Mitt Romney announces that he is “not concerned about the very poor.” Newt Gingrich calls for drafting low-income students to work as janitors. Meanwhile, the other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have little at all to say about the poor, beyond demands to cut federal programs that focus on their needs.
All this confirms one of the oldest stereotypes in American politics: that conservatives are uncaring, hardhearted skinflints, unworthy to govern a people known for charity and compassion.
Conservative philanthropy once helped dispel that stereotype by developing thoughtful private approaches to poverty. Unhappily, it now simply reinforces unfavorable impressions by focusing on short-term political advocacy rather than long-term civic problem solving.
Four decades ago, conservative foundations began to chip away at the image of right-wing mean-spiritedness by exploring the notion that a revitalized civil society would curb poverty more effectively than expensive bureaucratic government programs.
In this view, local charities and religious groups had enabled the poor to survive and make progress throughout American history.
These small, tightly knit groups not only provided material support for the poor but, more important, inculcated moral and political virtues like self-discipline, perseverance, and personal responsibility, which are required for productive work and public-spirited citizenship.
Government programs tended to displace and erode those groups, conservative grant makers believed, so if civil society were to be revived, it would have to be chiefly through private giving.
Consequently, conservative foundations began to support the scholars and institutions that were developing policy ideas like school choice, as well as the tenets behind the welfare overhaul of the mid-1990s and White House plans to give faith-based groups government money to fight poverty. While reducing government presence, such programs would also resuscitate the innate capacities of vibrant local communities to solve their own problems according to their own values and beliefs.
My employer during the ’90s, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, contributed handsomely to these studies and the formulation of the larger social vision behind them.
At the same time, we also realized that civil society had to go beyond theory into practice. So we identified and supported a wide variety of small, often struggling civic groups in our own backyard in Milwaukee, located with the help of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, an organization founded by the activist Robert Woodson.
To scholars and grass-roots leaders alike, we typically made grants for general operating support over the long term, accompanied by a minimum of procedural fuss. We believed that those on the front lines knew best what civic renewal required and should be entrusted with the flexibility and time to experiment and adapt, without demands for complicated “theories of change,” elaborate metrics, or other distractions. We took the long view, because the work of restoring a badly eroded civil society would be the work of decades, not a few grant cycles.
Even the most ardent critics of conservative philanthropy admired this approach to grant making and pressed it upon liberal foundations for emulation.
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.
By contrast, the conservative choice to abandon grants to advance the theory and practice of civil society, and to resort instead to shrill, divisive, short-term political advocacy, can only erase this favorable impression, confirming the American people in their predisposition to regard conservatives as selfish and hardhearted.
Seemingly anti-poor remarks like those by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are no longer counterbalanced in public estimation by a vigorous conservative civil-society plan to combat poverty.
Similarly, Rick Santorum’s lone effort to construct a “coherent conservative agenda for low-income Americans” by promoting healthy families and communities is lost in the storm of invective.
But beyond the problem of political image lies the more substantial issue of conservatism’s enduring charitable obligation to the poor. Ardent advocacy for reduced government spending is fine, but it must be matched with serious regard for the needs of those affected. This is a moral demand upon a movement that takes moral demands seriously.
For conservatives to escape not only the appearance but also the damning reality of hardheartedness, their philanthropies must devote serious resources once again to the revival of civil society.
Above all, they must locate, support, and become directly involved with the grass-roots groups in their own communities that best demonstrate the power of civil society.
A group of wealthy conservative business executives in Denver recently showed how to go about this. While they are second to none in their devotion to cutting government, they also realize that this imposes a special obligation on them to support private groups that work with the poor.
One of their favorites is Step 13, a small, scruffy rehabilitation center for addicts run by the recovering alcoholic Bob Coté. Each of them has visited Step 13 often, becoming personally acquainted with his effective work and good stewardship, admiring his reliance on personal spiritual transformation rather than expensive, government-financed therapy.
When Mr. Coté was faced with a sudden need to buy his rented space, the businessmen immediately began to drop off unsolicited but large checks.
“All the mean-spirited, right-wing conservatives raised more than the million and half we needed to buy the building, and they decided to let us use the extra money to bring the building up to code. God bless them,” Mr. Coté told me.
Many more local civic leaders across the country must be able to say the same before conservatism will have met its moral obligation to replace the government programs it so disdains with the vibrant, effective private alternatives it so much admires.
• William Schambra directs the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and is a regular contributor to The Chronicle’s opinion section.
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