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April 29, 2004

The Undercurrent of the Nation

The editorial pages are easily the best part of the Providence Journal — often presenting a refreshing bit of ideological balance to the rest of the paper. From a generalized, external view, much of the credit for this seems to belong to Robert Whitcomb, who ended a recent column with this sentiment:

But then, you see remarkably few people reading both The Nation and The National Review. Too anxiety-provoking. We want the soothing voices of the amen chorus.

The number of true loners is low in politics and political commentary. We need a lot more of them.

A penchant for balanced reading may be an occupational benefit for an opinion-page editor, but Whitcomb comes a bit too close to that sort of equivalence that presumes each side must be inherently wrong, as evidenced by the disagreement of the other. Are tax cuts good policy or not? Is embryonic stem-cell research moral or not? Yes or no?

Of course, particulars exist that require hammering, both for individual issues and broad platforms. However, the fact that large batches of issues seem to break according to a handful of underlying worldviews does not mean that any two worldviews are equally valid. Preferring the bulk of one's reading to be analysis from people who share a certain number of one's premises is not prima facie indication of anxiety-aversion or unoriginality. Political labels can be seen as a useful shorthand for some of those premises, not necessarily as a substitute for actual consideration. For a conservative, reading The Nation is to find one's self constantly arguing first principles, whereas reading National Review allows a depth of exploration enabled by the ability to take fundamental points for granted.

In this context, it's interesting that the Projo should publish, three days after Mr. Whitcomb's lament of the middleman, a piece by Jerry Landay that would not be out of place in The Nation:

THE FEDERAL ELECTION Commission is considering a proposal -- pushed aggressively by the Bush re-election campaign -- that would curb spending on federal elections by a handful of Democratic advocacy organizations. They are referred to as "527" groups, under the Internal Revenue Service provisions granting them tax exemptions. Republicans accuse the groups, including America Coming Together and MoveOn, of being little more than a shadow arm of the Democratic Party.

Yet Republican agitprop groups, also tax-exempt, have been politically active for years. This little-known political machine is in fact unparalleled in American political history, and it augments the official Bush campaign. It contains some 350 right-wing activist organizations, highly coordinated, adeptly led and well funded, by private foundations, corporations and individuals.

Landay provides a perfect example of the reason that my reading of "the other side" generally occurs within a preexisting investigation. His claims are founded in layer upon layer of intricately tilted and selectively tinted background, liberally peppered with unsubstantiated, unexplained fear-mongering like: "Reinforced by this unofficial apparatus, the Republicans dominating the three branches of the federal government thwart constitutional checks and balances."

With every last clause in the piece, one will agree or disagree, and to explain disagreement requires ever-expanding subtlety and research. Consider Landay's reference to 350 organizations. To answer his claim, one would have to figure out to what, exactly, he's referring. Does he include every single organization that supports some arguably conservative policy? Those he does name certainly aren't explicitly Republican. More specifically, he does nothing but assert that "Bush campaigns to empower the ideological agenda of the apparatus, and the apparatus, in turn, campaigns for Bush."

It is odd that Landay, as one whom Google shows to be unusually interested in this topic, shows no indication that he's aware of the disenchantment with the administration among its conservative base. Except for the tax cuts and the war, the "cohort" has had many reasons for disappointment in a President so ostensibly beholden to them. William F. Buckley phrased the matter well last July:

What happened to President Bush? He is, incidentally, everywhere criticized abroad, and, now, by Democratic presidential candidates, as autocratic, domineering. How to account for his passivity in most matters of legislative, to say nothing of judicial, consequence? He fought hard for his tax bill and, of course, for his nominees to the courts of appeal. But on most other matters, it is as if he did not exist. The Supreme Court has pronounced itself arbiter of all serious questions having to do with states' rights. The president was manifestly pleased that the Court took over the whole affirmative-action problem, and he confessed himself "pleased" that the Court acknowledged the utility and the pleasures of diversity.

Amazingly, Landay cites an organization concerned with ending affirmative action as among the organizations with a sort of Bush quid pro quo. More broadly, he defines the "ideological platform" of the "affiliated organizations" as one that the President has done precious little to further. And even were the President more concerned with "the care and feeding of American conservatives," as WFB puts it, Landay glosses over the fact that every such organization he mention is ideological and issue-oriented, not specifically political.

For all his claims against their activities, these groups are doing exactly what our Constitution was designed to encourage. They are exercising rights of free association, free speech, and freedom to petition the government to shape policies that they believe to be important. Landay makes dark insinuations about a "shadow government," but in a democracy, that's exactly what the people are supposed to be, and 350 organizations spanning decades and espousing the beliefs of at least one-half of Americans represent a lot of people.

