Right Moves: Historian Jason Stahl Opens a New Era of Scholarship on Conservative Think Tanks

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This article appears in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

The role of conservative think tanks in the modern resurgence of the Political Right has been a topic of interest to progressive activists for decades. However, academia had failed to produce a full-length historical study of conservative think tanks, according to author Jason Stahl. Stahl, a historian in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota, corrected this oversight with his new book, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945.

Stahl argues that there were three stages since 1945 in the “development of the think tank as a site of conservative political and cultural power.” First was the stretch between the end of World War I to the 1960s, when the American Enterprise Institute, founded in 1938, struggled to be relevant in a liberal-leaning technocratic environment. Second was the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, when AEI and newly emerging think tanks like the Heritage Foundation sought funding from wealthy conservative and libertarian donors for the purpose of countering what they viewed as a monopoly on public policy ideas by “liberal academia” and the Brookings Institution. Stahl describes the result as a “marketplace of ideas” in which public policy was promoted to legislators and the public on the grounds of ideological appeal as opposed to its academic rigor. The third stage began in the ‘80s with the success of conservative think tanks in effecting ideology and policy making on a wide scale.

Although Right Moves was written prior to Donald Trump’s emergence as a presidential contender, Stahl views the president’s rise as the logical endpoint of a decades-long reorientation of what constitutes valid policy debate.

Notably, Stahl also pays attention to how historically liberal-leaning think tanks have also reacted to the success of conservative institutions like the Heritage Foundation by moving rightward. The chief example of this is the book’s examination of the Democratic Leadership Council’s think tank, Progressive Policy Institute, and its role in helping to “shift the parameters of the debate even more to the right in the 1990s.”

This November, on the eve of the election, Stahl spoke with PRA.

Jason Stahl is an author and historian in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota. Photo: Pamela Butler

What led you to this particular topic?

This was first a dissertation and then a book, so it was roughly a decade-long project. As any historian will tell you, we are often influenced by the events around us and trying to historicize the present. For me that meant the Iraq war and certain foreign policy decisions that I did not agree with, but I was struggling to understand.

I would see names mentioned, different monikers of these different institutions that were supporting the war. For example, George W. Bush spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in early 2003, giving this very high profile speech covered by all the major networks. I could find no coherent histories of these think tanks so that was the genesis of my efforts to learn more about them and to understand why they seem to wield so much pull in policy debates.

There has been previous research and writing on the impact of conservative think tanks, including in this publication, but very little published in academia.1 Why is that, and what are the challenges of doing this research?

Number one, I think at the time when I started writing my dissertation, to the extent that historians were writing about conservatives and the Right Wing, they were writing about grassroots conservative movements. These were historians who had come out of the ‘60s and ‘70s social history orientation, trained to study and trained by people who studied social movements. Elite conservative organizing was not really the center of what historians were looking at. That’s really changed since in the past five or six years, and now you could argue that my book is part of a reorientation of the field.

The second reason I wasn’t finding much in academia is that there is an archive problem. Historians are trained to go to the archives and dig through them as a sort of font of truth. And when you think about the type of people and organizations I’m studying, the archives just aren’t there as they are for social movements, for instance. Social movements would be much more interested in celebrating what they did and wanting to have open accessible archives. This is not the case with think tanks. I can’t go to the archive of the American Enterprise Institute because there is not one. I can’t go to the archive of the Heritage Foundation because there is not one.

Historians are immediately suspicious if your work does not include the traditional route of accessing archives and this was challenging, but there are ways to study these think tanks and other sources that can be used.2

Your thesis is centered on the idea that the 1980s and ‘90s growth of conservative think tanks changed the way that policy, domestic and foreign, is developed—from a more technocratic approach to the marketing of policy to both politicians and the public.

If there is a singular guiding argument of the book, it’s that. Without hearkening back to some golden age of think tanks, I posit that there was a time not too long ago, when there was a certain kind of rigorousness in policy making and policy debate, and that is no longer the case. That’s not to say that this rigorousness—which I and other historians talk about as a liberal technocratic ideal—didn’t have problems. It did. But what I argue in the book is that conservatives, and particularly conservative think tanks, were integral in creating this shift in focus from technocratic analysis to a focus on having an open “marketplace of ideas.” As I try to say in the conclusion of the book, this marketplace could have been a good thing. A range of voices could have allowed for a more fruitful policy debate, but I argue that’s not what happened. The marketplace became about balancing existing liberal ideas with conservative ideas, regardless of analytical rigor. I focus on supply side economics as a key early example of this: an idea that had little research foundation but was nevertheless enormously influential in changing tax policy.

You warn readers at the opening of Chapter Four that you are about to make an abrupt shift. And you do. You shift away from your focus on self-described conservative and libertarian think tanks like Heritage Foundation, AEI, and Cato Institute to the response of some of the think tanks on the other side of the political spectrum.

So what I try to do in this chapter is focus on institutions that were affiliated more with what we would think of as American liberalism: those like the Brookings Institution and the Democratic Leadership Council’s (DLC) Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). One might have expected them to take the liberal pole and debate these growing right-wing institutions in this new marketplace of ideas. I argue that they did not do that. Instead, they said, You’re right and now what we need to do is to make sure we are internally balancing our own institutions. We need to be policing ourselves against being overly liberal.

So this helps to explain the historical convergence that moved the parameters of policy rightward, as you describe it?

Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture since 1945 was published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2016.

Yes. The DLC and the PPI, in their role of making this dynamic happen within the Democratic Party, effectively used a think tank structure to move the Democratic Party rightward, both rhetorically and on matters of policy. I think that this is in direct response to the formation and growth of powerful conservative institutions. It’s part and parcel of the key important dynamic in the late ‘80s and 1990s.

PPI repeatedly used the phrase “liberal fundamentalists” in their media to marginalize and disassociate themselves from both “new” social movements and “old” labor-based social movements.

The corrosive part of DLC and PPI was a denigration of movement-based politics, a suspicion of grassroots, movement-based politics. They accepted the pernicious framing of liberal/Left social movements that the Right had been forwarding for years, that these rabble-rousing movements were out of touch and un-American. PPI used this moniker— liberal fundamentalism—suggesting that liberalism is more akin to a kind of unthinking religious orientation and that this is the real problem of the Democratic Party. When you go down that road of denigrating movement politics, you are going down a disastrous electoral path, in my mind, regardless of your politics.

I think the Democratic Party is largely still torn about this very central question. How do people actualize politics? Not just policies, but what does it mean to be a political being in the world, in a nation state? Is politics a secluded realm in which you cast your vote and then go back home and live your private life? The Democratic Party is still struggling with this. It’s what we saw in the primary. I think Hillary Clinton moved in a much more liberal policy direction than her husband, for sure, but she did not move away from the suspicion of social movements that the DLC and PPI bred within the Democratic Party.3

Of course, Bernie Sanders was the counter pole to that, obviously saying we need movement politics and here’s what movements can do. I thought that this was the big missed point in the primary: the debate wasn’t all about policy, it was also about the nature of what it means to be a politically-engaged citizen. Are mass movements necessary to a vibrant political life, and vibrant Democratic Party, or not? That’s a question that is going to continue for Democrats regardless of what happens in the presidential election.

