by John Holbo on November 7, 2007

I’m reading The Conservatives Have No Clothes [amazon], by Greg Anrig. Pretty good so far, but:

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the Heritage Foundation – along with the much broader network of conservative think tanks, foundations, university-based programs, activist organizations and media affiliates – on U.S. public policy and debates over the role of government in recent years. (p. 2)

Phrases like ‘it would be difficult to overstate’ are a delicate way of saying it would be difficult to state. But it’s a lot. But Anrig’s thesis hinges on how much:

The philosophies of the leading individuals who financed movement conservatism are far outside the mainstream. (David H. Koch ran as a vice presidential candidate on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, receiving just over 1 percent of the vote – a typical showing for libertarians running for public office even today.) But the institutions receiving their largesse needed to concoct strategies for simultaneously keeping those founders happy while also building a broad political coalition.

The real wonder of the conservative enterprise has been its ability to transform the rudimendary desire of a handful of wealthy families to gut the government into a set of public policy ideas that would help to accomplish that goal while sounding appetizing enough to attract large numbers of voters. Rather ingeniously, the simple, easy-to-understand ideas they developed are largely consistent with each other and elegantly link to a broader story line that the conservative movement has effectively sold with remarkable sophistication. That’s how the right won the war of ideas. It’s also the underlying reason why those ideas are failing. (p. 11)

One should, of course, read the book before judging; but I expect a lot of skeptics would fire back promptly that this is shaping up to be a too-easy false consciousness thesis. The whole ‘appetizing enough to attract lots of voters’ bit doesn’t sit easily with the ‘far outside the mainstream’. (Why did Ron Paul raise 4 mill. from 40,000 individual contributors in a single day? Obviously he’s still polling at the traditional, libertarian 1%. But there’s something a bit more going on, surely.) I’m actually pretty sympathetic to Anrig’s overall case, but what is precisely difficult is rigorously refraining from overstating the degree to which his basically plausible, coherent narrative is accurate. Just how influential has Heritage been?



MR. Bill 11.07.07 at 2:19 pm

Too Bloody influential.


save_the_rustbelt 11.07.07 at 2:41 pm

There are a lot of questions about who is a real conservative, who is a neocon, who is a corporatist, etc. etc.

The angriest people I know are people who consider themselves mainstream conservatives and who absolutely despise George Bush.


John Emerson 11.07.07 at 2:42 pm

A lot of the success of these groups has been seeding the group mind with snappy sound-bites and memes justifying policies which are themselves unexamined. For example, the inheritance tax memes are 1.) families losing their farms when the owner dies, and 2.) “double taxation”. These have been repeated over and over again here there and everywhere for three or four decades, and by now they’re more or less the first thing anyone thinks of when the phrase “inheritance tax” pops up.

It’s not exactly “false consciousness” because it’s not very conscious. It’s like people believing that Coke is the real thing or that Marlboro is the cigarette for real men. It’s a default kneejerk reaction for people who don’t think about the issue. Most people aren’t actively engaged, either from complacency or from lack of time, and most issues don’t immediately impact most individuals. (I think that the conservatives have also been smart about choosing issues which don’t immediately and directly impact most people, or whose effects are in the future; though they’ve also been good at demagoguing vivid peripheral issues like sexual abuse.)

Popular democracy depend either on widespread active concern for political issues, or on the existence of local and national social groups (unions, churches, clubs) leading public opinion. But TV and radio are the defaults now, and they’re under the control of advertisers.

The above is all conventional, I guess. Maybe what I’m saying is that we don’t need a more sophisticated understanding of what’s happening. Our understanding is OK, but understanding it unfortunately doesn’t tell us what we should do about it.


Keith 11.07.07 at 2:51 pm

(Why did Ron Paul raise 4 mill. from 40,000 individual contributors in a single day? Obviously he’s still polling at the traditional, libertarian 1%. But there’s something a bit more going on, surely.)

