Why the Left Isn’t Well-Funded

While I disagree with his implications of what it means for the Left (or what passes for it), Aaron Swartz makes a very good observation about the monetizers of the conservative movement:

What’s striking about the rise of modern conservatism is that it was not, in large part, the creation of big business. Big business, all things considered, was pretty happy with the liberal consensus. They weren’t exactly itching to drown the government in the bathtub, especially when it did so much for them….
But the real conservative movement was funded instead by wealthy extremists on the fringes of the business world. It was the creation of people like Richard Mellon Scaife, who inherited part of the vast Mellon fortune from his alcoholic mother. Joseph Coors inherited a brewing company, John M. Olin ran a relatively-obscure chemical company, R. Randolph Richardson inherited the money his father made by selling Vick’s to Procter and Gamble. None of them can exactly be called Titans of Industry, or even titans of industry. Yet these are the men who bankrolled not just the conservative legal movement, but the conservative movement in general….
It wasn’t the Chamber of Commerce or major businesses that took on these tasks, but a network of independent, ideologically-based think tanks. And these think tanks weren’t founded by eminent Men of Business, but by a new class of people — a group we might call political entrepreneurs….
Just like the vendors at the inauguration, political entrepreneurs sought out people with money and tried to sell them something they didn’t even know they wanted…. Nonprofits are small enough and rich people are wealthy enough that it only takes a handful of lunatics with money to fund a whole forest of think tanks.

That last sentence is something anyone who has dealt with creationists is painfully aware of. Swartz then asks a really good question:

And yet, there must be crazy lefty billionaires too. So why do most lefty think tanks rarely go any farther than the Clintonite consensus?

Where I disagree is with his answer:

The average lefty wants to do stuff, not hobnob with rich people and manage a staff. They’re not particularly cut out for organizational work nor do they hang around with the kind of people who are. If they do hang out with entrepreneurs, they’re more likely to be the kind who start small, hip technology companies, which just makes them wonder why they’re not making millions doing that instead of wasting time on this political bullshit.

Instead, I think, based on, at one point in my career, having had occasion to dun rich lefties for money, there is a better explanation.
Rich ‘lefties’ are often liberal on social issues, but not economic ones. The insanity of the theopolitical right honks them off, but they’re not economic lefties (or even moderates sometimes). This makes them less likely to support a progressive agenda, such as moderate tax increases. This isn’t necessarily self-interest-they would be quite wealthy regardless of the tax structure-but utterly oblivious to pressing needs in the U.S. The effects of vast income inequality or the last several decades of wage stagnation don’t even exist to the typical wealthy donor (except for some very old ones who remember the New Deal fondly, which is a vanishingly small number).
To the extent that they give out donations, it’s usually to solve a specific, concrete problem, rather than foment a political movement. They would rather help build a water system in a developing country than change the U.S. political system, even if that could potentially liberate far more funding for such projects from the federal government.
So what you end up with is a ‘progressive’ infrastructure that is forced to get money from what would have once been called Rockefeller Republicans, who, shockingly, don’t have a left wing agenda.

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8 Responses to Why the Left Isn’t Well-Funded

  1. “Rich ‘lefties’ are often liberal on social issues, but not economic ones. The insanity of the theopolitical right honks them off, but they’re not economic lefties (or even moderates sometimes). This makes them less likely to support a progressive agenda, such as moderate tax increases.”
    The people you’re describing, whether they self-identify this way or not, are libertarians.
    A (small-L) libertarian is someone who is liberal (often very) on social issues and classically conservative (again often very) on economic issues. A libertarian might be someone who thinks drugs should be legal, gays should be allowed to marry, is an atheist, and thinks we should have a gold-backed currency and a flat tax.
    Libertarians see a connection between social and economic freedom, and see the welfare state as being to the economy and business what a theocracy is to the mind. “Free minds and free markets” is the slogan of Reason Magazine, which is one of the more popular libertarian media outlets.
    Libertarians are hard to see because they don’t show up on our left-right-oriented political maps very well. When Republicans are in power, they tend to sound like and sometimes side with Democrats. When Democrats are in power, they tend to sound like and sometimes side with Republicans. The left-right consensus doesn’t grok them.

  2. Mim Song says:

    Another facet is that most lefties are not “operatives” because they have a naive faith in the “rightness” of their positions, and that being right is enough. They assume that most people agree with their positions, or would if they were “asked the right way”. The failure to transform this inchoate agreement into political action is a symptom of immature anti-Straussianism and smug intellectualism. So stop that shit, okay?

  3. “The failure to transform this inchoate agreement into political action is a symptom of immature anti-Straussianism and smug intellectualism.”
    Interesting statement… I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Elaborate?

  4. Jim Thomerson says:

    I’m not sure what that means either, but would probably agree with it if I did. I’ve seen a number of instances where someone in the right thought that being right was all that was necessary. Thinking you are right tends to make you complacent, overconfident and lazy. That is not how you move your cause forward.

  5. Interesting perspective that makes some sense.

  6. a lurker says:

    Historically the Republicans, on average, have had lots more money than the Democrats. Is it thus surprising that the right “think tanks” have more money than their left counterparts? If only those making $150k or more could have voted, McCain would have had a very easy win. The effect that income has political affiliation is quite dramatic. See an analysis at FiveThirtyEight. Of course the reason is that the rich are voting for their short-term economic interests: don’t take me and don’t regulate my business.
    Of course the introduction of donation to candidates via the masses on the Internet combined with Bush’s horrid performance has, at least for now, reversed this for cash for political campaigns. I guess if the masses could be convinced to contribute to think tanks it might help reverse the effect, but I don’t think it very likely. 1) Most non-rich don’t want to — that is kind of thing someone with a few hundred million with nothing else better to spend it one will do. 2) There are no limits on donating to think tanks like there are for donation to candidates making it hard for a hoard of people to overwhelm the few who inherited too much money for their own good.

  7. tenacitus says:

    “The failure to transform this inchoate agreement into political action is a symptom of immature anti-Straussianism and smug intellectualism. So stop that shit, okay?”
    That statement was so funny because only a smug intellectual would say things that way.

  8. Coriolis says:

    Actually the thing that really jumps out for me for all the examples of so called republican “entrepreneurs”, is that 3 out of 4 of them inherited their money from their parents.
    I.e. idiots who never made serious money on their own but just got lucky.
    If this ratio of inherited vs. personally acquired wealth holds more generally for the funders of the republican movement, it explains alot.

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