Whenever the other side scores in the game of ideas that is American public life, each team’s loyalists complain about the rules and referees. Sometimes they have a point. More often, however, the gripe is a revealing form of prayer — a voodoo ritual in which the congregants reassure themselves of heaven’s favor. If your political crop should fail, it is rarely because you have planted badly. It is because some witch-doctor has cast a spell on your field.
To locate a partisan’s deepest self-doubts, look first at his most convenient devils. For decades, American conservatism had its Harvards and its Washington Post. An articulate status aristocracy, the conservative believed, was using the bedazzlements of elegance and prestige against him. The polity’s football heroes and prom queens were liberal. Its math club geeks were conservative. It was a cosmic inequity, and it was always determinative. Being right, for the Right, would never be enough. Geeks never win a popularity contest.
Except when they do. At long last, it is no longer 1964. Conservatism has struggled its way to better-than-parity standing in American public opinion. Conservatism’s representatives control the national legislature. Conservatism’s ideas control the policy gridiron. A Yale- and Oxford-educated president — and even the mighty New York Times editorial page — seem largely helpless to reverse the tide.
How can this be? Is it the honorable but mundane product of democratic argument, reflecting a series of reasonably intelligent judgments by ordinary citizens? The disinterested observer would be tempted to think so. But the interested partisan of the Left would be tempted not to think so. He, too, has a mythopoetic explanation for practical political failure. It is much more soothing.
If American conservatism imagines itself hamstrung by unrefinement, American liberalism fears itself crippled by something close to the reverse. Inside his fragile battlements, the liberal is a meek priest of truth and virtue. He carefully translates the holy tablets into the vernacular, and lobs them forth to the mob beyond the moat. But out there lies the kingdom of Commerce, whose rough and virile princes spare no expense on artificial “ideas” designed to confuse the peasantry into accepting its own subjugation. O, dastardly dollars! Of what use are justice, journalism, and John Rawls against the awesome power of the Olin Foundation?
People For the American Way (PFAW), American liberalism’s Christian Coalition, has lately produced an almost classically perfect iteration of this lament. “Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics” is a 41-page report, complete with 331 footnotes — all of it designed to prove that conservative philanthropic activity has materially and unfairly distorted American public discourse and governance. According to PFAW, five principal “far-right-wing” grant-giving institutions — the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Koch family charities, Olin, the Scaife family philanthropies, and the Adolph Coors foundation — bang deafening drums in the nation’s ears, preventing us from thinking and voting correctly. They are immensely rich, dogged, and rigidly ideological, these conservative donor groups. “Progressive” Americans have no such weapon.
Broadly speaking, this is not exactly an original contention. The Left’s fixation on the Right’s money is every bit as immemorial as the Right’s obsession with liberalism’s PhDs. But in the current context, the demonization of conservative philanthropy requires a few novel — and transparently bogus — polemical twists.
First, we must be convinced that right-of-center charities enjoy overwhelming financial superiority in the battle for the American brain. So we must be discouraged from considering the inconvenient fact that “centrist” philanthropies like the Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations routinely dispense more cash in a single month than their “right-wing” equivalents do in an entire year. “Buying a Movement” makes quick work of this obvious objection. “Mainstream” charities, you see, dilute the ideological character of their work by funding generous direct services to the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged — out of humanitarian concern that the hard-hearted Right does not share.
Is there nothing left over for agenda-setting research and practical “progressive” policy advocacy, then, after Ford & Co. are finished repairing “the ever more frayed social safety net” that conservative groups have “invested their resources to further shred?” Actually, there’s plenty. But if you ignore a good chunk of it — those millions of dollars in foundation grants to California defenders of affirmative action during last year’s state ballot initiative campaign, for example — and you look at the rest from an odd angle, as the PFAW report does, you can almost persuade yourself that American liberalism is a prohibitive underdog. Its troops fight with sticks and pea-shooters. Conservatism gets to use gunpowder.
