Conservative philanthropy and the “parallel polis”

May 1, 2024
(Wikimedia Commons)

In the framework of the “parallel polis” for which N. S. Lyons called at the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, there already exists a latent one in America’s central-city neighborhoods.

In his recent address to the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, the pseudonymous Substack writer N. S. Lyons took up a theme that’s growing in visibility within right-wing circles nowadays: conservatism’s utter failure to counter the left’s “long march through the institutions,” and the need to begin constructing a “parallel polis.” 

We at The Giving Review have been fans of the parallel-polis work of Poland’s KOR organization during the Cold War, and Lyons similarly cites Hungary’s more-recent Civic Circles movement as an example thereof. The movement, he said,

focused on establishing community organizations across the nation to bring people together in grassroots civic action, volunteer work, and education in practical self-governance. Its chapters of local volunteers collected trash, and helped with childcare. They founded new parallel educational and media institutions, and provided forums for intellectual discussion. They promoted art and culture that celebrated national pride and conservative values, and served as a patronage network to help launch promising young talent throughout society.

Now, the conservative establishment’s first reaction to the suggestion for a parallel polis might be: But we’re already doing that! Look at our splendid array of foundations, donor-advised funds, national and state think tanks, public-interest law firms, media outlets, and activist nonprofits in Washington, D.C. Don’t tell us all those checks we’ve written have been in vain!

Let me confess that I spent my professional life within and benefitted from that institutional array, from its earliest days. When my professor at Northern Illinois University suggested to me in the mid-’70s that I might join him as his research assistant at the obscure and struggling American Enterprise Institute (AEI), I was crestfallen. “Enterprise” in the name surely suggested that AEI was nothing more than a branch of the Chamber of Commerce. Certainly no place for a respectable academic! Since then, however, millions of dollars have indeed been invested in building an imposing arsenal of public policy firepower on the right, staffed by hundreds of experts with Ph.D.’s or J.D.’s after their names on flashy, research-laden websites. For almost four decades, I profitably (or I guess non-profitably) meandered my way through their conferences, publications, and receptions. So I have to be the last person to deny the effectiveness of a conservative “parallel polis!”

But as Lyons argues, policy activism has not been enough. “Even when successfully elected to political office with a strong mandate, conservatives of this mode are soon either coopted by the oligarchic establishment or find themselves isolated and helpless before the vast unelected managerial ‘deep state.’”

Frequent Giving Review contributor Jeff Cain gets to the heart of this phenomenon.  Although the considerable conservative intellectual apparatus looks like an alternative to progressivism, in fact it’s just another part of it. The policy establishment in Washington, D.C., in both its right and left variations, agree on one thing: seizure of national political power through lavishly funded campaigns, both electoral and nonprofit, is the essential goal. Once that’s accomplished, we’re only quibbling with each other about the details of the next centralized, national policy that we’re going to impose on the unwashed. Lyons’s “oligarchic establishment” finds it easy to coopt conservatives precisely because we have always aspired to be part of that establishment.

A great untapped wellspring of authority and power

Lyons points us toward another source of a parallel polis, however. He notes:

The West today is awash with economic, social and spiritual problems, from drug addiction, depression, and loneliness, to financial precarity and the breakdown of family formation. Everywhere people are struggling, and suffering. Meanwhile, trust in almost every institution has cratered, with incompetent governing elites seemingly determined to destroy their own legitimacy. People feel uprooted and atomized, vulnerable and alone, buffeted by forces outside their control and betrayed by their own leaders.

He follows this litany of despair with an observation:  

The situation is ripe for anyone who can step in to fill the vacuum by actually addressing even some of these problems directly at the community level. This vacuum is the one great untapped wellspring of authority and power in the West today. And it’s inevitable that someday soon somebody is going to successfully tap into it, whether that’s the right, or some faction of the far left. Whoever does so first is likely to claim the future mandate to rule.

Lyons’ parallel polis, then, isn’t going to be some collection of Washington, D.C., nonprofits scrambling to get their hands on the levers of national power. It’s going to be organizations far down at the local level, tackling in a concrete way the practical problems facing everyday people. These are the problems, by the way, that the progressive policy establishment has conspicuously failed to address, in its loftier ambition to get at the towering injustices supposedly bedeviling our hopelessly racist nation.

But here’s where I would amend Lyons’ argument. Conservatives don’t need to build that parallel polis. It already exists, but we’ve just not been able to see it, much less to give it the sort of support it deserves.

Knowing names, families, and histories

Readers of The Giving Review will be familiar with our longstanding interest in the work of Robert Woodson. Since his involvement with Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus in the ’70s during AEI’s “mediating-structures” project, Woodson has argued that, amidst the conspicuous failures of our mega-institutions to solve social problems, there are nonetheless small, grassroots organizations within even the hardest-hit neighborhoods that have met the challenge. Those local groups are typically informal, messy, uncertainly financed, and usually lacking professionals on staff. And yet they are the first sources of reference for individuals in those neighborhoods, because they possess moral and spiritual authority. They are often run by people who have themselves overcome the problems they’re now helping others to address, relying on spiritual transformation rather than on therapeutic social services. 

