Friday, June 17, 2005

Investing in Ideas

For over thirty years conservative and right-wing foundations and funders have invested in ideas. They have poured over $2 billion into creating a right-wing network and infrastructure, and used that to build a large political machine and a huge populist mass base.

These funds have been spread across a range of ideologies and identities. Business conservatives, Christian evangelicals, libertarians, neoconservatives, military interventionists, anti-union activists, moral traditionalists, and others have been funded to pursue the ideas that facilitate action in the political and social arenas.

Most liberal and progressive foundations refuse to fund basic research, think tanks, alternative media, publishing, and conferences. That's exactly what conservative and right-wing funders have targeted in a strategic way. And by funding a range of conservative ideas, it is now possible to hear a radio debate on some policy issue where there are three views from the political right, one liberal, and no progressives. That's balance.

There is nothing new in this complaint. In the mid 1990s activist leader Suzanne Pharr asked Loretta Ross and me to help pull together some progressive strategy sessions at the Blue Mountain conference center in upstate New York. After one meeting we sent a delegation down to New York City to meet with representatives of over one dozen foundations and funders to explain how the political right had invested in the struggle over ideas. We talked about Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, and the importance of being able to field-test slogans, frames, and different ways of explaining ideas and telling stories.

We explained how right-wing funders had shifted away from short-term project grants toward unrestricted grants over many years to guarantee and enhance the survival rate of right-wing think tanks and alternative media. We explained how an echo chamber had been created for conservative and right-wing arguments to challenge progressive and liberal theories and goals. We explained how we were being outmaneuvered. We explained that we were losing. We explained what would happen if we continued to lose in terms of the attack on gay rights, women’s rights, and immigrant rights. We explained that racism and xenophobia would continue to be rebuilt as acceptable public positions. To be fair, a few funders shifted their focus. Most did not.

The Institute for First Amendment Studies, which monitored boycotts by the Christian Right among other things, went under. The reproductive rights magazine Body Politic stopped publishing. The human rights group Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity (itself a merger of two groups) ceased operations.

In the mid 1990s groups such as People for the American Way shifted focus to monitoring legislative and political maneuvers by conservatives in the nation’s capital. This is an important task, but groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, and Political Research Associates (where I work) could not raise the funds to hire more research staff to monitor and analyze the slew of right-wing campaigns being generated by the well-funded right-wing infrastructure.

In the early 1990s there were three progressive researchers who produced books and articles about the rise of the political right and the ascendancy of conservative Christian evangelicals into the political system: Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, and Fred Clarkson. Not one of them could make a living writing about the rise of the right. Compare them to Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and the swarm of right-wing ideologues financed with stipends, grants, and fellowships to do research and write about the political scene.

A real democracy requires the type of informed consent that emerges as many competing ideas struggle for acceptance in the public square. In the culture war, one side has been disarmed.

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog


Blogger Bruce Wilson said...

This point needs to be emphasized and indeed beaten into the ground until the left realizes it has really been politically AWOL for the last several decades.

Not completely, of course. Many have fought with great passion and dedication. Too few though, and those few had far too little money to work with. Then, of course, there is the question of funding for developing and practicing new organizing techniques and winning in the field of ideas.

A lot of this goes back to the Powell Memo...

Now the right has seized much of the intellectual initiative - or at least the form of that if not always the content - and, even lacking intellectual content, can often prevail through practiced sophistry and a press of well funded bodies and talking heads. And though there are enormous gaps in the ideology, those have been succesfully papered over by myth and wholesale historical revisionism. In the end - truth or lies - what matters for the new American Right is the acquisition of power, and to that end ideas and ideologies are marketed much like toothpaste : product as slogans, gradually impressed on the public mind by ceaseless repetition.

All of that takes money of course. A few billion here, a few billion there... such spending has over the last three decades shoved the American political consensus quite far to the right.

