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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Where the Conservatives Aren’t

Over the past quarter-century, U.S. politics has changed dramatically. Republicans, conservatives and free-market advocates have moved from the fringes to center stage. But elsewhere, the changes are less dramatic.

This inauguration marks the seventh out of the past 10 in which a Republican president parades down Pennsylvania Avenue.

At the Capitol, the procession’s starting point, Republicans hold a 10-seat majority in the Senate and a solid grasp, for the 10th year in a row, on the House. The majority of governors, including those of the four largest states, are Republican, and the GOP controls most state legislatures.

Most significantly, Americans, by a 3-to-2 margin, identify themselves as conservatives rather than liberals.

Over the past quarter-century, U.S. politics has changed dramatically. Republicans, conservatives and free-market advocates have moved from the fringes to center stage. But elsewhere, the changes are less dramatic.

The American Left _ liberalism, collectivism, statism, New Dealism (call it what you want) – remains firmly in charge of most powerful U.S. institutions. Here is a brief review of 10 of them, along with my rough estimate, by percentage, of conservative influence.

Media: Put talk radio, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News and a few dailies on one side and practically everything else on the other. Nine-tenths of national reporters and editors vote Democratic, and they identify themselves as liberal over conservative by a 5-to-1 margin. The Bush administration has had no discernible effect even on NPR and PBS. Will the CBS scandal change anything? Of course not. The power of the big dailies and TV networks is crumbling thanks to the Internet, but slowly. Conservative influence: 20 percent.

Government bureaucracy: For more than 70 years, liberalism has burrowed deep into the federal bureaucracy, where the people who know how to pull the levers of power work. At a few outposts _ like the Consumer Products Safety Commission and, lately, the CIA _ creative chiefs are rooting out the entrenched, but the task is daunting. Conservative influence: 30 percent.

Entertainment and the arts: Liberals are more powerful in Hollywood than ever. “When was the last time,” wrote Andrew Klavan in the Hartford Courant, “that you saw a conservative politician who was the hero of a movie, as opposed to the slavering villains of ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ ‘The Contender,’ or ‘The American President’?” Detective Ed Green on “Law and Order” calls the president the “dude who lied to us,” and we barely notice. We’re sadly inured to it. Conservative influence: 10 percent.

Religion: While the press (see above) highlights the power of evangelicals, religious institutions like the National Council of Churches (representing 45 million Christians) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops boost the welfare state and oppose the thrust of U.S. foreign policy. Conservative influence: 40 percent.

Big business: Perhaps because it is afraid of being the target of zealous regulators and prosecutors, big business has become meek and mute. Wall Street, trapped in Manhattan, has always leaned left – as its main representative in Washington, Bill Donaldson, chairman of the SEC, demonstrates. Yes, there are groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, which push tax cuts and tort reform, but big business, in general, is a paper tiger. Conservative influence: 50 percent.

Small business: The white-hot center of conservatism is entrepreneurship. Conservative influence: 90 percent.

Academe: Liberal and getting more so. The only exception is the tiny world of think tanks, where conservatives rule. In K-12 education, where the teachers’ unions maintain their stranglehold, reform is coming, glacially. Conservative influence: 20 percent.

Philanthropy: Captains of industry make the money; their leftish progeny spend it on fashionable causes. But there’s reason for optimism as new philanthropies that stress market-style accountability, like the Gates Foundation, develop. Conservative influence: 30 percent.

Military: Conservatives dominate here, and the military has been a key socializing force for personal responsibility and patriotism. But civilians, don’t forget, run the military. Conservative influence: 70 percent.

NGOS: Non-governmental organizations, from AARP to the Consumers Union to the NAACP to the Sierra Club, comprise a leftist stronghold. Meanwhile, the U.S. government and the United Nations are farming out more of their own work to such groups. Conservative influence: 20 percent.

Not a pretty picture for the right: seven institutions in liberal hands, two in conservative, one split. Two big questions for conservatives: 1) Can political pressure be brought to bear to change institutions? No, and it’s probably best that way. And 2) should conservatives infiltrate existing institutions or grow their own? Infiltration works better, but thanks to the Internet, the start-up route holds more and more attraction.

Today, 25 years after Ronald Reagan’s victory, the work of changing American institutions is just beginning.

(James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of