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Where to start
by George Lakoff


.Publication date: 2004



Editor's Note: This feature about what differentiates conservative from progressive foundations is excerpted from Don't think of an elephant (Chelsea Green, 2004)

Author George Lakoff, a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute, explores framing devices in political language and examines structural problems that hamper democracy in the United States.


Right-wing think tanks get large block grants and endowments. Millions at a time. They are very well funded. The smallest effective think tanks on the right have budgets of four to seven million dollars a year. Those are the small operations. The large ones have up to thirty million dollars a year.

Furthermore, they know that they are going to get the money the next year, and the year after that. Remember, these are block grants-no strings attached. Do what you need. Hire intellectuals. Bring talent along. One of the think tanks is putting up a new building. It is going to be an eight-story building with a state-of-the-art media auditorium, and one hundred apartments for interns who cannot afford apartments in Washington.

These institutions also build human capital for the future. The interns and scholars are people who want to be there, who have talents and abilities that may well make them important in their fields. Through the think tanks, they get to know each other. And the interns are building lifetime networks: They are likely to know each other closely throughout their lives because they lived together while they were interns. These are social networks that will pay dividends for years and years. The conservatives who built the think tanks are not dumb people.


There are very few grants like this from progressive foundations. Progressive foundations spread the money around. They give twenty-five thousand dollars here, maybe fifty thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. Sometimes it is a big grant. But recipients have to do something different from what everyone else is doing because the foundations see duplication as wasting money.

Not only that, but they are not block grants; the recipients do not have full freedom to decide how to spend the money. And it is certainly not appropriate to use it for career development or infrastructure building or hiring intellectuals to think about long-term as well as short-term or interrelated policies.

The emphasis is on providing direct services to the people who need the services: grassroots funding, not infrastructure creation. This is, for the most part, how progressive foundations work. And because of that, the organizations they fund have to have a very narrow focus. They have to have projects, not just areas they work on. Activists and advocates are overworked and underpaid, and they do not have time or energy to think about how they should be linking up with other people. They mainly do not have the time or training to think about framing their issues. The system forces a narrow focus-and with it, isolation.


You ask, Why is it like this? There is a reason. There is a deep reason, and it is a reason you should all think about. In the right's hierarchy of moral values, the top value is preserving and defending the moral system itself.

If that is your main goal, what do you do? You build infrastructure. You buy up media in advance. You plan ahead. You do things like give fellowships to right-wing law students to get them through law school if they join the Federalist Society. And you get them nice jobs after that. If you want to extend your worldview, it is very smart to make sure that over the long haul you have the people and the resources that you need.

On the left, the highest value is helping individuals who need help. So if you are a foundation or you are setting up a foundation, what makes you a good person? You help as many people as you can. And the more public budgets get cut, the more people there are who need help.

So you spread the money around to the grassroots organizations, and therefore you do not have any money left for infrastructure or talent development, and certainly not for intellectuals. Do not waste a penny in duplicating efforts, because you have to help more and more people. How do you show that you are a good, moral person or foundation? By listing all the people you help; the more the better.

And so you perpetuate a system that helps the right. In the process, it also does help people. Certainly, it is not that people do not need help. They do. But what has happened as budgets and taxes get cut is that the right is privatizing the left. The right is forcing the left to spend ever more private money on what the government should be supporting.

There are many things that we can do about all this. Let's talk about where to start.



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