Banana Republicans: The Marketplace of Ideas

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"The Marketplace of Ideas" is the title of chapter one of the 2004 book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (ISBN 1585423424).


The right has risen by systematically developing and marketing conservative and corporate-friendly ideology. While corporations have cultivated direct political influence by financially supporting political candidates, a more profound effect has been achieved through their decades-long investment in financing the ideas that have driven the rise of the conservative movement.

A handful of foundations have been aggressively funding conservative think tanks and are now enjoying the fruits of this long-term investment. The most influential of these foundations include the Koch Family Foundations, Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Adolph Coors Foundation.

They have used their wealth in concert with a handful of other extraordinarily wealthy individuals to build a political machine that spreads their ideas about law, culture, politics and economics throughout the political and media establishment. They support industry-friendly think tanks, experts and subsidized media that repeat, embellish and reinforce their core message that corporations are good while government regulations, labor unions, environmentalists, liberal Democrats, and anything else that might restrict corporate behavior are bad.

Most foundations spend their money on "brick and mortar" philanthropy - hospitals, museums, universities and symphonies. Many have progressive intentions that they express by funding food banks, housing for the homeless, and other direct services to the poor, disabled or disadvantaged. What makes conservative foundations different is that they are remarkably unencumbered by these sorts of distractions, enabling them to focus in a disciplined way on achieving their direct political goals. Whereas other foundations mostly try to change the world by offering services, the conservative foundations have prioritized influencing ideas and policies.

Conservative funders also work cooperatively. They share information and strategies for giving through the Philanthropy Roundtable, a clearinghouse for conservative donors that arose in the late 1970s and whose activities exemplify the seriousness with which the conservative movement focuses on coordinating its activities. It holds annual and regional conferences, advises individual donors and grant-making foundations, and publishes papers and books with titles like Strategic Investment in Ideas, aimed at helping conservatives maximize the political impact of their grant-making. They have a long-term strategic vision forged through several decades of political organizing.

In a 1997 review of conservative philanthropy for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Sally Covington observed that conservative foundations pursued a three-pronged strategy of:

  1. developing ideas that serve conservative goals,
  2. translating them into specific policy proposals, and
  3. marketing the ideas to the public.

Large amounts of funding went to support conservative scholarship and programs at universities such as Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago, with the purpose of training conservative thinkers and activists while challenging progressive curricula and policy trends on college and university campuses. Generous funding was also provided to support think tanks and advocacy groups such as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, the Free Congress Foundation, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Hudson Institute and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. A significant amount of funding also went to promote the ideas conservative think tanks through alternative media outlets, media watchdog groups and specific reporting on public radio or television that offered conservative angles on public issues.

On campus, right-wing foundations work to influence the politics of university campuses, fighting against multicultural education, gender studies and affirmative action. They give millions of dollars to conservative university programs, university endowments, lectures and right-wing student publications, and they help advance the careers of conservative professors by promoting their research in the media.

Foundations also fund programs that recruit and train students, ensuring the intellectual future of conservatism by grooming future generations of conservative scholars, activists, journalists and politicians.

Heritage, Cato and CSE are only the tip of the think-tank iceberg. Multiply the examples above by several hundred and you begin to get an idea of the scale on which efforts are ongoing to influence the way you and your neighbors - and especially your elected representatives - think about health, taxation, the environment, trade, foreign policy and a host of other issues.

And in addition to the national think tanks, conservative funders have built a network of state-based think tanks such as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, the Hudson Institute in Indiana, the Heartland Institute in Illinois, the Pacific Research Institute in California, and the Manhattan Institute in New York City. Just as the national think tanks push legislation onto the federal agenda, the state groups push local and state governments to adopt policies such as welfare cuts, privatization of public services, parental choice in schools and deregulation of workplace safety. The state and national think tanks reinforce one another, with the national centers serving as sources of leadership and authority while the state organizations develop model programs that can then be replicated nationally.

Discussion questions

  • How important are think tanks in the development and advocacy of ideas and policy proposals?
  • Why are conservative think tanks more influential than centrist or liberal think tanks?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the work of think tanks and universities?
  • Why do conservative foundations fund scholarship programs, university endowments and student publications?