power always expresses itself as a body of ideas. If you can create and
popularize the key ideas that define the general perceptions about public
issues, you will largely determine what happens politically. It matters less who
gets elected, than what policies and programs that person implements once in
office. Politics is only superficially about personalities: it is the
implementation of ideas through power.
of our current dilemma in African American politics is the poverty of new ideas.
The NAACP’s public policy agenda is not substantially different than it was 20
years ago. On the other hand, Louis Farrakhan has basically patterned his
program after that of Booker T. Washington’s a century ago – social
conservatism, black entrepreneurship, self help, racial separatism. When liberal
integrationists and conservative black nationalists aren’t saying much that’s
new, the real losers are the African American people.
the past thirty years, conservatives have shifted the public’s political
discourse sharply to the right. Part of their success came from electoral
victories, notably the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and the 1994
Congressional triumph of the "Contract With America." However, a
critically important factor in pushing U.S. politics to the right was the
decisive ideological role played by white conservative think tanks and
to author David Callahan, writing in a recent Nation, the twenty wealthiest
conservative think tanks will have spent over $1 billion in the 1990s to
"develop and disseminate policy ideas." Most of this money is given by
"corporations and wealthy businessmen, with conservative think tanks
increasingly acting as magnets for special-interest money."
"godfather" of ultra-conservative think tanks is the Heritage
Foundation, started in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, who subsequently also established
the Free Congress Foundation. The Heritage Foundation spent $28.7 million in
1998 alone, which according to Harvard Political Review researcher Luke
McLoughlin, is "more than the top ten liberal think tanks combined."
The Heritage Foundation spends much of this money on pushing conservative ideas
in the media. "Two hundred issue bulletins go out to 650 editorial page
editors each year, thirty to forty national columnists, and 450 talk-radio
hosts," McLoughlin notes. The Heritage website "allows legislative
aides access to download conservative position papers on countless
leading conservative think tank on the issue of race is the notorious American
Enterprise Institute (AEI). With a budget of $13 million in 1998, AEI receives
much of its money from the rightwing Bradley Foundation and major corporations.
The AEI continuously pumps out blatantly racist position papers against
affirmative action, minority scholarships, minority economic set-asides, and
other civil rights reforms. Deborah Toler, a policy researcher with the
Institute for Public Accuracy, recently analyzed the AEI’s "race
desk." There is first Dinesh D’Sousa, author of The End of Racism, a
pseudoscholarly work that attributes racial inequality and oppression to African
Americans themselves. Charles Murray co-author of the racist diatribe, The Bell
Curve, receives a handsome salary as AEI’s Bradley Fellow. Former judge Robert
Bork, the conservative legal scholar who Reagan tried unsuccessfully to place on
the Supreme Court, is AEI’s John M. Olin Fellow in Legal Studies. According to
Toler, Bork’s book Slouching Towards Gomorrah "locates much of the blame
for the decline of bourgeois culture in African American culture." AEI
fellow Ben Wattenberg attributes the rise of "non-European
populations" as a fundamental threat to western civilization.
conservative think tanks and foundations are like a "parallel
government" without any democratic accountability. As Callahan observes,
"many operate as extraparty organizations, adopting the tactics of the
permanent political campaign by incorporating a fundraising arm, a lobbying arm,
a policy analysis and development arm, a public relations arm and a grassroots
mobilization or constituency development arm."
can the Black Freedom Movement and progressives learn from the Far Right?
Conservatives’ gains indicate that a multifaceted strategy – including
fundraising, lobbying, policy analysis, media and grasssroots mobilization – is
essential for winning the battle of ideas. Progressive and liberal mass
organizations from the NAACP to the AFL-CIO need a similar strategy, but based
on democratic and social justice ideas. The Democratic Party is not the vehicle
for building this alternative strategy. Just as the conservatives operate both
inside and outside the Republican Party, as it serves their long-term interests,
we must do the same with the Democrats. What is urgently needed is a broadly
diverse, progressive formation that is independent of the Democratic Party, that
can develop and fight for those ideas that directly address the real needs of
the great majority of the American people.
Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science and Director of
the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.
"Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge and appears in
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