You quote a scholar from the Economic Policy Institute as saying, “For years the so-called New Democrats have been skewering the left for alienating Bubba by taking up elitist social positions. Now when push comes to shove they are willing to trade Bubba for elitist economic positions.” How did the “Mainstream Democrats” become the “New Democrats”?

In the beginning there was the pretense, obviously with Bill Clinton’s run in 1992 and even before that in the 1980s, that the DLC was going to somehow speak for a forgotten White working class—to speak for Bubba. At that time you still have this core constituency of White Southern Democrats. Figures like Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, and others at the time latched onto DLC as representing the mainstream of American life, one that is equated with whiteness and counterposed to Jesse Jackson and his movement politics of the time.

Later there was a change in moniker from Mainstream Democrats to the New Democrats. That is where you have the shift to the anti-social movement writ large. The New Democrats are to be a future-oriented party that is going to focus on professionals—a new economy and the new actors in this economy. The New Democrats are not just against new social movements, but embrace policies like NAFTA that are against the old labor-based social movements and working class interests.

One of the reactions to your book has been a reexamination of the role of Jesse Jackson and his political marginalization by DLC/PPI. Was this unexpected?4

People forget how important Jesse Jackson was—that post-1968 and all the way through the 1990s he is a central figure in American politics. For some reason, unless you lived through it and remember, people largely don’t get that.

Jesse Jackson figures prominently in Chapter Four and I think that throws people a bit. At least the first half of the whole chapter is about race and the centrality of race in American politics and the centrality of debates over race in the Democratic Party. Jackson, as a Black political figure of a certain sort, is part of what the DLC wants to chop off of the Democratic Party in order to create this vision of the New Democrat. And so Jesse Jackson is this person who is always held out by them as the personification of the old Democrat, as the personification of the movement politics that they want to be done with, this whole Rainbow Coalition.

What is one thing that reviewers or readers are getting wrong about your book?

Some have argued that the book is about a Republican Party and conservatism that no longer exists, or even that the book is now moot because of Donald Trump. I would say exactly the opposite.

The marketplace of ideas, as I describe it, is the belief that what you need in the debate is a conservative view, regardless of the rigor of that view. How can we not see Donald Trump as the logical endpoint to that? If you say policy and policy details, policy rigor don’t matter, you are going to get a figure like Donald Trump, who says, okay, they don’t matter. I can get up on stage and just babble and not even be forced to confront details. It’s just accepted that he’s not going to do it. That doesn’t mean that if he was elected president, he wouldn’t find people to write his policies. But in terms of actually being forced to debate and confront the details, or supposed details of his policies, it’s taken as a given that it’s not going to happen. And I think that is because of where the institutions that I write about have taken the policy debates in this country.

Trump is the natural endpoint of what I talk about in my book, the reorientation in thinking about and debating politics.

Endnotes

1 See: Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks,” The Public Eye, Summer/Fall 1999, www.politicalresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/02/PE-Summer-Fall-1999.pdf, and the update to that article, “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics,” Political Research Associates, November 25, 2013 https://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/. Other previously published works on conservative think tanks include: James Allen Smith, The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite (University of Michigan: The Free Press, 1991); Tom Medvetz, Think Tanks in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012); David Ricci, The Transformation of American Politics (Yale University Press, 1994); and Andrew Rich, Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

2 For example, Stahl extensively used the William J. Baroody papers at the Library of Congress.  See Stahl’s 2009 speech as a Jameson Fellow of the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4737.

3 The Democratic Leadership Council, a 501(c)((4) ceased operating in 2011, but the Progressive Policy Institute, its 501(c)(3) affiliate, is still active.

4 For example, see this four-part series of posts by Tim Lacy at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog: http://s-usih.org/2016/08/reconsidering-jesse-jackson-the-caricature-the-person-the-politician-part-1.html.

Medicaid Expansion and the Right. Part 2: The Role of Conservative Think Tanks

This week, the interns at PRA are posting a series of blog posts examining the recent right-wing opposition to Medicaid expansion. In June 2012, The Supreme Court found the expansion of Medicaid an unconstitutional coercion of states’ rights, leaving the decision firmly in the hands of the states. Medicaid expansion is set to go in effect in this month, and as of now, only 25 states and Washington, D.C., are moving forward with the expansion. Expanding Medicaid is a necessary provision of the Affordable Care Act, and the 25 remaining states are ensuring that large portions of the population will still have no access to affordable healthcare. These blogs seek to explain both where opposition to Medicaid expansion originates, and why it might be in the interest of the politicians on the Right to accept the proposed expansion.

Read Part 1: Using Clinton-Era Talking Points Against Families & Minorities
Read Part 3: The Long-Term Costs and Economic Benefits
Read Part 4: Alternative Models

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The Supreme Court’s decision to not to allow the federal government to mandate Medicaid expansion nationwide has pushed the debate down to the state level, and the resulting rhetoric used by governors and legislators opposing Medicaid expansion bears more than a passing resemblance to the arguments used by Right-Wing think tanks. These arguments have somehow turned the offer of a largely federally funded program into an economic disaster for states. They question the economic benefits and viability of expanding Medicaid coverage, often ridiculing any suggestion to the contrary. States following the logic of these messages, deciding not to expand Medicaid coverage, ensure that millions of Americans remain uninsured, caught between the income threshold for Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidies, and the upper limit of Medicaid in their state.

Right-Wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks (along with all of their affiliate state-based organizations in the State Policy Network) contend that expanding Medicaid is unaffordable, and that the federal government cannot be trusted to uphold its promise to cover the expenses of Medicaid expansion. In a September 2012 report, the Heritage Foundation argues that “the Medicaid federal match rate could be lower in the future,” suggesting the federal government will likely eventually reduce its funding below the 90 percent promised (100 percent coverage for the first three years). The report also highlights “costly” administrative fees associated with the expansion, but fails to mention what exactly falls under the vague parameters of “administrative.” Another Heritage Foundation report argues that “state lawmakers have no guarantee future Congresses will keep that promise,” adding that there wouldn’t be any way for states to opt-out of the expansion if the federal government did renege on its promise.

FreedomWorks takes an equally damaging approach, sarcastically mocking the suggestion that the expansion of Medicaid could cost nothing, using a skewed view of Ohio as their example. In another instance, they attack the expansion in Arkansas, once again using cost to the state as their main objection to Medicaid expansion. Both of FreedomWorks and Heritage have consistently laughed off any suggestion that Medicaid expansion would be economically viable for states, that the federal government would pay for it, or that it would actually benefit the people it covered. More dangerously, they have built a framework of arguments, in some cases backed up by skewed statistical reports, which can be used by politicians in defending their rejection of a Medicaid expansion.

