Who the Hell is Henry Olsen?

Henry Olsen thinks Democratic politicians need to get tough with teachers’ unions. In Mr. Olsen’s view, the Chicago Teachers Union’s refusal, earlier this month, to teach in person until Chicago Public Schools administrators acted to protect teachers, staff, and students from the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus, defied reason and amounted to an “assault on the well-being of children.” This unconscionable behavior, Mr. Olsen said, was all about the unions wanting to “get more time off for their members.” To stop the terrible damage being done to children by these uncaring teachers, Olsen argued, Democratic politicians must stop coddling their unions and use a firm hand to send teachers back to work.

Mr. Olsen expressed these views in an opinion essay published in the Washington Post and other newspapers across the country. The essay appeared on January 9, 2022, in the News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), where I saw it. In the News & Observer, the piece (see p. 14B) ran with the byline “By Henry Olsen, Special to the Washington Post.” No author bio was included, so I wondered, Who the hell is Henry Olsen?

The Washington Post provides a brief resume. Mr. Olsen, I learned, is a “columnist focusing on politics, populism, and American conservative thought.” He has a BA in political science from Claremont McKenna College and a law degree from the University of Chicago. He is now a “senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.” Previously, he was president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a vice president at the Manhattan Institute, and vice president and director of the National Research Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Olsen has also been a regular contributor to National Review Online.

Some readers who took the trouble to look up Mr. Olsen’s background might recognize the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute as right-wing think tanks. Many might not. I had to look up the Commonwealth Foundation and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. SourceWatch describes Commonwealth as a right-wing, free-market pressure group with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council. The Ethics and Public Policy Center likewise fronts for corporate interests, albeit with a religious tinge. Mr. Olsen, it appears, should hardly be portrayed, if only implicitly, as a disinterested expert or an ordinary citizen motivated by concern for the well-being of America’s children.

SourceWatch also identifies the funders of the conservative outfits for whom Mr. Olsen has worked. Many of the same names appear over and again: Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Scaife Family Foundation, and John M. Olin Foundation. What these far-right, capitalist-class funders get for their money is a stream of ideologically-driven “studies” and opinion pieces that promote tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, reduced government spending (except for the military), privatization of public services, deregulation of big business, and weakening of labor unions. It would be fair to suppose, given the flow of money from these funders to Mr. Olsen’s pocket, that he is their creature.

Mr. Olsen is of course entitled to his opinions, and to work for people who share them. He’s also entitled to make a living as a PR flack for the people who pay his salary. Moreover, his opinions should be judged on their merits, not dismissed as mere paid-for propaganda. On the other hand, readers—few of whom will track down information about Mr. Olsen and his backers—deserve to know for whom he works. If nothing else, this might arouse deserved skepticism about the credibility of Mr. Olsen’s opinions. Knowing more about Mr. Olsen’s employment background might helpfully lead readers to suspect, at the very least, that they are getting a one-sided view and that they should consult alternative sources if they want an accurate picture of anything having to do with unions.

A fitting bio blurb to append to opinion pieces written by Mr. Olsen might thus go like this: “Henry Olsen is employed by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a policy advocacy group funded by corporations and wealthy donors who oppose taxes, regulation, social welfare spending, and labor unions. He has worked for similar right-wing groups for many years.” I understand that the fault for failing to provide this information is not Mr. Olsen’s. In fact, on his part the omission is strategic; it would undermine the propaganda effect of his writing if the economic interests that back him were exposed. The fault lies, rather, with the media outlets who give Mr. Olsen a platform without telling readers who he is.

Mr. Olsen’s piece is just a case in point. The larger problem is one of neoliberal ideology being diffused into the culture, with the people who are the targets of that ideology being kept off guard. This occurs regularly. Another example popped up in the News & Observer’s opinion pages less than a week after Olsen. The new piece, published on January 15, was headlined teachers who walk out over Covid-19 should be fired. The byline read, “By Marc A. Thiessen, Washington Post.” Again there was no author bio. Thiessen’s name was familiar but I’d never looked him up.

The Washington Post describes Thiessen as a columnist “focusing on foreign and domestic policy,” adding that he is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, a contributor to Fox News, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Wikipedia notes that in his 2010 book Courting Disaster: How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, Thiessen defended the use of waterboarding, “arguing that it was not torture [and] that the Obama administration’s rejection of torture might lead to American deaths.” Thiessen is also a former fellow at the Hoover Institution, another right-wing, free-market think tank that receives millions from the Scaife, Olin, Koch, Walton, and Bradley foundations, as well as from corporate donors, including ExxonMobil, Procter & Gamble, and Boeing-McDonnell.

Piling on with Olsen, Thiessen tells us that the Chicago teachers abandoned their students—a disgraceful and appalling abdication of responsibility. By refusing to teach in person, teachers in Chicago and elsewhere have done irreparable damage to their students. “School closures,” according to Thiessen, are “child abuse.” Even more morally damning, it is poor and minority children who suffer the most as teachers’ unions hold them hostage. The solution, Thiessen argues, is to “take power away from those who don’t care about children—the teachers unions.” Compared to Thiessen, Olsen is the good cop.

In meeting with this sort of virulent anti-union commentary—again with no quarter given to how teachers see the situation—shouldn’t readers be told who Marc Thiessen is, who he works for, and the economic interests of his employers? The answer is obvious, if one believes readers deserve to know if they are being offered expert opinion, a citizen’s cry from the heart, or neoliberal ideology cloaked in treacly concern for poor and minority children. But beyond the byline, the only additional information readers get about Thiessen comes in the form of a small photo of his pale smiling face.

Olsen, Thiessen, and other stealth propagandists for the capitalist class have every right to say what they will, cloak themselves in pseudo-academic respectability by calling themselves “fellows” and “scholars,” and get paid for serving their corporate masters. But readers also have a right to know who these people are and whom they serve. The fact that mainstream media outlets don’t provide this information attests to the hegemony of neoliberal ideology—it’s so normalized that no one thinks its purveyors should be outed as such. Even so, we might begin to change things by insisting on more information about writers whose opinions are otherwise presented as free-floating expert commentary, unrooted in the political and economic interests of their backers. In the meantime, we must do the outing ourselves.


Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com.