“Ideas Have Consequences: So Does Money”

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Over the past three decades, conservatives have painstakingly cultivated the public persona of an aggrieved outsider class, bereft of the money and media influence they claim liberals enjoy. Their well-rehearsed routine consists of the repetition of a series of catchphrases designed to snare votes by using wedge social issues to create class divisions, while their own campaigns are funded by a class of wealthy, corporate donors who keep their think tanks flush with lucre. But this bait and switch is hardly a secret, and the donor class continues to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at conservative think tanks in order to shore up the right wing’s advantage in both organization and message discipline. Since the early 1970s, countless conservative foundations have sprung up to quietly influence American public policy by identifying, training, and churning out conservative journalists, thinkers, and pundits – many of whom now hold positions of power in the media.

Earlier this year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) issued a detailed report by Jeff Krehely, Meaghan House and Emily Kernan entitled, "Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy," in which they sought to gauge the degree of the right’s investment in its ideas infrastructure. Universally ignored by the mainstream media, the report’s authors identified more than $254 million worth of public policy grants made between 1999 and 2001, with just five institutions (many of which share board members and directors) laying out the lion’s share of the money. But again, this may only be news to members of the "so-called liberal media" (SCLM), who continue to treat the world of ideas as dominated by liberal academia and non-ideological foundations like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Many historians identify the origins of this effort with an influential 1971 memo written by Lewis Powell—just before he was appointed by Richard Nixon to become a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing to Eugene Sydnor Jr. of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Powell decried what he termed to be the "broadly-based" attack on the American economic system by "the communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries," which found its most prominent voice in all the usual liberal bogeymen—college campuses, the media, intellectual and literary journals, and the arts and sciences. His solution: a clarion call to multinational corporations to begin to fund the necessary institutions to train conservative journalists, economists and teachers to begin preaching the right-wing gospel. Joining with right billionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors and Sun Myung Moon, as well as influential pundit/politicians like Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Neoconservative "godfather" Irving Kristol, the effort quickly began to bear ideological fruit.

Powell’s suggestions have been remarkably effective, as evidenced in NCRP’s report, which identified 79 of the top conservative-giving foundations, breaking down how much they gave and to whom. In the three-year period covered in the report, the 79 foundations made a total of 4,812 contributions but of these, just five foundations—Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation—made up over 50 percent of moneys given.

The report also found that despite the continued conservative denials, there is a unified network of interconnected organizations that work together to influence public policy. Most of the top 25 foundations do indeed have direct relationships with one another through their directors and board members. For example, "The Sarah Scaife Foundation is one of several Scaife Mellon family foundations, including the Carthage Foundation (10th largest) and the Scaife Family Foundation (19th largest), as well as the Allegheny Foundation (46th largest). Similarly, the Charles G. Koch Foundation (seventh largest) is one of several of the Koch family’s foundations, which also include the David H. Koch Foundation (eighth largest) and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation (13th largest)." Similarily, NCRP found that 23 of the people in its database of conservative foundation and grantee board and staff members "are leaders of three or more foundations and/or nonprofits, with 19 of those individuals serving on the board or staff of at least one foundation and of at least one nonprofit. Notably, the leading family members who direct foundations also serve on the boards of various nonprofits to which their foundations often provide grants," implying a well-connected and like-minded group of people who share a single agenda and the resources to shape public policy in its political direction.

Surprisingly, fully 46 percent of funding ($115.9 million) went directly to national and state public policy think tanks. This is telling. The fact that conservatives concentrate on policymaking at both the national and state levels signals a departure from most left-leaning and centrist foundations, which generally only focus on national issues. All told, conservatives poured $21.4 million into state-centered institutions during the study period, and The State Policy Network, funded by the Roe Foundation, exists to encourage cooperation among free-market think tanks in the network. As the study notes, this program has seen some serious growth over the last 15 years: "In 1989 there were only 12 market-oriented state-based think tanks. This number has more than tripled in the past decade, and there are now 40 groups in 37 states promoting free market solutions to policy problems and challenges."

Conservative education reform, which received 10 percent of the total funding ($26.2 million) also benefits. "The organizations classified in the area of education can be further broken down into the following subcategories: academic change, school reform, higher education, youth development, public education, student services and museums/libraries," the report notes. While many liberals might be unaware of the fight over our schools, conservatives have made sure that The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is second only to the Heritage Foundation in grants, raking in $14.3 million (more than the American Enterprise Institute and Cato combined), and seeks to rid higher education of alleged liberal bias, "instead instill[ing] in students the notions of liberty and freedom." Legal programs working on issues like immigration and property rights received $24.7 million in grants in the study period, with the majority of funding ($22.6 million) going to public-interest law firms. These firms agitate for reducing government regulation and have been influential in bringing cases before the courts which attempt to eliminate affirmative action programs, turn back abortion rights, and fight to remove the government’s control over public schools.

Next week we will look at the way this issues-oriented funding—vastly outstripping their competitors in the liberal think-tank world—has manifested itself in favorable media coverage for conservative causes, and the way in which conservatives have managed to frame many policy debates in their favor.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer. For more information about the NCRP, visit




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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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