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Philanthropy, left and right

Matt Yglesias did a good thing in his follow-up to my post yesterday on right-wing scrutiny of "liberal" foundations, which was to highlight a link to a five-year old essay by my friend Karen Paget that covers a lot of ground on the conservative foundations and the building of the right-wing infrastructure, and the liberal counterpart. This is actually one of a long sequence of articles that Karen wrote, starting in the very first year of The American Prospect's existence that together, as Matt said, cover much of what is now being "discovered" in conversations about building a progressive policy and advocacy infrastructure. "The Big Chill", published in 1998, is a particularly relevant statement of the case for liberal foundations to be as encouraging as the right is of advocacy and thinking politically. (Karen ran Vista, the domestic Peace Corps, in the Carter administration, among other achievements.)

Also recommended reading on a similar subject, for those interested: James Piereson's article in Commentary, "Investing in Conservative Ideas." As the head of the John M. Olin Foundation for twenty years, Piereson was probably one of the most important conservatives you never heard of, using relatively modest assets of $118 million to build out a number of key institutions, including the Federalists Society, and the entire academic field of Law and Economics. What's interesting about Piereson's article is that much of it dwells on the pre-history of conservative funding and activism, the activities of a handful of much smaller foundations that in the 1950s and 60s supported Hayek, von Mises, Irving Kristol and others. Also interesting is that in his discussion of the more recent phase of conservative funding, which he labels "neoconserative," a key role is attributed to political scientist James Q. Wilson, who I think is a somewhat neglected figure, in part because he doesn't lend himself to demonization.)

I noticed that Ed Kilgore recently promised a combined review of Rick Perlstein's book about the Goldwater campaign and a new book by Craig Shirley about Reagan's 1976 campaign, bearing the subtitle, "The Campaign that Started It All." Ed promises that "my Perlstein-Shirley review will focus on the dangerous belief of some Democrats that we should emulate the 1964 and 1976 conservative 'noble defeats' and one of my arguments is that Reagan's survival in 1976 and his apotheosis in 1980 were far more fortuitous than anyone seems to be willing to admit." [UPDATE: I added links to Ed's "New Donkey" blog and the relevant post.]

I hope that in addition to challenging this deterministic view of history, he will also address the illusion that either of these eletoral events was "where it all began," which has become a common interpretation of Perlstein's book even though totally unrelated to his narrative, and is explicit in the subtitle of the Reagan book. The most powerful choice in telling any historical anecdote is the decision about where to begin, and the various narratives about the Right that liberals seem to draw on often seem to take the form, "It all began with..." -- the Goldwater campaign, or the "Powell Memo," or Grover Norquist's break with the first Bush administration in 1990.

Piereson's account, besides being fascinating in it's own right, is a reminder that conservatives' view of their own history often goes back much further, and it's not a story about the Republican Party and it's presidential candidates, but about ideas and institutions seeded well outside the party itself.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 20, 2005 | Permalink


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While I certainly understand why you removed it, I do want to say that I found the redacted comment to be quite funny.


Matt's post turned me on the Paget article, which I enjoyed, and which certainly provides some useful background for some of the issues you keep returning to.

This stuff may not be sexy, but it sure is important.

Posted by: Petey | May 22, 2005 2:08:28 AM

Are you really sure political organization is "philanthropy?" When I think of philanthropy, I think of, say, Habitat for Humanity building houses for people, not the Olin Foundation trying to take over the judiciary.

Posted by: Julian Elson | May 23, 2005 8:33:10 AM

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