Some History of the Conservative Movement

The following is adapted from my article, Who’s Behind the Attack on Liberal Professors?, February 10, History News Network.

Part 2 of this piece, HOW TO FIGHT BACK, is now posted.

Some History of the Conservative Movement

In 1971 the National Chamber of Commerce circulated a memo by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell among business leaders which claimed that “the American economic system” of business and free markets was “under broad attack” by “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic.” Powell argued that those engaged in this attack come from “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”

According to the Powell memo, the key to solving this problem was to get business people to “confront this problem as a primary responsibility of corporate management” by building organizations that will use “careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing only available in joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.” It helped immeasurably, Powell noted, that the boards of trustees of universities “overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system,” and that most of the media “are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the free enterprise system to survive.”

Powell wrote that these organizations should employ a “faculty of scholars” to publish in journals, write “books, paperbacks and pamphlets,” with speakers and a speaker’s bureau, as well as develop organizations to evaluate textbooks, and engage in a “long range effort” to correct the purported imbalances in campus faculties. “The television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance.” Powell said that this effort must also target the judicial system.

The “Four Sisters”

In 1973, in response to the Powell memo, Joseph Coors and Christian-right leader Paul Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation. Coors told Lee Edwards, historian of the Heritage Foundation, that the Powell memo persuaded him that American business was “ignoring a crisis.” In response, Coors decided to help provide the seed funding for the creation of what was to become the Heritage Foundation, giving $250,000.(1) From David Greenberg’s New York Times review of Edwards’ book, The Power of Ideas:

“Coors told Edwards that Powell’s manifesto had “convinced” him that American business was “ignoring a crisis.” Coors was moved to act. He “invested” the first $250,000 to fund the 1971-72 operations of the Analysis and Research Association (ARA) in Washington, D.C., the original name of the [Heritage] foundation. Other wealthy contributors followed Coors’ lead. Their aim was to counter liberal power in Washington, and aggressively market policies and legislative proposals to Congress and the President that reflected the conservative agenda. Heritage became the trend-setting model for scores of policy institutes and lobbying operations that compose the radical-right apparat. Heritage has been a major beneficiary of the Coors’ Castle Rock Foundation ever since.”

Subsequently, the Olin Foundation, under the direction of its president, former Treasury Secretary William Simon (author of the influential 1979 book A Time for Truth), began funding similar organizations in concert with “the Four Sisters“–Richard Mellon Scaife’s various foundations, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation–along with Coors’s foundations, foundations associated with the Koch oil family, and a group of large corporations. (2) (This core group of four funders was dubbed the “Four Sisters” in the article. Funding the war of ideas, 19-26, July, 1995 issue of Christian Century. See Funder of the Lott CCW Study Has Links to the Gun Industry, Violence Policy Center for a discussion of this. In this article, I will refer to this group of funders as the “Four Sisters Funding Group” or FSFG.) The organization Philanthropy Roundtable was founded to coordinate this funding.

Following Powell’s long-term plan to “build a movement,” FSFG has funded and built a network of think tanks, advocacy organizations, and expanded into media, lobbying, and other areas. The work was slow but effective. As Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, told a group of conservative business people, “things take time. It takes at least 10 years for a radical new idea to emerge from obscurity.”

“Funds generated by business…must rush by the multimillions to the aid of liberty…to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty. [Business must] cease the mindless subsidizing of colleges and universities who departments of economy, government, politics and history are hostile to capitalism.”
–William E. Simon, Time for Truth (1979)

Creating “Conventional Wisdom”

Now, after 30 years of effort, this core FSFG has built a comprehensive ideological infrastructure. There are now over 500 organizations, with the Heritage Foundation at the hub, all funded by this core group. David Callahan’s 1999 study, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s, found that just the top 20 of the organizations spent over $1 billion on this ideological effort in the 1990s.

The right-wing movement’s messages are orchestrated and amplified to sound like a mass “movement” consisting of many “voices.” Using “messaging”–communication techniques from the fields of marketing, public relations, and corporate image-management–the movement appeals to people’s deeper feelings and values. Messages are repeated until they become “conventional wisdom.” Examples include lines like “Social Security is going broke” and “public schools are failing.” Both statements are questionable, yet both have been firmly embedded in the “public mind” by purposeful repetition through multiple channels. This orchestration has been referred to as a “Mighty Wurlitzer, ” a CIA term that refers to propaganda that is repeated over and over again in numerous places until the public believes what it’s hearing must be true. From “The Mighty Wurlitzer,” by Robert Borosage, American Prospect, May, 2002

“With all that ideological money, institutional heft, coordination, and credentialing, the right has perfected what the CIA used to call a “mighty Wurlitzer” — a propaganda machine that can hone a fact or a lie, broadcast it, and have it echoed and recycled in Fox News commentary, in Washington Times news stories, in Wall Street Journal editorials, by myriad right-wing pundits, by Heritage seminars and briefing papers, and in congressional hearings and speeches.”

As a study by the People for the American Way, has put it:

“The result of this comprehensive and yet largely invisible funding strategy is an extraordinary amplification of the far right’s views on a range of issues. The various funding recipients do not march in ideological lock-step, but they do promote many of the same issues to their respective audiences. They have thus been able to keep alive in the public debate a variety of policy ideas long ago discredited or discarded by the mainstream. That, in turn, has been of enormous value in the right’s ongoing effort to reshape American society. The success of the right-wing efforts are seen at every level of government, as a vast armada of foundation-funded right-wing organizations has both fed and capitalized on the current swing to the right in Congress and in the state legislatures.”

