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?

Why Has There Been A Diminution Of Progressive Policy Making?

  1.  The Conservatives Take Over Policy Making

From 1969-1992, conservatives had control of the White House for all but four years. This allowed great initiative in policy making. For example, Richard Nixon sought to dismantle Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty by appointing noted conservative ideologue Howard Phillips as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) with an avowed public purpose of eliminating the headquarters agency for the War on Poverty and all its programs. While Phillips was not substantively successful in this effort (all the programs were continued under other federal government departments), he was symbolically successful, by virtue of killing the OEO itself.

Even if Nixon and Gerald Ford were not too efficient at enacting and implementing conservative policies during the 1970s, they conditioned America to think in conservative terms and made some headway. Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux recently told Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. that conservatives in the 1970s both prepared for the Reagan years and helped bring them about. "They really changed what the political dialogue was about," says Molyneux, "in a way that benefitted conservatism." He cited the anti-tax movement and the battle against the Panama Canal treaty as leading to critical changes in public attitudes on domestic issues and foreign policy.(39) Himmelstein adds, "Conservatives...won an important battle [during the 1980s]...They...succeeded in turning liberal into a pejorative label that is a liability for most of those on whom it is pinned." (40) Ricci adds another explanation. The failure of the political parties after the 1968 Democratic convention and the Watergate scandal created a vacuum which anti-government campaigns filled, tapping into the emotions of the grassroots.(41) Eisenberg says it most succinctly, "For years, government bashing has been a popular public sport..." (42)

Douglas R. Imig, in Poverty and Power: The Political Representation of Poor Americans, seeks to explain why the federal withdrawal from progressive policy making went unchallenged, identifying that no massive mobilization for social justice emerged during the 1980s and early 1990s. Imig examines the failure of advocacy group efforts, complicated by the political passivity of the poor themselves, to generate national mobilization for social justice.(43) Steve Valocchi, in Contemporary Sociology, reviewing Imig's book, observes that the activism of advocacy groups for the poor was not activism that "pushed the envelope" but activism that "made the best of a bad situation." (44)

But a major new force had also come into play. Himmelstein writes, "...even if corporate conservatism lost its cutting edge in the late 1980s, its most important product remained intact. The network of conservative policy-making and policy-discussion organizations underwritten by business money continued to provide a conduit for conservative ideas and personnel into government...[This] legacy...persists into the 1990s..." (45) "...A new group of highly politicized think tanks are a key feature of the 'new Washington,'" according to Hammack, reporting on David M. Ricci's The Transformation of American Politics,1993.(46) According to James A. Smith, in The Idea Brokers:

In the past two decades, the most important function served by the network of conservative think tanks has not been the germination of new ideas, but the creation of a 'new cadre' of professionals...Not only have the dozens of conservative think tanks created a framework for disseminating ideas that exist largely outside the established infrastructure of academic journals, university presses, and commercial publishing,...they have also designed career vehicles for conservative activists and thinkers. The opportunities to publish and write with this 'alternative' infrastructure have given high visibility to some conservative policy analysts, often short-circuiting slower academic routes to prominence...[and] With an eye to the future of the movement, Heritage [Foundation] has also conscientiously nurtured a 'third generation' of conservative leaders, sponsoring college interns and young policy aides who come to work in Washington's bureaucracy and providing a meeting ground for them while they are in town.(47)

More recently, Callahan writes, "...Conservative think tanks are well positioned to help consolidate and extend the major conservative policy gains of recent years. ...they have perfected their strategies for building elite and public support for policy ideas through extended campaigns that reframe broad arguments, popularize specific blueprints for action, and mobilize grassroots support." (48)

Hart observes that "...the right has organized itself systematically, much more than previously, to use the economic resources of corporate America to advance a conservative agenda...Progressives, especially in recent decades, have not paid as careful attention to the cultural dimensions of politics - and especially to values and religious traditions - as has the right. Progressives often fail to articulate, and sometimes even try to hide, the ethical values that ground their proposals. The right, meanwhile, engaging in discourse that is generally more passionate and transcendent, has seized the discursive high ground." (49)

Meanwhile, the conservatives took over both houses of Congress in 1995, and conservatives regained control of the White House in 2001.