So “Buying a Movement” cites a study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy to suggest that foundation-supported right-of-center think tanks in Washington have a better than four-to-one budget advantage over the “major progressive think tanks.” The list of “major progressive think tanks” at issue is suspiciously short. There are only four, none of which is the Brookings Institution, the oldest and wealthiest think tank of them all, or the Urban Institute, probably the best and most effective national source of policy-relevant liberal research.
The PFAW analysis applies a similarly eccentric perspective to the question of ideological imbalance in American print and broadcast journalism. Yes, there is media bias, “Buying a Movement” announces. The media are dangerously conservative. And “right-wing foundations” are to blame.
Here we are asked to believe that conservative activist Paul Weyrich’s shoestring NET cable television network, funded in part by the Bradley and Scaife foundations, is “one of the Right’s most powerful communications weapons.” We are reminded that scholars and spokesmen whose middle-class think-tank salaries are paid by “right-wing” foundations regularly appear on network television and get quoted in Time magazine. And we are informed that conservative magazines get ten times the amount of foundation support their “progressive counterparts” annually attract. How does this last calculation work? In part by contrasting the financial condition of The American Spectator, a national monthly with several hundred thousand subscribers, to that of a socialist newspaper called In These Times.
With all these tools, PFAW warns, conservative charities have engineered “an extraordinary amplification of the far Right’s views on a range of issues” and helped “keep alive in the public debate a variety of policy ideas long ago discredited or discarded by the mainstream.” If so, the relevant question at this point would be: How, precisely, does this “right-wing” philanthropic conspiracy operate and succeed? Who among its wizards manipulates television producers into putting “arch-conservative” mouthpieces on the air? What dark, unseen force, for that matter, obliges anyone to pay meaningful attention to foundation-funded conservative advocacy at all — to read its magazines, for instance, and act or vote in response to its arguments?
PFAW cannot answer these basic questions, any more than it can establish that “centrist” American ideas are now drowning in a sea of reactionary cash. And, truth be told, “Buying a Movement” doesn’t really try very hard to do either. Instead, the report is mostly an exhaustive catalog of war reporting on the front-line results of conservative foundation grants. Its tone suggests that the views and goals involved are self-evidently horrible. But alas, a receptive public audience exists for such degraded notions — “at every level of government a vast armada of foundation-funded right-wing organizations has both fed and capitalized on the current swing to the right.” It must be a plot.
The Koch Family foundations give money to Washington’s Cato Institute. “Cato is the leading libertarian think tank; it has close ties to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who has frequently given speeches at Cato in the past several years.” See? See? New York’s Manhattan Institute, supported by a number of conservative philanthropies, “advocates privatization of sanitation services and infrastructure maintenance.” Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum — run for your lives! — got a whopping $10,000 from the Olin Foundation in 1994. The Bradley Foundation “has helped pay for the work of approximately 600 graduate students over the years.” Worse, Bradley has also spent several million dollars on private school tuition scholarships for poor children in Milwaukee. These right-wingers will stop at nothing.
What is the point of this unintentionally funny exercise? On one level, of course, the PFAW report — which ends with a “challenge to the progressive foundation community” — functions like a typically alarmist direct-mail fundraising appeal. Satan is strong; he is publishing a monthly journal of art criticism called The New Criterion (Olin, Scaife, Bradley, etc.). We are weak; send more money before another devastatingly subversive essay on Cezanne appears.
But as we have seen, liberalism is not really “weak” in the wallet this way. America suffers no shortage of “centrist and mainstream” views — about Cezanne or anything else. The problem is simply that “centrist and mainstream” views are not so powerful as they once were, and that liberalism has lost a few elections as a consequence. Rather than contemplate his own loser’s errors of organization and intellection, the liberal prefers to mumble about the winner’s illegitimate trickery. The Right was once transfixed by Dan Rather and Ben Bradlee. The Left is now transfixed by a handful of trust-fund executives. It makes them feel better. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything at all.
David Tell is the opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.