In the late 1970s, conservatives found themselves seemingly cornered. The economy was in the hands of Keynesians; the radical social ideas of the previous decade had insinuated themselves into the mainstream; right-leaning scholars found themselves increasingly marginalized in the academy; and the Republican party had been disgraced by the Watergate scandal. Seeking new ideas and a road back into power, conservatives formed an innovative network of Washington-based think tanks that stood outside of the government but fed politicos, policy analysts, and ideas into it.
The Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, and the CATO Institute, founded in 1977, joined the American Enterprise Institute (founded in 1943) to provide bases from which to organize and develop conservative ideas and manpower. The results of this effort were soon to be found in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the halls of Congress, and finally, on the presidential campaign trail in 1980. The conservatives made a comeback.
And the effect was not merely temporary. In order to sustain the movement, they turned to the rising generation as potential leaders, establishing myriad programs to mentor and educate college students in the philosophy of conservatism. The Young America’s Foundation, which was founded in 1969 when a small group of students banded together on the campus of Vanderbilt University to study conservative ideas, grew, moved to Washington, and began sponsoring lectures on college campuses, conferences for students, and other youth outreach efforts. Heritage established its famous internship program in 1979, where interns not only perform policy research, but also learn the ins and outs of the free market, discuss figures like F.A. Hayek and Russell Kirk, and network with leading conservative figures.
In Wilmington, Delaware, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which had long sponsored promising, right-leaning students, launched the Collegiate Network (CN) in 1979 to financially support fledgling conservative publications on college campuses around the nation. As the program grew, CN began connecting their writers to national publications like Roll Call, the Weekly Standard, and National Review.
All this was instructive for liberals in the early part of this decade. Faced with a similar dilemma under the Bush Administration, they turned to the conservative movement for ideas. Where once, progressives focused on mobilizing the decentralized grassroots, they have begun to organize their policy research efforts and tap into the well of progressive youth. Organizations like the Center for American Progress (CAP), the Truman National Security Project, and others have begun to do what conservatives did back in the 1970s. They are training a young army of progressives, ready to jump into careers in the media, government, academia, and elsewhere and have their say in the political debates of this country.
Modeled partly after Heritage and ISI, the CAP was founded in 2003 by Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta. This “think tank on steroids,” as Podesta dubbed it at the time, aimed to rethink the foundations of modern liberalism. Inspired by progressive heroes like Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., CAP sought to champion the common good over narrow self-interest” and form policy on issues like energy, immigration, education, and health care, to quote from its website.
But it had a practical goal as well: power. As Podesta explained to the New York Times, conservatives had “built up institutions with a lot of influence, a lot of ideas. And they generated a lot of money to get out those ideas. It didn’t happen by accident. And I think it’s had a substantial effect on why we have a conservative party that controls the White House and the Congress and is making substantial efforts to control the judiciary.”
CAP alone was not able to shift the nation’s priorities, and after John Kerry’s loss in 2004, liberals saw the necessity of combating the left’s reputation for being soft on foreign policy. In the early 2000s, two American graduate students at Oxford, Matthew Spence and Rachel Kleinfeld, began wondering how liberals could re-brand themselves on foreign policy. As part of her graduate research on international security issues, Kleinfeld, who grew up in Alaska, had traveled to Indonesia, Albania, and Eastern Europe. “It became clear to me…that we faced a very significant new threat from terrorism,” she recalls. Kleinfeld concluded that there was “a whole set of [international] challenges and threats that neither side of [the] political spectrum had answers to.”
In 2005, the Truman National Security Project was founded to address those challenges and threats, but in a way that put progressive values and ideas at the forefront. “The Kerry campaign never got its wheels on national security and they really suffered for it,” says Frankie Strum, the Project’s communications director. ”There was a big gap in the Democratic Party that needed to be filled when it came to national security.”
But starting up think tanks is only one aspect of organizing the left’s political efforts. Another is training young activists. Writing in Dissent magazine in 2007, former Washington intern Ben Waxman lamented the left’s serious organizational and financial disadvantage in this area:
Although it may not be surprising that conservatives also spend more money on recruiting young people, I was shocked to discover the actual size of the discrepancy. Conservative organizations spend about five times as much as their left-liberal counterparts…But money isn’t the only problem with how internships are structured in the liberal-left community…The conservative movement is very serious about developing the intellectual foundation of its summer employees. Instead of simply assigning their interns grunt work, the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups organize an endless stream of books, pamphlets, and guest lectures to provide students with ideological resources.
Responding to this gap, the Truman Project launched its one-year fellowship program, the Truman Security Fellowship, which offers hands-on training to future progressive leaders—national security experts, veterans, policy wonks, journalists, and political staffers. “We take these fellows and their expertise and put them in the media,” says Strum. “We put them in training programs on the military or how to talk about national security in a persuasive way.”
The Project also reaches out to younger activists, bringing speakers and training programs to college campuses and holding events for student interns in D.C. during the summer. One big focus is the military. “Military 101” is a presentation given at campuses by veterans on the military’s structures, demographics, and values. One of the Project’s philosophical pillars is having a strong military to defend the country—a conviction that still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many progressives. As Strum notes, “During and after the 1960s, when ROTCs were thrown off campuses, there grew a divide between the military and campuses and that doesn’t do anything for people. We want to bridge that gap.”
CAP also began giving thought to its youth outreach effort in 2004. In February 2005, CAP launched Campus Progress. According to David Halperin, the director of the program, progressives thought that “conservatives did a really good job in some respects in reaching out to young people, although there are a smaller number of young people who are conservative.” Still, conservatives were able to identify, train, and support them. It was high time that liberals, who had more young people at their disposal, did the same thing. Some notable Campus Progress graduates include blogger Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, author and activist Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, and Tony Anderson, who founded the Let’s Raise a Million! clean energy campaign.
In addition to its promotion of campus activism, Campus Progress publishes an online magazine run by young journalists and headed by blogger Kay Steiger, to help budding writers get their first clips. Writing for CampusProgress.org has served as a “pipeline for getting into professional journalism jobs,” says Halperin, with former writers going on to Newsweek, Politico, and the Daily Beast. For instance, Ben Adler went on to write for Politico and is now at Newsweek; Dana Goldstein spent some time at the American Prospect before settling in at the Daily Beast and Jesse Singal currently writes for the Boston Globe. All three were former editors of CampusProgress.org.
Campus Progress provides support, too, for student-run papers, awarding grants of upwards to $3,000 to help students found and publish left-wing school papers. Like its college paper rival, CN, Campus Progress mentors student journalists, offers them networking opportunities, and teaches them the importance of reporting, as opposed to pontificating, on the issues.
In D.C., Campus Progress hosts networking and career socials, film festivals, and a national conference with big-ticket speakers, like Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. “Progressivism on Tap,” a lecture series co-directed by CAP fellows John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, provide interns and young liberal professionals with opportunities to discuss and debate progressive values and ideas.
“We are pretty optimistic that this kind of program will have an impact short term and long term,” Halperin says. Though it’s still early to tell whether these organizations will be as successful as their conservative counterparts, the fact that they are up and running is a good sign in itself for young liberals looking for institutional and financial support—and to become leaders in their political movement.
Emily Smith is a Collegiate Network Journalism Fellow at the Weekly Standard.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire