My friend Ben Domenech has an extremely provocative piece up at his website The New Ledger (which you should check out for some really top notch features). The topic is conservative advocacy organizations and think tanks. Domenech thinks they are eating up donor dollars when an entirely different set of individuals and/or organizations would be able to do much more with less.
Here’s a clip (but you should really read the whole piece and see what you think):
Consider the example of one tenured think tank scholar, who I will not name, but whose identity may be fairly obvious. He is a resident scholar at a DC-area thinktank; he has co-written a book, which sold decently and prompted debate (more about its politics than its policy ideas); he is a contributing editor to several journals; and while he has never worked in government or on public policy, and has no advanced education in the discipline he primarily writes about, he is already living the life of a tenured professor. While he has never proposed a relevant policy solution on any matter, certainly not one that has been taken up by a politician, his students are an audience of readers who find his work of interest – he is now published regularly at more than a half dozen journals of opinion. For this he is well compensated.
Now consider the other side of this coin, the modern blogger – again, an individual I will not name, but who is well known within the center-right blogosphere. This is a young man, a veteran, with a family, a blue collar background, and a day job as a low-level tech worker. He writes on his own time, with his work focused on breaking news, and gets thousands of hits every day to his work. He has broken at least three major stories over the past two years by my count, including a news-breaking video that got extensive play on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. He gets no money to do this work, and the amounts he’s received from major sources have never been more than the occasional monthly car payment. He struggles to support his family, but he believes what he’s doing is important, so he sticks to it.
For the first candidate, money is not a worry. He is part of an organization that is focused on raising it, so this renaissance man can pay his mortgage, have an office, benefits, and never miss a paycheck or a TV appearance. This money will come from a center-right donor or group of donors, who could instead be funding this cutting edge journalist (breaking news that will drive the debate) or an activist at the state level (running investigative journalism project or government watchdog work) or the blogger in question.
This is the way things are, and given that it is the case, it’s hard to blame any individual writer or activist on the conservative side who decides to give up in this environment, when they see dollar after dollar headed to top-heavy, inefficient, old-guard organizations. To the next generation of activists, asking why is there no money for smart online activism, why people like James O’Keefe and others rebuffed by Washington must go out west to the very non-Beltway (a compliment) Andrew Breitbart to find cash for a project like the recent impressive work on ACORN, the answer is that it’s headed either toward paying for smart people to write and talk, or paying for aging response organizations to track when their writing and talking is ignored by the mainstream media.
Now, as at least a relative of those intellectuals whom Domenech mercilessly charges with semi-uselessness I have to say, YEEE-OUCH. But of course, this is part of the reason why we should be off in universities (as I am) forming young minds while we are writing our books and papers.
Domenech’s jeremiad is the kind of piece that needs to be carefully considered and slowly digested, but I have to say that I am nearly certain we would all benefit from the type of conversation he is trying to start.