Philanthropy

What Went Wrong (and Right) with Conservative Philanthropy


This article originally appeared in Law and Liberty on May 1, 2019.

To those who know the history of American conservatism, it is a familiar and oft-told story. Oversimplifying: From a relatively small base up until then, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s traumatic loss in the 1964 presidential election birthed an ideologically driven conservative “counter-establishment” of journals and magazines, academic centers, and think tanks that took shape slowly, and then grew to the point at which it could help intellectually anchor, and make effective arguments for, the rise of Ronald Reagan, after which it helped implement his proposals.

Conservative philanthropic giving played a vital role in the initial creation and the growth of this counter-establishment. The individuals and institutions who underwrote the conservative movement were able to balance the formulation of ideas and the application of them, yielding policies that were geared toward results over the long term. Liberals generally do not contest this story, and they sometimes even honestly laud the effectiveness of the givers who were a key part of it.

Donald Trump’s dramatic victory in Election 2016 was traumatic, too—to liberals, who assumed their candidate would win, but also to what had become an actual, outright conservative establishment of its own. Trump was neither a product nor a beneficiary of the latter. For the most part, and for many reasons, nonprofit giving on the Right basically “missed” Trump and that which gave rise to him.

Not only did politically-minded conservative givers largely support other candidates in the Republican primaries, but policy-oriented and ideas-driven conservative givers didn’t seem to grasp the underlying causes for his overtaking those candidates. If the presidency was a victory that conservative givers were looking to help inform and assist, they failed.

Something was off-balance.

The Goldwater and Trump milestones were dramatic (and traumatic) for conservatism but in opposite ways. With some exceptions, conservative givers cannot plausibly claim much credit for policy victories achieved by Trump either now or for the rest of his tenure, which might extend to 2024. In fact, Trump would probably have been helped very much, before his victory and now, by a better giving balance between the three basics: ideas, policy, and patience. Conservatism, too, would have benefited from a better balance between these. However defined or redefined, conservatism would likely have been more securely anchored in lasting ideas, its policies probably better vetted and more likely to be instituted and implemented, over a longer term.

After Goldwater’s loss, there were years worth of ideas-driven building of institutions—then ultimate success, including electorally. There was not the same type or length of building before Trump’s electoral success. A rebalanced giving may still yield benefits in the future, so it is well worth considering how to go about achieving this.

Initially, Ideas

First, a backward look is necessary. Let us turn for guidance to James Piereson—a noted political theorist and the author of 2007’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, Piereson was the last executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation which, by design, depleted its assets in 2005. As he has recounted, after the end of the Second World War, “despite critics who viewed the concept of conservative ideas as a contradiction in terms,” many conservative philanthropists, “including the classical liberals in this camp, looked at books and ideas for guidance to a surprising degree.”[1]

This postwar period was the “classical era of conservative philanthropy,” in the words of Johns Hopkins political theorist Steven Teles. Both Piereson and Teles (at an important colloquium seven years ago at the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal) cited the guidance provided to conservative grantmakers by the thought of F.A. Hayek, most notably the Austrian economist’s 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. Conservatives took to heart Hayek’s warning about the danger of tyranny resulting from governmental central planning. As Piereson notes: “modern conservatives and classical liberals have generally been able to work toward a common goal of limiting the reach the state and the intrusion of politics into the life of civil society.”

In general, Hayek strongly emphasized the importance of ideas as the undergirding base of any successful political movement. An example that Hayek knew well: socialism. “In every country that has moved toward socialism,” said Hayek in a 1949 essay, “the phase of the development in which socialism becomes a determining influence on politics has been preceded for many years by a period during which socialist ideals governed the thinking of the more active intellectuals.”

Teles points to three philanthropies as typifying this “classical era,” and significantly, none was in Washington, D.C., or even on the East Coast. They were the William Volker Fund in Kansas City, Missouri, the Earhart Foundation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Pierre F. Goodrich’s brainchild, the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis, patron and publisher of the web site you are now reading.

Their Hayekian giving clearly and purposely balanced ideas with patience. These ideas were immanent.

Teles brought to light a 1956 internal Volker Fund document, blandly entitled Review and Recommendations, describing its grantmaking—which, as is the case for all private foundations, went to organizations that were classified under the Internal Revenue Code’s §501(c)(3) as being created for “charitable purposes,” including the education of policymakers and the public.