  1. Conservative Foundations' Strategic Philanthropy in Building the Conservative Movement

Considering that conservatives controlled the White House from 1981 to 1992 and that conservative think tanks at both the state and national level grew in number, size and influence during these years,(50) the year 1995, as conservatives took control of Congress, looked to be rather pivotal for public policy.

Sally Covington and Larry Parachini interviewed 44 national foundation executives in the summer of 1995 to discover what new foundation policies and programs were being implemented in the Newt Gingrich era. They discovered that nothing much was being implemented, and that most foundations were only in the thinking and planning stage.

None of the foundation representatives ...indicated that proposed [government] budget cuts or other policy changes [had] caused them to reassess their current program priorities or grant making strategies in a major way....Only two of the 44 foundation representatives interviewed for this study reported having redirected grant dollars for new program purposes since conservatives gained control of Congress last November....And not a single representative from the mainstream of the foundation community suggested that an appropriate response might be to support low income and other disenfranchised citizens to participate more fully and effectively in defining and shaping public priorities...In all the conversations with funders, which included representatives from large and small, national and local, and progressive and mainstream foundations, no movement was detected in the grant making community to redirect grant dollars to community organizing, issue advocacy, grassroots coalition-building, voter registration and education, or other projects to expand citizen participation, particularly in disenfranchised communities.(51)

About this time, while the progressive and mainstream foundations were contemplating the conservative revolution taking place, Covington began examining what the conservative foundations had done to build the conservative political and policy juggernaut that had emerged. She reviewed the 1992-94 grant making of 12 leading conservative foundations, as well as the missions, activities, staffs and boards of their major grantees.(52)

Covington documented that these 12 conservative foundations had granted $210 million over that three-year period for support of the conservative policy infrastructure. It is not that the total amount of money was so huge -- after all, Jenkins and Halcli had documented that foundations had put $88 million into progressive social movements in just one year (1990),(53) and the Ford Foundation gives away more than $400 million per year. It was the systematic and strategic nature of the conservative foundations' grant making that riveted the attention of Covington, and subsequently, many in the social activist and foundation worlds.

Primarily at the national level, but also some at the local level, the grant making supported creation and development of conservative intellectuals, policy think tanks, alternative media and media watchdog groups, pro-market law firms, and new religious and philanthropic associations. National voices were developed to help the grassroots frame local issues. In addition, promising young people were given fellowships and scholarships to enable them to become conservative movement activists while pursuing their studies. And as they completed their college work, they were recruited as prime candidates into conservative movement organizations. Considerable money was also spent on connecting the national and local levels on a regular basis, both face-to-face in conferences and meetings and through technology.(54)

The conservative policy juggernaut had "profound...political implications and policy consequences," reported Covington. "First, heavy investments that conservative foundations have made in new right policy and advocacy institutions have helped create a supply-side version of American politics in which policy ideas with enough money behind them will find their niche in the political marketplace regardless of existing citizen demand. Second, the multiplication of institutional voices marketing conservative ideas and mobilizing core constituencies to support them has resulted in policy decisions that have imposed a harsh and disproportionate burden on the poor." (55)

Taking a longer historical look at the phenomenon of conservative foundation funding of a political movement, Mark Dowie, in American Foundations: An Investigative History, writes,

What is relatively new is that sometime in the late-1960s the Right borrowed a stratagem from the Left: it began to combat 'progressivism' with its own philanthropy. Among the tactics emulated in creating what Paul Weyrich calls 'the new conservative labyrinth' was the use of strategically placed foundation grants to foster and promote political ends. The Reagan revolution was substantially, though not completely, foundation-funded. The labyrinth has created an ideological base and organizational infrastructure for the rise of conservative power since1980." (56)

Following up Covington's report, Callahan examined the missions, policy foci, activities and finances of the top 20 conservative think tanks nationally.(57) He calculated that these institutions would spend $1 Billion for Ideas (which is also the title of his report) during the 1990s. These ideas include privatization of public goods and services, such as Medicare, Social Security and education; elevation of the market as "the prime mechanism for social arbitration and resource allocation;" (58) deregulation of occupational health and safety, as well as consumer safety and environmental protections; limitation of nonprofits' rights to lobby; elimination of welfare and other entitlements; destruction of affirmative action; and reduction of government spending and taxes across the board.