I’ve been wrestling with this question for a while now. The weird part about Paul’s supporters is, they don’t come form the traditional Libertarian or Conservative demographics. I’ve heard a lot of otherwise smart, liberal type people talking about how great Ron Paul would be, as if suddenly returning to the gold standard and repealing the Civil Rights Act is a sensible, progressive idea.

Part of me is like, WTF? The other part of me is scared to realize that this many Americans really just might be this selfish and crazy.


Sk 11.07.07 at 2:55 pm

I’m getting confused. Is the secret cabal of wealthy industrialists that run the world behind the scenes a bunch of Jews, a bunch of Masons, the Catholic Church, the Mafia, the Knights Templar, Halliburton and the oil companies, or (gasp!) conservatives from the Heritage Foundation?

Conspiracy theories are nuts, whether written by anti-semites in the 19th Century or by pseudo-academics in the 21st.



Barry 11.07.07 at 2:55 pm

Keith, it’s probably frustration with the current system. When the Democratic leadership in Congress acts like it *lost* the 2006 election, and the pretty-much-already-crowned Democratic presidential nominee endorses keeping up the war in Iraq, people legitimately feel disenfranchised.


Aeon J. Skoble 11.07.07 at 3:00 pm

John, you say “Phrases like ‘it would be difficult to overstate’ are a delicate way of saying it would be difficult to state.”
I always thought the meaning of that expression was that x was so huge, overstating it is hard to do. You imply it’s a euphemism, but I could have sworn it was litotes. So the guy is just saying they have had a huge impact, right?


David in NY 11.07.07 at 3:05 pm

“Conspiracy theories are nuts, whether written by anti-semites in the 19th Century or by pseudo-academics in the 21st.”

They’re nuts only if there’s no evidence for them. Here there is evidence for, for example, a bunch of specific rich folks funding a campaign to get the estate tax (which affects very few) re-labelled the “death tax” and nearly eliminated. That’s not theory, that’s fact.


John Emerson 11.07.07 at 3:17 pm

SK’s conventional kneejerk reaction is imbecile. It’s the owners and managers of the media, many of which are parts of diversified megacorporations.

Give him props for admitting to being confused.


John Holbo 11.07.07 at 3:19 pm

aeon, the guy IS just saying they have had a big impact, I agree, and I actually have no problem with that claim. But putting it that way insulates you a bit from the question: ‘how big?’ Which is a very interesting question and, admittedly, very difficult to answer. There is a certain tendency to equate the degree of the compellingness of the narrative with the magnitude of the truth conveyed, as it were. But maybe the truth is that it’s definitely the case that Heritage and co. have had a big influence. But something less that ‘hard to overstate’. Putting it Anrig’s way rhetorically nudges one away from alternative hypotheses.

It’s a good book.


Aeon J. Skoble 11.07.07 at 3:34 pm

Oh, ok, now I see what you were getting at.


Josh R. 11.07.07 at 3:39 pm

I would wager that much of Paul’s appeal is not coming so much from the issues (see post 4), but from his tone. He is the only Republican candidate who is taking a truly adverserial stance towards the Beltway, particularly on the war. If you’re Republican, or Republican leaning, and want change then he’s basically the only game in town.

As for Democrats or those on the left who view him favorably: it’s probably a similar thing. The top candidates for the Dem nomination, while proposing change in various areas, are certainly not posing a full throated challenge to Beltway CV on American foreign policy, for instance. It’s that type of adversarial stance that liberal are liking; and, since they probably only hear about him tangentially and aren’t investigating fully his views on other issues, he can be a safe ally. [Glenn Greenwald also makes the case over at Salon that despite many of Paul’s crazier policy positions, he’s at least proposing a rather coherent ideological position. When he says he’s against X for constitutional reasons, he really means it, outside of any consideration of whether it would actually be a good policy. So there is perhaps also that in play.)

[What’s more puzzling, for me, is why Dennis Kucinich isn’t doing the same thing as Ron Paul. Or someone else for that matter. It’s probably a mix, I’ve concluded, that the top three have essentially co-opted most of his social policy, to some extent, and contingent factors concerning Kucinich himself.]