Touting the same set of glaringly unsubstantiated arguments, this continuous stream of opposition to Medicaid expansion seem to have influenced Right-Wing politicians at state level. Governors and legislators across the US echo the work of the Heritage Foundation’s and other like-minded conservative groups.

Despite the volume and fervor of protest coming from politicians, governors and state legislators, a select few arguments dominate the debate, arguments that seem to be derived from assertions made by think tanks like FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation. Some governors, such as Governors Robert Bentley (AL) and Mary Fallin (OK) claim their states would not be able to afford the expansion of Medicaid. In one case, Fallin misstated the cost to the state, claiming “for the first three years of the cost, the state would pick up 10 percent of expanding the Medicaid services of our state.” Gov. Phil Bryant (MS) also highlighted additional administrative costs not covered by the federal government, a point consistently made by the Heritage Foundation. Gov. Nathan Deal (GA), Gov. Pat McCrory (NC), and Gov. Sean Parnell (AK), on the other hand, have expressed concern that the government will renege on its promise to fund 90% of the expansion. Parnell, in his statement declining Medicaid expansion, said “[t]he decision comes down to this: Can states trust the federal government to not cut and run on its share of the cost?” McCrory, shortly after his state’s ACA implementation, spoke of a “long-term concern regarding the federal government’s continuing of its obligation for matching funds,” adding that, supposedly due to the ACA, North Carolina’s system is broken and needs to be fixed before the state even considers Medicaid. Some go as far as to call both the ACA and Medicaid broken, pressing for the elimination of both. Others simply argue that an expansion is wrong in principle. Gov. Rick Perry’s (TX) main strand of argument centers on what he believes is a violation of state sovereignty. He asserts the federal government would “make Texas a mere appendage of the federal government when it comes to health care.” FreedomWorks similarly focused on Medicaid’s expansion’s supposed infringement on state sovereignty. Most rejections of the expansion incorporate a selection of these responses.

Together, these arguments form the base of an information struggle, with think tanks and politicians trying to position expansion as a dangerous blow to the still-recovering U.S economy.  With the near total federal funding of the expansion, one might think that this is a difficult argument to make, but roughly half of states appear to have taken it as truth. Their arguments rely upon hypothetical situations without precedent. Considering many of the states declining Medicaid expansion also benefit from more federal spending than is raised in them, not trusting the federal government’s spending promise on Medicaid is clearly ideologically driven.  However absurd, vague, or speculative these politicians’ excuses for not expanding Medicaid may be, they leave millions of people with no access to healthcare.

Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks

Like the famously premature announcement of the death of Mark Twain, reports of the decline of the Right in politics and public policy have been greatly exaggerated. Epitomizing the hidden strength of the Right are a growing number of well-funded, state-level right-wing think tanks. Two networks of these think tanks have been growing for a decade, far from the glare of national media attention. Acting largely as arms of the Republican Party, they are advancing policies at the state level that the Right has been unable to achieve in Washington.

The situation is reminiscent of the end of the 1980s, when conventional wisdom had it that the Christian Right was dead. At the time, prima facia evidence of the end of the Right was the sex scandals of televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker, the disintegration of the Moral Majority, and the failure of Pat Robertson’s 1988 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. The resilience of the Christian Right, and its institutional infrastructure, was little appreciated at the time. For example, for the first three years after its 1989 founding, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition received scant notice before bounding into the 1992 elections as a major player. In 1999, we are told that the public is disenchanted with right-wing lawmakers, perceiving them as mean-spirited and focused on narrow ideological goals. This has been played out most dramatically in the mainstream media’s analysis of the failed crusade to impeach President Bill Clinton. Now, the apparent diminished influence of right-wing members of Congress and the political and financial troubles of the Christian Coalition itself suggest to some that the Right is once again on the ropes.

However, in the late 1980s, as Ronald Reagan’s second term ended and the televangelist scandals were breaking, key rightwing strategists and funders focused on building the kind of political infrastructure in the states that had contributed to their national-level successes. They focused on strengthening and expanding a national network of state-level business/conservative think tanks, each loosely modeled after the Heritage Foundation. The stated purpose of the network was to take the “Reagan Revolution” to the states. The think tanks would provide resources for state-level activists, offer leadership training that would strengthen state-level Republican Parties and, over time, would reinvigorate the Right’s national-level leadership.

The network of state-level think tanks became an integral part of the Right’s infrastructure of organizations. Some of the think tanks were newly created in the 1980s and 1990s; others have their roots much earlier. Like the Heritage Foundation itself, the groups are deeply engaged in the partisan legislative and electoral process, and their research is generally geared to affect political outcomes. One of the earliest, largest, and still most influential think tanks is the Heartland Institute in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1984, it has been a model for other conservative think tanks. Several others began in the mid-1980s as well, but the next major wave followed the 1988 election of George Bush and the continued good fortunes of the state and national conservative movement. Additional new think tanks have been established since the 1994 elections, in which the Republican Party made dramatic gains in Congress and numerous state legislatures and won an unprecedented 30 governorships. These “younger” think tanks have served the newly elected conservatives at all levels of government. Young and old think tanks alike are now organized in a umbrella organization known as the State Policy Network.

Since 1988, a second and parallel network of think tanks, called “Family Policy Councils,” has been developed by Christian Right leader James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF). FOF is a large, conservative evangelical “pro-family” organization with an annual budget of about $110 million and over 1,300 employees. Since the beginning of FOF’s radio and publishing empire in 1977, a political component has been systematically integrated at all levels. Dobson’s daily radio program is one of the largest nationally syndicated radio talk shows in the US, broadcasting on some 1,500 stations in North America and 3,400 stations around the world.

The state-level think tanks affiliated with FOF are loosely modeled after the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council, which was founded in 1983 and merged with FOF in 1988. Simultaneously, FOF was creating the first Family Policy Councils in the states. The Family Research Council until recently was headed by former Reagan Administration official and current GOP presidential contender Gary Bauer, who portrays himself as the heir to the Reagan legacy. The Family Policy Councils promote the Christian Right’s agenda and often work collaboratively with the parallel network of more secular think tanks like those in the State Policy Network. They also host Community Impact Seminars that recruit, indoctrinate and train activists who are then folded into political networks called Community Impact Committees, whose activities are informed by the Family Policy Councils.

In each network, several generalizations hold. First, the think tanks of each network have similar structures, common goals, and similar methods of carrying them out. It could be argued that each network is a system of franchising in operation. Second, the think tanks interface strikingly with conservative politicians, especially Republicans. Indeed, in a number of cases there is a revolving-door relationship between the think tanks and Republican office holders, especially in gubernatorial administrations. Many of the think tanks do not maintain even the appearance of independence from the Republican Party and its legislative and electoral interests, though they claim to be non-partisan.  

