The Battle for Ideas

Manning Marable


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

over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally.



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