The Volker Fund’s list of principles included:

  • Risk-taking that involves disappointments;
  • Patience on the order of generations for ideas to germinate;
  • Actively seeking out people and ideas to support as opposed to waiting for requests to come in “over the transom”; and
  • The placement of ideas and values over mere metrics, mechanics, and techniques in grant consideration.
Adding Policy

The 1960s saw a cultural and political assault on many things, among them conservative ideas and conservatism—as evidenced in the lopsided, 44-states-to-six, 61.1 percent to 38.5 percent electoral result of November 3, 1964 in favor of President Lyndon Johnson. The liberally energetic Great Society that followed, and its aftermath, stirred action on the part of discontented conservative givers. Not a few were formerly liberal intellectuals who had grown weary of liberalism’s overreach and the damage it had wrought.

Conservative givers now mixed with many a “neoconservative” thinker and writer, their work in a tradition linked to Edmund Burke. The intellectual energy among these distinct intellectual tendencies was deemed worthy of substantial support.

According to Piereson:

The neoconservatives came from the left, accepted the New Deal, not necessarily the Great Society, dismissed the argument for free enterprise and placed great weight on cultural arguments in defense of the family, religion, and the institutions of civil society. . . . Few were academics. None that I know was an economist. They were essayists and editors used to making arguments about politics and culture, and in contrast to the Hayekians, they wanted to address immediate controversies. Far more than the classical liberals, they were interested in foreign policy, religion, and culture.

To some of them, the immanent religious ideas were transcendent.

Givers associated with this later era of conservative philanthropy (its “modern era,” as Teles labeled it during the 2012 discussion) include the now-defunct Olin Foundation in New York City, the Smith Richardson Foundation in Westport, Connecticut, and two not on the East Coast: the Scaife Foundations in Pittsburgh, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. One of the prime influencers of this group of institutions was the writer and editor Irving Kristol, considered the “godfather of neoconservatism.” Their Kristolian giving consciously balanced the three basics to which we referred: ideas, policy, and patience.

According to William A. Schambra, our former colleague at the Bradley Foundation, at Kristol’s urging, Olin, Scaife, and Bradley all underwrote studies that were “aimed at recovering the political philosophy of the American Founding, as expressed most authoritatively in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” These studies were undertaken at the University of Chicago, Harvard, Claremont McKenna College, and other campuses, and at think tanks like AEI, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution.

This burst of activity marked a revival of “otherwise obscure and seemingly antiquated political philosophers . . . that American progressivism had long since dismissed as so 18th century—so hopelessly out of step with the needs of modern society,” said Schambra. He made these observations at an underappreciated 2006 seminar held at Duke University, where he went on to say:

If conservative foundations did one thing during the rise of modern conservatism that was not likely to have been done by anyone else—that was, in other words, its unique and indispensable contribution—it was precisely funding the scholars, university centers, and policy institutes aimed at recapturing the Founders’ understanding of America, which would then animate and unite conservatism’s specific political, social, and economic programs.

If conservative foundations did one thing during the rise of modern conservatism that was not likely to have been done by anyone else—that was, in other words, its unique and indispensable contribution—it was precisely funding the scholars, university centers, and policy institutes aimed at recapturing the Founders’ understanding of America, which would then animate and unite conservatism’s specific political, social, and economic programs.

The roster of ideas and proposals came to include: supply-side economics and across-the-board tax cuts, “law and economics” and deregulation, aggressive foreign policy and national security stances through the whole of the Cold War and afterwards, “broken-windows” policing, work-based welfare reform, school choice in the form of vouchers and later charter schools, and a place for faith in the “public square.”

There were policy defeats, to be sure. Americans do not have individualized retirement accounts, higher education has not been reformed, and Obamacare was put in place. In and for the long term, however, conservative philanthropy ultimately helped yield some substantial policy achievements beginning when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, more than a quarter of a century after Goldwater’s loss. Among them: an expanding economy and bull market, victory in the first Gulf War, the fall of the Soviet Union, welfare reform, and expanded school choice.

External Envy

Conservatives have well-chronicled the philanthropic role in conservatism’s successes. John J. Miller’s 2003 Philanthropy Roundtable monograph Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Changed America is especially good, as is Miller’s 2005 book A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

The success was so marked that liberals accepted the premises of conservative effectiveness—usually while enviously urging its replication by the foundations on the Left. In No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda (1996), for example, Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado of the University of Colorado Law School write: “We could not help being impressed with the professionalism and cold precision with which the right has been waging and winning struggle after struggle. … The dedication, economy of effort, and sheer ingenuity of much of the conservative machine are extraordinary.”