This shouldn’t overlook the appeal Paul has on the issues to many of his supporters, however. Just an explanation, a possible one, for why people who might not be hard core libertarians are supporting him.


Quo Vadis 11.07.07 at 3:50 pm

It is difficult to overstate the impact of … … on U.S. public policy and debates over the role of government in recent years.

I offer my congratulations to John Holbo. He appears to be the first Crooked Timberite to grasp the fundamental workings of the two party system. Add to the Greg Anrig’s list the multitudes of other interest groups large and small from MoveOn.org to the Almond Growers Association to SEIU to the Citizens Against Whatever.


John Emerson 11.07.07 at 3:51 pm

Paul appeals to nativists, anti-war people, anti-tax people, libertarians, and small-town populists. He’s strongly anti-abortion and has a nuanced position of gay marriage.

I think that the real story is that a lot of wingers who’ve been bandwagoning Bush even though they don’t like him on every issue have figured out that he’s a loser (mostly because he didn’t win the war). So they’re willing to vote their hearts.


robertdfeinman 11.07.07 at 4:19 pm

If you want some objective data on the influence of the super wealthy on economic philosophy there are several sources you can examine.
A good place to start is with Media Transparency and sourcewatch.org
Here’s an extract from their page on Heritage:

Between 1985 and 2003, Media Transparency reports that the following funders provided $57,497,537 (unadjusted for inflation) to the Heritage Foundation [4]:

* Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
* Scaife Foundations: Sarah Mellon Scaife, Scaife Family, Carthage
* John M. Olin Foundation, Inc.
* Castle Rock Foundation
* JM Foundation
* Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation
* Philip M. McKenna Foundation, Inc.
* Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation
* Roe Foundation
* Rodney Fund
* Ruth and Lovett Peters Foundation
* Orville D. and Ruth A. Merillat Foundation
* Bill and Berniece Grewcock Foundation
* Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation
* William H. Donner Foundation
* Walton Family Foundation
* Armstrong Foundation
* John Templeton Foundation
* William E. Simon Foundation

Here’s a bit I put together on Charles Koch:
Charles Koch and Libertarianism – How to “Buy” a University

Here’s a report on how just 16 wealthy families (including many of the names above) were behind the effort to repeal the estate tax. The Walton’s, for example stand to save about $40 billion if it is abolished, while the Koch brothers save about $4 billion each.
Estate Tax Report (PDF)

The point is that this small group has pushed their self interest by letting libertarians and other marginal groups provide some intellectual cover to greed. The fact that many social conservatives and those who resent paying taxes get fooled into thinking that their concerns parallel the super wealthy is just a sign of how effective their stealth propaganda has been.


abb1 11.07.07 at 4:35 pm

I don’t think there’s any doubt that most of Paul’s popularity in this cycle is due to his anti-war position. Nobody cares about his gold standard stuff. But also, the concept of weak federal government/strong state autonomy is not exactly a madman’s fantasy. In fact, it seems more attractive every day.


Brett Bellmore 11.07.07 at 5:04 pm

“The point is that this small group has pushed their self interest by letting libertarians and other marginal groups provide some intellectual cover to greed.”

But, let’s not pretend this is a uniquely right-wing phenomenon. Campaign finance ‘reform’ as we know it today is pretty much a result of Pew’s astroturf efforts, and a number of liberal causes such as gun control are equally composed of green plastic paid for by wealthy foundations.

I think we’re only begining to get at just how large a portion of our politics, right AND left, is driven by the covert expenditures of the wealthy.


Greg Anrig 11.07.07 at 5:17 pm

John, Thanks for reading and commenting on my book!
I used the phrase “difficult to overstate” because I was trying to convey that the right-wing’s institutions have been hugely important but in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify or otherwise capture with precision in one fell swoop.
I left it at that because I think that as the book unfolds, readers will see for themselves how and why those institutions have been so successful. The details are more effective at clarifying their impact than any kind of broad generalizations.
Also, I think you’ll see as you go along that the book is not really making any kind of “false consciousness” argument.