So what of the comparison to the "527" groups? Well, take a look at the home pages of the two that Landay mentions: MoveOn and ACT. This statement from ACT summarizes what you'll see (emphasis added):

America Coming Together-we are the foot soldiers of the progressive movement. We are dedicated to defeating George W. Bush, electing progressives at all levels of government, and mobilizing millions of people to register and vote around the critical issues facing our country.

After taking a moment to ponder what it might mean, exactly, to "vote around issues," take a look at the home page of the Heritage Foundation, which Landay calls "the senior component of the [conservative] apparatus." Policy suggestions. Analysis. Research. All of the other groups have much the same, and although I may have missed it, I didn't see a single streaming-video anti-Kerry ad.

To splash some big numbers in his column, Landay cites the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the goal of which (based on a quick review of its Web site) appears to be to battle conservative organizations and promote progressive non-profits. Apparently, dominating "state, local and national politics" and tilting "American governance, economics, education, media and law rightward" isn't all that expensive, relatively:

NCRP finds that $253 million flowed between 1999 and 2001 alone to these 350 organizations, from 79 private grant-making organizations.

The Heritage Foundation, the senior component of the apparatus, was the lead recipient, at $25 million.

So, the Cabal of 350 split $84 million among themselves annually, for an average of $240,000 each. That's a little less than raised in five days of 1999, a year in which it raised at least $13 million. In just the first quarter of this year, MoveOn raised almost $7 million, all of it apparently going toward political activism — in contrast to the broader activities of such groups as the Heritage Foundation. According to CNN, in a piece from January 2004:

In November, billionaire philanthropist George Soros and his business partner, Peter Lewis, pledged a $5 million matching grant -- a dollar for every two raised by MoveOn members -- to create a $15 million advertising campaign to defeat President Bush.

Turning back to Landay and those conservative groups funded by scheming plutocrats, we find more numbers from a liberal activist:

Rob Stein, a Washington researcher who lectures on this apparatus, estimates that since 1972 a total of $2.5 billion to $3 billion has flowed to its leading 43 affiliates. He terms these "the cohort, an incubator of right-wing ideological policies that constitute the Bush administration's agenda."

Get out the calculators. Accepting the high end of that surely-not-conservative range, the average one among the Band of 43 saw annual money "flow" of $2 million. In the world of big-money politics, that's just about enough to fund some research and publish some analysis that nobody need be compelled to heed. And indeed, it isn't activism per se, but rhetoric, that Stein mentions in the next paragraph:

The cohort, he says, is "a potent, never-ending source of intellectual content, laying down the slogans, myths, and buzz words" -- such as the myth of the liberal media -- "that have helped shift public opinion rightward."

So there you have it. This "shadow government" consists essentially of Americans thinking, writing, and speaking about the direction that they'd like our nation to go. For Landay, conservatives' simply having the audacity to make their presence known is "counterrevolutionary and anti-constitutional" in such a way as to "thwart constitutional checks and balances."

Stein's ridiculous characterization of the liberal media as a "myth" serves to remind us of that the multibillion-dollar industry's activities. One can argue that the mainstream media as well as universities and lawyers' groups are only aligned with the Democrats as a matter of policy preference, but that's the exact same coordination on which Landay builds his argument against conservative groups. I'd like to see a tally of the funds going toward liberal research, rhetoric, and activism over the last 30 years. Writing out the total, alone, would take up a few newspaper column inches.

As I said toward the beginning of this post, rebutting these columns from those on the other side is a time-consuming business. There are myriad facets, as well as interwoven threads of self-interest and unacknowledged connections. Especially when dealing with somebody of Mr. Landay's experience... and inside view:

Jerry M. Landay, of Bristol, a former CBS-News correspondent, is an occasional contributor.

Watch out for those "myths," Mr. Whitcomb. They may be fairytales.

Posted by Justin Katz at April 29, 2004 8:14 PM

It's endlessly fascinating to me. Everywhere one looks in liberal circles, there is a shared belief that any gathering of two or more conservatives taking part in intellectual or civic life is a threat to the very fabric of the Constitutional order. I once heard a reporter on NPR offer the existence of a twenty-member organization devoted to reviewing textbook content in Texas as evidence of "just how well organized the right really is." This was supposedly a straight news segment.

The same is true of "conservative" institutions like the University of Chicago. Anywhere conservatives exist in any noticeable concentration--they are still a very low minority at U of C--liberals see a metastisizing hotbed of fascism.

Posted by: Sage at April 29, 2004 8:51 PM