The Commonweal Institute – "the Heritage Foundation of the Left"

Some time ago I wrote that I have taken a position at a public policy institute. I have been working with the Commonweal Institute , which I like to describe as “the Heritage Foundation of the Left.” I’ve been helping them get organized, get their new website up, and commence fundraising activities. Our hope is that we can raise sufficient seed money to launch the kind of PR and fundraising campaign that is required to develop the research and education institute and communications “engine” that is needed to start to bring the public back toward the center, and bring progressive and moderate voices back into the public “marketplace of ideas.”

The Nov. 5 election confirms just how bad things are.

Do I have to describe the problem? The far-right is now the government. Everywhere we turn – us “liberals” or “progressives” or “moderates,” or whatever we choose to call ourselves – we suffer heartbreaking setbacks. We see environmental protections removed, industries allowed to violate laws, women’s health programs losing funding, huge tax cuts for the ultra-rich – resulting in less and less money available for education, health care and all kinds of other social necessities. The list goes on and on and seems to get worse every day.

An approach to this problem

One approach to doing something about it is to learn how the right did it – and then do that. So I’d like to write about the right-wing movement’s campaign to move the public to the right. By examining how it was done we can learn how to counter it, and move the public and the country back into balance, back to the center – back to sanity. And then I’ll describe the Commonweal Institute’s plan to do something about it.

Part 1 – What has been happening to us

Part 2 – What Commonweal Institute plans to do about it (Scroll down about 250-300 paragraphs)

Part 1 – What has been happening to us


I hooked up with the Commonweal Institute because I’ve been doing research into how the right has been able to be so effective. The growth of this ideological movement didn’t happen by accident. The American public has been the target of an ongoing, deliberate, planned campaign to push them to the right. (The Commonweal Institute has put up a page of links to articles, reports and resources on this subject, at

There really was a plan.

You have to look back a few decades to see how it started. In the early 1970’s a small group of wealthy far-right and Christian-right individuals, foundations and corporations began funding a few think tanks and a number of front organizations with the intention of building a “movement.” Over time, using tons of cash, the right has built up an “idea machine” whose “idea product” is aggressively marketed to the public through a number of communications channels. But it really comes back to just a small number of individuals, foundations and corporations providing the underlying funding and coordination for it all.

Here’s how the process works:

Their “think tanks” come up with studies and policy papers that have the appearance of scholarship. These are the “ideas.” (Unlike legitimate scholarship, the results of this process are designed and selected to support their ideological agenda.) This information is translated by marketing and psychology professionals into “popular language” – easy-to-understand language that resonates emotionally and culturally rather than logically – with help from polling, focus groups, interviewing and other modern marketing techniques. The resulting simplified, “popularized” phrasing is pumped out to the public through a multitude of channels, by “experts” and “scholars” employed by the think tanks or otherwise paid by the movement. It is picked up and repeated – amplified – by far-right outlets such as the Drudge Report, NewsMax, Rush Limbaugh, Washington Times, Fox News, and a multitude of right-wing columnists, pundits, authors and celebrities.

Communications engine.

When the right gets going with their “communications engine” it’s hard to avoid being exposed to whatever their message-of-the-day might be. It seems to come from every direction you turn. It isn’t hard to understand that almost all of the voices on AM radio, all day and night, are part of the right-wing network. But people are not aware how many of the commentators on TV, how many of the op-ed pieces or letters to the editor in newspapers, “sources” and experts in news stories, “studies” referred to in magazine articles, and books reviewed in the paper actually originate from and are predominately funded by just the few sources.

Examples of “idea product.”

Here are some examples of right-wing “idea product” that is aggressively repeated, moving the public to the right. Perhaps you have heard the messages “public schools are failing,” “taxes take money out of the economy” or “Social Security is going broke.” You have probably heard these repeated so many times by so many “experts” that you think they are true – established facts. “Everybody knows” these things. They have become “conventional wisdom.” But they’re not true. These messages were designed to prime the public to accept specific right-wing plans.

Politicians harvesting the results.

Over time the public becomes so inundated with the right-wing messaging – without hearing from opposing voices – that they come to believe what they are hearing. It is after this process that the right-wing politicians step in to harvest the results. Political candidates offering “solutions” to these widely-understood “problems” have an advantage over candidates who do not “offer alternatives.”

Without a capacity like that of the right wing to set the public agenda and frame the public debate, moderate and progressive politicians are at, and will remain at, a distinct disadvantage.

Long term strategy.

