollution. A 2010 Greenpeace report documented how the Kochs contributed more than $48.5 million from 1997 to 2008 to a network of several dozen think tanks that work to sow doubt about manmade climate change.
But why would McCrory take up such a dubious cause?
The most obvious reason would be to shore up support with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, which has been suspicious of McCrory’s pro-transit agenda. As The News & Observer's John Frank observed:
It was the group where he showed the most weakness during the 2008 primary; some were skeptical of his support for a sales tax hike to help finance a rapid light rail system in Charlotte.
Perhaps to deepen his support among the Tea Party base, McCrory has worked closely with Americans for Prosperity in North Carolina, speaking at rallies and even participating in a statewide tour organized by the group to oppose President Obama's health care reform plan. So successful was his effort to build alliances with the group that the Charlotte Observer, McCrory's hometown newspaper, has called him AFP's "de facto spokesman."
In shoring up his ties to AFP, McCrory is also strengthening his connection with leading North Carolina conservative benefactor Art Pope, who serves one of the group's national directors. Pope's family foundation has given at least $1.3 million to AFP's sister group, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is allowed to share resources with AFP.
So far the strategy of appealing to the far right appears to be working for McCrory, who in a recent poll had a 6-point lead over Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.
But that poll also found that about 13 percent of voters remain undecided, and it's hard to imagine how promoting anti-UN conspiracy theories is going to help McCrory win over Democrats or unaffiliated voters. Yet that's the challenge facing McCrory in a state with 6.2 million registered voters -- 43 percent of whom are registered Democrats, 31 percent of whom are registered Republicans and 25 percent are independent.
(CORRECTION: This story has been corrected since first posted to include Tennessee's passage of the anti-Agenda 21 nonbinding resolution.)
Sue is the editorial director of Facing South and the Institute for Southern Studies.