The State Policy Network

Founded in 1992, the State Policy Network (SPN) evolved from the nowdefunct Madison Group, a network of conservative organizations created in the aftermath of a 1986 meeting at the Madison Hotel in Washington, DC. The State Policy Network is based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana and serves as a coordination agency for 37 state-level think tanks in 30 states.

The stated purpose of the network was to  take the “Reagan Revolution” to the states. The think tanks would provide resources for state-level activists, offer leadership training that would strengthen state-level Republican Parties and, over time, would reinvigorate the Right’s national-level leadership.

Although corporate money and executives are the dominant presence in these think tanks, they nevertheless do not solely promote business interests. The tendency is to focus on conservative/libertarian campaigns, from welfare reform to school privatization. According to Byron Lamm, the longtime Executive Director of the State Policy Network, all the think tanks advocate “free market solutions to public policy, with an emphasis on individual rights and responsibility.” While there are often different emphases, determined by the interests of the leadership and the local situation, the think tanks share broad ideological agreement and nearly identical political agendas—primarily supporting privatization of most government services and advocating “free market solutions” to public policy issues from health care to the environment. Most have a strong emphasis on school privatization. They favor deregulation of business and oppose organized labor.

Because the think tanks of the SPN generally reflect the business/libertarian wing of the GOP, some of them avoid dealing with such social issues as abortion and gay rights, on which some GOP libertarians such as William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, are often at odds with the Christian Right. Eight SPN think tanks, including the Goldwater, Pioneer, and Heartland Institutes (but none of the Family Policy Councils) reflect a specifically libertarian orientation through their “partnership” in Freemarket. net, an on-line libertarian network sponsored by the Henry Hazlitt Foundation. However, the agenda of many SPN think tanks seems to mesh well with the Christian Right, and others are indistinguishable from the Christian Right’s agenda. For example, the California Resource Institute described a 1999 bill in the California legislature (proposing that the states 140 “charter schools” be unionized like the rest of the publicly funded school system) as an effort to “squash the academic freedom of charter schools.” Such an anti-union stance reliably appeals to both the business and Christian Right wings of the Republican Party, and often generates popular appeal well beyond that base. The ideological differences among SPN affiliates seem to originate in the circumstances surrounding their founding and funding.

Like the GOP itself, there are mutually exclusive philosophies among the think tanks on important social issues, even as there is commonality on others. As if to emphasize areas of commonality, in May 1999, SPN’s Utah affiliate, the Sutherland Institute, co-hosted a conference with the Heritage Foundation, featuring Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese. The conference theme was “Federalism.” As Sutherland explained: “For those not familiar with the term, federalism is about devolving power: taking power out of the hands of a distant, bloated federal government and putting it into the hands of states, local governments, and most importantly, individual American citizens.”

Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute is typical of SPN members in projecting an appearance of intellectual rigor while pursuing an unquestionably ideological agenda. The Institute states that its mission is to “change the intellectual climate of Massachusetts.” One of its subsidiary projects, called “The Center for Restructuring Government,” seeks to identify “specific opportunities to streamline government through introducing competition or eliminating unnecessary regulation.” To do this, the Center publishes, among other things, “White Papers” that analyze “opportunities to introduce competition to the delivery of public services, or calculate the compliance costs of particular regulations,” and sponsors a “Better Government Competition.”

Such activities follow closely the model provided by national think tanks, especially the Heritage Foundation, which has historically hitched its research to public policy agendas and action plans. Departing from the tradition of independent scholarship or academic analysis associated with think tanks, the purpose is for research to have political impact. Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner explained that, “We don’t just stress credibility… We stress an efficient, effective delivery system. Production is one side; marketing is equally important.” Ellen Messer-Davidow of the University of Minnesota, who has studied the Heritage Foundation, writes that its “delivery system” for marketing ideas “consists of four marketing divisions: Public relations markets ideas to the media and the public; Government Relations to Congress, the Executive branch, and government agencies; Academic Relations to the university community, Resource Bank institutions (including state think tanks), and the international conservative network; and Corporate Relations to business and the trades. Division marketing is coordinated at twice-weekly meetings of the senior management, but policy research drives the process.” While the state level think tanks are too small to have such a large-scale division of labor, the principles of how to function are the same.

[State policy networks hitch] research to public policy agendas and action plans. Departing from the tradition of independent scholarship or academic analysis associated with think tanks, the purpose is for research to have political impact.

Most of the State Policy Network think tanks are located in or near their respective state capitals because their primary function is to influence state policy, just as the Heritage Foundation’s primary purpose is to influence national policy. Heritage first made a national splash with the release of its book of policy proposals, Mandate for Leadership, for the first Reagan Administration. An unprecedented document at the time, the model has been emulated by the mini-Heritage clones in a number of states —for example, by the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts which titled its 1998 report Agenda for Leadership 1998. The Alabama Family Alliance issued a similar book-length manifesto called Guide to the Issues, in 1998. It features over 100 staff-prepared issue briefs—many based on thinktank research reports on everything from taxes to abortion and the environment.

The method behind the conservative think tank marketing machine is, according to Messer-Davidow, to conflate expertise in the sense of “knowledge produced by scholarly methods” with the expertise emanating from the “aura of authority surrounding those who practice this knowledge.” “In this way,” she concludes, “the think tanks have constituted an ‘academized’ aura of authority upon which conservatives have capitalized to advance their political agenda.”

Part of the purpose of networking research findings and ideas, according to Hal Eberle, a director of the South Carolina Policy Council, is that members of school boards and state legislatures are often “part-timers, mostly business people and professionals. They’re used to rubber stamping what the bureaucracy wants or the way things have always been done. But if you just show them how something has been done better somewhere else, you can really change their minds.” Thus it is common to see studies done in one state distributed in other states. It is also common for a think tank in one state to study policies in other states. For example, in 1998 the SPN Alabama affiliate conducted a study of existing privatized child welfare services in three states, and published a report with the unsubtle subtitle “Models for Alabama.”

While all of the think tanks are highly media savvy in marketing themselves and their ideas, some groups in both networks have established their own media outlets, or have attained a regular presence in the established local and statewide media. All are active on the op-ed pages of the newspapers in their respective states, and are frequently quoted in news stories. Colorado’s Independence Institute produces two weekly public affairs programs on cable television. Vermont’s Ethan Allen Institute director John McClaughry is a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio and Connecticut’s Yankee Institute director Laurence Cohen is a regular columnist for The Hartford Courant, the state’s largest newspaper.

State Policy Network member organizations range in size from small operations with revenues under $50,000, such as the SPN affiliates in Connecticut and Vermont, to organizations with multi-million dollar annual budgets, such as Michigan’s Mackinac Center, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the South Carolina Public Policy Council. The larger think tanks exercise significant intellectual and political clout within their respective states. Some have literally become part of the local political infrastructure. The South Carolina Public Policy Council has new offices located in the Thomas A. and Shirley W. Roe Center for Public Policy Research, across the street from the state capitol complex. The building houses a state-of-the-art research and education facility. Similarly, the Mackinac Center has a new building near the Michigan state capitol in Lansing.

