Lessons of Right-Wing Philanthropy

By Paget, Karen M. | The American Prospect, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview

Lessons of Right-Wing Philanthropy


Paget, Karen M., The American Prospect


In 1969, conservative Paul Weyrich was accidentally invited to a meeting of liberal strategists. He was awed. In describing his epiphany to Leon Howell, author of Funding the War of Ideas, he says:

The liberals put together

before my eyes a major national

battle that became a central

part of President Nixon's first

year. What they had there was

the whole panoply of liberal

groups, from the think tanks

to the media to the outside

groups to the legal groups to

the political groups.

Weyrich now thanks the left, the Lord, and Joe Coors--in that order--for providing the inspiration and the wherewithal to begin building what today is known as the "new conservative labyrinth."

This "labyrinth" includes dozens of national and regional think tanks (Heritage, American Enterprise, Free Congress Research and Education, Cato, Hudson, Hoover, Manhattan, and so on), legal centers (Institute for Justice, Washington Legal Foundation, and the Pacific, Atlantic, New England, and Southeastern Legal Foundations), magazines (the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard), journals (the Public Interest, the National Interest), and an extensive communications and marketing capacity, including National Empowerment Television, a national television network that reaches more than 11 million households.

Additional organizations target any sector where "liberal bias" is thought to lurk, from mainstream churches to the federal, judiciary to academic disciplines. The National Association of Scholars scouts for multiculturalism on campus. Accuracy in Media monitors television and newspapers. The legal foundations litigate.

At the helm of these organizations are representatives of a conservative--far right coalition that includes traditional conservatives, the heirs to Barry Goldwater (such as Weyrich), neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, and the burgeoning evangelic and religious right. While imitation was once the sincerest form of flattery, today the conservative infrastructure has far outstripped the left's organizational capacity and resources that inspired Weyrich's admiration. The left recently has lost repeated battles to this conservative coalition over major initiatives such as affirmative action, welfare, immigration, English-only programs, and school vouchers. Left-liberal activists have attributed these losses to the massive amounts of money conservatives have spent on the initiatives. However, it is the way conservatives have spent the money that has made the difference.

A series of recent publications--including reports issued by People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and No Mercy, a book by two University of Colorado law professors, Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado--all examine the increase in conservative financial support. Most of these publications conclude that while the sheer amount of money certainly is important (individual awards of a million dollars or more are not uncommon), conservative funders' grant-making strategy is more important. Conservative philanthropists share an ideological agenda and, despite tax-exempt status that prohibits electoral activity and most lobbying, they contribute in accordance with political objectives. Grant making primarily is aimed at two overriding objectives: limiting government and freeing markets from regulation--and shaping public opinion accordingly. Like good capitalists, conservative philanthropists conceive of grant making as an investment in people and institutions. Like good bondholders, they are in this for the long haul.

Roughly a dozen or so foundations provide the lion's share of conservative funding. The John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Family Foundations, and the Smith Richardson Foundation give so much in tandem that they are known as the "four sisters.

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