The Money Comes With Strings

The FSFG money comes with ideological strings attached. Their think tanks are not independent; their organizations must espouse their ideology. “Cato, for example,” as Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in an article in the Atlantic in 1986, “flatly states that it will not release any study that calls for a government program. The institute’s president, Edward Crane, says that he receives one or two commissioned reports each year that are ‘inconsistent,’ and he does not publish them. The analyst Jonathan Stein lost his job at [the Center For Strategic & International Studies] CSIS several months after he published a book highly critical of Star Wars, the study of which is worth millions to think tanks that toe the line. (CSIS denies there was any connection.) ”

The core group that controls this movement is now attacking even Republicans who would previously have been considered “conservatives” for inadequate ideological purity. Members of the moderate wing of the Republican Party are derided by the radical right as nothing more than RINO’s — Republicans In Name Only. The FSFG is funding efforts to drive these moderates out of office and out of the party.(3)

The Movement is Coordinated

Currently the core of the “conservative movement” meets weekly with representatives of the FSFG. As Eric Alterman has revealed:

Their weekly agenda was hammered out every Wednesday at a meeting chaired by Grover Norquist, a rightwing Leninist who believes in an ever-shifting tactical alliance. Among those who attend the invitation-only meetings are spokespeople and representatives of NRA, the Christian Coalition, the Heritage Foundation; corporate lobbyists, the top people from the Republican party and the Congressional Republican leadership, and chief White House aides. Trusted rightwing journalists and editors also attend, though the meetings are off the record.

While the ostensible purpose of the meeting is to share information and coordinate strategy, they also give Norquist the opportunity to act as an ideological enforcer. When one member of the Bush administration worried to a New York Times reporter that the administration’s plan to repeal the estate tax would cripple charitable giving, he was publicly warned by Norquist that this was “the first betrayal of Bush”, and was gone not long afterward. When a conservative pundit named Laura Ingraham criticised a fellow conservative in the House of Representatives for overzealousness, she was immediately informed by Norquist to decide “whether to be with us or against us”. She was no longer welcome at the meetings.

David Brock, in his book Blinded By the Right, described from inside this “movement” how different parts of the right-wing web and their funders interacted during the attempt to remove President Clinton from office. Brock writes that funding was supplied by Richard Mellon Scaife, Federalist Society (funded by Scaife) lawyers and judges working behind the scenes assisting Special Prosecutor Ken Starr and supplying information to (Scaife-funded) American Spectator magazine.

Even the Justice System

A review of the 1993 Alliance for Justice study, Justice for Sale by Richard L. Grossman, says Powell’s recommendations for changing the legal system have led to “a multi-faceted, comprehensive, and integrated campaign,” coordinated and funded by large corporations and rightwing foundations, “to create taxpayer subsidized law firms…to rewrite American jurisprudence…advanc[e] their agenda before judges, lawyers, legal scholars, and government policy makers…[and] sought to assure control over the future direction of the law” by installing ideologically friendly faculty in law schools, as well as organizing and rewarding students with scholarships and clerkships under conservative judges, and placing those judges on the bench.

The influential Federalist Society, an organization of ideologically conservative lawyers, law students, law professors, bureaucrats, activists, and judges, with chapters on most law school campuses, was also founded and funded by the core FSFG. The Federalist Society also serves to assist members with job placement — its members screen and make up many of the Bush administration’s appointees to the Justice Department, Federal judgeships and other prominent positions. (6)

A Case Study

Often it is possible to discern how the timing of a “Mighty Wurlitzer” chorus relates to a planned conservative policy initiative. A recent example is the flurry of articles that hit the press starting in late November, originating from the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and the Tax Foundation, which claimed that the poor do not pay enough income taxes. The Wall Street Journal even referred to the poor as “lucky duckies.” The paper did not mention that poor people do pay Social Security taxes. The publicity appears to have been timed to the release of the president’s latest tax-cutting program.(4, 5)

The Effect on Society

The core right-wing web of organizations funded by the FSFG has increasingly been able to set the public agenda, shifting national and local politics consistently to the right and away from the mainstream public interest. As a result, right-wing ideological premises and arguments dominate public-issue debate, with big money using this communications infrastructure to drown out other voices, virtually creating a one-dollar-one-vote society. “As one investigative journalist stated years ago in a pioneering investigation of the conservative philanthropy of Richard Scaife,” wrote Sally Covington in a 1997 study,

“layer upon layer of seminars, studies, conferences, and interviews [can] do much to push along if not create, the issues, which then become the national agenda of debate…. By multiplying the authorities to whom the media are prepared to give a friendly hearing, [conservative donations] have helped to create an illusion of diversity where none exists. The result could be an increasing number of one-sided debates in which the challengers are far outnumbered, if indeed they are heard from at all.”

Now Posted — How to Fight Back



1.See Jerry Landray, From The Powell Manifesto: How A Prominent Lawyer’s Attack Memo Changed America.

2. See also The Machine’s Origins, Consortium News, and Buying a Movement, People for the American Way Foundation.

3. See

4. See:

Heritage Foundation, May 8, 2001

Americans for Tax Reform, May 7, 2002

Tax Foundation, November, 2002

5. The Wurlitzer:

Nov. 20, 2002

Nov. 26, 2002

Nov. 26, 2002

Dec. 3, 2002

Dec. 4, 2002

Dec. 10, 2002

Dec. 15, 2002

Dec. 16, 2002

Dec. 21, 2002

Jan. 7, 2003 White House proposes tax changes:

Jan. 9, 2003

Jan. 14, 2003

Jan. 16, 2002

Jan. 20, 2003

Jan. 20, 2003

6. See

The Federalist Society – The Conservative Cabal That’s Transforming American Law by Jerry Landay, The Washington Monthly, March, 2000.