The Decline of Progressive Policy and the New Philanthropy, by Robert O. Bothwell

Contents | Progressive Policy Making In Decline | A  Dissenting View On The Diminution Of Progressive Policy Making | Why Has There Been A Diminution Of Progressive Policy Making? | What Has Philanthropy Done To Counter The Decline Of Progressive Policy? | The Origins And Growth Of Progressive Foundations | The Creation And Growth Of New Private Funding Institutions | Summary And Conclusions | Can Philanthropy be Reformed?

A Dissenting View On The Diminution Of Progressive Policy Making

Despite the diminution of progressive policy making noted above, and despite the oft heard obituary "Liberalism is dead," Jeffrey M. Berry sees a very different public policy landscape. His research results, in The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups, document a growing liberal advantage over conservatives in Congressional agenda setting and action during the period 1963 to 1995. "...In an era when most people believed that business and the Christian right were ascendant, the liberal post-material lobbies had the most success of all interest groups in influencing the congressional agenda. The liberal citizen groups were highly effective not only in agenda building but also in influencing the legislation once Congress took the issues up." (13)

On the other hand, Berry found that:

...Conservative citizen groups...have been marginal players in the legislative process...(14) The level of conservative citizen advocacy is so low [especially in 1991] that one cannot help but wonder if somehow the research failed to detect these groups' activities.(15) ...When liberal citizen groups were enjoying enormous success in their legislative lobbying, conservative citizen groups stood on the sidelines and watched...(16) At virtually every step of the way in this analysis, conservative citizen groups have been found much less active or effective than liberal citizen groups.(17) ...Conservative citizen groups have been generally ineffective in lobbying Congress.(18)

However, Berry's startling conclusions are based on his fundamental redefinition of "liberalism." While his definition continues the tradition of thinking of liberalism as incorporating activist government, Berry tends to dismiss the importance of economic issues in his definition. Yet these were so critical to Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty liberalism, to Hubert Humphrey's labor-backed liberalism, and to Bobby Kennedy's West Virginia poverty-influenced liberalism. Berry would prefer to define liberalism as "post-materialist" -- the province of environmental advocates, consumer activists concerned with the quality of life, and, to a lesser extent, human rights activists (racial/ethnic minorities, women, gays/lesbians, disabled).

While technically labor unions, anti-poverty groups and anyone else concerned about income and wealth inequality, wages, benefits, unemployment, social services and welfare are part of the liberal tradition, they are not really considered part of Berry's "new liberalism." This is because their economic issues received less and less attention on the Congressional agenda over the years studied. He writes, "...traditional liberal concerns such as promoting social services, economic equality and income support for the poor have suffered so grievously at the hands of conservatives in Congress..." (19) [While] labor did win an important victory with the passage of the minimum wage increase [in the 104th Congress, 1995-96],...the overall emphasis on budget cutting and shrinking government made it a terrible Congress for traditional, economic equality liberals." (20)

When Berry assesses the power of labor and anti-poverty citizen groups during the years 1963-1995, he admits that their power declined considerably. "Over time Congress has come to consider less legislation designed to reduce economic inequality, consider fewer bills designed to raise wages or improve job skills when it does take up such legislation, and pass a smaller proportion of all these economic inequality bills reaching the agenda stage." (21) "For the most part...the agenda of citizen groups has focused largely on issues unconnected to the problems of the poor, the disadvantaged, or even the working the new left grew and grew, the old left was left increasingly isolated." (22) "The bottom line for the working class, the working poor, and the non-working poor is that they are the losers in the transformation of the Democratic Party." (23)

He offers an assessment not too much better for rights activists: "...groups pushing for rights of women and minorities probably fared worse than usual [during 1995-96]." (24)

Berry says, "...While liberal post-materialism has soared, traditional liberalism has stumbled." (25) "...My argument is not that liberalism per se has fared well in an ostensibly conservative period but that one type of liberalism fared well while another faltered badly." (26) "Liberalism has [indeed] changed its stripes." (27)

Thus, to make the claim that "liberalism is not dead. Indeed, it's thriving," (28) Berry had to redefine liberalism in a fundamental way. But as his own research above shows, progressive policy making concerned with economic inequality issues, also perhaps for minority and women's rights issues, is clearly on the decline.

