How to Change a Policy Agenda: Start 40 Years Ago

Authored By 
Alex DiBranco
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
November 21, 2017

Many Democrats—and some Republicans—expressed bewildered shock at the outcome of the 2016 election. Recovering quickly, pundits began to weigh in on “what went wrong.” But the constant rehash of the mistakes and manipulations of a single campaign cycle will not yield the electoral or policy outcomes that progressives want. For that, they must come to terms with their failure to match a half-century of sustainable long-term strategic investment on the Right.

While the lavish spending on a conservative libertarian agenda by the Koch brothers has attracted plenty of ink over the past few years, their machinations cannot adequately explain today’s political spectrum. Relative latecomers to the Republican Party, the Koch brothers built upon the groundwork laid by earlier funders and activists, which simultaneously posed benefits for and obstacles to reshaping the agenda to their own ends. The conservative movement of the present day reflects the desires of funders, entrepreneurs, and leaders who came together in the 1970s—many of whom now wield their influence from beyond the grave.

Key figures of the 1970s included entrepreneurs like the late Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, and his wealthy ally, late beer magnate Joseph Coors. While the Kochs dabbled with third party libertarian politics, less well known foundations like Coors, Scaife, Olin, Bradley, and others supported efforts to redirect the Republican policy agenda in a more permanently conservative bent.

My archival research into the New Right network of leaders, foundations, think tanks, student groups, media, and other institutions provides an explanation for how to build a sustainable sociopolitical movement with influence half a century later. Starting in 1971 with the precursor to the Heritage Foundation, my research follows a trajectory of increasing pressure toward right-wing policies on the national level and an investment in local and state institutions and races far surpassing that of progressive organizers. The success of the Tea Party movement, and the ascendency of a white male supremacist political movement now, builds upon these existing infrastructures.

The loyalty and trust conservative funders invested in New Right leaders supported movement-building through serial entrepreneurship and long-term planning. Weyrich, the “chief strategist” of the New Right, was able to put his ideas into reality after connecting with Coors. The beer magnate provided $250,000 in start-up funds for the a new research organization from 1971-1972—equivalent to about $1.5 million in today’s dollars, an expensive risk on an untried leader. But after a couple false starts, this investment lead to Weyrich founding of the Right’s most prominent think tank in 1973, the Heritage Foundation. With Coors’ backing, Weyrich also established the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Television News Inc. (TVN), and the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress over the next year. Progressive foundations have been critiqued for funding pet projects with time-consuming annual renewals instead of guaranteeing operating expenses necessary to sustainable organizational development.

Conservative funders, with an eye to the long-term, accepted that there would be failures. When TVN closed in 1975, having lost eight million dollars, Coors continued to financially support his friend in arms. By the end of the decade, that meant backing Weyrich’s work organizing the New Christian Right and helping to found the Moral Majority with the late Jerry Falwell.

And while TVN may have been a very expensive failure, it too had one lasting impact: training Roger Ailes, future CEO of Fox News.

To be sure, analysts must also consider the significance of decisions made in recent campaign cycles, more recent nonprofit start-ups, and massive outlays of money at the present. Yet the Heritage Foundation, which provided a budget blueprint for the current administration, owes its existence the investments of the 1970s—and in fact today has the same leadership (Edwin Feulner, a friend of Weyrich’s from their days as congressional aides) as it had 40 years ago. Current political agendas are palimpsests of what has come before, shaped and constrained by the landscape available.

Attention to the long-term construction of political coalitions and the resulting policy outcomes changes the calculus of how foundations, and even small donors, should allocate their resources to change policy. The failure of the Koch brothers’ preferred candidates in the 2016 Republican primaries, despite their massive financial outlay in that campaign, reflects a lesson that banking, oil, and aluminum heir Richard Mellon Scaife (another early Heritage funder) learned half a century prior: changing the political landscape requires an investment in institutions and in patience. After meeting disappointment with his support for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972, Scaife realized that an influx of money to a presidential campaign could not safely purchase a policy agenda.

But an entire political spectrum can be shifted, so that even the consolation candidate reflects much of those funders’ and entrepreneurs’ goals, as with the influence of the Koch agenda and the Christian Right in the Trump administration. All the leaders who set those wheels in motion might not be around to see the full fruits of their labor, yet their ghostly hands wield influence all the same.

Alex DiBranco is a Graduate Policy Fellow at ISPS and a Ph.D candidate in Sociology at Yale. Her research focuses on right-wing movements in the United States, nonprofit organizations, religion, and gender. This post draws on archival research conducted at the Hoover Institution Library and ArchivesBancroft Library, and Ruth Lilly Special Collections & Archives.