Christopher DeMuth’s is a deeply insightful critique to be taken seriously, including by conservative philanthropy.
Christopher DeMuth, a Distinguished Fellow at the Hudson Institute (where I am a fellow Fellow, albeit Undistinguished), recently published a startling and deeply insightful op-ed in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Why America Needs National Conservatism.” As a former president of the nation’s leading establishment conservative think tank—the American Enterprise Institute—DeMuth is widely regarded as an avatar of sober, judicious, empirically minded libertarianism. So his embrace of “National Conservatism,” often associated with followers of and apologists for President Trump, came as something of a shock to his friends and colleagues.
I’ll leave it to others to assess whether or not DeMuth is true to conservative principles in the piece—adapted from an early-November speech he delivered at the National Conservatism Conference, which he chaired. I want to comment on another aspect of it, bearing directly on conservative philanthropy.
When the American left was liberal and reformist, conservatives played our customary role as moderators of change. We too breathed the air of liberalism, and there are always things that could stand a little reforming. We could be Burkeans—with an emphasis on incremental improvement, continuity with the past, avoiding unintended consequences, and working within a budget. In the 1970s I collaborated with liberals on regulatory reform—refining environmental policies and restraining crony capitalism. Such bipartisan pragmatism yielded many improvements.
But today’s woke progressivism isn’t reformist. It seeks not to build on the past but to promote instability, to turn the world upside-down. In 1968, Democratic mayors sided with police and prosecutors against rioters and lawbreakers. In 2020, they took the side of lawbreakers. Last year, congressional progressives not only rejected Sen. Tim Scott’s police reforms but vilified and degraded him. This year they vilify any Democrat whose spending plan is less than revolutionary. Compromise is antithetical to their goals and methods.
When the leftward party in a two-party system is seized by such radicalism, the conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive. Yet many conservative politicians stick with it, promising to correct specific excesses that have stirred popular revulsion. Republicans will win some elections that way—but what will they do next? National conservatives recognize that in today’s politics, the excesses are the essence. Like Burke after 1789, we shift to opposing revolution tout court.
Few have noted the radicalism of this suggestion for those who fund the institutions of the right. Here we have the former president of the American Enterprise Institute basically suggesting that simply funding AEI—or any of the other countless policy analysis institutions painstakingly constructed over the years by Conservatism, Inc.—might no longer be relevant to the concerns of the moment.
As he notes, there was a time when liberal policy analysts from Brookings and their counterparts from AEI could sit down together and debate the finer points of legislation and regulation. Those of us who were around are all familiar with these exchanges from the 1970s through the 2000s.
Brookings publishes a white paper proposing a 0.5% increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, claiming that it will insure the future of the working class. AEI’s experts rejoin that this would, rather, fatally undermine the self-sufficiency of low-income workers. A 0.2% increase, however, would be just right. Legislation follows, raising the EITC by 0.35%.
In spite of the exaggerated initial claims for and against the measure, it was all very sober, professional, empirically grounded—and largely played between the 40-yard lines. Beneath the superficial disagreements lay the shared understanding that everyone involved “breathed the air of liberalism,” where political differences were minor, reducible to social science measurement, and resolvable by splitting differences within a mutually agreeable framework of procedural rules.
I’m sure there was a pub somewhere between AEI’s (then) 17th Street headquarters and Brookings’ digs on Massachusetts Avenue where the antagonists bought each other a few rounds at the end of a day of civilized sparring.
Areas and eras
In those days, it made sense for conservative philanthropists to spend generously shoring up their own world of think tanks and nonprofits, making sure that every new area of policy endeavor opened up by liberal experts was soon populated by a cadre of conservative equivalents sporting the same impeccable credentials from the same prestigious national universities.
As DeMuth suggests, in his time as a policy analyst, this sort of (virtually) intramural skirmishing bore fruit, helping to insure that the country’s generally liberal reformist trends were incremental—fiscally responsible, cognizant of historical precedent, and leery of the problem of unintended consequences. It might be expensive to train up our own battalions of social science experts and house them in elaborate Beltway establishments, but it gave conservative funders a clear set of manageable inputs and reasonable outcomes.
But now, DeMuth accurately observes, the day of good-natured policy jousting is over. Instead, America’s liberal party has become outright radical, seeking “not to build on the past but to promote instability, to turn the world upside-down,” as is heard from so many members of it. Compromise “is antithetical to their goals and methods,” it’s said. And when this happens, the “conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive.”
DeMuth goes on to propose ways conservatism must change to meet this challenge. But he leaves conservative donors with this underlying question: How are they to respond to this new era? On their grantee manifests, they now carry millions of dollars’ worth of elaborate Beltway intellectual infrastructure. Its highly educated and well-paid policy experts can discourse with eloquence and assurance about the finer points of labor law, pandemic regulations, the likely ill effects of increasing inflation, and China’s plans for the South Pacific.
But if DeMuth is correct, all of this might be sunk costs. These institutions are suitable only for a limited ground game—three yards and a cloud of policy dust—at a time when the left no longer has any intention of engaging in such trivial battles. The massive flow of progressive dollars into Internal Revenue Code §§ 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) groups dedicated to fighting the larger cultural and political battles—dwarfing the money still going to liberal think tanks in Washington—attests to the shift in the left’s thinking away from the limited back-and-forth that once contained and moderated policy disputes.
What must conservative donors do to adapt to this new world? When a highly successful former president of the most respected conservative think tank suggests that institutions like his may no longer be suitable to meet the challenge at hand, I would say the first order of business is to acknowledge that things are indeed dramatically different today. Basic funding assumptions need to be revisited, and grant lists need to be revised.
It would be particularly helpful were the primary association of conservative funders, the Philanthropy Roundtable, to help guide this revision. New leadership at the Roundtable seems inclined to take a serious look at this. But its primary mission continues to be protecting “philanthropic freedom,” or the untrammeled right of donors to do whatever they wish with their dollars.
This was invaluable in earlier times, when we could assume it would sustain a rich and diverse civil society. Today, though, it simply means blocking any political interference with a vast and ever-expanding progressive philanthropic monoculture. The foremost task of the conservative philanthropy association seems to be to insure that progressive philanthropy is unhindered in its pursuit of the radical transformation of the American political order.
Just as DeMuth suggests it’s time for a substantial rethinking of the conservative intellectual apparatus, so the conservative philanthropic apparatus also needs to reconsider its priorities.
Should its primary goal continue to be defending the rights of foundations, at a time when the overwhelming majority of philanthropic dollars are actively working to transform the very regime upon which those rights rest?
If a populist conservative Congress after the elections of 2022 wishes to revisit the terms of philanthropic engagement in politics, will the Roundtable devote itself to thwarting any such examination, thereby doing the heavy lifting for its ideological foes? Will it continue to put the wind up its small-to-mid-sized donors with horror stories about erosion of donor intent, thereby insuring that far larger progressive donors remain free to erode the foundations of American democracy?
At a time when electoral politics is the only major national institution not entirely controlled by the left, and when Congressional inquiry is one of the very few tools available to check this domination, will the Roundtable continue to abide by the self-denying ordinance of philanthropic freedom?
We can expect that the sprawling intellectual institutions of the right will resist DeMuth’s suggestion that they’re merely engaged in minor procedural battles irrelevant to the larger political and cultural struggle. Conservative donors, however, need to take seriously this critique. But first they should realize they are themselves too easily distracted by their own narrow procedural skirmishes, in which short-term conservative success translates into unimpeded, long-term, transformative progressive political victories.