I’ll keep my eyes open for any future posts you may have about the book to respond, if I have something useful to add. Thanks again for reading it. –Greg


mq 11.07.07 at 5:22 pm

I may as well come out and say I am one of those liberal types who contributed to Ron Paul. The bottom line is that he is the only candidate out there who communicates a sharp, coherent, critique not just of the Iraq war tactically but of the entire enterprise of U.S. imperialism that has been building since WWII. And he connects this to problems with the imperial state, civil rights, etc. within the United States as well. Kucinich is not far off on these issues, but he does not communicate it nearly as well or as effectively as Paul does. (Kucinich does it through what can only be called a New Age frame rather than a constitutionalist one).

How important you think Ron Paul is will depend on how significant you think this issue is. I think it is the single most important issue of our time.

Paul’s more far out ideas, such as teh gold standard, are not likely to be implemented in their purest form. And as Abb1 says, strong state autonomy has its attractive side so long as basic civil rights are enforced.

I’d urge everyone to check out this speech by Paul on the House floor a few years ago:


Who was better following 9/11, Paul or Hilary Clinton?


mq 11.07.07 at 5:27 pm

Just to be clear: I disagree with much of Paul’s libertarian economic agenda at the Federal level, but I think that may be less significant at this time than the foreign policy one. At a certain point, the level of government spending involved in “defense” becomes so vast that cutting back on it could redistribute money more effectively than Federal transfer programs.

The maintenance of the ability of each state to structure their own economic programs is also important — many basic public services takes place at the state level. The problems come with health care financing / retirement / environmental protection / financial system regulation, much of which is better done at the Federal level.


Aeon J. Skoble 11.07.07 at 5:36 pm

mq, excellent comments. Hillary, like most of the Dem field, is only strategically anti-war because it’s Bush’s war. It’s not as though they have some sort of principled objection, and many of them were of course in favor, just as they had been in favor of the previous administration’s military ventures. Paul has expressed a consistent and coherent opposition to this war. You’re right to note that outlier views such as the gold standard are marginal to his appeal, and hardly worth getting agitated about.


mq 11.07.07 at 5:54 pm

For anyone who wants further evidence on how Paul differs from your typical “shmibertarian” — look at this speech in favor of prescription drug reimportation:


He’s calling patent monopolies on drugs interference with the free market! That’s a radical left position in contemporary U.S. politics.


Keith 11.07.07 at 7:35 pm

So it makes no never mind that Paul is for abolishing Public Education and for Letters of Marque? Or that he’s a 9/11 Trufer?

These aren’t just quirks. This is his platform. That it may not get done if he was president is besides the point. You think that if he was President he’d be able to snap his fingers and the troops would be out of Iraq? If Congress will temper his oddball plans, why wouldn’t they also hinder his sane one, especially since we already know that most of our Congress folk have already ditched several attempts to stop the war?

Ron Paul is a nutjob. But hay, at least he’s against the Iraq war! And doesn’t want to start one with Iran either! So we’ll vote for the stopped clock because it’s right at least twice a day.

I’m bothered that so many Americans think that the only option is to replace one kind of irresponsible, selfish incompetence with another.


robertdfeinman 11.07.07 at 7:36 pm

Could you detail Pew’s “astroturf” efforts?
And how can you equate the self serving actions of a Scaife or Olin with (I’m guessing) the Ford Foundation.

Perhaps you don’t like Ford’s policies, but the Ford family doesn’t profit from them as do the super wealthy when they get self-serving legislation passed on the back of their think tanks’s propaganda. In addition the major social foundations are pretty transparent about where they get their money from and where it gets spent. Try to find out the same thing from the think tanks funded by Scaife and company.

That there is any information available at all is solely due to the efforts of a few organizations which painfully try to track the source of the funds. If your organization is doing something for the public good why the need to hide it?

Sorry, Hillary was correct, there is a vast right wing conspiracy. It’s just that their objectives are self enrichment and not the promotion of business for its own efficiencies. The Walton family gets over $1 billion a year in stock dividends from its Walmart stock. Now look at how the stock has performed. They don’t care about outside investors since they have a controlling interest and no plans to sell their stock.

