Ideas are the very stuff of politics.
– Deborah Stone
Whoever decides what the game is about also decides who gets into the game.
– E.E. Schattschneider
How the national debate is framed, and what options are put before the public, can be more important ultimately than the immediate choices made. The framing defines the breadth of the nation’s ambitions, and thus either raises or lowers expectations, fires or depresses imaginations, ignites or deflates political movements.
– Robert Reich
Long before Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences was first published in 1948, an appreciation was growing of the role that ideas play in the nation’s political life. As many have noted, ideas matter in a variety of ways. They can and do serve as the flagships of ideological and intellectual movements. They can help create new social understandings of old issues. They can weaken existing political coalitions or pave the way for the formation of new ones. And they can also provide lawmakers and others with the architectural frameworks within which to build policy agendas and justify governing decisions.
In fact, the more fundamental changes in American politics may not be in election results, but rather in the rise and fall of different ideas and their attendant policy agendas. Given this, significantly more attention needs to be directed to the issue raising, issue framing and issue suppression process in American politics today. How is it that some ideas become public ideas, or politically influential, while others do not? How are issues defined for public attention, framed in policy terms or suppressed in public policy debates? How do nonprofit research and advocacy organizations frame issues in the marketplace of ideas? And what role does private money play in supporting ideas and helping to set the agenda of American political life?
On the premise that ideas and the institutions that promote them matter, this NCRP report focuses attention on the top 20 conservative policy institutions of the 1990s. Included among them are some of the most powerful and well known institutions operating in the nation’s capital today. The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute have become veritable household names to those even remotely familiar with conservative think tanks’ ascendant role in structuring the nation’s political conversation. Given their unflagging commitment to the marketing of their policy products and the sophistication of their political communications, their brand name status should not be surprising. This report, however, also focuses needed attention on seventeen additional, lesser-known think tanks whose work promotes the same broad ideological themes and whose activities buttress those of “star” institutions like the Heritage Foundation.
The rising influence of numerous smaller conservative think tanks has been a notable development during the 1990s. Together, these and other conservative policy groups have been able to define policy issues and approaches for public attention, skillfully using mainstream and alternative media outlets to create a powerful echo effect in and beyond the nation’s capital.
In focusing on the operating philosophies and policy activities of 20 top national conservative policy institutions, $1 Billion for Ideas builds on two earlier NCRP research reports that examined the burgeoning of state-level conservative think tanks (1991) and the funding side of the conservative political renaissance (1997). The latter report documented the grantmaking strategies of 12 ideologically conservative foundations, concluding that their philanthropic investments contributed in substantial ways to building and sustaining and intellectual and activist infrastructure on behalf of conservatives’ anti-government and unregulated markets agenda.
This 1999 report picks up the threads of that analysis to provide an expanded and more detailed analysis of 20 leading conservative think tanks.
Summary of Findings
The top 20 conservative think tanks studied in this report are:
- American Enterprise Institute
- American Legislative Exchange Council
- Atlas Economic Research Foundation
- Cato Institute
- Center for Strategic and International Studies
- Citizens for a Sound Economy
- Competitive Enterprise Institute
- Empower America
- Employment Policy Foundation
- Ethics and Public Policy Center
- Family Research Council
- Free Congress Research and Education Foundation
- Heritage Foundation
- Hoover Institution
- Hudson Institute
- Manhattan Institute
- National Center for Policy Analysis
- National Center for Public Policy Research
- Progress and Freedom Foundation
- Reason Foundation
Based on a review of their annual reports, websites, policy products and other publicly available information, the following findings stand out:
- Expenditures by the 20 institutions examined were
$158.1 million in 1996. This amount was a significant
increase from 1992, with many organizations more than doubling
their budgets over the four-year period. To put this
figure in perspective, the Republican Party raised and spent
$138 million in “soft money” contributions in 1996, $20 million
less than the 20 policy groups profiled here.
- Partial data from 1997 indicates that spending by
center-right and far-right think tanks continues to grow
rapidly, suggesting that the 1990s has been a period of continued
institution-building by political conservatives. Overall
spending by these institutions between 1990 and 2000 is likely
to top $1 billion.
- Early generous support by conservative foundations
and wealthy individuals has enabled many of these institutions
to develop impressive fund raising apparatuses, allowing
them to diversify their finding bases and attract even higher
levels of donor support. Many of the institutions examined
now receive as much as two-thirds of their funding from individual
and corporate supporters.
- A number of smaller and relatively new conservative
think tanks have risen to new positions of visibility in
recent years. While the five largest and most well-known
policy institutions (the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution,
Center for Strategic and International Studies, American
Enterprise Institute and Free Congress Research and Education
Foundation) expended half of the $158 million total, the
remaining $80 million was spent by 15 smaller policy organizations
working to advance core elements of the conservative agenda.
- Conservative policy organizations continue to promote
a highly ideological world view, working on multiple policy
fronts to privatize the public sphere and elevate the market
as the prime mechanism for social arbitration and resource
allocation. These policy groups have pushed aggressively
to privatize Social Security and Medicare, loosen laws governing
workplace safety and the rights of workers to organize, roll
back environmental and consumer safety regulations, cripple
the ability of nonprofit organizations to engage in public
policy debate and advocacy, privatize systems of public education,
and pare back the scope, size and cost of government in numerous
other areas. They also saw their long-standing crusade
to end the federal welfare entitlement come to fruition in
- Conservative policy groups have shown increasing sophistication
in waging high-intensity battles over extended periods of
time, better coordinating their activities with lobbyists
in the private sector, political operatives in Washington
and the states, and activists at the grassroots. Major policy
battles between 1993 and 1996 over telecommunications and
health care have taught these institutions important lessons
and helped them to refine their advocacy operations. Many
operate like “extra-party” organizations, adopting the tactics
of the permanent political campaign by incorporating a fund
raising arm, a lobbying arm, a policy analysis and development
arm, a public relations arm, and a grassroots mobilization
or constituency development arm.
- The structure of political opportunities continues
to advantage conservative policy entrepreneurs. Contributing
factors include the continued demobilization of large swaths
of the American electorate, the decisive role that special
interest money plays in national politics, the media’s political
importance, the transformation of political parties from
citizen mobilization vehicles into top-down fund raising
machines, organized labor’s declining ability to help set
broad national budget and policy priorities, the single issue
focus of many liberal and left institutions, and their failure
to develop and communicate to the American electorate an
overarching public philosophy for the country.
- There is no mainstream left-of-center parallel to the critical mass of conservative policy institutions currently operating in the United States today. Conservative policy institutions tend to be multi-issue organizations with multi-million dollar budgets, powerful corporate boards, and significant media access. They work along dual tracks, promoting a broad public philosophy while tying specific policy initiatives to it. They also tend to pursue bold structural reforms with the potential to change both the substance of police and the rules of the political game for decades to come.
For policy entrepreneurs on the right, the conservative takeover of Congress in 1994 provided major opportunity to implement a political vision and related policy agenda on which they had worked for some three decades. Battling the Clinton Administration during 1993 and 1994 had energized their ranks and swelled their budgets, but working with the new Congress presented them with a chance systematically to transform America’s public policy agenda. As this report shows, that opportunity was not squandered. Since 1995, the national policy discussion in numerous areas has moved noticeably to the right. The federal welfare guarantee has been eliminated. Partial Social Security Privatization, unthinkable a decade ago, is supported by numerous members of Congress, including some moderate Democrats. Sweeping telecommunications deregulation has been enacted. New tax breaks for the rich have been passed by Congress, with more proposed. Legislation authorizing school vouchers has been endorsed by the House of Representatives. Efforts to stem global warming have been slowed. The flat tax is now a proposal being seriously discussed by many in Washington.
It is impossible reliably to gauge the exact role of conservative think tanks in bringing about this rightward shift in American politics. Clearly, many other factors have been at work, including the changing political attitudes of the American public, the skill of conservative political leaders, and the well-funded lobbying efforts of a multitude of private sector interests. But to those who play or observe the Washington game, on both left and right, the influence of conservative think tanks is inescapable. Most impressive is the way in which conservative policy entrepreneurs have successfully won support for their grand story of American politics. If national politics can be seen largely as a contest of broad frameworks, there is little question that conservatives have won this game in recent years.
In 1993 and 1994, the ideological framework underpinning American public policy was in major flux. The Clinton Administration was vigorously putting forth a new story of public policy that combined elements of the traditional liberal agenda with centrist thinking. That story stressed the critical importance of fresh government initiatives to correct for market failures, as in the area of health care, and also to equip American workers to compete in the global economy through education and job training. While highlighting new arguments about personal responsibility and values, especially on the issue of welfare, the Clinton Administration’s story also reaffirmed the enduring value of long-standing government programs for assisting elderly Americans and protecting the environment. During 1993 and 1994, conservative leaders like Newt Gingrich were deeply concerned that the success of this story – and particularly the passage of a national health insurance program – would inaugurate a new era of middle class support for activist government.
