History of Philanthropy and Conservatism

Conservative Philanthropy and Political Coalition Building Across the U.S. States

Editors’ Note: With this post from Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, HistPhil opens a new forum on the history of conservative philanthropy. We are approaching the bounds of this topic expansively, hoping that questions of what constitutes conservative philanthropy, what its lineage might be, and whether it even makes sense to speak of a distinctly conservative philanthropic tradition in the United States, are ones that will be addressed, implicitly or explicitly, over the course of the forum itself. Besides highlighting the breadth of scholarship on the subject, this forum makes an attempt to put scholars of conservative philanthropy and conservative philanthropic practitioners into conversation. We hope it’s a productive one. Feel free to contact us at historyofphilanthropyblog@gmail.com with suggestions of how it could be improved, or who else might be included. 

With the exception of their recent tax cut bill, national Republicans do not have much to show for their full control of Congress and the White House. Across the states, however, things have never looked better for the GOP. As a result of wave elections beginning in 2010, Republicans now hold full control – legislature plus governorship – of 26 states, compared to just seven states for Democrats. Thanks to crucial support from powerful cross-networks that develop, promote, and press policy proposals on state governments, the conservative movement has been able to capitalize on Republican electoral gains to pass a raft of new right-leaning legislation. These include sweeping measures to weaken labor unions, slash environmental regulations, reduce access to abortions, and expand gun rights.

In a forthcoming book–State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States – and the Nation–I explore how, over decades, conservative political entrepreneurs built up the infrastructure that positioned them to take advantage of the GOP takeover of the states. This infrastructure includes at its center three groups with national reach and a presence in all fifty states – what I dub the “right-wing troika.” The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), operating since 1973, recruits thousands of state legislators as members and helps them to pass model bills developed by conservative activists and big businesses like Kraft, GlaxoSmithKline, Walmart, AT&T, and UPS. The State Policy Network (SPN), with roots back to 1986, is a network of some sixty state-level think tanks focused on free-market economic issues, which in turn buttresses many of the model bills ALEC produces through policy reports and media commentary. And active since 2004, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) counts millions of activists on its volunteer rolls and hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign ads and spending to push legislators to back its agenda, which often aligns with ALEC model bills.

One reason why these three groups have mastered the art of cross-state advocacy so much more adeptly than liberals is that the troika members closely coordinate with one another. Rather than trying to do the same thing, these organizations support the same policy goals through different strategies, each playing to their own comparative strengths. Yet as I show in the book, this close coordination was by no means a foregone conclusion. It would be a mistake to think that the troika was always powerful or united. Similarly, it would be a mistake to assume that conservatives necessarily had an easier time working together than liberals simply because of their underlying ideology. Rather, it took deliberate choices on the part of troika leaders in conjunction with right-wing philanthropists to engineer the interlocking pieces of the right-wing networks. Examining how coordination in the troika developed over time is not only important to understand our current political moment. It also offers broader lessons about how coalitions in U.S. politics can succeed – or fail – based on philanthropic nudges and incentives.

The history of ALEC and SPN offers an especially instructive case study. In the early 1980s, ALEC was still a sleepy operation that mainly focused on hot-button social issues like opposing gay rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and access to abortions. As a result, it was having a hard time reaching out to more moderate state legislators and big businesses wary of political controversy. That all started to change with the arrival of a new head, Sam Brunelli, who had served in the Reagan administration’s Department of Education. In addition to reorienting ALEC towards more corporate-friendly issues, Brunelli realized that ALEC could be far more successful if their legislators could count on support outside of the legislature for their model bill proposals. Enter SPN, at that point a loose coalition of think tanks dubbed the “Madison Group.”