In other one of the world’s biggest firms is being run for the benefit of four people and their families. Wouldn’t you want to hide your involvement in obscuring this?


Brett Bellmore 11.07.07 at 8:18 pm


Why would the fact that the rich guy is buying off politicians to violate a civil liberty or two he despises, instead of to put more money in his pocket, make me think it’s ok?


abb1 11.07.07 at 8:40 pm

Is he for abolishing Public Education or is he for abolishing the federal role in public education?


Keith 11.07.07 at 9:25 pm


Paul wants there to be no federal involvement in education at all, which is the same as ending public education in at least a half dozen states. If left to state level decisions, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina would do away with public schools altogether and another dozen or so states would go for the ridiculous voucher system, which means that if you can’t afford to send your kids to private school, the only remaining option would be home schooling, coops or religious schools that take charity students.


JM 11.07.07 at 9:42 pm

I love Brett’s (and many conservatives’) idea that limiting money in politics is tantamount to a Stalinist crushing of political freedom. So, you’re criticizing the Ford Found. for unduly influencing politics in order to pass a bill that would, in turn, limit their own later influence in politics? The difference between that and getting things past to line your own pockets is the difference between having a genuine philosophical belief in something — even if it may not be the best thing for you personally — and engineering government for your benefit.

This is similar to conservatives’ arguing that Kerry and Edwards wanting to raise taxes on the rich was bad AND that their being rich was itself hypocritical, rather than seeing that the second made the first more profound, in a away. (That being said, I’d still rather not have a millionaire president of either party, though at least Edwards earned it himself.)

The WSJ Brett quotes is silly for so many reasons, most of which revolve around what I’ve said above, but a somewhat tangential point is also worth commenting on. According to the WSJ article:

“National Public Radio openly accepted $1.2 million from liberal foundations to provide such items as “coverage of financial influence in political decision-making.” Its campaign finance reporter, Peter Overby, is a former editor of the magazine put out by Common Cause, a major supporter of McCain-Feingold. No one suggests there was direct collusion between NPR and campaign finance lobbies. With the money and personnel available to NPR, there didn’t need to be. Sympathetic stories on the need for campaign finance reform flowed naturally. Sounds like the kind of “faux news” that liberals are complaining the Bush administration was guilty of engineering when it put out video press releases or provided conservative commentator Armstrong Williams with a grant.”

Putting aside the fact that this makes it seem like everyone who donates to NPR simply “buys” favorable coverage, which is silly, and then equates it to actual fake, bought editorials, why don’t liberals take conservatives up on this particular argument?

So, the solution would be to make sure that NPR is fully and generously funded by the government, allowing it to stop soliciting donations. Oh, wait, conservatives want to eliminate NPR…leaving us with media where advertisers influence coverage. What is comes down to, then, is that anything that conservatives’ disagree with is illegitimate, whereas corporations or wealthy conservatives lobbing for something conservative is fine.


Crystal 11.07.07 at 10:23 pm

I agree that the sheer gormlessness of the Democratic Congress has pushed people away from them. I remember being so thrilled at the Dem majority in 2006 but now – sheesharoonie, guys and gals, show some balls/ovaries/backbone or what have you!

All this, however, won’t induce me to touch lolbertarianism with a bargepole. Sorry, Ron. John Edwards might be flawed, but at least he is speaking out on the economic divide, the hollowing-out of the middle class, and the dire straits of the working poor. At this point I’d rather have Edwards than anyone else except maybe Kucinich.


mq 11.07.07 at 10:33 pm

27: why shouldn’t state governments get to decide democratically if they want to do something crazy?

The strong Federal system probably lowers the number of crazy experiments, but it makes all of us victim to them with no choice but to leave the country when they do happen.


mpowell 11.07.07 at 10:49 pm

At the end of the day a Republican is willing to claim these two requests are ‘equivalent’:

“Stop hitting me”
“Stop defending yourself”

As long as the Republican is the aggressor. This is how Republicans view politics.


abb1 11.07.07 at 10:54 pm

If left to state level decisions, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina would do away with public schools altogether…

I highly doubt it. Not just the excerpt above, but your whole comment.