Callahan continues, "Early generous support by conservative foundations and wealthy individuals has enabled many of these institutions to develop impressive fund raising apparatuses, allowing them to diversify their funding bases and attract even higher levels of donor support. Many of the institutions examined now receive as much as two-thirds of their funding from individual and corporate supporters." (59) In fact...."significant budget growth characterizes the development trajectory of many of the policy groups [studied] in this report." (60)

In the conservative "foundation-driven restructuring of the American think tank," observes Dowie, "gone is the drab office full of tweedy wonks pumping out turgid white papers that no one reads. Communications, marketing, grassroots mobilization, and constituency development are departmental functions of the new conservative think tanks hosed in suites of offices rivaling those of a Fortune-500 corporation." (61)

Importantly, according to Callahan, "There is no mainstream or left-of-center parallel to the critical mass of conservative policy institutions currently operating in the U. S. today. Conservative policy institutions tend to be multi-issue organizations with multi-million dollar budgets, powerful corporate boards, and significant media access." (62)

  3.  Liberals' Control of Congress Encouraged Progressive Policy Silos

After their ascendant 1960s and consolidating 1970s, progressives began losing influence once Ronald Reagan was elected president. The progressive movement has continued its decline to this day. Why have progressives been so slow to respond to their political decline?

After the defeat of Barry Goldwater for President in 1964, conservatives regrouped and began building a political movement which included the creation of a whole new set of nonprofit support and development organizations. Not only did they think in terms of a broad movement to take control of government, but also that the movement had to root out the "liberal rot" in the primary institutions that contribute to public policy formation -- academia, the media, the law, religion and philanthropy. (63)

Progressives, meanwhile, became enamored with utilizing, improving, expanding and reforming the vast number and variety of categorical government social programs enacted during the 1960s. Essentially they locked themselves into "policy silos," i.e., nonprofit organizations narrowly focused on categorical programs.

Despite the fact that conservatives controlled the White House for all but four years from 1969-1992, progressives were able to move forward their agendas in limited ways. The progressives were successful because Democrats controlled Congress most of this period and the progressives thus had easy access to congressional committee leaders. Conservatives, meanwhile, according to Berry, had a "difficult" time getting "their issues framed the way they wanted..." (64)

Progressive nonprofit groups produced incremental improvements to low-income housing law; made space for community development corporations; advocated for incremental changes in laws and benefits affecting low-income and welfare families, then advocated for all children when financial support was reduced or eliminated for low-income people and welfare recipients; protected gains in the environmental field, occasionally expanding protections; expanded the reach of affirmative action; and so on. But major changes, like were enacted in the 1960s and even the 1970s, were impossible.

  4.  The Trap of Policy Silos for Progressive Policy Making

As Bill Clinton took over the White House in 1993, liberals' and progressives' hopes blossomed for the major policy changes they had been denied for so long. However, the Clinton White House moved away from progressives' agendas in the wake of the devastating defeat of Clinton's health care initiative early in his first term and after burning significant political capital pushing a new policy for gays in the military.

After conservatives then took control of Congress in 1995, even incremental progressive programs came to a halt. The mandate for progressive social change that had originated from the 1960s had run its course. With few exceptions, progressives had no one to turn to in Washington.

