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?

Progressive Policy Making In Decline

Ever since Ronald Reagan and the conservatives took control of the White House in 1980, there has been a diminution of progressive public policy making. When the conservatives took control of Congress in 1995, this phenomenon became distinctly more pronounced. And the advent of the George W. Bush Administration in 2001, despite pronouncements of compassionate conservatism, clearly has banished any remains of progressive policy making. This chapter reviews evidence of the decline of progressive policy making, why it has happened, what philanthropy has done to counter the decline, with special focus on the roles of progressive foundations and new alternative funding institutions.

The late Senator Paul D. Wellstone (D., MN) in a fund raising appeal for his third-term candidacy in 2002, wrote, "the Right Wing [is] now effectively dominant throughout the Federal government...the challenge to the humane values we share is more formidable than ever." He asked, "Where is the voice for working families?" Adding, "I yearn for...a politics that takes issues from people's kitchen tables and places them squarely on the table in our national political debate." (1) Of course, this was just a fund raising letter, which we all know tends to exaggeration.

But others share Sen. Wellstone's concerns. For example, journalist David Callahan writes, "Since 1995, the national policy discussion...has moved noticeably to the right. The federal welfare guarantee has been eliminated. Partial Social Security privatization, unthinkable a decade ago, is supported by numerous members of Congress, including some moderate Democrats. Sweeping telecommunications deregulation has been enacted. New tax breaks for the rich have been passed by Congress... Legislation authorizing school vouchers has been endorsed by the House of Representatives. Efforts to stem global warming have been slowed." (2)

Pablo Eisenberg, former director of the Center for Community Change, writes of "the extraordinary problems that are tearing at the fabric of our society...poverty, racism, environmental degradation, lack of health protection, declining trust in government...Extensive poverty still haunts and undermines our nation's commitment to social and economic justice. The poor are getting poorer. Yet poverty has fallen off our radar screen, including that of the nonprofit sector..." (3)

In Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics, Stephen Hart writes, "Since the 1970s American national politics have moved decisively to the right." (4) "It is indisputable that public policy and the political discourse found in Washington and many state capitals have shifted dramatically rightward over the last twenty-five years." (5) "...why has the right...fared so much better in Washington than the left since the 1960s...?" (6)

Bill Moyers, speaking recently, adds, "Something is deeply wrong with politics today...the soul of democracy has been dying..." He goes on to identify some critical issues Congress was considering in Fall, 2001:

...restoring the three-martini lunch...[and] paying for lobbyists' long lunches by bringing back the deductible lunch...

...[cutting] the capital gains [tax] for the wealthy...

...[eliminating] the Corporate Alternative Minimum Tax...

...[torpedoing] the recent [EPA] order to clean the Hudson River of PCBs.

...[shoveling] generous tax breaks to those giant energy companies...

...[opening] the Alaskan wilderness to drilling...

...[giving] the President the power to discard democratic debate and the rule-of-law concerning controversial trade agreements...

...[setting] up secret tribunals to run roughshod over local communities trying to protect their environment and their health. [the nuclear power industry] limited liability for the risks of meltdown or other nuclear accident.(7)

Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation, the leading conservative think tank, testified before Congress in 2001on additional domestic issues: welfare reform, child abuse and neglect, food stamps, Medicare regulation, election reform, and budget priorities. The prior year, Heritage Foundation's Congressional testimony on domestic issues covered the role of the Federal Communications Commissions; the Justice Department's results; the Department of Housing and Urban Development's use of performance-based management; Social Security; the government's performance, results and accountability; OSHA's proposed ergonomics program standard; unemployment compensation reform; and costs and benefits of Federal regulation.(8)

Of course, the electoral victories of conservatives in 1994 -- winning both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s -- are substantial reasons why progressive policy making has declined in recent years. Nevertheless, prior to 1994, conservatives had made major headway either in stopping or rolling back progressive initiatives from the 1960s.

Jerome L. Himmelstein, in To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism, provides historical observation about the diminution of progressive policy making:

...many of [the Right's] achievements and assumptions [have] become part of the framework of American politics. Tax cuts and large budget deficits focused political debate squarely on reducing government spending and made a liberal domestic agenda difficult to contemplate let alone enact. The large military buildup in Reagan's first term greatly raised the baseline of the perennial debates about less or more military spending Reagan's federal court appointments put a long-term conservative stamp on American jurisprudence, which was most palpably evident in the Supreme Court decisions in 1989 of affirmative action and abortion. Above all, conservative views of most issues [have] gained legitimacy and acceptability.(9)

Nonprofit historian David C. Hammack offers another view.

...The number of [nonprofit] organizations per capita doubled between 1970 and 1990. Inevitably, controversy flared on the direct federal funding of nonprofit social service agencies that challenged established social arrangements, or sought to put controversial ideas into practice...the nonprofit sector continued to grow despite controversy over the use of government funds...the Reagan administration...cut back on public housing and on direct operating grants to social service and legal assistance agencies. The most celebrated [cutback was] a sharp retreat from federal funding of 'community action' and legal services programs and organizations, a 'defunding of the left.' (10)

John D. McCarthy and Jim Castelli observe that "We have been involved in an intense national debate around public policy solutions to the problems of poverty in the United States for more than a decade. The mainstream of that debate...reflects a decreasing empathy for the struggles of the poor, and reinforces the widely held notion that 'nothing works' when it comes to public policy on poverty." (11)

On the verge of the conservatives' takeover of Congress in 1995, David M. Ricci writes in The Transformation of American Politics that an energized and remade conservative movement had gained the upper hand in determining the national agenda.(12)


1. Senator Paul D. Wellstone, Letter, Fall 2001.

2. David Callahan, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s. Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1999, p.37.

3. Pablo Eisenberg, "The Nonprofit Sector in a Changing World," NVSQ, Vol. 29, Issue 2, June 2000.

4. Stephen Hart, Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001, p.1.

5. Ibid., p. 19.

6. Ibid., p. 4.

7. Bill Moyers, "This Isn't the Speech I Expected to Give Today..." Keynote Address to the Environmental Grantmakers Association, Brainerd, MN, Oct. 16, 2001,

8. Heritage Foundation, Nov. 12, 2001,

9. Jerome L. Himmelstein, To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990, p. 199.

10. David C. Hammack, "Introduction: Growth, Transformation, and Quiet Revolution in the Nonprofit Sector over Two Centuries," NVSQ, Vol. 30, Issue 2, June 2001.

11. John D. McCarthy and Jim Castelli, Working for Justice: The Campaign for Human Development and Poor Empowerment Groups,Washington, DC: Life Cycle Institute of Catholic University of America,1994, p. 1.

12. David M. Ricci, The Transformation of American Politics, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.