The right-wing movement follows a long-term strategy. Years before we heard about “vouchers” we started hearing that “public schools are failing.” This has been drummed into the public mind for so long that most people now believe that it’s a fact. After many years of this, along come the vouchers and other “competition” schemes. And the vouchers and other schemes are only steps along the road to the ultimate strategic goal – total privatization of schools. The right wingers say they want to get rid of “socialist schools” and they mean it.

Money, money, money.

In the 1990s this group of powerful right-wingers spent over $1 BILLION on this process. I’m not even talking about political contributions or 3rd-party issue ads. An incredible amount of money has gone into their efforts. Their think tanks and front organizations crank out these messages to such an extent that the far right now virtually monopolizes the nation’s “marketplace of ideas.”

And it hasn’t stopped. The largest right-wing think tank, the Heritage Foundation, will double its funding by the 2004 election. An additional $400 million will be pumped into over 500 other right wing groups influencing the public’s views and perspectives on the key issues facing our nation.

That is a description of the process that has moved the public to the right over the last few decades. There is a lot of research available, detailing the establishment and financing of the movement, as well as the individuals, organizations, institutes and foundations involved. We have made available a collection of links at Commonweal Institute’s Information page, I encourage everyone reading this to study these resources.


Understanding what the right is doing and how they are doing it makes you less susceptible to it. Understanding seems to bring an immunity, you start to be able to spot the process at work. And understanding it helps you explain it to others. I strongly encourage you to take a look at the articles at Commonweal’s information page, and refer others to this information. As more and more people understand what has been going on the right will be less and less effective.

It’s not just me.

Summing up this section, let me refer you to Scott Rosenberg’s Salon weblog, just the other day:

“What did the Republicans do in the 1970s? They went back to their roots and created institutions for the long-term. They spent money on think-tanks and local organizations and decided to build a new party from the ground up that appealed to conservatives. They elected Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the party they built then is the same party that Karl Rove is orchestrating today. The fringe-y think tanks of the ’70s — like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute — now provide an endless supply of talking-head and op-ed support for right-wing policies. And, give them credit, they’re just full of ideas.”

Part 2 – What Commonweal Institute plans to do about it

What is Commonweal Institute going to do?

The smartass answer is, we’re going to do what the right-wing movement has done. We’re going to be a “Heritage Foundation of the Left.”

Here’s the Commonweal Institute blurb:

The Commonweal Institute is a multi-issue research and educational institute – a think tank – committed to advancing moderate and progressive principles through strategic marketing and aggressive communication of ideas. Our goals: to restore balance to the marketplace of ideas; to revitalize and reenergize the democratic process; to advance the values of fairness, justice, and opportunity and to help create a equitable society with sustainable economic development.

The Commonweal Institute is a “think tank” and “communications engine” that will use methods like those used to market everyday products—just like those that the right wing has used so effectively to dominate our nation’s marketplace of ideas. We are committed not only to developing ideas through the think tank part – the research and education institution part – of our concept, but also to advancing moderate and progressive principles through strategic marketing and aggressive communication of ideas. This is the communications engine part of the concept.

The Commonweal Institute will pursue a long term strategy. Our long-term goal is to move people’s underlying attitudes away from the right wing’s agenda and back to a moderate/progressive perspective.

A very important distinction.

Let me get one thing out of the way right now. When I say Commonweal Institute is going to “do what the right does,” I do NOT mean we are going to lie, deceive, mislead, trick and/or fool the public.

We progressives and moderates have a clear advantage in this battle of ideas. Put simply, our task is not to convince blue-collar workers to give up their Social Security, pensions, healthcare, environmental protections, worker protections and all the rest of the social benefits and protections we have built over the years so that some rich white guy can have a bigger jet. That’s what the right wing movement does. That’s why with all the billions spent and all the domination of the media they STILL can’t get past 50%, even after convincing most people not to even vote! We don’t have to lie, trick or otherwise fool the public to get them thinking our way.

Changing underlying attitudes takes work.

People respond best to stories that trigger an emotional response, using words that evoke images in the mind and metaphors that hook facts to their deeper feelings, giving them a sense of “Oh yeah, that’s right.” Just like the right, we will use contemporary marketing and public relations techniques such as polling, interviewing and focus groups to identify the deeper concerns of target groups. We will “translate” the “idea product” of think tanks and organizations into this kind of specialized language.

Creating our own conventional wisdom.

Just as the right has repeated “public schools are failing” and “Social Security is going broke,” in order to lead people to their agenda, the Commonweal Institute will create honest conventional wisdom that reflects moderate and progressive principles.


The kind of organization we’re talking about creating with Commonweal Institute is “infrastructure.” This is the kind of organization that the right has built up. It does not necessarily support particular causes – it is “multi-issue.” The particular infrastructure need that Commonweal Institute will address is to change underlying public attitudes, by putting out a more general message to a wide mainstream audience. It will translate particular issues into a wider framework of understanding and communicate that perspective to a wide, mainstream audience.