Money isn't everything, but it certainly helps to pay the bills of young Heritage Institute fellows and - meanwhile - the impoverishment in centrist and left thinking - on political activism for example - can be seen quite starkly on a site such as the Daily Kos, where the current Downing Street Memo scandal has been met by a profusion of outraged and frantic calls for sit-ins and marches on Washington.

After decades of marches, and decades of political retreat, it still has not sunk in among many that that might be more effective methods.

Ideas indeed.

Then, there's TV.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Bruce Prescott said...

Chip & Troutfishing,

I think you are both right on.

I suspect the Right was motivated to fund think tanks because they were perceived to be anti-intellectual.

The left has been so smug in their intellectualism that they didn't think that they needed to fund any research and writing.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Chipster said...

Hi Bruce,

That's a geat quip. Alas, it is also true.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wilson said...

Bruce - That's so true, it hurts. It makes me laugh too.

By the way, that new photo is much nicer than the previous one.

One of these days I'll give myself a face here too. A real name as well.

9:20 AM  
Blogger grandma1 said...

troutfishing you must not know Bruce or you wouldn't like this new photo. Maybe I can give you one from the wedding. Or how about one from about 30 years ago.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Sunfell said...

Bruce wrote:

"The left has been so smug in their intellectualism that they didn't think that they needed to fund any research and writing."

Maybe we should begin to make note of this in the blogopshere- spread this message- and do something about it. Smugness does not equal poverty- if we paint a grim and urgent enough picture of what will happen if we do not push back and fight back, maybe a proper think tank and all can be created.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Chipster said...


Well, sure it is self serving, but I think folks should financially support and expand the existing institutions I mentioned in the post. :-)

6:44 PM  
Blogger William Ramsey said...

Why create think tanks? Why invent new intellectual institutions to challenge the status quo? The far right (and only the far right) has done this because the established intellectual processes (colleges and universities) cannot be relied upon to produce desirable conclusions upon demand. I have said this before but it must be repeated. Indeed, it needs to become a political rallying cry. This is a battle between open-ended inquiry, as carried forward by science and university professionals and apologetics, as carried forward by interested activists. The "left" already has these sources of funding and institutions in place. It simply needs to understand the challenge.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Jay Taber said...

I'm glad you mentioned some of the organizations that bit the dust due to the dearth of funding for authentic grassroots research, education, and organizing. One you mentioned--Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity--did great work. Its demise left the half dozen states where it operated without any regional level of support for the local groups struggling against racism and other social pathologies.

Which brings me to the point you raised about elitist institutions (like the Democratic party) raking in millions to fight fascism in the US when they have no experience or inclination to do so.

While we're busy repeating the refrain that social change requires investment, we would do well to remind potential donors that organic social transformation never comes about as a result of institutional initiative.

2:35 PM  
Blogger William Ramsey said...

Spartacus is correct, and she/he is restating Newt Gingrich, I think. Grassroots mobilization demands an eye for key issues, and the ability to frame the argument in basic terms (a pure Gringrich axion) that cannot possibly be lost. The weakness of the progressive movement is evident in such blogs as 'Daily kos," where thread after thread focuses on high level political figures, leaks, memos, policy statements, etc. Those few threads that try courageously to start up discussion of core grassroots issues, such as troutfishing's recent entry, gather only a handful of comments. Maybe that is the big change that Howard Dean can work toward: changing the cultural focus from the effect (Washington politics) to the root causes (Christian fundamentalism).

2:45 AM  
Blogger Jay Taber said...

An indispensable fact on the topic I quote in the following link:

2:26 PM  
Blogger Jay Taber said...

sorry, that's

2:29 PM  
Blogger Space Fission said...

The failure of dialog on the liberal or left side of the political equation is due to the success the Clinton administration enjoyed by moving to right of center. This move co-opted the liberal/left wings of the Democratic party and robbed the Republicans of crucial political territory. It throttled dialog and the building of capabilities other than for electing Clinton to a 2nd term.

1:49 PM  

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