25.7.18

A QUARTER CENTURY OF THE VAST RIGHT WING CONSPIRACY.

Yes, that became part of the vernacular when Hillary Clinton rolled it out to suggest that her philanderin' other half was being picked on by people with an agenda.  As a concept, though, it is older, the self-styled progressives being convinced that their troubles in the court of public opinion and at the polls have to be the consequence of voters being riled up by disinformation, because the self-styled progressives have their Good Intentions, and they've been Anointed by their Credentials and their Connections.  Never mind that their policies often run afoul of the law of unintended consequences.

So let it be with Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado's No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda.  The book came out in 1996, and I'm only now preparing Book Review No. 19 for 2018.  Perhaps there's a reason I acquired it back then, maybe as a resource for preparing the survey of public policy course I'd teach.


Mark Tushnet's foreword suggests, on the one hand, that "a network of think tanks supported by generous foundation grants produced position papers, op-ed articles, and books that shifted the ground of discussion away from liberal solutions to what many Americans believed were real social problems, and toward conservative solutions, sometimes to 'problems' of conservatives' own creation."  Perhaps, if you put credence in Hidden Persuaders - like characterizations of voters and consumers as easily swayed by slick marketing and packaging, you'll credit the conservative establishment with doing a masterful selling job.  To sell snake oil, though, you have to have some aches that could use attention, and by the mid-1990s, the failures of the Anointed were everywhere evident, Good Intentions notwithstanding.  Mr Tushnet sort of sees the problem.  "[L]eft politics for the foreseeable future must build on 'identity politics' ... .  That strategic judgement may prove to be correct as the war of position continues, but it has made it difficult for liberal academics to develop public policy positions that are tightly connected to the identity politics they defend in the academy."  Two decades ago, nobody expected Militant Normals to think and vote like an identity group too, but I'm getting ahead of my story.

Note, dear reader, that No Mercy comes from a pre-Internet, pre-social media, pre-talk radio and opinion cable information environment, and yet, the battle lines and the contested policies are still in about the same place as they were a quarter century ago.

Where, to be specific, did this vast right wing conspiracy manifest itself?  The authors focus on seven areas: official English, immigration, race and eugenics, affirmative action, public assistance, tort reform, and higher education.  These remain contested territory, and let's give Messrs Stefancic and Delgado credit for recognizing that eugenics used to be a central element of Social Engineering: fortunately, the National Socialists ran with the idea, thereby discrediting it among Enlightened People elsewhere.  Otherwise, though, it's that Scaife and Mellon and Bradley money discrediting Proper Policy: never mind that the common schools and the universities were in bad shape in the early 1990s and getting worse, and that the Great Society had failed.

Read the book, though, and take note of how frequently the usual public intellectuals get support from the usual sources of money.  The chapters might have been written to serve as stand-alone position papers, such that, for example, a single-issue advocate working on easing immigration restrictions could identify the rogues' gallery of Mellon or Scaife without having to dip into an education or welfare chapter, and likewise for any advocate of some other single issue.  The authors can't resist the leftist impuse to hector and condescend, either.  "Bored with Electrical Engineering?  Try the Pioneer Fund."  Or "Can't Stop Writing?  Join the Manhattan Institute."

But did they do their homework?  When, in describing what they describe as an "attack on affirmative action" they go from dumping on the usual suspects to professing surprise that the Cato Institute and American Civil Liberties Union might find common cause in confirming Justice Thomas, and to tar the RAND Corporation, as mainstream a policy shop as there was back then, for supporting applied research by labor economists Finis Welch and James Smith, before going back to the snark at emerging foundations and think tanks?  And, funnily, they mention today's betes noires, the Federalist Society and the political Koch brothers (Charles and David, if you're keeping track, William was busy defending an America's Cup) only briefly and in passing.

With all seriousness, they complain about how insurgent student newspapers have access to conservative money, without once mentioning the role of mainstream (read: left-leaning) foundations in aiding university research and university projects and mainstream (read: Democratic operatives with bylines) news services providing the party line to left-leaning student journalists who don't even have to think about what they write.

But they conclude by conceding the right has a better story.  They suggest that "progressive change is an aberration."  Apart from emancipation and voting rights, the evil the "progressive change" is supposed to extirpate might not even be an evil.  But life in these United States might take the apocalyptic form they fear on page 155, even without a complete triumph of conservative policies.
Black misery will increase.  The gap between the rich and the poor (already the highest in the highest in the Western world) will widen.  Women's gains will be rolled back, foreigners will be excluded, English-speaking enforced, campus orthodoxy rigidly enforced.  Conservative judges, appointed by conservative presidents with the encouragement of a conservative Congress, will repeal prisoners' and children's rights, and narrow women's procreative liberties.
That reads like the #resistance anticipating a Trump presidency, and its realization in the next two, or six, years strikes me as unlikely.  Somehow, though, the authors' suggestion that the #resistance trot out allegations like "our water will be poisoned" or the old favorite, "People. Will.  DIE!"  In part, we have a Trump presidency because a number of the outcomes feared in that passage aren't simply the consequences of conservative policies, or of the absence of activist government policies.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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