Event entitled Building a Better Message Machine: Do Ideas Matter?
October 12, 2006
by William A. Schambra
Building a Better Message Machine: Do Ideas Matter?
Thursday, October 12, 2006
As Americans prepare to cast their votes in one of the closest and most widely debated midterm elections in U.S. history, the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies are bringing together major opinion leaders and political analysts to examine the origins of political ideas, how ideas are framed and fed into the national dialogue, and how messages affect election outcomes. The half-day conference will include three panels: the Republican Message Machine, the Democratic Response, and Turning Values and Ideas into a Meaningful Message. Panelists include George Lakoff, John Miller, Celinda Lake and William Schambra among others. Welcome and Introduction Bruce Cain, Director, UC Washington Center
Panel I - 2:15pm – 3:30pm
The Republican Message Machine: Model or Myth?
Chair: Hillel Fradkin, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
William Schambra, President, The Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal
John J. Miller, National Review John Duncan, Wexler
Walker Eleanor Clift, Newsweek Magazine
ANYONE INTERESTED in the rise of the conservative message machine will soon become acquainted with a remarkable group of public intellectuals. They were all members of the privileged elite, tightly interconnected through personal background and professional association. They were all ardent Republicans. They not only fundamentally redefined America’s ideas about public policy, but they also established their own research institutions, media outlets, and lobbying groups to carry their new ideas to the American people, which they did with resounding success. They were amply backed by major foundations, whose managers moved freely back and forth between leadership posts in government and corporate life.
Eldon Eisenach, one of the foremost chroniclers of these savvy policy entrepreneurs, notes that these “intellectuals who created ideas, institutions, audiences, networks, publicity techniques, and opinion-shaping organs were... a new and politically emergent ‘clerisy’ – national public moralists in thought, purpose, and deed. For more than a generation they went from victory to victory.”
Now, I’m sure some of you – not easily taken in by this shop-worn journalistic technique – have guessed by now that I am not in fact describing the conservative intellectual apparatus of the early 21st century. I am, rather, describing the progressive intellectual apparatus of the early 20th century. This introduction of progressivism is more than a cheap trick, however. It does in fact raise for us a larger question, namely: are any of the devices and techniques practiced by today’s conservative policy community really new or revolutionary, or were they not in fact invented and introduced to great effect by the left, over a century ago? Which points to another question: is it not possible that modern conservative intellectual organizing was intended precisely as a response to the manifold successes of that earlier progressive intellectual apparatus?
To answer my own questions: No, today’s conservatives have come up with nothing new. And yes, conservative intellectual organizing was indeed a response to the context it faced in the late ’60s and ’70s, which was a policy landscape completely dominated by progressive institutions that had been funded for six decades by the large progressive foundations.
What do I mean?
The American policy landscape for much of the 20th century had been profoundly shaped by the establishment of the large, modern foundations at the beginning of the 20th century. The modern foundations arose at the same time as, indeed, reflected and magnified the progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Progressives believed that industrial peace depended on the transfer of political power away from everyday citizens and their chaotic, parochial, benighted local organizations, often steeped in foolish religious mythology. Power should instead be put into the hands of centralized, professionally credentialed experts trained in the new sciences of social control.
The first large foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage, later joined by Ford – eagerly bought into the idea that the new social sciences offered an indisputably objective and rational way to order public affairs, and to deal with the causes, not just the symptoms, of social disorder. As a Rockefeller mission statement put in the 1920s, their funding was designed to “increase the body of knowledge which in the hands of competent social technicians may be expected in time to result in substantial social control.”
Hence, they bankrolled institutions that would insure the triumph of expertise over popular ignorance: modern research universities like the University of Chicago, the first think tanks like Brookings, scholarly social journals like Survey, and planning and coordinating organizations such as the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Social Science Research Council. Such institutions were to design, demonstrate, and pass on to the state for full funding programs that would get at the heart of social pathologies.
The War on Poverty in the mid-’60s, and in particular the community action program, epitomized this approach to social problems, and illuminated its anti-democratic tendencies. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan described it in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, the war on poverty went astray because “government did not know what it was doing. It had a theory. Or, rather, a set of theories. Nothing more.” The central theory – Cloward and Ohlin’s “thesis of opportunity structure” – had been the basis for the Ford Foundation’s “Gray Areas” demonstrations, but had hardly been proven, or even come to command widespread support, before it was rushed to the front as the basis for President Johnson’s community action agenda.
How a shaky, unproven social science hypothesis could have been so hastily drafted into public service, Moynihan argues, can be explained by the “professionalization of reform.” By the ’60s, in his account, the growth of social science expertise, the professionalization of the middle class with jobs based on that expertise, and the emergence of foundations eager to fund social science all insured that political reform was no longer driven by genuine democratic movements, but rather by credentialed professionals. When an untested, abstract theory was artificially imposed on the urban political scene by such presumptuous, detached experts, Moynihan’s account suggests, small wonder that the program rapidly became ensnared in conflict and controversy. Yet this is precisely where progressive philanthropy had been so keen to bring us.
