War of Ideas: Conservative Intellectuals Have a Friend in This Foundation

  photo: smolaw/shutterstock

 photo: smolaw/shutterstock

When cybercriminals broke into the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in 2016, documents came to light laying out the funder’s national strategy: work state-by-state on conservative infrastructure and turn the nation’s overall political culture to the right. With a degree of sensationalism, the press covered the hacked documents as a revelation. But while the unlawful hack did shed light on the extent of Bradley’s policy ambitions, that “revelation” wasn’t surprising.

Bradley is, after all, one of a number of stalwart conservative funders bankrolling a long-running campaign to influence state and national policy. Private foundations have been key players, boosting conservatives in academia, funding right-leaning think tanks, and massaging free-market ideals for the American mainstream. Many of the individual donors involved actively back Republican candidates. Among them is Art Pope, the North Carolina culture warrior (see the "bathroom bill" and voter ID laws) who joined Bradley’s board in 2014, and has chaired it since mid-2017.

Whether you agree with the views of conservative funders or not, it's hard to deny their success. In fact, the giving by foundations and major donors on the right for intellectual work and movement building stands as among the all-time top examples of high-impact giving. Almost as a rule, few of these funders have the resources of places like the Ford, Kellogg and Rockefeller foundations. (Bradley is a good example, with an endowment last reported to be $845 million.) And yet they've often had much greater impact in key debates around economic and social policy by focusing laser-like on high-leverage giving for ideas, policy work and leadership development. Another savvy move by conservative foundations is that, long ago, they began investing heavily at the state level. And they never stopped. 

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Bradley funds many key elements of the conservative infrastructure. But maybe most notable is its investments in ideas and thinkers. The foundation’s Bradley Prizes, awarded annually, stand as something of a flagship of this grantmaking effort, showcase the foundation's dedication to winning the war of ideas and capturing the ultimate high ground of American politics. 

Past honorees include a long list of key intellectuals, politicians and policy thinkers in the conservative movement. Many of them work or have worked at influential right-wing policy shops (and Bradley beneficiaries) like the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Federalist Society, Americans for Tax Reform, the Hoover Institution, and the American Enterprise Institute. They also maintain posts in academia. Some of the bigger names include Roger Ailes, Jeb Bush, William Kristol and John Bolton. 

The prize comes with a $250,000 stipend, a substantial sum for this sort of thing. As we’ve reported, 2016’s awardees included political scientist Charles Murray, the controversial author of 1994’s The Bell Curve and Losing Ground, an influential attack on welfare published in 1984.

Murray is one prominent example of a right-leaning intellectual who’s been treated very well by conservative philanthropy, the Bradley Foundation in particular, receiving steady support for a think tank career that's spanned decades. While top liberal public intellectuals often hold well-paid tenured positions in academia, few progressive funders offer long-term support for scholars working at think tanks. 

RelatedThe Forever Grant: Why the Bradley Foundation Keeps Bankrolling Charles Murray

This year’s winners of the Bradley Prizes are an interesting mix. Heading up the list is Jason Riley, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Riley, who is black, has courted controversy arguing that liberal social and economic policy does black Americans more harm than good. He contends that many of the nation’s racial problems are overblown, and that minority populations have ample opportunities to rise. At the same time, Riley diverges from Trumpism on immigrants, especially in a 2008 book titled Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.

Carrying on the racial theme, Allen C. Guelzo also received recognition. Guelzo is a Civil War historian at Gettysburg College, and much of his writing centers on Lincoln’s presidency. His take on President Trump’s first year is quite sunny, and in January, he opined that “the dirigible of anti-Trumpism is assuming an amusingly deflated look.” 

The third awardee, Charles R. Kesler, has assessed Trump in a similarly positive light. A professor of government at Claremont McKenna, Kesler is the author of several books including I Am the Change, an ideological analysis of Barack Obama’s politics. In it, Kesler rejects some of the more hotheaded conservative charges against Obama while arguing that the former president carried on the great liberal project: trusting the state to solve all ills. 

Bradley’s 2017 awards recognized a similar group. Christopher DeMuth, a Reagan administration veteran, played a key role in the conservative policy space as president of the American Enterprise Institute for over 20 years. Paul Berkowitz is a fellow at the Hoover Institution who has supported neoconservatism and criticizes American universities for rolling back freedom of speech and expression. 

Walter E. Williams, an economist at George Mason University with free-market views and an active pen, also received a prize last year. So did Philip Hamburger, a legal scholar whose work influences the religious liberty movement and excoriates the “administrative state.”

While some Bradley Prize winners have supported Trump, the president continues to provide fierce division among conservatives. Prominent conservative columnist George Will, a former Bradley Prize winner, emceed the award ceremony this year despite his vocal criticism of both Trump and Pence. 

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