There are other serious problems with Berry's research and conclusions. First, his data and rigorous analysis only cover years when Congress was in firm Democratic control of both houses: 1963, 1979 and 1991. As Berry says, " is possible that the [new] liberal groups have fared particularly well because of the Democrats' control of the Congress during the three years examined..." (29) "Possibly, the real key to the rise of liberal post-materialism was the control of Congress by the Democrats during the years studied....the liberal citizen groups...worked as partners with sympathetic legislators to get their issues considered and acted on." (30)

Second, Berry looks at 1995, the year the conservatives won both houses of Congress, but in a very limited way: he only reviews the influence of environmental groups and conservative family issues groups. In this 1995 analysis, he reports that the 104th Congress gave victories to the liberal enviros on 10 of 12 environmental bills. But eight of the 10 wins were defensive wins, to prevent environmental roll-backs. Only two wins were offensive ones. Berry acknowledges, "It may very well be that the only reason the environmentalists did comparatively well is that it's much easier to defend the existing statutes than to go on the offensive to try to get new ones enacted...There may be something to the idea that today it is easier for interest groups to play defense than offense." (31) But these observations do not derail him from claiming that the post-material, liberal, environmental citizen groups continued their sway over conservative citizen groups, despite the new conservative control of Congress.

Third, he entirely excludes appropriations committee hearings from his review. In reviewing Berry's book, Leslie Lenkowsky observes, "...appropriations [have been] a matter of considerable importance to nonprofit groups during the past 20 years..." (32) Berry says, "Conservative citizen groups deserve some of the credit for growing public pressure to balance the budget and shrink government....[although] There is no conclusive evidence that these groups' campaigns helped to cause these shifts..." (33) Nevertheless, "...unquestionably budgetary policy favored the conservatives between 1981 and 1998..." (34)

Fourth, he does not study conservatives' impact on federal courts (conservatives controlled the White House from 1981-1992, therefore, made numerous new appointments to the courts), nor on state-level politics or public opinion changes. (35) Lenkowsky writes, " gauge fully the impact of [civic action groups], looking at other components (including executive branch decisions and arenas outside Washington) is necessary." (36)

Finally, Berry does not include think tanks in his analysis of citizen groups, even though he counts as citizen groups the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Children's Defense Fund and Congress Watch, among others, which have just as tenuous roots to citizens as do the think tanks. He does not track the think tanks and their influence on Congressional agendas, or on legislation, because he equates them as extensions of business. "Many conservative think tanks are really just another vehicle for corporate advocacy." (37) He tracks as citizen groups only conservative post-material groups, like the Christian Coalition (which has 24 Index citations), the Moral Majority (3), the National Right to Life Committee (7), i.e., those focused on family values, and the NRA (8). Thus, the many think tanks and their substantial influence on economic and business issues, by and large, are ignored. The Heritage Foundation (5 Index citations), Cato Institute (4) and other leading conservative think tanks - primarily focused on economic/budget/taxes/ regulatory/material issues -- are barely mentioned at all.

At one point in his analysis he wonders if the extremely low performance of the conservative citizen groups he is tracking is artificially low because of his exclusion of think tanks from the "citizen group" category. Recoding his data for 1991 to include think tanks, he observes that conservatives participated in lobbying on twice the number of high-salience issues in Congress as before. But this was only four out of 44 such issues, while the new liberals were active lobbyists on 29 issues. So Berry essentially dismisses conservative think tanks as largely irrelevant to the national legislative scramble. (38) As will be seen below, others disagree with Berry on the role and effectiveness of think tanks in Washington.


13. Jeffrey M. Berry, The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press,1999, p.159.

14. Ibid., p.2.

15. Ibid., p. 91.

16. Ibid., p. 93.

17. Ibid., p. 158.

18. Ibid., p. 159.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p. 110.

21. Ibid., p. 56.

22. Ibid., p. 57.

23. Ibid., p. 169.

24. Ibid., p. 114.

25. Ibid., p. 59.

26. Ibid., p. 159.

27. Ibid., p. 1.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., p. 14.

30. Ibid., p. 88.

31. Ibid., p. 114-5.

32. Leslie Lenkowsky, "Reviews," NVSQ, Vol. 29, Issue 3, Sept. 2000, p.489.

33. Berry, op. cit., p. 100.

34. Ibid., p. 160.

35. Ibid., p. 2.

36. Lenkowsky, op. cit., p. 489.

37. Berry, op. cit., p. 138.

38. Berry, op. cit., p. 91.