The Battle for Ideas
Political power always expresses itself as a body of ideas. If you can create and popularize the key ideas that define the general perceptions about public issues, you will largely determine what happens politically. It matters less who gets elected, than what policies and programs that person implements once in office. Politics is only superficially about personalities: it is the implementation of ideas through power.
Part of our current dilemma in African American politics is the poverty of new ideas. The NAACP's public policy agenda is not substantially different than it was 20 years ago. On the other hand, Louis Farrakhan has basically patterned his program after that of Booker T. Washington's a century ago - social conservatism, black entrepreneurship, self help, racial separatism. When liberal integrationists and conservative black nationalists aren't saying much that's new, the real losers are the African American people.
In the past thirty years, conservatives have shifted the public's political discourse sharply to the right. Part of their success came from electoral victories, notably the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and the 1994 Congressional triumph of the "Contract With America." However, a critically important factor in pushing U.S. politics to the right was the decisive ideological role played by white conservative think tanks and foundations.
According to author David Callahan, writing in a recent Nation, the twenty wealthiest conservative think tanks will have spent over $1 billion in the 1990s to "develop and disseminate policy ideas." Most of this money is given by "corporations and wealthy businessmen, with conservative think tanks increasingly acting as magnets for special-interest money."
The "godfather" of ultra-conservative think tanks is the Heritage Foundation, started in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, who subsequently also established the Free Congress Foundation. The Heritage Foundation spent $28.7 million in 1998 alone, which according to Harvard Political Review researcher Luke McLoughlin, is "more than the top ten liberal think tanks combined." The Heritage Foundation spends much of this money on pushing conservative ideas in the media. "Two hundred issue bulletins go out to 650 editorial page editors each year, thirty to forty national columnists, and 450 talk-radio hosts," McLoughlin notes. The Heritage website "allows legislative aides access to download conservative position papers on countless subjects."
The leading conservative think tank on the issue of race is the notorious American Enterprise Institute (AEI). With a budget of $13 million in 1998, AEI receives much of its money from the rightwing Bradley Foundation and major corporations. The AEI continuously pumps out blatantly racist position papers against affirmative action, minority scholarships, minority economic set-asides, and other civil rights reforms. Deborah Toler, a policy researcher with the Institute for Public Accuracy, recently analyzed the AEI's "race desk." There is first Dinesh D'Sousa, author of The End of Racism, a pseudoscholarly work that attributes racial inequality and oppression to African Americans themselves. Charles Murray co-author of the racist diatribe, The Bell Curve, receives a handsome salary as AEI's Bradley Fellow. Former judge Robert Bork, the conservative legal scholar who Reagan tried unsuccessfully to place on the Supreme Court, is AEI's John M. Olin Fellow in Legal Studies. According to Toler, Bork's book Slouching Towards Gomorrah "locates much of the blame for the decline of bourgeois culture in African American culture." AEI fellow Ben Wattenberg attributes the rise of "non-European populations" as a fundamental threat to western civilization.
These conservative think tanks and foundations are like a "parallel government" without any democratic accountability. As Callahan observes, "many operate as extraparty organizations, adopting the tactics of the permanent political campaign by incorporating a fundraising arm, a lobbying arm, a policy analysis and development arm, a public relations arm and a grassroots mobilization or constituency development arm."
What can the Black Freedom Movement and progressives learn from the Far Right? Conservatives' gains indicate that a multifaceted strategy - including fundraising, lobbying, policy analysis, media and grasssroots mobilization - is essential for winning the battle of ideas. Progressive and liberal mass organizations from the NAACP to the AFL-CIO need a similar strategy, but based on democratic and social justice ideas. The Democratic Party is not the vehicle for building this alternative strategy. Just as the conservatives operate both inside and outside the Republican Party, as it serves their long-term interests, we must do the same with the Democrats. What is urgently needed is a broadly diverse, progressive formation that is independent of the Democratic Party, that can develop and fight for those ideas that directly address the real needs of the great majority of the American people.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science and Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge and appears in over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally.