Does conservative philanthropy ignore the poor?
Conservative philanthropy once helped dispel the stereotype of conservatives as uncaring or hardhearted by developing thoughtful private approaches to alleviating poverty. Why has it been abandoned today?
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Even the most ardent critics of conservative philanthropy admired this approach to grant making and pressed it upon liberal foundations for emulation.Skip to next paragraph
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It worked, the critics noted, because it reflected a compelling and comprehensive social vision, illuminated both by thoughtful doctrine and concrete examples, pursued by grantees enjoying the time and latitude required to reshape gradually the very way we approach policy questions.
Yet too many conservative foundations and wealthy individuals have abandoned this approach today. They prefer to give money to activist groups that operate much closer to the line of politics, using public-relations techniques and advocacy tactics more appropriate for electoral campaigns than policy deliberation.
Research is useful only insofar as it can be boiled down to pithy, hard-hitting talking points for a political ally or juicy “oppo research” stories about the peccadilloes of a political foe.
The patient pursuit of long-term vision has given way to the lunge for an immediate legislative or electoral win on a specific, narrow-bore issue closely reflecting conservative ideology.
Grant makers expect sharply defined, short-term, measurable political outcomes rather than barely perceptible, immeasurable shifts in long-term social attitudes. The quick political pay-off has replaced the gradual reshaping of the social and cultural environment.
To be sure, these techniques are currently touted by conservative and liberal observers alike as merely “best practices” for state-of-the-art advocacy. Finger-pointing about “who started it” is useless, for by now, both sides are caught up in a rapidly escalating arms race. They vie to one-up each other by adding the latest policy weapon to their respective arsenals, spiraling ever closer to the poorly demarcated border of outright and illegal political engagement.
Whatever damage may be done to liberalism by this approach, it is clearly harming conservatism.
The long-term, patient work done by conservative foundations on civil society’s indispensable role in the struggle against poverty helped to dissipate for a while the impression that conservatives are nothing more than hardhearted Scrooges.
George W. Bush understood this well when he was serving as governor of Texas and decided to run for president. That’s why he drew heavily on the scholars and institutions supported by conservative foundations for the formulation of his “compassionate conservatism.” It aimed to celebrate and provide modest government support for small, struggling faith-based groups of the sort that Bradley supported in Milwaukee.
He was so determined to overcome the Scrooge stereotype that he dedicated the first speech of his presidential campaign in 1999 to a whole-hearted embrace of the civil-society message.
“In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people,” he proclaimed, “we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives. ... We will rally the armies of compassion in our communities.”
Governor Bush not only became president but did so with stronger than usual support from Hispanic and African-American voters. Apparently, a powerful message about the role of civil society as an antidote to poverty can in fact soften conservatism’s harsh image even among typically nonconservative constituencies.