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April 17, 2005

What He Said

-- by Dave Johnson

War of Ideas, Why mainstream and liberal foundations and the think tanks they support are losing in the war of ideas in American politics: [Note - PDF document]

[. . .] The advantage lies in how the money is spent. Conservatives have found ways to package and market their ideas in more compelling ways, and their money is providing more bang for the buck.

[. . .] The dramatic growth of conservative think tanks in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s was made possible principally with support from a small corps of newer conservative foundations, such as the Bradley, Smith Richardson, and Sarah Scaife foundations. Before the 1970s, many conservative foundations and their patrons reviled government so much that they refused to support efforts related to what was going on in Washington. But with the advent of increased government regulation in the late 1960s, the leaders of these foundations wanted to stop the tide of government activism. Funding organizations to fight the war of ideas became their way of doing it.

[. . .] Many older foundations put the brakes on activities in Washington that seemed overtly or overly political. These foundations happened to be those that supported what today are often thought of as more liberal or progressive think tanks and public policies.

[. . .] Think tanks on the left tend to be organized by issue area – around women’s issues, poverty, or the environment – rather than taking on the broad range of issues with which Congress and the president deal.

The specialization of think tanks and advocacy organizations on the left tends to mirror the programs and organization of their main foundation funders. These more specialized groups can be – and have been – tremendously effective. But they are not organized to do battle in the same ways as their conservative counterparts, across a broad range of topics. Whereas a multi-issue, conservative group can redirect portions of its resources and energy from promoting ideas for, say, environmental regulation to Social Security reform as the immediate priorities of Congress and the president change, more narrowly focused progressive think tanks cannot be so nimble – and, as they are currently organized, many would not want to be.

To make matters more difficult, progressive think tanks have a hard time getting general organizational support. Foundations want to support projects – specific, well-defined, discreet projects.

[. . .] By providing general operating support to policy institutes far more rarely than their conservative counterparts, progressive foundations make it difficult for progressive organizations to sustain operating staff and functions. As James Piereson, executive director of the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, commented about his liberal counterparts: “The liberal foundations became too project oriented – they support projects but not institutions. They flip from project to project. … We, on the other hand, support institutions. We provide the infrastructure for institutions.”

[. . .] As one longtime think tank leader observed, “Liberal foundations are liberal not just in their belief in social and economic justice, but also in their belief in the possibility of neutrality, which makes them uncomfortable with making grants that seem too ‘political.’” The comments of a research director of a new progressive think tank are even more pointed: “If you’re on the left, you have to go to the foundations and say you’re neutral, unbiased – not politicized. You’re certainly not liberal. If you’re ideological, they don’t want to support you. It’s frustrating – because, by contrast, if you’re on the right, the foundations will only fund you if you toe the ideological line, if you want to do battle for the conservative cause.”

[. . .] Today, it is not so much that progressive foundations will not support policy research. The problem now is that these foundations will not support progressive policy think tanks that are focused, in the ways that conservative think tanks are, on promoting progressive policy change through research, advocacy, and the marketing of ideas.

[. . .] At this moment, conservatives are still winning in the war of ideas, and that success cannot be chalked up only to the power of their ideas. It is because these ideas have a winning organization behind them.

Like I've been telling you...

Posted by Dave Johnson at April 17, 2005 2:48 PM

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Comments

Keep telling it like it is, Dave!

Posted by: Helga Fremlin at April 17, 2005 4:09 PM

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