Why conservative think tanks thrive in liberal WA

Protesters fill the corner of Bob Hope and Rancho Las Palmas in Rancho Mirage, California, as they march against a conservative strategy meeting hosted by the Koch brothers, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011. (AP photo by Crysta lChatham/The Desert Sun)

In a relatively progressive state like Washington, you might expect liberal think tanks to completely dominate the field of nongovernmental policy research and advocacy. But you would be wrong: Conservative groups wield significant clout.

Consider Washington Policy Center, a right-wing think tank backing “free market solutions.” It played a prominent role in the successful campaign against Initiative 1631, the carbon tax proposal on November’s ballot. If you tried to learn about this issue by surfing the web, watching news broadcasts or reading local newspapers, you probably encountered Todd Myers, the center’s environmental director, a former state Republican communications director and a policy expert at the Koch-backed, climate-skeptical Heartland Institute. He routinely panned the initiative.

Likewise, the Discovery Institute, best known for its work advancing the concept of “intelligent design,” opposed a Seattle “head tax” to fund projects for the homeless. One of the institute's fellows, Chris Rufo, a local filmmaker who launched a now-aborted campaign for Mike O’Brien’s seat on the Seattle City Council, argued passionately against the “homeless industrial complex” and “the politics of ruinous compassion.”

Finally, Freedom Foundation, another conservative think tank, is pushing hard to undermine government unions in Washington, Oregon and California by advising public employees that they are no longer required to pay dues. “We have diminished government-union power while providing union members a shelter from union bullies,” Tom McCabe, leader of the foundation, wrote in a 2014 email to supporters. “We have implemented a plan to bankrupt SEIU, our state’s largest union.”

Of course, Washington does host a number of progressive think tanks — from Sightline to the Washington State Budget and Policy Center and the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI). And these groups have enjoyed their own successes in recent years, advocating for democracy vouchers for Seattle voters, paid family and sick leave for Washington workers, and a higher minimum wage. John Burbank, executive director of EOI, says his organization has been remarkably effective despite “challenging the status quo” to promote public policies that help the poor and middle class in Washington.

Yet conservative organizations enjoy surprising influence in a state that has not elected a Republican governor in nearly four decades. This may simply reflect a big advantage in funding and people power.

Federal records and annual reports show that the three progressive think tanks I mentioned had, in 2016 or 2017, a total of $4.8 million in annual revenues and 38 staffers. One of them, EOI, had to scratch its way back to liquidity after nearly bankrupting itself in the unsuccessful 2003 campaign for a “latte tax” to subsidize childcare for the poor in Seattle. By contrast, the three conservative think tanks I mentioned were, in the aggregate, almost three times richer ($13.2 million) and twice as big (77 staffers).

Some of the reasons for this discrepancy are obvious, and not unique to Washington. For example, corporate executives tend to be conservative, and quite willing to underwrite policy research that advances their interests. By contrast, union leaders now find themselves on the defensive. In addition, conservatives have been especially dedicated to building up a network of ideologically motivated think tanks around the country.

This may date back to 1971, when Lewis Powell, before becoming a Supreme Court justice, wrote a confidential memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce condemning “the [Ralph] Naders, the [Herbert] Marcuses and others who openly seek destruction of the [capitalist] system.” He saved much of his venom for American colleges and universities, which he and other conservatives viewed, even then, as bastions of leftist thinking. In the end, Powell called on business leaders to mount a concerted campaign of education and advocacy, to “apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the [capitalist] system.”

Within a decade, well-endowed right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Heritage Foundation had joined the ranks of more technocratic organizations such as Brookings, Rand, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Meanwhile, liberal intellectuals flocked to academia, writing increasingly abstract, technical or jargon-filled pieces for other academics. In 1987, Russell Jacoby lamented this tendency in “The Last Intellectuals,’’ describing the world of social science as a fiefdom that had become more and more isolated from the public.  A year later, President Reagan came to a similar conclusion from the opposite perspective: “Today, the most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks — and none has been more influential than [AEI].”

The national trend soon found its way to Washington. Bruce Chapman, a former GOP state official who became Reagan’s national census director, helped launch Discovery Institute in 1991. It now has offices in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. Bob Williams, a conservative Christian and Republican nominee for governor, also founded the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (reborn as the Freedom Foundation) in 1991. It now operates out of Olympia; Salem, Oregon; and Fullerton, California. The Washington Policy Center, based in Seattle, Olympia, Spokane, and the Tri-Cities, was born in 1997. Like the Freedom Foundation, it is affiliated with the State Policy Network, a set of conservative think tanks financed in part by Charles and David Koch. It also is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business-backed organization that writes bills for Republican legislators.

With the exception of Sightline, founded in 1993, progressive think tanks in Washington emerged later. These groups have struggled to raise money for an additional reason that is, in part, peculiar to our region: Many wealthy liberals in the Northwest have chosen not to invest so heavily in independent think tanks.

Some, most notably Nick Hanauer, would rather control their own policy research and advocacy. The billionaire venture capitalist has launched his own think tanks —  True Patriot Network, which eventually became Civic Ventures. He and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen joined forces to create the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, investing $1 million each into the successful Initiative 1639 campaign for new gun regulations in Washington.

Others have used their billions primarily for charity. Howard Schultz, longtime leader of Starbucks, set up a foundation to support veterans and youth all over the country. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, underwrites global health and development initiatives, as well some Northwest projects, including local education efforts.

Seattle’s most controversial billionaire is probably more liberal, at least in his social views, than many donors nationally, but — until recently — has not shown much interest in politics or policy. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and currently the world’s richest human, has chosen to invest much of his money in ventures like space tourism and the Washington Post.

What about mere millionaires who lean left? Some have preferred to pour their earnings directly into politics. Stephanie DeVaan, who spent five years at a rapidly expanding Microsoft, launched a political action committee (Washington Women for Choice) to support candidates committed to abortion rights. The current chair of the state Democratic Party, Tina Podlodowski, who stayed a bit longer at Microsoft, invested heavily in LGBT rights (especially the Pride Foundation) and political campaigns, including her own for Seattle City Council and Washington secretary of state. 

This is not to say that wealthy liberals have completely turned their backs on progressive think tanks in Washington. Indeed, some of those mentioned here have been contributors. But they have not stepped forward to serve as audacious patrons in the way that Charles and David Koch or Lynde and Harry Bradley have for conservative think tanks.

This has helped slant the state policy landscape, despite the abundance of liberal voters in Washington.

Disclosure: Crosscut receives some funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. John Carlson, who writes opinion columns regularly for Crosscut, was a founder of the Washington Policy Center.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Walter Hatch

Walter Hatch is associate professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. When he is not teaching, he is often found in Seattle, where he was born and raised.