It might be valuable, using Lyons’ framework, to think of Woodson grassroots groups as the conservative “parallel polis” we seek. As I saw during my days at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, the mainstream polis has built its own outposts within the central city. Usually housed in massive, sterile, concrete structures along the primary streets, the official social-service establishment maintains well-lit, fenced-in structures, protecting the social-welfare experts who timorously dispense professional therapy during daytime office hours. If this approach were to have worked—after the expenditure of billions of dollars in top-down delivery systems funded by Washington, D.C., since the Great Society—the mainstream polis wouldn’t need to employ quite so many security guards and metal detectors to protect its beleaguered settlements.

But typically just around the corner from these therapeutic fortresses are the tiny, store-front operations run by the genuine neighborhood “experts,” who know the names, families, and histories of those who cross their thresholds, and who dispense spiritual sustenance and everyday folk wisdom in ways that make far more sense to their neighbors than the alienating language of the social sciences. Just as Lyons notes, these almost invisible groups are quietly going about the the business of addressing neighborhood problems without a fraction of the resources we pour into main street’s mega-structures—with few champions other than Woodson himself.

So here is the parallel polis sought by Lyons. It builds on the truth of his otherwise-puzzling observation that the “vacuum” left by the loss of trust in mainstream institutions is “the untapped wellspring of authority and power in the West.” That is, only when we admit and embrace our failure to come up with solutions to our most serious social problems will we be able to see past it, down to those utterly unorthodox moral agents on the margins of society who emerge from the vacuum armed with new forms of authority and power.

Social Security reform and reducing taxes, and hope

The mistake conservatives are likely to make about the parallel polis—that is, beyond the aforementioned error of thinking that those well-heeled D.C. nonprofits are anything other than green rooms for the next elected version of the national oligarchy—is that we need to construct new, conservative-oriented charities from scratch, to fill progressivism’s vacuum of authority. 

That was, in effect, the error of America’s Promise Alliance, founded by Colin Powell in 1997 and eagerly funded for a while by leading conservative donors. As I noted 20 years ago: it was a “manifestly well-intentioned mass mobilization of volunteers to do good deeds in the inner city,” but it “assumes that there is nothing but desolation and emptiness there until we wealthy suburbanites appear with our shiny faces, buckets, and brushes to slap a fresh coat of paint on its grimy walls.” In other words, conservatism is prone to repeating the error of progressive elitism, able to see nothing but a vast wasteland in low-income communities until hired ideological activists and service providers show up to meet human needs.

Conservatism has from time to time glimpsed the possibility of partnering with the Woodson grassroots agenda. Ronald Reagan’s “private-sector initiatives” effort,  George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of lights” undertaking, and George W. Bush’s community and faith-based initiative all took their bearings from the Berger-Neuhaus-Woodson framework. But we never stick with this effort for long. Conservatives tend quickly to revert to grand, national efforts to cut taxes, reduce social spending, roll back DEI, or some other long-term, right-wing undertaking.

This might be in part because the Woodson grassroots groups do not explicitly embrace conservative political principles. You won’t find posters on the walls of inner-city grassroots groups promoting reform of Social Security or reduction of the corporate income tax. You might, however, find a copy of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” poster.

Principles practiced and promoted

And yet a careful examination of the actual principles practiced and promoted within these groups would warm the hearts of most conservatives. Almost invariably, the central point they make is that it is possible, indeed necessary, for the individual to stop shifting responsibility for suffering onto larger, malignant social forces, and instead to address problems directly and without excuse—just as the community group itself has stopped waiting for outside salvation and has taken on problems directly. Personal responsibility, self-governance, prudence, moderation, and moral and spiritual integrity are all relentlessly if quietly promoted—not because they are conservative values, but because they are the only means by which the alienated, addicted, and impoverished can escape the trap of current circumstances. And surely, in the age of critical race theory, we can now see how moderate and constructive is Shepard Fairey’s “Hope.”

We’re about to enter another campaign season, in the course of which millions of conservative dollars will instantly combust in evanescent and unsuccessful electoral machinations. As Lyons and Cain point out, even if the campaigns are successful, our D.C.-centric policy apparatus will sell out well before anything substantive can be accomplished.

In the course of this season, the latent conservative parallel polis will be lucky to attract a few hundred thousand dollars, at most. And yet these are our natural allies. They need only to be acknowledged and funded by donors who have the eyes to see the implicit truth in the “Hope” poster, representing as it does the incredible work being done by local, grassroots groups, adhering to principles that conservatives celebrate.