What do conservative donors want?

Feb 9, 2023

Conservative philanthropy is in crisis. It needs to be self-critically clear and honest about its position, as well as disciplined in pursuing its issues and aims.

Part of The Giving Review’s online symposium, “Conservatism and the Future of Tax-Incentivized Big Philanthropy.” 


Conservative philanthropy is in crisis, and it has been for a long time. For decades, right-of-center donors and foundations have presided over the intellectual stagnation of the conservative movement. During the last two election cycles, the Republican Party has failed to even offer a policy platform, with predictable results. Legacy institutions have seen executive compensation, property costs, and fundraising expenses balloon, while their policy influence and intellectual contributions have noticeably declined. These institutions have largely failed to engage with new ideas and a rising generation of thinkers, and their priorities remain conspicuously out of step with the desires of conservative voters and the needs of the country as a whole.

If conservative philanthropy is on the defensive, then, it is not simply because of smaller foundation endowments or various structural and procedural disadvantages, though these may well exist. Conservative philanthropy in general is poorly managed and badly executed. Compared to the left, philanthropy on the right is less organized, less proactive, less engaged, and less intelligent, yet often more rigid and dogmatic. Conservative donors often seem unable to straightforwardly articulate their goals, particularly the relationship between their own material interests and public purposes. As a result, the means chosen to pursue them are often profoundly inadequate or counterproductive.

Funding a movement without an agenda

The shock of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 should have provoked deeper reflection in the conservative philanthropic community. None of the core policy themes of Trump’s campaign—a border wall, tariffs, opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a commitment to preserve Social Security—was a priority of leading conservative think tanks and donors in the years leading up to 2016. On the contrary, these policies were direct repudiations of the George W. Bush administration’s agenda and all the donor-supported policy work that went into it.

In 2016, however, the conservative “establishment” lacked both the credibility to defeat Trump and the intellectual capacity to develop his campaign’s impulses into an effective agenda. Instead, it simply maintained its Bush-era course while reconciling itself, to varying degrees, to Trump’s more-controversial rhetorical style and behavior. Instead of trying to sell the country on the failed Bush platform, the same groups would now sneak it in behind Trump’s populist branding.

Given Trump’s personal lack of interest in policy and the general chaos of his administration, this approach initially yielded significant returns. Aside from Robert Lighthizer’s trade policies, and perhaps a few other exceptions, Trump’s presidency followed a conventional conservative playbook. A large tax cut was passed, an attempt to repeal Obamacare failed, and major judicial appointments were made, along with some deregulatory efforts. On foreign policy, Bush’s democracy-promotion agenda was shelved and David Petraeus’s lectures on “counterinsurgency” disappeared from think tanks, but the Iran nuclear agreement was scrapped, the U.S. embassy moved to Jerusalem, and an Iranian general was assassinated. Despite a lot of noise, Trump never completed a withdrawal from Afghanistan or made any revisions to NATO or the U.S. military footprint. In short, despite Trump’s unorthodox first campaign, his administration followed a fairly typical Republican approach.

The price of this compromise, however, was that the problems with conservative policy—and philanthropy—that erupted in 2016 were never addressed. Legacy conservative organizations and their donors never directly confronted Republican voters’ repudiation of the Bush-era agenda. Mistakes were not acknowledged, discredited personnel were not retired, and new ideas were not developed. As a result, something like the worst of both Trumpian populism and establishment conservatism emerged by 2020. On the one hand, whatever substantive content right-wing populism might have had was exenterated as it became a vehicle for the Paul Ryan agenda. Yet, at the same time, the “respectable” elements of conservatism either blended into Trump’s personality cult or had to renounce the President and the actually existing GOP, à la Liz Cheney, surrendering any influence in the process. Even the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a stalwart of the center-right intellectual and philanthropic ecosystem, recently had to hold an all-hands meeting to discuss whether it was still a conservative institution.

