Over the past year, the unexpected success of certain presidential campaigns has galvanized debate about what’s acceptable to say in politics. Should we “tell it like it is,” or should we keep it civil with some form of political correctness? Amped-up populists of all stripes are pushing a narrative of outsiders versus elites, and radical ideas have rattled an entrenched establishment.
But radical ideas don’t always come from the fringe. While there is no shortage of examples on the left (one Senator Bernie Sanders comes to mind), conservative grantmakers have a storied history of moving controversial ideas into the political mainstream through patient and focused grantmaking for intellectuals and policy wonks.
Unlike Trump, these funders and their grantees aren’t mavericks or political outsiders. But they have been instrumental in reshaping the contours of public debate.
Among a list that includes Kirby, Scaife, and the Searle Freedom Trust, the Bradley Foundation is one key player in this space. And this year, it renewed its long-standing support for a divisive intellectual on the right, Charles Murray. The foundation has honored him with its most prestigious award, the annual Bradley Prize, which comes with a $250,000 stipend. Murray accepted the prize at a June 15 gala in Washington D.C.
The award is the culmination of some three decades of support by the Bradley Foundation for Murray—a remarkable relationship between a public intellectual and a funder that one doesn't see often, if ever.
We’ve covered this year's Bradley Prizes here, and we’ve given some thought to the tactics conservative funders have used to make a big impact on policy, especially by backing intellectuals like Murray.
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Murray has been in the spotlight seemingly forever. And the Bradley Foundation is a big reason that light has shined so brightly. Bradley's support for Murray goes back to his years at the Manhattan Institute in the 1980s, where he wrote Losing Ground, the influential book attacking social programs as ineffective and framing a fierce debate that fueled efforts to abolish the federal welfare entitlement in 1996.
Bradley's support for Murray reportedly took the form of generous yearly stipends (on the order of $100,000-$160,000), starting in 1986.
In 1990, when Bradley moved to the American Enterprise Institute, his support from Bradley followed. Also, the Bradley Foundation supported Murray's 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which Murray wrote alongside now-deceased psychologist Richard Herrnstein; its publication made him even more controversial. In the book, Murray posits the existence of a “cognitive elite,” blessed with superior genetics and bound to achieve higher average success than those born lacking.
Murray has been less controversial lately, writing about education and, most recently, the challenges facing low-income white Americans.
The Bradley Foundation’s patronage of Murray is a great example of one of the right’s favorite approaches. Given an academic environment that conservatives see as left-leaning, the key is to foster your own intellectuals, give them job security, and throw in extra funds to deploy research during policy debates. Over time, this kind of strategy can bring once-fringe ideas into the mainstream and produce big changes in public policy.
Why don't progressive funders copy this strategy more often, as opposed to regularly getting outgunned in the war of ideas? We'll leave that question for another post.