But between 1994 and 1997, the Clinton Administration’s fledgling grand story was effectively demolished as a basis for a public policy agenda. While the current political climate is often characterized as “centrist” in nature, such an assessment is deceiving since the entire gravity of American politics has shifted radically to the right in recent years, delimiting a range of policy options that once occupied a central place in the political mainstream. Major new efforts to expand the role of government in order to solve social or economic problems appear to be virtually unthinkable, despite the strong economy and a budget surplus. At the same time, many government programs which were previously protected from political attack – most notably entitlements for the elderly and environmental protections – are now under legislative assault. Even as public trust for government has edged up slightly in recent years, the long-standing conservative crusade to discredit government as a vehicle for societal progress has come to fruition as never before. And even as market failures have become more evident in areas such as managed health care, housing, and in the growing ranks of the working poor, conservative arguments extolling the virtue of an unfettered free market have gained ever wider currency in national policy discussions.
Today, conservative think tanks are well positioned to help consolidate and extend the major conservative policy gains of recent years. In terms of research and advocacy, these think tanks have learned important lessons during the Clinton era about how successfully to move policy debates in a climate characterized by public disengagement from politics and the growing influence of special interest groups. In particular, they have perfected their strategies for building elite and public support for policy ideas through extended campaigns that reframe broad arguments, popularize specific blueprints for action, and mobilize grassroots support.
The infrastructure now in place to support these efforts is extensive. If current trends hold, it is likely that some of the smaller conservative think tanks like NCPA, Reason, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute will expand in significantly larger institutions. Of special importance is the human capital that conservative think tanks have at their disposal. Over the past two decades, these institutions have nurtured a large class of professional conservative policy intellectuals and marketers that is not found elsewhere on the political spectrum. By giving particular attention to developing the careers of younger policy specialists, conservative think tanks have assured a large reservoir of new leadership that can guide these institutions into the 21st century. Currently, many of the top leadership positions in conservative think tanks are filled by individuals who played founding roles in these organizations during the 1970s and 1980s. As these leaders retire, they will likely be replaced by policy entrepreneurs who, if anything, are more ideologically aggressive and more sophisticated in the area of media technology.
Beyond its reservoir of human capital, the national conservative policy institutions are well endowed with allies in the state and local arenas, along with strong networks to manage these alliances. If conservatives can sustain the recent trend toward devolving federal responsibilities to the state level, these relationships will become ever more important for implementing long-term strategic efforts to reduce the size and scope of government. But even in the absence of further devolution, the growing sophistication with which national and local conservative policy activists coordinate their efforts is likely to yield rising dividends. Likewise, conservative think tanks can be expected to leverage the strengthened links that they have forged with the private sector during the 1990s, closely coordinating future policy campaigns.
In terms of resources, there is every indication that the funding stream that currently supports the conservative policy infrastructure will continue to grow. For the core group of foundations that have been heavily funding conservative think tanks in the past two decades, recent political developments have represented a major payoff of their long-term strategic investments. These funders can be expected to move with as much vigor in the future as they have in the past to assure the continuing transformation of America’s public policy agenda. Clearly, as well, corporations have developed a new appreciation for the importance of underwriting policy work and their giving to conservative think tanks can be expected to continue. The passage of major campaign finance reform legislation would be sure to increase corporate funding of the conservative policy infrastructure as private sector actors redirect resources into other channels for influencing political developments.
Overall, the rising strength of conservative policy institutions is likely to reinforce trends toward a greatly narrowed public policy debate in the United States. At a time when national wealth and economic inequality are rising hand in hand, no real discussion is on the horizon for reviving the American ideal of shared prosperity. At a time of growing public disengagement from politics, there are few serious proposals under debate for strengthening America’s impoverished democracy. And at a time of enduring racial problems in the United States, no major new initiative to alleviate this blight on our society are under consideration. In all of these areas, finding solutions that would improve American life will not be easy. Unfortunately, as the conservative story becomes ever more influential, the search for such substantive solutions become an ever lower priority on the national agenda.
Link to purchase a copy of the full report, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s, or contact: