The 'Right' Books and Big Ideas | The Nation


The 'Right' Books and Big Ideas

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Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and her husband, Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom, would like to thank the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Earhart Foundation and the Carthage Foundation for help in funding their anti-affirmative action tome America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible. Tamar Jacoby, also a Manhattan Institute denizen, is indebted to the John M. Olin Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation for the financial help they gave her in writing her critical look at integration, Someone Else's House: America's Unfulfilled Struggle for Integration. Dinesh D'Souza acknowledges the John M. Olin Foundation's funding of his bestselling books Illiberal Education, The End of Racism and Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader while he was in residence at the American Enterprise Institute, to which he is also grateful. So too, Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, whose immense gratitude to the Manhattan Institute has now been transferred to the American Enterprise Institute, considered a more congenial place for pseudoscholarly tomes devoted to making racism respectable. And Marvin Olasky cannot say enough in thanks to the Bradley and Heritage foundations, "not only [for] the financial support" for The Tragedy of American Compassion but also for the "stimulating research and writing environment" they provided.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Take a tour of our nation's cultural landscape as the century turns, and you find that ideas once considered ideologically revanchist are in full bloom, funded by right-wing donors. While many of the most promising intellectual talents on the left have eschewed the "real" world of public discourse for the cloistered confines of narrow academic concerns, the right has been taking its message to "the people" in the form of bestselling book after bestselling book. Authors like the late Allan Bloom, Jude Wanniski, Charles Murray, Marvin Olasky, Bill Bennett, Dinesh D'Souza, Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, to pick just a few, have all written books in the past two decades that have transformed our political and cultural discourse on issues that are central to the way we organize ourselves as a society. Yes, they had the advantage of a powerful echo chamber within the punditocracy and the world of conservative opinion media. Yes, many of the books played into a few prejudices that many Americans may have already held but did not consider respectable to utter in polite company. But most important, these people wrote books directed at a mass audience and received funding and support from conservative sources that understood the fundamental importance of the battle of ideas.

The Bradley Foundation, for instance, recently compiled a list of more than 400 books it has supported during the past fourteen years. Its president, Michael Joyce, explains, "We have the conviction that most of the other media are derivative from books. Books are the way that authors put forth more substantial, more coherent arguments. It follows that if you want to have an influence on the world of ideas, books are where you want to put your money. It is what we are most proud of, of all the things we've done here." Indeed, Bradley recently invested $3.5 million to start up its own publishing arm, to be called Encounter Books, named after the defunct journal of neoconservative ideas. Its editor in chief, Peter Collier, explains that the decision was inspired by the perception that "the Gutenberg galaxy is imploding." Says Collier, "The reason for this operation is that it is perceived by certain people in the middle part of the country that serious nonfiction publishing is an endangered species. A lot of important books don't get done not because of the left but because of the market."

Joyce and Collier are not concerning themselves with questionable tabloid tell-alls, like Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access, or with incompetent attempts to cash in on the scandal of the moment, like Ann Coulter's impeachment rant. These are best left to the old, reliable Regnery, which has been a far-right mouthpiece for decades. While Regnery books occasionally sell well, they do so only to members of the conservative movement. Neither Aldrich's flimsily sourced exposé nor Coulter's legal hysterics made much of a dent in the public discourse. Rather, the focus of Encounter will be on "questions involving history, culture and public affairs." Paying relatively meager advances--none more than $30,000 so far, he says--Collier has signed up Sol Stern, a City Journal contributing editor and Manhattan Institute senior fellow, to write a book on the strengths of urban Catholic schools, and Wes Smith, a former Nader attorney, "on how the right to die becomes the duty to die." The plan is to skimp on advances but spend mightily on publicity. If a book takes off, then the profits are split, with a high royalty rate for the author and more investment funds for the publishing house. (Hmm, sounds almost socialist...)

Liberal foundations would do well to take a hard look at the model being employed by the right here. The left's current predicament mirrors that of the right between two and three decades ago. While it could still win national elections (witness Richard Nixon), the right felt shut out from the larger cultural discourse. Conservative thinkers were forced to fight their battles on a liberal playing field. Today the opposite is true. "The weakness of the left," Columbia political scientist Ira Katznelson has noted, "forecloses meaningful political choice, flattens political debate and leaves unattended vast human needs and distortions of power."

More than anyone alive, perhaps, Irving Kristol can take the credit for reversing the direction of American political culture. Before he began his career as an ideological godfather of the right, Kristol spent a brief period as an editor at Basic Books, where he found himself "exasperated" by the built-in vagaries of the business. But sometime during the seventies, Kristol apparently changed his mind about the value of book-length arguments. A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a close comrade of its editor, Robert Bartley, he was introduced to the page's self-described "wild man," Jude Wanniski. Despite the fact that Wanniski had no formal training in economics, he believed (and still believes) that in the now infamous "Laffer Curve," whereby lower taxes on the rich allegedly lead to higher government revenues, he had found the key to all human happiness. Wanniski needed money and a place to write and think while he composed a supply-side manifesto based on the Laffer theory.

By then, the intellectual impresario Kristol was deeply involved in shaping the grant-giving agendas of the Olin Foundation and the Institute for Educational Affairs, which he co-founded. He also helped "grow" the American Enterprise Institute to its current status. He continued to oversee the neoconservative domestic-policy journal Public Interest, which he founded in 1965 with Daniel Bell (twenty years later he added to his burgeoning empire the neoconservative foreign-policy journal The National Interest, which he started with $750,000 from the Olin Foundation).

According to Wanniski, Kristol convinced the folks at Smith Richardson to give Wanniski $40,000 to write a book, of which $10,000 went to AEI to house him. His manifesto, The Way the World Works (1978), proved to be the bible of a movement that transformed fiscal policy and economic debate. Basic Books, which published the original version, printed 4,000 copies, expecting them to take years to sell out. Embraced first by Jack Kemp and then by Ronald Reagan, Wanniski's supply-side gambit became the "riverboat gamble" (in then-Senate majority leader Howard Baker's words) upon which our government's finances were recklessly bet. The Way the World Works was augmented in 1981 by George Gilder's no less airy tome, Wealth and Poverty, which was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation and helped lead to the creation of the International Center for Economic Policy Studies--later renamed the Manhattan Institute.

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