Chronicle of Philanthropy – Opinion
November 13, 2008
The Failure of Conservative Philanthropy?
Last week’s election results have prompted some experts to declare that America is witnessing the greatest liberal resurgence since the Great Society. So can we now stop fretting about the threat of a handful of conservative foundations’ permanently reshaping the political landscape in their own image?
Though that fear seems laughably overstated given the victories scored by the Democrats, for more than two decades it generated a minor industry in publications with attention-grabbing titles like “Justice For Sale: Shortchanging the Public Interest for Private Gain” (published in 1993 by the Alliance for Justice), “Who Is Downsizing the American Dream?” (Democratic Policy Committee, 1996), and “Axis of Ideology” (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2004).
Authors of those reports maintained that a tight cadre of ideologically committed donors, supporting an array of think tanks, publications, and advocacy organizations, had systematically dismantled the welfare state and quietly but irrevocably shifted the American public-policy agenda to the right.
The fact, though, is that whatever successes American conservatism enjoyed since the 1960s owe very little to the conniving of wealthy donors, and a great deal to fratricidal impulses within liberalism, some of them fueled by the largest American foundations.
At the peak of liberalism’s last moment of triumph — President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, in the early 60s — America saw an unprecedented outpouring of social and economic change. But unlike social-change movements of the past, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, this one was driven not by mass political mobilization but rather by elites trained in professions like social welfare, law, urban planning, sociology, psychology, and public policy.
The “professionalization of reform,” as he described it, had long been promoted by the Ford Foundation and other major American philanthropies. They sought to shift political decisions away from bickering, partisan citizens into the hands of experts, who would plan social change according to the objective, coherent conclusions of empirical social science.
Once this was accomplished, the growth of the social-service state would no longer be subject to the whims of the electorate, but more or less set on automatic pilot. A growing professional class, assuming its rightful place within administrative bureaucracies, the courts, foundations, and nonprofit organizations, would quietly but steadily push for greater scope and public financing for their programs — not, they would insist, in response to liberal ideological zeal, but rather as the indisputable prerogative of expertise.
The problem, as sociologist Nathan Glazer noted, is that “professionals, concentrating exclusively on their area of reform, may become more and more remote from public opinion, and indeed from common sense,” ending up “at a point that seems perfectly logical and necessary to them — but which seems perfectly outrageous to almost everyone else.”
So it was with the Great Society. Some of its largest legislative programs — Medicare, Head Start, civil-rights legislation, aid to elementary education — were and remain popular.
Other programs often associated with it — busing, affirmative action, a ban on prayer in schools, constraints on law enforcement, the growth in welfare rolls — provoked bitter internecine warfare among Democrats, in part because they seemed to slip in without voter consent via obscure judicial and administrative mandates.
Millions of Democrats in the South and in the blue-collar, white-ethnic North came to regard professionalized “reformers” as arrogant, overbearing, intrusive social engineers, undermining the social and educational arrangements they had made for their own neighborhoods and communities.
They would be joined later by like-minded evangelicals, galvanized into political action by bureaucratic and judicial efforts to strip their schools of tax exemptions, legalize abortion, exile Ten Commandments plaques from public places, and institute gay marriage. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, these voting blocs undergirded conservative political strength.
It was this major electoral shift, not a crafty intellectual infrastructure, that elevated conservatism to political power. Indeed, when the shift began, most of today’s conservative think tanks and foundations had not yet even appeared on the scene. Those that existed were small, underfinanced, and easily dismissed as transparent pro-business fronts.
But a more effective conservative philanthropy emerged soon thereafter, also in reaction against the Great Society. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, James Q. Wilson, as well as Mr. Moynihan, Mr. Glazer, and other theretofore liberal intellectuals also came to have grave reservations about the era’s utopian schemes for social change, and their corrosive effects on everyday civic institutions like family, neighborhood, and voluntary association.
These “neoconservatives” brought with them the insider expertise and authority to challenge professionalism on its own ground. They founded lively new journals of opinion, bolstered fledgling conservative think tanks, and became influential advisers for the John M. Olin, Bradley, and Scaife Foundations. Although themselves experts, they considered it their duty, in Mr. Kristol’s words, “to show the American people that they are right and the intellectuals are wrong.”
But even with these new intellectual endeavors coupled with conservative electoral success, “reform professionalism” continued to develop and advance its agenda below the political radar, working through government bureaucracies, the courts, the media, the universities, the social services, nonprofit organizations, and foundations.
As a result, as Ramesh Ponuru, a journalist at National Review noted recently, the last four supposedly conservative decades nonetheless “saw the birth of the environmental movement and a proliferation of regulations inspired by it; the implementation of affirmative-action policies throughout government, the academy, and business; a marked liberalization of attitudes toward homosexuality; a dramatic liberalization of abortion law; the enactment of strict new regulations on smoking and car safety; the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act; and a large increase in the percentage of Americans whose health insurance is paid for by the federal government.”
In the face of this, conservative foundations mounted an ambitious effort to build enclaves within otherwise progressive institutions and professions, where dissident academics, lawyers, philan-thropists, and other professionals could commiserate over the unshaken progressive domination of their fields, and develop policies that might serve conservative ends while meeting the demands of professional respectability. But such efforts never had much hope of changing the essential ideological complexion of the professions within which they are embedded.
And so today, as a progressive contingent larger than any since the Great Society rolls into Washington, it will find already securely in place a vast and powerful array of allies within the federal bureaucracy, the news media, nonprofit groups, and foundations.
Their files are bulging with plans to expand the social-service state — plans that had to rely for decades on surreptitious administrative and judicial approaches, but that can now proceed full throttle behind President Obama and his solid Congressional majorities.
The danger for President Obama is that he may follow in Lyndon Johnson’s path, and permit his “professionalized reformers” to push their schemes, as Mr. Glazer argues they inevitably tend to do, well beyond the bounds of common sense. They would then once again come across as overbearing, arrogant, and abusive of the values and institutions of everyday Americans, prompting the inevitable reaction from “Joe the Plumber.”
Meanwhile, conservative foundations and think tanks will be on the alert for a resurgence of utopian overreach by the professional classes, and will once again be prepared to tell the American people that they are right and the intellectuals are wrong.
But somehow, they will have to come to grips with the problem that bedeviled them over the past four decades, namely, their at-best tenuous foothold within the policy professions. As long as progressivism remains embedded in the DNA of social-policy expertise, it will always be able to move its agenda quietly but steadily, no matter who controls the presidency or the Congress.
The solution may not appear until another wave of disillusionment with the arrogance of social engineering sweeps over a segment of the new generation of professionals, just as it did with the neoconservatives during the Great Society. The best that conservative foundations may be able to do is to keep a lookout for and direct support toward these dissidents, even while they are still only beginning their journey away from progressivism, and bear little resemblance to today’s conservatives.
This will be a long, twilight struggle, requiring immense patience, perseverance, ideological flexibility, and far-sightedness — characteristics that even critics once freely ascribed to conservative foundations.
There are no big ideas, no quick fixes that can solve conservatism’s problem, inasmuch as it arises from the vanishingly small minority position held by the right within the professions that shape American public policy. We will soon see if conservative foundations still have what it takes for that kind of effort.
William A. Schambra is director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, in Washington.
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