Progressive and liberal organizations have been slow to comprehend the new scenario in which conservatives wield substantial congressional power and strongly influence the White House agenda (including when Clinton was in the White House). They are not thinking and acting the way conservatives did after the Goldwater defeat. They have not forged a broad central vision (or visions) which can elicit support from the large middle class. The embedment of progressives in their policy silos - low income housing, community development, children's rights, environment, minority rights, gay/lesbian rights, etc. -- prevents them from seeking common ground together and with the middle class. Progressives' basic belief in grassroots democracy, the soil of which 1000 flowers shall bloom, continues to hamper the consensus that may be necessary to combat the bold conservative vision that has shaped much of our public policy since 1981.

Identity politics is another aspect of the policy silo entrapment. Racial/ethnic minority rights, women's rights, gay/lesbian rights, disabled rights - all have been promoted to the virtual exclusion of all other claims from community. Identity rights have overwhelmed community concern issues within the progressive community. Issues of personal safety, community safety and effective public education have been stymied because of identity politics. The only community concern issue ruled by progressives is environmental movement. The conservatives have taken the high road on all other community concerns and gained the increasing response and votes of the middle class.

The conservative vision may be reducible to nothing more than less government, lower taxes, and more money in private pockets, but it has captured a substantial portion of popular votes. "...Conservatives have presented an image of society in which government plays a minimal role in producing and distributing goods and services," writes Himmelstein. "They have pictured big government as the problem rather than the solution to America's various economic problems...the general image of less government has appeal, especially when the issue is taxes."(65)

"[However,]" as Himmelstein concludes, "...a substantial majority of Americans believe government has broad responsibilities for promoting specific areas of social well-being; they oppose cutbacks in government spending in most social welfare areas...most Americans expect an activist government...Americans are symbolically conservative but substantively liberal...Those who oppose conservatism - whether they call themselves liberals, progressives, populists, or something else - are often more in tune with these practical sentiments but have failed to articulate an effective political vision." (66)

Hart seeks to explain why progressives have failed to capitalize on this. "...Progressive politics often uses modes of discourse that are cautious and constrained to the point of being anemic..." He argues that "recovering the capacity to express moral outrage, universal claims of justice, and visions of a better society is essential if progressive political initiatives are to prosper - or deserve to prosper." (67)


39. E. J. Dionne, Jr., "Best Bets for the Democrats," Washington Post, Jan. 9, 2001, p.A23.

40. Himmelstein, op. cit., p. 208.

41. Ricci, op. cit.

42. Eisenberg, op. cit.

43. Douglas R. Imig, Poverty and Power: The Political Representation of Poor Americans, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press,1996.

44. Steve Valocci, Contemporary Sociology. As quoted in "From the Critics," http://www.Barnes & - Poverty and Power: The Political Representation..., 2001.

45. Himmelstein, op. cit., p. 206.

46. David C. Hammack, "Think Tanks and the Invention of Policy Studies," NVSQ, Vol. 24, Issue 2, Summer1995, p.173-4.

47. James A. Smith, The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite, New York, NY: The Free Press, 1991, p. 206.

48. Callahan, op. cit., p. 37.

49. Hart, op. cit., p. 20.

50. Smith, op. cit.; Ricci, op. cit.; Beth Baker and Dave Ransom, Burgeoning Conservative Think Tanks, Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1991.

51. Sally Covington and Larry Parachini, Foundations in the Newt Era, Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy,1995, pp. 15-18.

52. Sally Covington, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1997.

53. J. Craig Jenkins and Abigail Halcli, "Grassrooting the System: The Development and Impact of Social Movement Philanthropy, 1953-1990." In Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (ed.) Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities, Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1999, pp. 229-256.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid., p. 48.

56. Mark Dowie, American Foundations: An Investigative History, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001, p. 214.

57. Callahan, op. cit.

58. Ibid., p. 5.

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid., p. 29.

61. Dowie, op. cit., p. 216.

62. Callahan, op. cit., p. 6.

63. Covington, op. cit.

64. Berry, op. cit., p. 93.

65. Himmelstein, op. cit., p. 210.

66. Himmelstein, op. cit., p. 210-11.

67. Hart, op. cit., p. 4.