The profoundly undemocratic notion that reform should be driven by foundation-subsidized social science experts, rather than by self-governing citizens, informed and consequently compromised many of the Great Society’s efforts to construct and expand government programs in the sixties. This indictment –that professionalized reform’s presuppositions are arrogant, elitist, and undemocratic –is thought by many on the left today to be an immensely clever, if malign, public relations gimmick concocted by conservative foundations during the ’80s and ’90s to undermine confidence in government.
In point of fact, though, it issued first in the 1960s from the New Left, in its assault on the massive, distant, alienating structures of American technocracy. Their alternative was “participatory democracy” – a return of political authority to smaller, decentralized, self-governing communities as modeled by their own modes of communal organizations.
Somewhat later, the progressive vision of social control was challenged in quite similar terms, though from the opposite end of the political spectrum, by a group of intellectuals who came to be known as “neo-conservatives.” In his introduction to Reflections of a Neoconservative, Irving Kristol traced progressive hubris to origins in the French Revolution, noting that modern heirs of that revolution “affirm that the state, in the hands of the ‘right men’ and following the ‘correct’ policies, could solve, through central planning, the economic problems of society,” as well as its other social ills.
Neoconservatives, he argued, do not believe that the public interest can be “rationally defined, at a moment in time, by any kind of expert or consortium of experts,” but rather that it would emerge “from the process of self-government in all relevant institutions – government at all levels, but also local school boards, religious congregations, professional organizations, trade unions, trade associations, organized charities, organized enthusiasm for almost any imaginable activity.” Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus’s To Empower People expanded this critique of top-down, centralized, expert-driven public policy, calling instead for a transfer of authority back to self-governing, decentralized “mediating structures” like family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association to deliver social services.
As conservative funders like the John M. Olin, Scaife, and Bradley foundations began to emerge in the 80s and 90s, they took their bearings from this indictment of anti-democratic, centralized bureaucratic rationalism, funding both scholarship that made the intellectual critique, as well as practical programs that reflected the determination to return authority to everyday citizens, organized within their own self-governing institutions. At the Bradley Foundation, where I worked for ten years, this came to be called the “new citizenship” agenda.
It should be clear by now that none of the tactics or the institutions thought to unique to the diabolical imagination of modern conservatives is in fact new or revolutionary: they’re simply modern-day equivalents of the structures erected by progressives at the beginning of the 20th century.
But even if the means are quite similar, it doesn’t mean the ends are as well. It’s often suggested that the purpose of conservative philanthropy is to capture the heights of elite opinion and public policy making, and from there to manipulate at will the public policy agenda.
That, to be sure, is an accurate account of the ends of the early 20th century progressive agenda. But as I’ve suggested, even if the tactics used are quite similar, the ends of conservative philanthropy are quite different.
To summarize that purpose: it is to preserve or restore the American regime of liberal democracy, as handed to us by the Framers of the Constitution, and as described most incisively by Alexis de Tocqueville, the preeminent political scientist of modern liberal democracy.
It isn’t easy to do this. Liberalism, understood as respect for individual rights, and democracy, understood as popular self-government, had never managed to coexist, prior to the application of the “new science of politics” by the Framers.
Tocqueville suggested that the particular danger of the age of democracy was the likely disappearance of the liberal element under the onslaught of popular majorities. Democrats would be too willing to forgo the rigors of self-government in the face of an ever more centralized government, which would be pleased to meet their every need, as long as active citizens were prepared to become passive clients of the bureaucratic state.
And so, Tocqueville argued, we needed to be particularly vigilant, making sure that government was kept within bounds, and that the underlying political culture – the mores, the habits of the heart, the intellectual and cultural impulses – nurtured the skills of self-governance. That required above all an energetic civil society, within which citizens addressed their own needs, through their own civic associations, and so were never permitted to lose the skills demanded by self-government.
Progressive philanthropy could be said to play precisely into the hands of the most dangerous tendencies of modern, illiberal democracy. By contrast, conservative philanthropy seeks to return the nation to a Tocquevillian understanding of liberal democracy. Toward that end, conservative philanthropy:
• Attempts to restore the original Constitutional arrangement of a limited but energetic national government – one that is active and forceful in areas appropriate to it, but not one that tries to be omnipresent and therefore winds up flabby and ineffective.
• It aims to reduce the strangulating hold of government regulation on the operations of commerce, and to restore a stronger role for the free market, wherein individual choices about their preferences command greater respect.
• It aims to devolve governing authority to the extent possible out of the centralized bureaucracies in Washington, DC, and to return it to states, local governments, and local civic associations.
• It challenges the grip that professional, elite opinion has on public policy formulation in America, in an effort to restore the capacity of citizens to manage their own affairs within their own associations, according to their own best political and moral judgments.
• Finally, it attends to the political culture of liberal democracy, funding and cultivating the kinds of arts and humanities that are respectful of, rather than contemptuous toward, the moderate, bourgeois virtues required to sustain everyday self-government.
As today’s left seeks to build an apparatus of foundations and think tanks to match the so-called conservative colossus – I hope by now you see that this is really asking for a massive historical “do-over” – it will have no difficulty replicating conservatism’s techniques. The real question is: what will it have to say about the ends or purposes of the American political order? What is the larger view of the American promise – the Big Idea – that ties together specific institutions and ideas? I hope the next panel today might address that question.
Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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