For another example, in the influential National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations (1997), Sally Covington thoroughly examined the grantmaking of 12 conservative philanthropies: Earhart, Olin, the Sarah Scaife and related Carthage Foundations, Smith Richardson, and Bradley, along with the Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch Charitable Foundations, the related Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, the Philip M. McKenna Foundation, the JM Foundation, and the Henry Salvatori Foundation. There was also a 1996 report from Norman Lear’s People for the American Way, the invidiously titled Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics, which included the Adolph Coors Foundation in its study. Inside Philanthropy, moreover, noted that the Searle Freedom Trust should be included among effective conservative foundations.

“Although this effort has often been described as a ‘war of ideas,’ it has involved far more than scholarly debate within the halls of academe,” Covington writes. “Since the 1960s, conservative forces have shaped public consciousness and influenced elite opinion, recruited and trained new leaders, mobilized core constituencies, and applied significant rightward pressure on mainstream institutions, such as Congress, state legislatures, colleges and universities, the federal judiciary and philanthropy itself.”

In a 1998 American Prospect article about the “Lessons of Right-Wing Philanthropy”, Karen Paget, at the time a fellow of the Open Society Institute supported by George Soros, lamented that “the conservative infrastructure has far outstripped the left’s organizational capacity and resources. … The left has recently lost repeated battles to this conservative coalition over major initiatives such as affirmative action, welfare, immigration, English-only programs, and school vouchers.”

These self-critiques on the Left helped pave the way for the establishment, in 2003, of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank in Washington, and also the creation of the Democracy Alliance group of active liberal donors in 2005. Covington’s report in particular, said the Democracy Alliance’s president, Gara LaMarche, “crystallized for a lot of progressives the idea that the conservative foundations were kind of eating their lunch and then they were setting the terms of the debate in a way that the progressive foundations were not doing.”

“So looking to Olin and looking to Bradley, there was a challenge that was really laid down,” said LaMarche. He expressed admiration for “a very strategic use of money” by conservatives even though he disagreed with the ends of conservative philanthropy.

Internally, Another Explanation

Just as the Volker Fund internally catalogued what it believed were the characteristics of successful grantmaking in its 1956 review, Bradley program staff in Milwaukee made a similar effort in an internal 1999 document bearing the rather provocative title, The Bradley Foundation and the Art of (Intellectual) War. The two descriptions are quite consistent with each other.

According to Bradley’s Sun Tzu piece, there are four stages of policy initiatives: initiation, development, implementation, and consolidation. These yield 10 “rules of thumb” for good grantmaking:

  • Think of public policy making as a morality play, not an academic debate;
  • Be patient;
  • Do each step in order;
  • There are no shortcuts;
  • The best projects are found, not created;
  • Be prepared for unorthodox allies;
  • Measurement of results is tricky;
  • Try it “at home” first;
  • Learning curves should become shorter; and
  • Change should become incrementally cumulative, unpredictable, and self-generating.

Following these steps enabled ideas, policy, and patience to be balanced, in large part to good effect.

Worries and Warnings

In 2005, near the end of an article he wrote for Commentary magazine, “Investing in Conservative Ideas,” Piereson noted an important development: that the institutional emphasis on ideas was “giving way to a greater focus on politics and the nuts and bolts of policy.” As Schambra had observed at the above-mentioned Duke seminar, Resurrecting an understanding of the American constitutional order that had been airbrushed from history by a century of scholarship would be no quick or easy task.” It wasn’t, and a certain impatience had set in among grantmakers on the Right.

This led many of them, in fact, to begin emulating grantmakers on the Left. According to Teles, “Metrics, measurement, logic models and the rest of the apparatus of new philanthropy [were] becoming as popular among the conservative philanthropists who go to Philanthropy Roundtable meetings as they [were] to mainstream and liberal foundations.”

Content was yielding to functionalism. Crudely, ends were yielding to means, with major consequences for the organizations. The growing demand for numericized proof of progress was something that neither Hayek nor Kristol would have thought prudent. In fact, they would probably have thought reliance on metrics to betray a lack of faith in the truth of conservatism’s core content, its underlying ideas.

