The Right's Real Problem: Too Big to Fail

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:25 am October 7, 2009


It’s always interesting to me how the American Right — arguably the largest pro-capitalist, pro-market political force in the world — is so quick to ignore the lessons of the entrepreneurial marketplace when it comes to their organizations and structure. A powerful example can be found in the analysis of Steve Hayward, a smart scholar for the American Enterprise Institute who I respect greatly, whose Sunday column in the Washington Post on “Brain-Dead” conservatism prompted several reactions from libertarians, conservatives, and bloggers alike. I rarely disagree with Hayward, who is a bright and thoughtful fellow. But in the case of this piece, it is very hard to see past this level of self-indictment.

The real untold story of the past decade on the Right is one of profound misallocation of resources — particularly jarring considering we are discussing for the most part organizations and people who espouse again and again the virtues of competition and the wisdom of the marketplace. It is now a disaster of monumental proportions, one that has gutted innovators and entrepreneurs on the right for the sake of keeping a doddering establishment on life support. Taken as a whole, it represents a total market failure.

Hayward joins the conventional wisdom of Washington in missing the real story about the Right’s struggles in recent years — missing it in a profound way which exemplifies the inside-the-beltway thinking that continues to cripple conservatism. As my colleague Pejman Yousefzadeh summarizes it, Hayward “points out that there is a serious imbalance between intellectuals on the Right, and activists on the Right. There are plenty of the latter, but not nearly enough of the former.”

This strikes me as exactly the opposite of the truth. When one surveys the organization lists and attendees inside the Beltway and in most states outside it, you find scads of policy experts and think tank scholars. While state activist organizations have struggled on small budgets, and while conservative writers and pro-market bloggers can barely keep the lights on, national-level opinionmakers and opinionsharers remain plentiful, saturating the market, the panel circuit, and the cable news with their wisdom — which can be had for pennies, and if it’s a wannabe intellectual, for even less.

Why is this the case? The simple fact is that the dominance of the left in American higher education has left a great number of smart, well-educated people who would otherwise be known as the lone smart conservative professor in a department looking for more comfortable, more reliable, and better paid jobs. There can only be so many token ideological hires at the Ivy League level, and with the doors of the high halls of academia closed off to them, these intellectuals gravitate instead to the world of think tanks.

AEI is a perfect example of this phenomenon — in fact, they sometimes refer to themselves as a university without students. Their resident scholars are top-heavy with lots of impressive super-professors, department chairs as it were, who are free to write and do just about anything they want, with very few limits. Unlike some other examples of this model, most of these AEI scholars are actually worth the money — their new president, Arthur Brooks, has a profound understanding of the weaknesses and strengths of their model, and one of their fellows, Roger Bate, is a frequent contributor here — but AEI is the exception, not the rule.

The Right in America is heavy with clubs for smart people — many of whom are paid, essentially, to be smart — and burdened with the funding it takes to support them. Supporting these scholars costs a great deal, and that means a hefty donor relations department — after all, there’s no income from tuition, and many of these places refuse all corporate donations, in order to avoid any questions of conflicts of interest. If you expand this model out a dozen times, you see hundreds of people targeting thousands of the same donors for money to support professors who are paid to attend conferences, give quotes to journalists, and write about what they want to write about, whether it has anything to do with breaking news or topics before Congress or not.

At their best, the majority of these organizations are nice, pleasant, and irrelevant. Their salons on issues of note produce very little of any worth. There are no ramifications for their expensive speaker series attended by bored interns, inevitably featuring a Senator or Congressman or Governor reading remarks penned at the last minute by a press secretary. At their worst, they become pseudointellectual organizations with lazy, irrelevant, academic-lite campuses, full of would-be professors locked in contentious debates, and little or no thought given toward the outside world. They write for websites no one reads, and publish journals that gather dust on the shelf, and that’s that.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Some center-right think tanks are, as with the Center for American Progress on the left (though there is not one think tank on the Right that is as effective as CAP has been over the past few years), geared very much toward being cutting-edge policy shops: focused on the daily legislative grind, they are designed less as slow-moving places for highly-educated people to gain private-sector tenure and ruminate the days away than as places for wonks to gather, process, and inform. One white paper written by a wonk with a Bachelor’s Degree designed to inject a new idea into the debate can have a far greater impact on the formation of legislation at the federal and state level than hundreds of panels, speaker series, and yes, thoughtful Washington Post opeds about the Right.

These policy-focused institutions achieve far more in tangible political terms than places that are not as focused on outcomes and measurements of success. Applying better ideas to difficult policy questions is how you get policy successes like welfare reform — which is now, of course, a fifteen-year-old project and a twenty-year-old idea. Yet welfare reform’s success also begs the question of why, with so many think tanks filling the landscape and so many well-paid full-time smart well-educated intellectuals out there, why did the last decade — during which conservatives had a seat at the table for all ten, and Republicans dominated government for six — produce so few successfully applied conservative policy ideas? National Security concerns certainly intervened, but that alone cannot answer it.

The Right should not become anti-intellectual — of course not. If anything, as a recent series in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed, intellectuals on the Right have the ability to pose far more challenging questions than their colleagues on the left, and the ideological union of market freedom, social traditionalism, and strong opposition to tyranny that drove conservative ideas to the forefront in the 1980s is certainly in need of further consideration. The point is that while the Right might be served well by becoming more intellectual, it does not necessarily need more intellectuals. In fact, it may have too many intellectuals of a certain type.

Consider the example of one tenured think tank scholar, who I will not name, but whose identity may be fairly obvious. He is a resident scholar at a DC-area thinktank; he has co-written a book, which sold decently and prompted debate (more about its politics than its policy ideas); he is a contributing editor to several journals; and while he has never worked in government or on public policy, and has no advanced education in the discipline he primarily writes about, he is already living the life of a tenured professor. While he has never proposed a relevant policy solution on any matter, certainly not one that has been taken up by a politician, his students are an audience of readers who find his work of interest — he is now published regularly at more than a half dozen journals of opinion. For this he is well compensated.

Now consider the other side of this coin, the modern blogger — again, an individual I will not name, but who is well known within the center-right blogosphere. This is a young man, a veteran, with a family, a blue collar background, and a day job as a low-level tech worker. He writes on his own time, with his work focused on breaking news, and gets thousands of hits every day to his work. He has broken at least three major stories over the past two years by my count, including a news-breaking video that got extensive play on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. He gets no money to do this work, and the amounts he’s received from major sources have never been more than the occasional monthly car payment. He struggles to support his family, but he believes what he’s doing is important, so he sticks to it.

For the first candidate, money is not a worry. He is part of an organization that is focused on raising it, so this renaissance man can pay his mortgage, have an office, benefits, and never miss a paycheck or a TV appearance. This money will come from a center-right donor or group of donors, who could instead be funding this cutting edge journalist (breaking news that will drive the debate) or an activist at the state level (running investigative journalism project or government watchdog work) or the blogger in question.

This is the way things are, and given that it is the case, it’s hard to blame any individual writer or activist on the conservative side who decides to give up in this environment, when they see dollar after dollar headed to top-heavy, inefficient, old-guard organizations. To the next generation of activists, asking why is there no money for smart online activism, why people like James O’Keefe and others rebuffed by Washington must go out west to the very non-Beltway (a compliment) Andrew Breitbart to find cash for a project like the recent impressive work on ACORN, the answer is that it’s headed either toward paying for smart people to write and talk, or paying for aging response organizations to track when their writing and talking is ignored by the mainstream media.

Washington is full of organizations on the Right that raise buckets of money from conservative donors because they repeatedly say they are training, enabling, and encouraging the creation of more activists online and more investigative journalists. They send out thousands of letters to little old ladies across the country making these claims. Yet when you take a closer look at most of these organizations, you’ll find they spend most of their time claiming credit for things going on at the grassroots level that they in reality had nothing to do with — and in some cases, wouldn’t know how to do even if they tried. Donors say that investigative journalism and online activism training is what they want to support? Very well, they say, let’s repackage something we wanted to do already around that idea, even if it’s not our area of expertise — a new box for an old shoe.

Though some of them are quite well-meaning, the people at these organizations are not just not part of the solution — they are a part of the problem. They are assisted by wallet grabbers for hire, people who will lie on their behalf, rewrite any proposal to make their organization eligible for any grant on any subject, credit-claim to donor after donor (who usually doesn’t know any better) to continue to fund their inefficient, pointless, and irrelevant work. The organizations stay alive as the walking-dead they are, committing annual highway robbery of their ideological friends at their banquets.

It is worth noting here the context within Hayward’s piece appears — the ascendancy of the populist right, in the form of the Tea Party and town hall protests. This is a phenomenon that, while supported now by some organizations, happened organically because of the organization capabilities of modern technology, which equips individuals with all the tools they need to become better activists and organizers than the top-heavy DC presences could ever be. The populist upsurge, so out of character for staid small government types, was an organic and unwieldy phenomenon — but that didn’t stop twenty organizations from claiming credit for it.

O’Keefe himself worked at one time for one of the worst offenders in this category — he was fired.

If you believe in the marketplace — and you believe that organizations that take decades to adjust, are always behind the demands of the marketplace, and lean heavily on false advertising to achieve their funding will ultimately fail — then it should not surprise you that most of these organizations are dying. Over the coming years, their death will be hastened by the demise of their figurehead leaders, their obvious failure to adapt to the internet age, and the success of those online journalists and activists who actually do shift the daily news cycle and fuel stories that break through to the national level. Single-issue activist organizations, which is still where the right excels, will continue to thrive, and innovative new funding methods will emerge for promoting online journalism and activism at the citizen and state level. The market only fails for so long.

Until that happens, “more intellectuals” is simply not a solution for the reasons that the movement has failed. My colleague Dan McLaughlin has written that politicians are conservatism’s air force, activists the infantry, bloggers and opinion journals the artillery, and intellectuals and policy shops the munitions manufacturers — pointing out that “they’re a necessary part of the movement, but nobody ever stormed a beach with a factory.”

Of course the Right would be unwise to stop making ammunition. But intellectuals who are perfectly content to be in the permanent business of being intellectuals are not part of the Right’s solution: tenured fellows who’ve done nothing relevant in their policy arena in nearly two decades are a drain on resources and an irrational sunk cost. “Better intellectuals” may be part of the solution, by which I mean intellectuals who are interested in application and prioritize metrics for success — those who come up with new policy ideas that repair mismanagement, reform government, and result in more freedom for the consumer.

Yet the only way that will happen is if those on the Right, particularly donors who determine which organizations survive and fail, begin to recognize that their money has gone to bail out organizations that have, for all intents and purposes, gotten too big to fail.

In times of belt-tightening, businesses across America cut fat and look at the bottom line. It’s time the Right, with all its claims of pro-market thinking, actually followed suit.

Ben Domenech is Editor of The New Ledger.

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