How to Manufacture a Zeitgeist

Right-wing foundations have been pouring massive amounts of money into a campaign to conquer the country's collective mind, and it's working frightfully well. A new report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy demonstrates that the U.S.'s. shift to the right in the last two decades is not an organic, spontaneous phenomenon. Instead, writes author Sally Covington, it is the result of a sophisticated, multi-million dollar effort to place conservatives in the upper echelons of academia, religion, the judiciary, journalism and politics.While progressive foundations have been spending money on pragmatic, community-based programs, conservative foundations have made it their top priority to seize control of the national discourse through aggressive marketing and public relations campaigns. "Conservative funders see themselves as part of a larger movement to defeat 'big government liberalism' and fund accordingly, but mainstream foundations prefer to make modest, on-the-ground improvements in specific neighborhoods. As a result, mainstream foundations increasingly operate within the larger policy assumptions and parameters that conservative funders help shape," says Covington.For example, according to the report, by 1991, more than 40 percent of the federal judiciary had attended right-wing economic seminars held at resorts by the Law and Economics Center. All travel, lodging and meal expenses were covered courtesy of corporate and foundation sponsors.Similarly, the Acton Institute, seeking to counter "the clergy's disturbing bias against the business community and free enterprise," holds three-day conferences for seminarians and divinity students. The Institute for Humane Studies sponsors free summer seminars for conservative students, then provides fellowships of up to $17,500 for continued study. And conservative think tanks churn out op-eds, magazine articles and books, all of which contribute the culture's conservative environment."Layer upon layer of seminars, studies, conferences and interviews [can] do much to push along, if not create, the issues, which then become the national agenda of the debate," wrote Karen Rothmeyer in The Columbia Journalism Review . "By multiplying the authorities to whom the media are prepared to give a friendly hearing, [conservative donations] have helped to create an illusion of diversity where none exists. The result could be an increasing number of one-sided debates in which the challengers are far outnumbered, if indeed they are heard from at all."Because of their public and media visibility, conservatives have been able to fulfill their mission of dragging the political center rightward. Heather Higgins of the conservative Randolph Foundation is quoted in the report, "Coalition building -- having a broad spectrum of voices pushing on an issue -- is crucial. By defining the broad bands of debate, you can shift the perception of what constitutes the moderate, reasonable center."According to the study, many issues that are taken for granted as "problems" in the national debate were wholly manufactured by conservative foundations. The Cato Institute has had a large role in perpetuating the idea of a social security crisis. "Assisted by a powerful advisory board of business leaders, conservative economists and other conservative political leaders, [the institute] plans to spend $2 million in a public relations campaign to depict social security as crisis-ridden and in need of significant reform," writes Covington.Similarly, Covington argues that the problem of "political correctness" on campus is largely an illusory one, created to increase conservative power in academia. "Funders have heavily supported the writing and dissemination of books attacking 'liberalized higher education,'" Covington says, including Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind; Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education; and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals: How Politics Corrupted Higher Education. "Once the idea of 'political correctness' became fixed in the public mind, funders supported efforts launched by political conservatives to redirect public and private sector dollars from 'liberal' higher education purposes toward conservative ones," Covington says.Few progressive voices have emerged to counter the right-wing media bombast. This is partly because the left has much less money, and partly because they have been less savvy in manipulating the media and in cultivating public intellectuals who journalists can call for quotes and commentary, concludes the study. In 1995, multi-issue public policy institutions on the right has $77 million at their disposal, while their equivalents on the left had a mere $18.6 million.The left's institutional weakness, said political scientist Ira Katznelson in the report, "Forecloses meaningful political choice, flattens political debate, and leaves unattended vast human needs and distortions of power." Covington concludes, "The political implications and policy consequences of this imbalance have been profound. First, the heavy investments that conservative foundations have made in new right policy and advocacy institutions have helped to 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."Copies of the 52-page report Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations are available at $25 per copy, prepaid, by writing to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2001 South Street, NW #620, Washington, DC 20009. For more information, call (202) 387-9177.

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