We live in an age when the two major American political parties appear to be divided between the center-left and the center-right. Nearly every major Democrat, it seems, either believes in New Democrat policies or pretends to; those few politicians who are still unabashed liberals, like Teddy Kennedy or Mario Cuomo, seem like old fossils, dusty relics of a long-gone era.
Yet the bureaucracies created in the New Deal and the Great Society persist, and most thrive. Few conservatives still talk about abolishing the Department of Education or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; even the highly controversial National Endowment for the Arts soldiers on.
Why has the right been so utterly ineffectual in its attempts to roll back the state? Jeffrey M. Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University, makes the interesting case that it is in part liberal nonprofits that help ensure that the federal government remains large, complex, and intrusive. Moreover, he argues, these nonprofit organizations—environmental, consumer, feminist, and civil rights groups—are the sum and substance of liberalism today. The left, he contends, is nothing more—or less—than its 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations. And these groups, he admits, represent the “postmaterialist” ideals of the well-to-do rather than the desires of Americans who are still struggling. “It is the citizen groups of the right, not the left, who are more attuned to the interests of those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder,” he writes.
Berry is an expert in how organizations participate in politics. In The New Liberalism, he decided to count the number of bills considered by Congress in 1963, 1979, and 1991. He then read every article about these bills in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, and counted the number of times specific organizations were mentioned in the articles.
Why did Berry choose 1963, 1979, and 1991 instead of other years? He explains that it was because he wanted to examine years when Congress was busy, but not pursuing dramatic reforms, such as a major tax bill. He considers these three years representative of Congress’s changing agenda.
Of course, all three years were ones when Democrats controlled the agenda. And as James L. Payne demonstrated in The Culture of Spending, when Democrats were in charge, they tended to pack hearings with advocates of more big government. Berry is well aware that since the Republicans captured Congress in 1994, Congressional hearings have been more balanced between free-market and pro-government organizations. So his extensive analysis is more useful for showing changes in liberalism than in exploring the changes in the strengths of left and right.
In 1963, Berry shows, most Congressional debates were primarily about things: dams, imported goods, cotton prices. And most of the time, legislators in 1963 didn’t have to consider the views of nonprofit organizations about a particular bill. “When the Senate Agriculture Committee considered the Feed Grain Act,” Berry writes, “it did not have to meet with consumer groups wanting to know why grain farmers should continue to receive price supports. Nor were there any environmental groups complicating policymaking by asking about pesticides used in the feed grains.” As a result, the Feed Grain Act was passed just two weeks after the bill left committee.
Ralph Nader and McGeorge Bundy changed all that. Nader popularized the notion that groups of idealistic young lawyers could institute dramatic, positive change. And Bundy’s Ford Foundation pumped millions into public-interest law firms. Such fledging organizations as the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resources Defense Council lived off of Ford funds (which accounted for as much as 90 percent of their budgets) until they successfully litigated their first cases, at which point they were able to attract grants from other foundations.
“By 1975 Ford had made grants of $12 million to public interest law firms, and the prestige of the foundation legitimized these grants before the rest of the foundation world,” Berry writes. “What Ford did was nurture an advocacy model that was sustainable.”
The legacy of Bundy and Nader is that liberal advocacy groups are strikingly different from conservative ones. The right, Berry admits, has better think tanks and also has organizations such as the Christian Coalition or the National Taxpayers Union that truly represent millions of members. The left, according to Berry, has more lobbyists on Capitol Hill and is better able to get major media coverage. As a result, while the right may be winning some of the intellectual debates, the left is better able to persuade members of Congress to do its bidding.
Berry uncovers some striking differences between left and right. When the Republicans captured Congress in 1994, the Christian Coalition announced a ten-point “Contract With the American Family,” including abolishing the Department of Education, the Legal Services Corporation, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, passing a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in the public schools, and barring late-term abortions.
But although the Christian Coalition spent large sums on political advocacy (including $5.9 million in the first six months of 1996), it had just three Congressional lobbyists. Liberal groups boasted far more people inside the Beltway; even the relatively small Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had 22 people in its Washington office. Perhaps as a result, the Christian Coalition was able to only get one clause of its contract passed: a measure requiring criminals to provide restitution to their victims before they can leave prison. (Two other provisions of the contract were vetoed by President Clinton and a third—prohibiting Internet pornography—was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.)
Conservatives, Berry contends, won’t achieve victories until they amass more troops on Capitol Hill. And media bias or no, they also have to do a better job in presenting their case to the press. Berry studied who appeared on 295 nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN Headline News. (He seems to have chosen one nightly news show at random when he was at home watching TV.) The five groups getting the most number of appearances were the NRA, the organizers of the Million Man March, the Christian Coalition, the ACLU, and NOW. But conservatives, for the most part, were only put on camera to discuss two issues: abortion and guns. On most issues, a network news story would have a soundbite from a Republican member of Congress, and another soundbite from a liberal lobbying group, such as the Sierra Club. Think tank fellows rarely appeared on television, even if they were experts on a particular bill.
Conservatives can learn two lessons from Berry’s interesting book. First, if the battle over ideas is a war, it’s trench warfare, not a battle where the front changes dramatically. Second, if the right is to be effective, its nonprofits will have to attract more people who enjoy working on Capitol Hill. Conservatives have some productive public-interest law firms, such as the Center for Individual Rights and the Institute for Justice. But they will need more of these groups—and more donors willing to fund them—if they are to advance their agenda.
Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center and an associate editor of The American Enterprise.