As Brunelli explained to me in an interview, he saw that the Madison Group’s initial efforts at fundraising “basically fell by the wayside” in an already crowded field of right-wing political advocacy groups. Brunelli thus took the relatively unprecedented step of opening up ALEC’s donor list to the Madison Group, and even inviting the Madison Group to use ALEC’s contacts at various companies and foundations to raise much-needed capital for the burgeoning network of think tanks. As he noted, most of the time with conservative non-profits, “everyone is all proprietary,” saying “you can’t come, you can’t see our list” given that every new group represented a potential competitor for scarce donor resources. Brunelli also “got [the Madison Group] participating” on a regular basis in ALEC, and even temporarily waived ALEC’s hefty dues to encourage Madison Group attendance at each of ALEC’s events.

Of course, Brunelli was not simply acting out of the goodness of his heart. He readily explained that “the more I can do to get [the Madison Group] involved, working with more state legislators, the better for me. I never did see it as a zero-sum game,” he summed up; “let’s make a bigger pie.”  That attitude would prove to be essential for both the rapid growth of SPN over time, and also the development of a close relationship between SPN and ALEC as SPN affiliates began joining ALEC to draft model bill proposals, provide research and intellectual support for legislators interested in those model bills, and give media commentary and even legislative testimony in support of ALEC’s agenda.

ALEC and SPN have been closely linked ever since Sam Brunelli opened up his funder list to the Madison Group and helped get the precursor to SPN off the ground. On an institutional level, SPN is a member of ALEC (and vice versa), and many SPN members serve as private sector members on ALEC’s policy task forces that draft and promote model bills. At last count, some 22 affiliates had formal membership in ALEC working groups. SPN now itself encourages such ties, seeking funding from conservative philanthropists and corporations to cover the expensive dues to join ALEC’s task forces. SPN’s donors have included businesses like AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline, and Microsoft, as well as philanthropies like the Bradley and Castle Rock Foundations, as well as DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, two pass-through entities that permit conservative donors to make anonymized contributions to right-leaning groups.

This was a special priority for current SPN head Tracie Sharp, who made a push for fundraising to pay for ALEC dues beginning in the mid-2000s. Sharp then used the success that SPN affiliates enjoyed working together at ALEC as justification for further grants to the network. In one funding proposal to the Searle Freedom Trust, a conservative foundation, SPN noted that their Arizona affiliate – the Goldwater Institute – was able to pass model legislation at ALEC the previous year that had enjoyed legislative and media attention.

The end result of this happy marriage between SPN and ALEC has been greater legislative clout and revenue for both networks. In my own analysis, I have found that states where SPN think tanks were more closely aligned with ALEC were more likely to enact ALEC priorities compared to states where SPN think tanks did not have deep institutional connections with ALEC.

The close coordination between ALEC and SPN on both their substantive work and their fundraising offers a stark contrast to what has happened on the left. As I document in State Capture, left-wing efforts to counter ALEC failed time and again because liberal activists would often compete with one another for the same donors, billing themselves as tackling the same issues with the same or similar strategies. (At one point in the early 2000s there were three groups vying to market themselves as counterweights to ALEC.) Ironically, then, left-wing cross-state lobbying groups found themselves in a Hayekian state of free market anarchy, while right-wing groups like ALEC and SPN embraced a sort of central planning to encourage the groups to pursue their own comparative advantages in support of the same agenda.

The broader lesson we can take away from this example is that savvy political entrepreneurs can work with donors to help expand the clout of political coalitions. Through the incentives given to grantees, philanthropy can be a tool to encourage an interlocking set of organizations to cooperate with one another and form a durable, long-run coalition. That, in turn, can go a long way in explaining the fates of political movements. While we cannot replay political history, it seems unlikely that either SPN or ALEC – or the broader conservative movement – would enjoy the same success they have today across the states without the prodding of Brunelli and his donors. If liberals want to regain ground in state-level politics, they would be wise to learn from these successes on the right.

-Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. He is the author of Politics at Work: How Companies Turn their Workers into Lobbyists (Oxford, 2018), as well as the forthcoming book State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States – and the Nation (Oxford).

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