Indeed, despite the considerable funding devoted to “conservatism studies,” conservatism has become a purely negative vehicle of grievance politics. In 2020—and again in 2022—the Republicans could offer no policy platform outside of allegiance to Trump or reflexive opposition to Joe Biden. Efforts to develop new policy ideas were mostly denied donor and establishment support. On the other hand, more-overt efforts to return to Bushism—such as Rick Scott’s “Plan to Rescue America,” which would sunset Social Security—were rejected by party leadership because of their extreme unpopularity. It might be possible to pretend that the Scott plan was merely an amateur effort, but seemingly respectable—and certainly well-endowed—organizations like AEI offered more or less the same thing. They have continued to bang the drum for cutting or privatizing Social Security and enthusiastically promoted former prime minister Liz Truss’s plan for unfunded tax cuts in the UK, which destroyed her popularity and led to her swift resignation. Figures like Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Bush administration, are still writing simple-minded paeans to neoliberal globalization under the rubric of “Econ 101.” With policy ideas like these, it’s no wonder congressional Republicans preferred to run with no agenda at all.

Meanwhile, social-conservative philanthropy’s greatest triumph—overturning Roe v. Wade—has turned into an electoral embarrassment. In the 2022 midterms, every ballot measure to restrict abortion failed. This follows other losses in deep red states, including a referendum in Kansas and a legislative defeat in Nebraska. It is clear that, despite the vast resources spent on the legal effort to overturn Roe during the last five decades, very little success has been achieved in influencing the broader culture, and very little work was done to prepare an electoral strategy or policy framework for a post-Roe environment. Nor does there appear to be much appetite among donors to do so. Proposals to strengthen support for families, including a bill sponsored by Sen. Mitt Romney, have received little attention or support from legacy institutions. Leonard Leo, a longtime leader of the Federalist Society and a key adviser on Republican judicial appointments, recently raised more than a billion dollars for a new conservative organization. But so far it has only made news for its campaign against Iowa’s attorney general and attacks on consumer-protection regulations.

Moreover, overturning Roe is one of very few bright spots for social conservatives over the last several decades. Not only did they lose the legal and cultural battle over gay marriage, but recently the Senate passed a bill to establish same-sex marriage in federal law, with significant Republican support. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers discrimination against transgender individuals in an opinion written by Neil Gorsuch, a Republican-appointed “originalist” justice. Leaving aside debates over their substantive merits, both of these outcomes would have seemed unthinkable 20, or perhaps even 10, years ago. For social conservatives, it should be clear that the vast resources they have thrown at “defending marriage”—the para-academic organizations, the guest speakers, the seminars on new natural-law theory, the op-eds, and YouTube videos—were a total waste. Indeed, it is possible to argue that all of this philanthropy has been counterproductive. Since social conservatives yoked themselves to Republican “fusionism” and became more overtly political in the 1970s and ’80s, the dominance of cultural liberalism, by many measures, seems only to have grown more pronounced across American society.

Indeed, in 2022, the conservative agenda of past decades looks completely hopeless. Bush-era economic policy is so unpopular even Mitch McConnell does not want to run on it. Gay marriage—assumed to be a vote-getter for conservatives in the 2000s and early 2010s—now polls at 60% to 70% approval. Abortion, though somewhat more complicated, hardly seems like a winner at the ballot box. Conservatism probably would have been completely routed as a viable political movement were it not for the left’s own overreach and miscalculations, particularly its embrace of so-called wokeness.

Whether caused by the financial crisis, media hype around the “coalition of the ascendant” that elected Barack Obama, the rise of social media, or genuine cases of police brutality, a jargon-laden form of leftist identitarianism became central to American liberalism in the 2010s and exploded in the first year or two of the 2020s. The intellectual deficiencies and deep unpopularity of woke politics—particularly of certain policy outgrowths like the “defund-the-police” movement—need not be rehearsed here. But it is significant insofar as opposition to wokeness has allowed conservatism to avoid complete political irrelevance. It has given Republicans perhaps their only popular cause to run on, and by many accounts contributed to Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race. Even San Francisco has recalled school-board members and its district attorney over woke excesses.

Wokeness is clearly unpopular, but it is less clear whether it can provide the cohesion that anti-communism offered the Reagan coalition, or how long it will maintain its hold on Democratic politics and liberal philanthropy. Already, Democratic politicians seem to have shifted away from the most-egregiously unpopular posturing. Behind the scenes, conferences among liberals are being held to find alternative policy approaches. Even more worrisome for conservatives is that the new directions liberal philanthropy is exploring penetrate deeply into the right’s historical terrain. While “supply-side” issues were once the exclusive province of Reagan Republicans, “supply-side progressivism” continues to gain momentum. Democrats, rather shockingly, are also leading the way on nuclear energy and environmental-permitting reform. If these trends continue, it will be hard to provide a policy rationale for the Republican Party at all. And if liberals abandon wokeness in favor of a return to economic universalism and cultural pluralism, undergirded by a basic sense of national unity, then conservatives may be consigned to permanent minority status. Even if conservative candidates can always find donors, election-season campaign ads cannot make up for a discredited—or nonexistent—policy agenda.

