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How Left-Wing Foundations Control Politics

You’d never know their giving is so much greater than the right’s.

Since 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has united the Left against the Koch boogeymen and other conservative political money. But as the evidence shows, the Kochs and their work for economic liberty, criminal justice reform, and other freedom-minded policies can’t hold a candle to the foundation funding machine on the Left, which largely operates outside of political disclosure rules and without much media scrutiny.

The latter disparity — the lack of media scrutiny — is the most troubling. Given how much time and energy Politico, the Washington Post, NPR, and much of the mainstream media spend on “Koch funding,” you would think the Koch brothers were uniquely large political players. In reality, on a 2013 list of the top 100 U.S. foundations (by asset size), the Ford Foundation was #2, with 38 times more assets than the combined Koch groups. In fact, none of the Koch groups was even in the top 100 foundations by asset size or the top 100 foundations by annual giving. And yet, a recent Google News search showed almost three times more results for “Koch brothers” than for “Ford Foundation.”

The lack of context between conservative foundations and left-wing foundations by mainstream press is not excusable, but there are reasons for it that we would do well to understand. First, reporters, editors, and executives tend to align ideologically with liberal foundations. To them, left-wing donors smell like “public interest,” while conservative donors smell like “special interests.” The double standard is not excusable, but it is at least understandable. Second, the left-wing foundations invest far, far more than right wing donors into research and activism aimed at discrediting “money in politics,” and so reporters get a (ironically, well-funded!) stream of information about the Koch brothers and other right-of-center donors, but hear comparatively little about the left-wing foundation machine.

It is more difficult to understand why conservative media does not pay much attention to the left-wing foundation machine that is at the root of most of our political losses. To borrow from Henry David Thoreau, we seem to have thousands of columnists and activists hacking at political branches for every one who is striking at the foundational root.

There are two very instructive examples of how the left-wing foundations are able to operate at the root of the political process, but behind the scenes, largely off of the media radar and without any apparent appreciation for the double standard they expect when it comes to “money in politics.”

First: Long before she became the darling of the political left, then-Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren conducted medical bankruptcy research that put her on the political map. The research was funded by grants — worth $296,325 in 2001 and $463,900 in 2007 — from the left-wing Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and was intended “to guide policy measures…”

But her research on medical bankruptcies was not funded through Harvard’s law school where she taught. You see, Harvard requires internal oversight of sponsored research to ensure “that the research is conducted in accordance with the highest scientific and ethical standards.” Instead, that research was officially and inexplicably done through the Cambridge Medical Care Foundation (CMCF), a relatively modest community health care clinic, and directed by Steffie Joan Woolhandler, a socialist activist who “combine[s] her social activism with a medical career” and works on “training younger researchers in techniques and strategies of scholarship for social change.” The result was research that would not have passed the laugh test under a rigorous academic process. Ironically, just last year, Elizabeth Warren attacked a scholar (Robert Litan) at the Brookings Institution over sponsored research that was just as fully disclosed as Warren’s own dubious sponsored research. Once again, the double standard played out. Corporate funding was deemed “special interest,” the Litan story was widely covered and Litan lost his position at Brookings. Meanwhile, despite foundation funding being no less goal-oriented, Warren’s own sponsored research has never been mentioned by the media.

Second: In 2009, the FCC tapped the Harvard Berkman Center to “conduct an independent expert review of existing literature and studies about broadband deployment and usage” in order to “inform the FCC’s efforts in developing the National Broadband Plan.” To some extent, this is like commissioning Liberty University to do a comparative study of religions in order to inform potential converts of the best option. You can be pretty sure going in what their result will be.

Of course, the predictable result was a Berkman report that affirmed the policy goals and claims of the researchers and activists that left-wing foundations had been funding for years. It may come as no surprise by this point to discover that the report was also funded by some of the same foundations — the Ford and MacArthur Foundations — who funded the research and activism it affirmed. It will come as even less of a surprise to hear that virtually no mainstream media, outside of a Wall Street Journal editorial column, thought this was a problem worth mentioning.

To summarize: Foundations fund research to affirm their policy goals, they fund activists to promote the research they have funded, and they fund media to cover the research and the activists they have funded.

As long as left-wing foundations are able to play by a different set of rules, conservatives will continue to find ourselves strangled by their political branches.


Photo: Ford Foundation Building (Kenlarry/Creative Commons)

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