The purpose of the Network is to leverage the resources of a range of rightist organizations, from national level to state level, and back. There are a number of conservative “Associate” member organizations that work closely with the members and reflect the fact that the think tanks are not simply free-standing research units, but are an integrated part of a web of organizations that advance conservative and business interests. Americans for Tax Reform and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which for two decades have developed conservative legislation in cooperation with a national network of conservative state legislators, are examples of organizations that actively “strengthen” the network of think tanks as Associate members of SPN. Other Associate members include The Heritage Foundation, Free Congress Foundation, Reason Foundation, Cato Institute, Institute for Justice, Hillsdale College, National Center for Policy Analysis, Golden Rule Insurance Company and Landmark Legal Foundation.

Mandate for Leadership

There is also a network-wide pattern of interlocking directors among the think tanks, national Associate members, and key funders. This is an outgrowth of the efforts of certain right-wing philanthropists, who have collaborated with Paul Weyrich and Ed Feulner for a generation in building the institutional infrastructure of the conservative movement, but it also reflects the franchise-style nature of membership in the State Policy Network. The presence of key rightists as directors on multiple boards of state-level right-wing think tanks is comparable to the role of investors who personally (or through their designees) guide and protect their investments through seats on corporate boards of directors. Just as such right-wing philanthropists as Richard Mellon Scaife, Jeffrey Coors and Thomas Roe have been long-time directors of the Heritage and Free Congress Foundations, major ideological investors (or their proxies) occupy the boards of SPN affiliates. For instance, Coors family interests have, since its founding, been the main source of funding for Colorado’s Independence Institute (conveniently located in the beer company’s hometown of Golden) and Coors family members have served on the board and advisory board. Representatives of the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation, which created the Wisconsin Public Policy Research Institute with a gift of $500,000 in 1987 and provides about two-thirds of its annual budget, have also been members of the board of directors from the beginning. Howard Ahmanson is a major benefactor and director of the California Resource Institute, as well as a major funder and board chair of California’s Claremont Institute.

One interesting aspect of the State Policy Network is the apparent brokering role played by the Roe Foundation, the personal philanthropic vehicle of retired South Carolina businessman Thomas Roe. Almost all of its annual grant making goes to SPN member and associate member organizations and Thomas Roe himself chairs the board of the State Policy Network. The Roe Foundation is the single largest contributor to the SPN-affiliated South Carolina Policy Council. Roe is a longtime director of both the Heritage and Free Congress Foundations whose leaders, Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich, respectively, sit on the small Roe Foundation board, along with Byron Lamm, the director of the SPN. Lamm, in turn, is a board member of SPN’s Indiana Policy Review Foundation, and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.  

Shadow Governments

The state level think tanks have often functioned as a Republican government- in-waiting. The longtime principal officer of the Mackinac Center, Richard McLellan, served as chief of Michigan Governor John Engler’s transition team when he was first elected in 1990. Following the 1994 elections, Massachusetts Republican Governor William Weld “hired almost everybody out of the Pioneer Institute,” Laurence Cohen of Connecticut’s Yankee Institute gleefully told a reporter. “Almost put them out of business,” Cohen added. That year Weld also appointed Pioneer Institute founder and elite corporate executive, Lovett C. Peters, as his advisor on school privatization. Weld’s successor, GOP Gov. Paul Cellucci, tapped Pioneer executive director James A. Peyser to chair the state Board of Education in 1999.

In 1997 Gary Palmer, President of the Alabama Family Alliance, explained the role of the think tank in public affairs at Christian Right leader D. James Kennedy’s annual “Reclaiming America for Christ” conference. Palmer jokingly complained that “God has… allowed us to bring in people and train them, so when someone like Governor [Fob] James is elected, he calls me up and raids the staff!” Following the 1994 elections, Governor James called Palmer at home and asked to interview three of his top staff. The governor ultimately hired two – Palmer’s director of Public Policy and his top researcher. Following the 1996 elections, Palmer ‘lost’ two more top staff to newly elected GOP members of Congress from Alabama. Palmer explained that training and deployment of staff into government is “part of the purpose of our existence.”

The original formulation of this “purpose” appeared in the strategic plan to create the Heritage Foundation. Right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan is often credited with the idea of creating Heritage while he was Director of Communications in the Nixon White House. As early as 1970, the Nixon Administration was alarmed at the influence of liberal think tanks such as the Brookings Institution. Buchanan, the point man in researching liberal think tanks for the White House, noted that “[t]here is a clear need for a conservative counterpart… which can generate ideas Republicans can use.”

Following Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Buchanan presented the President with a memo outlining how an “institute” could serve to “create a new cadre of Republican professionals who can survive this administration and be prepared to take over future ones.” Buchanan felt that conservatives were not being considered for administration jobs, partly because there were too few conservatives with the right experience or credentials. The prospective institute, as Buchanan envisioned it, would be a “talent bank” for GOP administrations; a “tax exempt refuge” for conservatives when the GOP is out of office; and a communications center for GOP thinkers. The following year, the Heritage Foundation was founded by Paul Weyrich and Ed Feulner, who had been thinking along similar lines for some time. It began with $250,000 from the Coors beer company, soon followed by $900,000 from Richard Mellon Scaife, the ultra-conservative activist, millionnaire, and funder of numerous right-wing organizations.

Unsurprisingly, state-level SPN think tank affiliations grace the resumes of a number of GOP politicians who have risen to prominence in the past decade. For example, GOP governors John Rowland of Connecticut and John Engler of Michigan were board members of SPN organizations prior to their election to statewide office. Tom Tancredo, founder of Colorado’s Independence Institute, is currently a GOP member of Congress. There is also a revolving door between state-level think tanks and conservative GOP staffers. For example, Jeff Judson, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has worked for a series of conservative Texas Republicans in Washington, including serving as Chief Legislative Assistant to US Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX).

There is also a flow of personnel between the state level groups and the national organizations. For example, Doug Munro president of Maryland’s Calvert Institute previously worked at the Heritage Foundation and at SPN think tanks in Arizona and Wisconsin. Patrick Poole, a policy analyst with the Alabama Family Alliance in 1998, became the director of Governance and Privacy Projects for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation in Washington, DC.

Legislature Hears Debate on Defense of Marriage Act

Borrowing a successful formula used by Washington advocacy groups, the think tanks have adopted the model of creating various issue-focused “centers” under the same roof. This may mean little more than one or two staff members who work, for example, on charter schools or welfare reform. A typical example is the Center on Market-Based Education at Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. Like the Goldwater Institute, many SPN think tanks have played important roles in passing charter school legislation in their respective states. Once charter school legislation is in place, there is a shift toward providing “technical assistance” to charter schools—often through the think tanks’ subsidiary “centers.” For instance, Florida’s Tallahasseebased James Madison Institute has a Center for Education Entrepreneurs. Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute offers extensive support for the state’s 37 charter schools, through its Charter School Resource Center, which serves as a job bank, publishes a newsletter and even puts out a “handbook” detailing the how-tos of starting and sustaining a charter school.

SPN affiliates in California, Ohio, Washington and Vermont, among others, followed the lead of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute by holding “better government” competitions, which usually involve proposals to save money on, or to privatize, government services. State legislators often introduce the winning citizen proposals, and some become public policy.

Most of the SPN affiliates have academic advisory councils or “senior fellow” programs. Through these devices, research funds are funneled to sympathetic academics, whose work is then vetted by other like-minded academics. Florida’s James Madison Institute has one of the most explicitly academic orientations, due partly to its merger with the Center for World Capitalism in 1994. Among its senior fellows is James Buchanan, a Nobel Laureate in economics.  

Family Policy Councils

In 1999, there are 34 state level think tanks affiliated with Focus on the Family. These groups, which FOF calls “Family Policy Councils,” generally work on issues that animate the Christian Right, such as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. They also work on issues less exclusively identified with the Christian Right, such as school privatization and home schooling, religious freedom, parental rights, and gambling. Some, like those in Michigan, California, Florida, and Virginia are significant organizations. Independent scholars have judged the Family Policy Councils in Michigan and Virginia to be more politically significant than Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Others are small and politically marginal.

Focus on the Family’s Statement of Purpose for its network of “State-Level Family Organizations” reads:

“Since 1988, business and community leaders from across the nation have formed state level organizations to invest in the future of America’s families. Each Family Policy Council conducts policy analysis, promotes responsible and informed citizenship, facilitates strategic leadership involvement and influences public opinion. Many do community and statewide work to foster a movement to affirm family. These councils are independent entities with no corporate or financial relationship to each other or to Focus on the Family. Their purpose, however, is uniform: To serve as a voice for the family and to assist advocates for family values in recapturing the moral and intellectual high ground in the public arena.”

FOF often has selected and reshaped an existing state-level organization rather than create a Family Policy Council from scratch. The Minnesota Family Council, for example, was previously known as The Berean League, a publisher of anti-gay literature, such as Are Gay Rights Right?, which has been widely used in opposition to state and local gay and lesbian civil rights ordinances. The roots of Virginia’s Family Foundation reach back to 1982, when Family Foundation chief Walter Barbee organized Prince William County Concerned Citizens to oppose sex education programs in the public schools.

“Family Policy Councils” generally work on issues that animate the Christian Right, such as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography.

After vetting the board of directors of each prospective Family Policy Council, FOF then leaves the affiliate as a more or less free-standing entity, affiliated with but not legally incorporated into Focus on the Family. Still, there are many ways in which the affiliates rely on the FOF infrastructure. For example, Dobson provides in-kind services including what a former top FOF insider calls “publicity and copy space in special state-by-state press runs of his Citizen magazine.” Indeed, state-level newsletters and magazines are typically distributed in this way.

The structure of one of the major FOF affiliates, the Michigan Family Forum (MFF), was outlined by Russ Bellant in his study, The Religious Right in Michigan Politics. Some or all of MFF’s main components can be seen operating in other FOF affiliates. It produces and markets original studies, as well as those of likeminded groups or of Focus on the Family itself. Although its level of activism has declined since a change in leadership a few years ago, MFF was a formidable agency in the mid-1990’s and a model of the potential political clout of an FOF affiliate.

From its founding in 1990 until 1995, over 1,000 church-based “Community Impact Committees,” spurred and modeled by MFF, were created in Michigan churches. Demonstrating its political savvy, the MFF changed the geographical representation of the Community Impact Committees in 1995 so that they corresponded to the legislative districts in the state. MFF also effectively taps and directs religious activities through its Prayer Network, which organizes prayers for public officials and urges members to contact them to evangelize and to notify them of their prayers. Also organized by legislative districts and headed by “prayer captains,” these so-called “prayer warriors,” or “prayer partners,” develop a personal relationship with their legislators, and become conversant in public affairs. Meanwhile, the MFF’s Capitol News Bureau produces news for distribution to Christian radio stations in the state.

Like the SPN think tanks, FOF’s Family Policy Councils produce research reports and poll public opinion. The results of their studies are aggressively marketed to the media, government officials, and the organization’s base constituency, which in turn uses the materials in public affairs activities. For example, in 1998 the Michigan Family Forum commissioned a poll on attitudes about marriage in Michigan, which was conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide, a Republican-oriented firm headed by Ronald Reagan’s personal pollster, Richard Wirthlin. The poll was used to demonstrate the numbers of people who are married, where they are, and support for various “reforms.” MFF, like other FOF affiliates, lists divorce reform as its top issue and states that it “is supporting legislation” that will make divorce more difficult. These priorities existed prior to their public opinion research findings, which perhaps coincidentally, were supportive of MFF’s notion of “reform.”

Similar polls conducted by Wirthlin in September 1997 were used as the basis for research reports issued by FOF affiliates in Florida and Alabama. The Alabama Family Alliance used the Wirthlin data to promote legislation which would institute “covenant marriage.” An attack on the “no fault divorce reforms of the 1970s,” covenant marriage offers the option of a stronger marriage contract, which includes extensive premarital counseling and similar counseling if divorce is contemplated during a two-year waiting period. Covenant marriage legislation has passed in at least the states of Louisiana and Arizona.

One of the most significant services FOF provides to its network of Family Policy Councils is a roving team of Community Impact Seminar leaders. Based at FOF’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, the Community Impact Seminar team travels the country training conservative Christian activists to establish Community Impact Committees in their churches, thus helping to develop the base constituency for the FOF affiliates. During its start-up phase in the early 1990s, CIS events sometimes drew hundreds of people: 600 people in Sacramento in 1992; 1,200 in Holland, Michigan in 1993; and 400 in Detroit in 1993. While the Community Impact Seminars are still active around the country, their greatest growth may have peaked. The largest Community Impact Seminar in Michigan in 1999 drew only 70 people.

Like the SPN think tanks, FOF’s Family Policy Councils are typically closely linked to the conservative wing of the Republican Party in their states. In California, the principal founders and funders of the California Resource Institute, Howard Ahmanson and Rob Hurtt, are also prominent Republican Party leaders and major funders of GOP political campaigns. Bill Smith, executive director of the Indiana Family Institute, worked for seven years in top jobs for Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN).