You get what you pay for

In explaining the dreary state of conservatism and conservative philanthropy, specific organizational and operational factors should not be overlooked. A cursory review of the grants of leading foundations like Scaife and Bradley reveals troublingly stagnant rosters of grantees, as well as institutional personnel, despite the extraordinary volatility of recent politics. This is especially true for social-conservative causes, where funding from foundations and elsewhere is concentrated among a narrow set of individuals and organizations, seemingly regardless of performance.

A number of other funding decisions at these foundations should also raise more questions than they typically do. Is it really a good use of resources, for instance, to give low-six-figure grants to an organization like AEI, which has an annual budget of $50 million, assets of $300 million, and its own established fundraising network? Surely, AEI can fund its own programming on “Education Policy Studies.” On the other hand, grants of that size could make a significant difference for newer, smaller organizations. And is AEI’s $300 million endowment a productive use of capital in the first place? Conservatives have rightfully questioned the capital-hoarding at university endowments in recent years; such asset accumulation seems even more dubious at a policy think tank.

A different set of questions arises with respect to grants like the Bradley Foundation’s $300,000 gift “to support the Jones Act Repeal project.” This essay is not the place to debate the Jones Act, and one can certainly find plausible reasons for repeal, but is a project targeting a single, specific piece of legislation an appropriate target for a nonprofit foundation? For both functional and probably legal reasons, efforts around specific legislation should be the work of industry lobbies and advocacy groups.

Furthermore, when it comes to collaboration with these other policy actors, the contrast with center-left foundations could not be more striking. Foundations like Ford are able to organize massive projects that bring together the corporate sector, U.S. and other governments, academia, media, policy institutions, and activists—adeptly funding and coordinating the roles of each. (To take a recent, minor, and relatively uncontroversial example, see the Missing Layers Initiative; more controversially, see Black Lives Matter.) Conservative philanthropic foundations, on the other hand, seem totally incapable of organizing anything at this scale or quality; rarely, if ever, does one see them coordinating with the private sector or other policy actors. Next to these efforts, conservatives’ six-figure grants to sponsor political-theory seminars are just amateurish. In my admittedly limited experience, staff at left-of-center institutions are also more motivated, more engaged, and more knowledgeable than their right-wing counterparts—and actually less interested in ideological litmus tests.

Doing good by doing well

More fundamentally, however, conservative philanthropy is in crisis because conservative donors seem incapable—perhaps even ashamed—of articulating their true goals. The principal, underlying goal of most conservative donors is something everyone knows, but few are willing to state openly: preserving their own wealth. (Some of them care about other things too, such as ending abortion, but essentially no conservative movement has ever called for, say, higher taxes in support of another policy objective.) This point is often raised as a criticism of conservative donors, and avoiding the shared sacrifices necessary to a healthy society is hardly commendable. But I mention it here only to argue that private wealth preservation is a perfectly reasonable and morally justifiable commitment. Thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Machiavelli, in addition to classical liberals and neoliberals, have recognized the political value of private wealth and the social costs of over-taxation.

Thus, where conservative donors have erred is not so much in their ends, but in their means. In order to defend private wealth, conservatives have funded the creation and promotion of an elaborate myth of “the market.” This myth essentially imagines “the market” as a perfect system that always delivers the best outcomes for everyone unless some alien force—“the government”—interferes with it. This summary is a caricature, but unfortunately the caricature is not too far removed from the actual arguments put forward by conservative institutions today.

The benefit of this approach is that—unlike more-concrete justifications of private enterprise based on economic performance—the market myth can justify virtually anything, including bad performance. It also allows for a certain moral obfuscation, avoiding specific material interests in favor of abstract defenses of an immaculate system.

