March 8, 2007
By Greg Anrig, Jr.
Ed Kilgore, commenting insightfully at his NewDonkey blog about TNR’s Alan Wolfe-Peter Berkowitz debate over political polarization, joins Wolfe and Berkowitz in neglecting what may be the most important factor in setting in motion today’s vitriolic climate: the incendiary personalities of the right’s key original funders. Those individuals were Richard Mellon Scaife (who famously called a Columbia Journalism Review reporter “a f—king Communist c—t,” ugly, and with terrible teeth), William Simon (who ran the Olin Foundation during its heyday and was nicknamed “William the Terrible” for his temper), Michael Joyce (a combustible hothead who ran the Bradley Foundation for much of that same period before finally alienating his board), and Joseph Coors (said by his brother to be “a little bit right of Attila the Hun”).
Each of those guys hated what they called “the regulatory state” and “the welfare state” with the same passion that they hated communism, labor unions, civil rights activists, and the anti-war movement. Simon, Joyce, and Coors (all dead now) were public flamethrowers, while Scaife along with the libertarian Koch brothers generally vented their hostility toward the government more quietly through their philanthropic acts. But they all shared Grover Norquist’s mission of drowning the government in a bathtub, they didn’t give a damn about the niceties of social discourse, and in all probability they recognized how funding polarizing voices in and of itself could help undercut public support for government by elevating cynicism about politics.
The whole “war of ideas” depiction of policy debates was primarily a construct perpetuated with great fervor by the Heritage Foundation, which received abundant largesse over the years from the foundations run by those individuals. Before Heritage was launched in 1973, the pre-existing think tanks across the political spectrum, including conservative outposts like AEI and the Hoover Institute, saw themselves as engaged in disagreements that were essentially scientific -- not militaristic. For better or worse, places like Brookings, RAND, and the Urban Institute still don’t remotely consider themselves to be fighting on one side of a war the way the right now universally does.
The individuals most responsible for building the conservative movement’s ideas factories, advocacy groups, and media megaphones largely succeeded in their mission of inflicting enormous damage on government in America – and consequently on the country generally. One important element of that dubious accomplishment has been transforming the way we talk about issues from one in which evidence, reason, and good manners were the norm into one where school civics classes could qualify for PG-13 ratings. Election verdicts can help to begin the process of repairing some of the damage to the government. But thanks in no small part to the ill-mannered funders of the right, we’re probably stuck for good with rampant incivility.
Greg Anrig, Jr., has been vice president of programs at The Century Foundation since 1994. In that role, he supervises the creation and progress of the foundation's projects, which focus on U.S. policy related to economic and social inequality, the aging of the population, homeland security, and certain international issues. He has written and made media appearances about social insurance, taxes, pensions, and the economy. Before joining the foundation, he was a staff writer and Washington correspondent for Money magazine. He is the coeditor of the books Social Security: Beyond the Basics and The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism. The views Anrig expresses on TMPcafe do not necessarily represent those of
The Century Foundation or its trustees.