Reaching a wide audience.

One of the methods the Commonweal Institute will use is to reach out to wide, diverse audiences, using multiple channels of communication. Commonweal will also target specific demographic groups with targeted messages. Commonweal’s channels of communication will include books, articles, columns, commentaries, letters to the editor, newsletters, on-line information, expert speakers, scholars, talk show guests, video clips, tapes, media training for activists and advertisements, as well as providing talking points and other ready-to-go materials for use by opinion leaders, candidates, public speakers, educators, activists and the general public.

While single-issue organizations offer similar resources for their issues, they tend to be financially dependant on regularly reaching out to their own base of supporters. Many have limited budgets and cannot reach as many as they would like. Fundraising is difficult and ongoing, and it makes sense to reach people who will tend to support your cause. It isn’t typically economical for single-issue organizations to spend the money to reach out to the mainstream general public. So out of necessity there is a lot of preaching to the converted. Also they tend more and more to be fighting shorter-term defensive battles, as they are under constant attack by the right-wing movement.

To reach out to wide general audiences, talking about a number of issues, you need a different kind of organization. We need to fund and develop infrastructure – a multi-issue research and communications engine. This is what Commonweal Institute is.

Return on investment.

Let’s say you support an organization that is working to protect the remaining California redwoods. Let’s say that this organization has spent $200,000 a year for 10 years, or $2 million. Now, after the November 5 election, let’s say that one Federalist Society judge gets a chance to make a ruling on logging, or the Bush Administration gets their “forest fire protection” initiative passed. Those redwoods are under immediate threat. How much of that $2 million is down the drain? This kind of loss is happening more and more, because progressives and moderates have not built up the kind of infrastructure that works to change the underlying attitudes that would have prevented the losses suffered on November 5, and would bring forth immediate public reaction to nonsense like “forest fire protection” that is clearly intended to benefit logging companies.

An organization like the Commonweal Institute will increase the return on investment for organizations working on particular causes.

It’s Not About Politicians.

It’s not enough just to support organizations that fight for individual issues, or politicians with attractive programs and political parties with good platforms. Politicians and parties follow where the people are. And it especially isn’t enough to talk to others who are just like ourselves—we need to reach out to others, to involve more people. We must expand the base of citizens who actively support progressive and moderate programs and principles. Bringing the public back home is a big task, one that moderate and progressive politicians and parties can’t handle alone.

It is important to understand that there is a distinction between the idea development & communication process, and the political process. We aren’t going to change the country by choosing better politicians – we’re going to have to change the public’s underlying attitudes and willingness to get involved. It is after the attitude change occurs that the politicians and political parties can step in – they reap the results from a public that is primed to accept their programs. If we can do this work to change underlying attitudes our politicians will have an easier job – running on issues that the public understands, with programs they are ready to accept, rather than trying to introduce and explain our issues as part of their campaigns.

Growing the base.

Another effect of changing underlying public attitudes toward the moderate/progressive perspective will be the growth of the base of support for moderate and progressive organizations and politicians. Environmental, social, health, and other types of organizations will see their own funding base increase. They will also have some of their burden reduced as government again picks up some of the load.

Some good news.

Lack of money is not what has been handicapping moderates and progressives. There is actually a lot of money available on the moderate/progressive side. It just hasn’t been used as effectively as the money poured into right-wing idea machine infrastructure.

Much of the philanthropic money of moderates and progressives is donated on a program basis – funding specific programs attempting to achieve specific results, lots of pilot programs – but not enough general support for ongoing operations and not enough discretionary money directed to specific programs. The right has provided general operating funding – money that can be used any way the organizations want – as long as it is spent to further the right-wing ideological movement, according to their specific long-term strategic goals. Moderate and progressive philanthropy needs to do much more of this.

Until this funding pattern changes, organizations like the Commonweal Institute will need to be funded by individual donors who understand the necessity of the task at hand and want to help out.


OK, I wrote a lot here today. Let me sum up:

Please visit Commonweal Institute’s new website. There are four points on the front page, each leading to more info on that subject.

Please take a look at the collection of resources on Commonweal’s Information Page. No matter what else you take from this, learning about what the right-wing has been doing and telling others is one of the most effective ways to immunize yourself and combat their pervasive messaging!

And, of course, if you agree that it is time to work “to restore balance to the marketplace of ideas,” please help build the Commonweal Institute.

And please, leave a comment here about all of this by clicking on the word “Comment” just below this sentence.