Family Policy Councils in at least five states (Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Colorado, and Texas) have produced election year voter guides. Although not as well known as the Christian Coalition’s voter guides, they often exert unrecognized influence. Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI) has produced voter guides for every election since 1992. PFI claims that, since 1994, it has distributed “nearly two and a half million Voter’s Guides.” PFI reportedly distributed over one million voter guides in 1994 alone. The Westport-based Family Institute of Connecticut, which is in the process of becoming a full-fledged Family Policy Council, claims to have distributed 600,000 voter guides in 1996, and one million guides in 1998, which it says were “distributed in every large-circulation newspaper in Connecticut and in dozens of churches….” In Pennsylvania, these guides reportedly detailed “candidates’ positions on a balanced budget amendment, abstinence- based sexuality education for adolescents, voluntary school prayer and Bible reading, school vouchers, development of mandatory national curriculum, national health insurance, fetal tissue research, women’s access to abortion, and funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Such questions may not meet the requirements the IRS places on non-profit, tax exempt agencies, which are required to hold to broad educational standards and cannot narrowly tailor their materials to the agenda and buzz words of a particular political party. Questions about the use of voter guides have emerged in relation to at least two Family Policy Councils. Independent scholars Mark Rozell and Clyde Wilcox reported in their book, Second Coming: The Christian Right In Virginia Politics, that in 1993 the Democratic party of Virginia charged that the Family Foundation and its voter guide partner, the Virginia chapter of Concerned Women for America (a national Christian Right organization), “actually were partisan political committees distributing pro-Republican voter guides and therefore were required to register with the state and disclose their sources of funding.” A Fairfax County Circuit judge agreed and placed an injunction against distribution of the guides. The day before the election, the state Supreme Court lifted the injunction.

In 1996, in response to concerns raised by Americans United for Separation of Church & State, lawyers for FOF’s Ohio affiliate, the Ohio Roundtable, advised them to “significantly alter” their publication in order to conform to the IRS code governing voter guides—in effect compelling them to withdraw their voter guides. Underscoring FOF’s profound (albeit legally separate) relationship to it’s Family Policy Councils, FOF sent out the Ohio Roundtable’s voter mailing (without guide) under a generic cover letter from FOF’s national vice president for Public Policy, Tom Minnery. Minnery urged FOF followers not only to vote, but to get in touch with their respective state Family Policy Councils. Minnery also noted that FOF offers to distribute “Voter Guides to all Focus constituents on behalf of the state FPC organizations with which Focus is associated.”

A number of staffers also flow between the national FOF and its state-level affiliates. Glenn Stanton, who heads the Palmetto Family Council in Columbia, South Carolina, was previously FOF’s Director of Research. Idaho Family Forum executive director Dennis Mansfield has been a leader in the Dobson-backed Promise Keepers men’s ministry, serving as host for the Promise Keepers Radio Network heard on over 300 stations, and as Idaho state director of Promise Keepers.

Some Family Policy Councils are branching out into new areas of constituencybuilding and public policy action. FOF affiliates in Pennsylvania and Alabama maintain “Physicians Resource Networks.” The Network in Alabama claims it can mobilize over 350 doctors to respond to medically-related public policy issues. The Minnesota Family Council has a staff attorney, but calls its litigation efforts the Northstar Legal Center. The Center represents, among others, students at the University of Minnesota who object to the funding of “radical groups” which “advocate homosexuality, abortion and Marxism” from being funded by student fees.

Like the SPN think tanks, FOF affiliates often work to develop their own media presence in ways designed to inform and mobilize their constituents. Pennsylvania Family Institute’s Michael Geer has a daily fiveminute commentary and weekly public affairs program which airs on five Christian radio stations. The Indiana Family Institute produces a daily thirty-minute radio program, which airs on several Christian stations.  

Overlapping Networks

Although the think tanks of the State Policy Network and FOF’s Family Policy Councils are ostensibly separate, their agendas often overlap and their personnel are sometimes interchangeable. Most significantly, the networks themselves overlap. Three FOF affiliates (the Alabama Family Alliance, the Mississippi Family Council and California’s Capitol Resource Institute) also belong to the SPN. Epitomizing the relationship between the networks was the election of Alabama Family Alliance’s Gary Palmer as president of the State Policy Network.

The overlapping nature of the networks has been present from the earliest days of the FOF network, which was founded several years after the first SPN-style think tanks had been in operation. Indeed, evidence suggests that rather than emerging independently there was considerable planning in establishing the role and relationship of the two networks and the constituent think tanks within each. Don Eberly, a former Reagan White House aide and founder of Pennsylvania’s SPN-affiliated Commonwealth Foundation, appears to have laid out the working model for collaboration in a 1989 speech at the Heritage Foundation. Eberly, who was also director of the Republican Study Group (the conservative caucus of the GOP in the Congress), detailed not only the operating assumptions of what became the State Policy Network, but how the division of labor, theoretically at least, works at the state level in relation to the Christian Right.

While many think tanks  in both networks produce actual research, and have staff and affiliated scholars, others appear to be, structurally and functionally, little more than standard legislative lobbies and  public relations machines. Most seem to be a hybrid.

Describing Pennsylvania, Eberly declared, “We have organized a leadership team that is implementing a multifaceted organizational building plan called the Pennsylvania Plan, which consists of many of the same entities we have effectively used in Washington. These entities include the Commonwealth Foundation, which is the Heritage Foundation equivalent. After over a year of development work, we have just brought on line the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which might be compared to the Family Research Council here in Washington.”

“We now have both economic and social issues coalitions on the state level that meet regularly and are developing agendas,” Eberly continued. “This September [1989], we had our first statewide conservative conference for local leaders and activists, patterned after C-PAC in Washington.” (CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, is an annual event in Washington DC, sponsored by the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom.) “The conference, which will become an annual event, attracted 320 people from all across the state and sent shock waves throughout the political establishment.”

Eberly’s account of the Pennsylvania Plan is corroborated in part by the presence of Eberly’s wife Sheryl on the board of the Pennsylvania Family Institute. Additionally the Commonwealth Foundation shares several board members with, and is substantially funded by, both Richard Mellon Scaife’s Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Philip McKenna Foundation. The latter also funds the Pennsylvania Family Institute, including its bi-annual voter guides. These relationships may also help explain the overlapping agenda of the organizations on such matters as school privatization, and the purported dissolution of the “traditional family.” Indeed, the social policy agenda of both networks blends on some issues. It is common to see both SPN and FOF network affiliates working on, for example, the issue of “fatherlessness,” which is one of the main concerns of Minnesota’s SPN think tank, the Center for the American Experiment, as well as Florida’s FOF affiliate, The Family First.

While most reporting on the phenomenon of state level think tanks has focused exclusively on the State Policy Network, Eberly’s description of the intentional division of labor between the business and the Christian Right-oriented think tanks and their respective constituencies demonstrates why it is important to look at the two networks simultaneously. Underscoring the convergence between these networks is that each network’s leaders and funders also converge as members of the secretive Alexandria, Virginia-based Council for National Policy (CNP), which has served as a classic smoke-filled room of rightist strategizing since 1981. In addition to such previously mentioned national leaders as Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, Thomas Roe, Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Tom Minnery, Richard Wirthlin, Jeffrey Coors, Howard Ahmanson and Ed Meese, the CNP roster has included Judy Cresanta, executive director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute; former Illinois Family Council executive director Penny Pullen; and former Michigan Family Forum executive director Randall Heckman.