But suppose (for the sake of argument) they do do away with public schools altogether – isn’t that what democracy is all about? If they want different kind of schools (like, say, the Amish), why shouldn’t they be able to have them?


abb1 11.07.07 at 10:58 pm

Oh, mq answered it already. Sorry, I missed it.


goatchowder 11.07.07 at 11:11 pm

Why is anyone wondering how Ron Paul was able to raise that money so quickly?

He is the ONLY Republican who is anti-war. He’s stridently, militantly anti-war.

Among Democrats, we have Kucinich, Dodd, and Gravel, as anti-war candidates, and I’d bet their fundraising success is similar to Paul’s or exceeds it.

Paul is running a single-issue campaign. Giuliani keeps saying “9/11, 9/11” all the time, and Paul keeps saying “Get out of Iraq” all the time. Most people don’t agree with Paul’s radical destroy-the-government policies, so he’s focussing on the anti-war aspect, and getting lots of support that way. Smart guy.


Brett Bellmore 11.08.07 at 1:23 am

“I love Brett’s (and many conservatives’) idea that limiting money in politics is tantamount to a Stalinist crushing of political freedom.”

You can love it all you like, but there’s still going to be more truth to it than you want to admit: Whatever fond hopes the campaign ‘reformers’ may have of pruning public discourse into some beautiful topiary, the only purpose the incumbent politicians actually crafting the laws have is making life harder on challengers and pesky critics.

They’re not regulating money. They’re using money as a handle to regulate speech. And they’re doing it because they don’t LIKE the speech.

What’s so hard to understand about this? Regulation by incumbent officeholders of the efforts by people to oust them from office is a conflict of interest so stark, so all consuming, that there is simply nothing to be gained from it that’s worth the risk.

Even if you could rightly call a 100% probability a “risk”.


John Holbo 11.08.07 at 1:54 am

Hi Greg, thanks for commenting. I’m enjoying your book.


Joshua Holmes 11.08.07 at 2:58 am

If left to state level decisions, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina would do away with public schools altogether…

Of course, which is why there was no public school system in those states until the creation of the Department of Education in 1980.


Bobcat 11.08.07 at 2:15 pm

In comment 34 goatchowder wrote, “Among Democrats, we have Kucinich, Dodd, and Gravel, as anti-war candidates, and I’d bet their fundraising success is similar to Paul’s or exceeds it.”

You mean Kucinich, Dodd, and Gravel put together? Or individually? According to wikipedia, Paul has raised $7.5 million in the 3rd quarter of 2007, as compared to Gravel’s $131,000, Kucinich’s $1 million, and Dodd’s $1.5 million.


Bobcat 11.08.07 at 2:15 pm


Bobcat 11.08.07 at 2:18 pm

However, according to opensecrets.org, Dodd has raised $13.6 million, Paul $8.3 million, Kucinich $1.8, and Gravel $207,000.



Josh R. 11.08.07 at 4:26 pm

Re #37:

While a good start at a rebuke, your post ultimately fails. The political environment, and educational policies, of the state capitals of those states may not have led to the abolition of public schooling in 1980 or so, but what about today? Have we reason to think that that is a valild fear for today’s political climate in those states?

It might not be, I’m no expert on any of them, but it’s at least possible.


Joshua Holmes 11.08.07 at 10:33 pm

Have we reason to think that that is a valild fear for today’s political climate in those states?

Not fear, but hope. And no.


thompsaj 11.10.07 at 6:33 am

I agree with Josh R. In SC, for example, the climate is such that if the federal DOE went away, there would be a huge constituency for creating some voucher system followed by yet another round of shifting tax burdens away from property taxes. It would NOT be viewed as a chance to spend that money on the schools more effectively. The schools, especially the rural schools, are in such bad shape that I could see a bunch of people asking “well how bad do you need to take Chemistry anyway?”


thompsaj 11.10.07 at 6:34 am

or my all time favorite: “you can’t just throw money at the problem”

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