The problem, however, is that this fairy tale is absurd. To highlight just a few obvious issues: unregulated markets often end in disaster, as evidenced by the recent crypto carnage; the lines between public and private sectors are often blurry; governments have played important roles in catalyzing the development of new technologies, industries, and markets; and economic issues are often bound up with geopolitical concerns. These glaring limitations of the market myth make it fundamentally uncompelling, with little purchase among serious policymakers, scholars, or businesspeople, as well as voters. Even if one agrees with it in theory, it is rather worthless if it is a perennial election loser. It is also debilitating from a policy perspective, collapsing economic thought into an endless demand for more tax cuts, while excluding more-practical questions—such as whether a financial-transaction tax might be preferable to an income tax, or how to improve government-procurement mechanisms—since government intervention in general is presumed to be illegitimate.

Donors mainly concerned about private-wealth preservation would likely be better off ditching the market myth and more honestly focusing on their actual interests. This would allow a conceptual shift away from the secularized 18th Century deism of market equilibrium and toward an emphasis on development and growth. The connection between private investment and technological advance and productivity improvement is typically demonstrable in concrete and obvious terms, without recourse to blind faith in any spontaneous order. In cases where it is not, there probably is a real problem that needs to be addressed. As Irving Kristol, among others from previous generations of conservatives, recognized: acknowledging the limitations of market mechanisms enables an improved policy discourse and a stronger case on larger political questions. At any rate, more honest assessments would certainly be more effective than funding another Adam Smith seminar and a virtual pin factory.

The only way out is through

Countless polemics from across the partisan spectrum have blamed donors—particularly conservative donors—for every political problem imaginable. I would argue, however, that many problems arise because donors—particularly conservative donors—are not sufficiently engaged. They have instead delegated important policy work to a cast of incompetent ideologues and bureaucrats. Everyone would be better served if these donors exercised more responsibility and control over their philanthropy. Conservatives typically like the idea of “running government like a business,” but a good first step would be for conservative donors to run their philanthropy more like a business: replacing ineffective managers, cutting failed divisions, and developing new products. Donors should remember that the policy proposals that eventually became Reaganism were once new ideas, too. Enterprises that cannot innovate eventually die.

Again, however, this requires more honesty about the mission. Citadel mogul and Republican megadonor Ken Griffin recently gave a revealing interview to Politico that offers a solid starting point. Griffin said that “abortion rights, battles over sex education and LGBTQ rights—don’t define his interests. He wants to improve the diversity of the GOP and blunt the vein of populism that has complicated the party’s relationship with the corporate world ….” He also criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s immigration policies, “Don’t Say Gay” law, and dissolution of Disney’s special tax district. In other words, Griffin essentially rejected the entirety of social conservatism and all of DeSantis’s most-notable political actions, in service of “corporate-friendly” policies.

Those nostalgic for fusionist conservatism will be aghast at Griffin’s suggestions, but this sort of clarity is critical in the present circumstances. If, in fact, the largest Republican donors essentially want to remake the existing Republican Party, then they should be straightforward about what that entails and systematically pursue it. That means dropping any remaining conservative baggage and forming a more-avowedly neoliberal enterprise, presumably with a new set of policy institutions—and a more-serious agenda that politicians can at least run on—appropriate to the task. (Alternatively, they might find more success simply by becoming pro-business Democrats; today’s Democratic Party is hardly averse to wealth, and its moderate wing has proved highly effective in thwarting progressives in Congress.)

On the other hand, if social conservative donors are sincere, then they need to embrace the daunting work of building a more-viable political movement from a severely marginalized position. This means going well beyond judicial activism or symbolic culture warring and revisiting fundamental questions of political economy and other issues to align policy with their commitment to traditional values. It requires building new coalitions and new institutions, and certainly rethinking their alliance with neoliberals, who are, not without reason, increasingly dismissive of unpopular social-conservative commitments.

Nevertheless, Griffin’s statement notwithstanding, it seems more likely that inertia will prevail and conservatives will persist in attempting to repair their 20th Century coalition. For now, the useful fiction of fusionist conservatism, though it hardly offers a stable basis for a governing majority, can still allow Republicans to win enough seats to obstruct the Democrats, for better and for worse. Until conservative donors decide what they actually want, however, conservative philanthropy—and the right in general—will remain incoherent and ineffective.


Editors’ note: AEI says no meeting occurred “to discuss whether it was still a conservative institution,” nor could any such meeting happen.