The issues addressed by SPN institutions are presented as public policy concerns but the interests behind them are not always simply ideological. The board of directors of Michigan’s Mackinac Center, like other organizations in the State Policy Network, is comprised primarily of business leaders, including the executive director of the state Chamber of Commerce. Mackinac’s funding comes mainly from the insurance, chemical and tobacco industries, as well as conservative foundations. This is significant in light of the many privatization initiatives advanced by Mackinac studies, as well as the promotion of medical savings accounts, attacks on national health insurance, and the deregulation of auto insurance. This creates at least the appearance of business influence on the research of the think tanks, but conflicts of interest may also be involved. For example, the Indianapolis-based Golden Rule Insurance Company, an institutional member of the State Policy Network, funds a number of state-level think tanks. Its officers also sit on the boards of several. Golden Rule is not only a provider of, but describes itself as the “pioneer” of medical savings accounts. The promotion of this medical insurance plan by “think tanks” which also receive funds from the “pioneer” provider suggests a direct link between the business interests of the donor and the research product.  

Think Tank or Traditional Lobby?

While many think tanks in both networks produce actual research, and have staff and affiliated scholars, others appear to be, structurally and functionally, little more than standard legislative lobbies and public relations machines. Most seem to be a hybrid.

Invitation to Change

Several organizations in both networks have sought to address the problem of pursuing political activities that may be outside their tax-exempt status. Some have divided their research and lobbying into separatebut- related organizations operating out of the same office. For example, in 1998 the Seattle-based Washington Institute for Policy Studies/Washington Institute Foundation, an SPN affiliate, dropped its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status in order to legally engage in lobbying and related electoral activities. In 1997, the Minnesota FOF affiliate divided itself into the tax-exempt Minnesota Family Council and the non-tax exempt (501(c)(4)) Minnesota Family Institute to carry out these functions. This is a traditional formula for interest groups seeking to follow the clear rules of the Internal Revenue Service. However, these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule.

All the think tanks in both networks maintain the 501(c)(3) tax status which, under current IRS rules, severely restricts the amount of electoral activity and lobbying that can be done. Examples of questionable practices under tax-exempt status abound. The Olympia, Washington-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation produces legislative issue briefs, but no direct research. The staff meets quarterly with the governor and holds weekly briefings for state legislators, yet claims to do no lobbying. The President of Evergreen, Bob Williams, was the unsuccessful 1988 GOP candidate for governor. Executive Director Lynn Harsh was his campaign manager. For years the California Resource Institute has employed three registered lobbyists who work the legislature on behalf of the founders and funders, GOP leaders and Christian Right financiers Howard Ahmanson and Rob Hurtt. Ahmanson is best known for his long involvement with the leading Christian theocratic think tank, the Chalcedon Foundation. Businessman Rob Hurtt served several terms as a Republican member of the state Senate and for a time served as Majority Leader.  

Back to the Future

Areview of the web of increasingly influential conservative state-level think tanks points to a pattern of ideological compatibility, organizational coordination, and fluid sharing of staff. The trends also suggest increasing efforts to generate congruence among the think tanks themselves and in their public policy direction. This undoubtedly reflects an even stronger alliance, not simply between the two networks discussed here, but between the business and religious sectors of the Republican Party. James Leininger, founder and primary funder of the SPN’s Texas Public Policy Foundation, which does not hold a dual membership in the FOF network, nevertheless epitomizes that trend. TPPF’s research studies emphasize privatization in public education and environmental policy, and it has been a leader in the area of tort reform. Leininger controls or influences several political action committees and public interest groups as well as the influential CEO America, an offshoot of the Leiningercontrolled Texas Public Policy Foundation. CEO America is a leading advocate of public school vouchers, and a financier of “private” vouchers, bankrolled by wealthy Republican businessmen.

In 1994, 1996 and 1998, Leininger apparently hoped to accelerate school privatization in Texas by backing Christian Right candidates for Texas’s State Board of Education against establishment Republicans allied with Gov. George W. Bush. The Texas Observer reports he has also contributed more than $2 million over the years to such national Christian Right agencies as the American Family Association and Focus on the Family. He is a member of a conservative splinter denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), one of whose founders and leaders is televangelist D. James Kennedy. Leininger also has contributed significantly to antiabortion, anti-gay, anti-public education and anti-labor campaigns and organizations. He was the single largest contributor ($500,000) to the successful 1998 campaign of Rick Perry for Texas Lieutenant Governor. Perry will become governor if George Bush is elected President. Underscoring the growing significance of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and its powerful backer, every statewide elected official including Gov. Bush turned out for the TPPF’s 10th anniversary, $250 a plate fundraising dinner in 1998.

The infrastructure of conservative statelevel think tanks now draws on some 15 years of experience. Its leaders, researchers and advocates move in and out of government, among think tanks, and between national and state-level organizations. As the trend toward devolution of policy-making from the federal government to the states continues, accompanied by an increasing interest in various forms of privatization, the organizational, intellectual, financial, and policy-making strength of these organizations will further the interests and influence of the conservative movement.

What’s more, the policy changes promoted so effectively by the state-level think tanks are often more extreme than anything possible at the national level. There are several reasons for this. First, state legislatures are often more conservative than Congress. They often reflect more local norms, which may derive from concentrations of conservative Christian activism, racial prejudices, or area business, industry, or corporate interests. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the segregationists of the South invoked the notion of “states’ rights” to defend segregation, they were appealing to state-level support for segregation that was being challenged by federal civil rights legislation.

As the trend toward devolution of  policy-making from the federal government  to the states continues, accompanied by an increasing interest in various forms of privatization, the organizational, intellectual, financial, and policy-making strength of these organizations will further the interests and influence of the conservative movement.

Second, the Right often develops its policies and programs by trial-and-error testing in the states. Beginning with his election in 1987, Wisconsin’s Governor Tommy Thompson relied heavily on the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute as he pioneered the attack on welfare that was to spread to other states and eventually become federal welfare “reform.” Rightist legislation and ballot initiatives in the states often serve as a “proving ground” or “demonstration project” for an idea that is not yet broadly accepted nationally. Anti-affirmative action programs incubated in California and Texas, for example, are on the way to becoming national policy.

It can be difficult, time consuming, and expensive to deflect such state level political efforts, especially when both the governor and the legislature are conservative. Opponents of right-wing initiatives often find themselves on the defensive, as well as out-spent and out-staffed by the right’s network of state-level think tanks and the local chapters of national mass-based organizations— all of which are the natural outgrowths of long-term strategic planning and funding by rightist leaders.

What might be called a “quiet revolution” is well underway, flying under the radar of national organizations of the political center and left, and avoiding the national spotlight. Reporters and researchers tend to see only the numerous issue- or constituency-specific activities of the Right. Even then, the most conscientious journalists and public policy groups have trouble keeping track of, for example, all the anti-gay and anti-abortion initiatives and bills being mounted at the state level.

While the Right has not abandoned the national stage, over the past ten years it has developed significant platforms for public policy and political initiatives in the states—from which it has launched a long-term program for political and governmental change.