Presentism and Politics

The new way included shorter time horizons by which to measure grant-making success. The ends of short terms are always imminent, of course. They are seldom conducive to long-lasting results.

At times, the shorter-term thinking risked becoming so short as to correspond with certain officeholding terms. That is to say, private foundations had become more mindful than before of the political calendar, and those givers in a position to do so began to weigh supporting §501(c)(3) charitable-purpose organizations against organizations classified under §501(c)(4). The latter is for entities promoting “social welfare,” and this classification permits givers to engage in partisan political campaign activity and lobbying, so long as it is not their “primary” purpose or activity.

Conservative philanthropy was becoming more explicitly political, and as it did so, it became aligned with one political party. This yielded some successes, including the rise of the Tea Party and many state-level reforms, including meaningful labor-policy ones.

Yet it would not be accurate to conclude that this altered balance caused the surprising results of November 8, 2016—30 states and 304 electoral votes for the Republican Trump, as against 20 states and 227 electoral votes for the Democrat Hillary Clinton. By the same token, if results matter, one must note that the altered giving balance was consonant with those important results. In hindsight, one wonders whether a different balance might have been preferable for the conservative ideas supposedly being furthered by the giving.

For clearly the Republican candidate rejected many of the ideas espoused by the intellectual infrastructure of the Right and, for the most part, stylistically rejected those very intellectuals and their institutions. Representatively, almost all of the contributors to the attention-getting “Against Trump” symposium that National Review published in January 2016 had some affiliation with one or more conservative (c)(3) nonprofit groups.

Trump’s successful performance cannot be considered a product of conservative political spending, including in the nonprofit sphere. (He got almost all of his media for free.) Other contenders in the Republican primaries benefited much more from support from conservatives, as did Clinton benefit more from liberal political spending in the general election.

There have been good and serious outcomes for conservatives during the last two years, including an economy growing at nearly four percent per year, tax and regulatory reform, a positive peopling of the federal judiciary, the retaking of virtually all territory held by ISIS, and an overdue buildup of the U.S. military. Moreover, some (but by no means all) conservatives would count criminal justice reform as a success. There have been big defeats, too; debt and deficits, if they count, and Obamacare’s survival among them.

Rebalancing and Reordering

Goldwater lost, badly. Trump won, barely—in large part by dismissing or at least questioning conservatism as it had been understood, and supported, by conservative philanthropists. His victory should cause givers on the Right to continue critically questioning themselves. They should also consider how to go about best effectuating their or their donor’s intent.

Even if only as a perhaps-helpful intellectual exercise, they should ask whether it might have been better had Henry Olsen’s The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (2017) or Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed(2018) appeared before Election 2016. Or if Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism(2018) or Oren Cass’s  The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America (2018) had appeared before Election 2016. Or for that matter, if a version of Victor Davis Hanson’s new The Case for Trump had done so. Or if the American Affairsjournal, founded in 2017, had preceded the current administration.

Why, one might ask, did they all come after?

An easy answer is that Trump’s victory at the polls heightened intellectual energy on the Right—the same effect that was seen after Goldwater’s defeat at the polls. “This time it is not centralized in a few journals, institutes, and godfathers,” wrote Christopher DeMuth in an astute essay in the Claremont Review of Books. DeMuth cited some of the above-mentioned works, adding:

Rather—reflecting the spread of wealth and education and improvements in communications …—it is distributed and reticulated. Dozens of new and old journals, websites, and think tanks, plus innovations such as long-form podcasts and celebrity recirculation platforms, are variously devoted to politics, policy, law, economics, society, culture, philosophy, and security and foreign policy. The digitized, networked competition of ideas has generated new conservative and libertarian divisions and alliances, a parade of impressive new talents, and the appearance almost daily of substantial books and essays and vigorous rebuttals and surrebuttals to what was published last week.

The energy is again worth supporting. For a better-anchored and longer-lasting conservatism in the future—however it ends up being defined or redefined in the coming years—conservative givers should wonder whether a rebalancing of ideas, policy, and patience on their part might be in order. They should summon the discipline to develop and hew to a clear-eyed, longer-term worldview.

And they should humbly allow the immanent to transcend the imminent, for as long as they can.

Daniel P. Schmidt

Daniel P. Schmidt retired as the vice president for program of The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee in 2017.
+ More by Daniel P. Schmidt

Michael E. Hartmann

Hartmann is senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving at the Capital Research Center. For more than 18 years, he served on the program staff of The…
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