top of page




[Paul Levy © 2019]

Part 1:  Movement History

Pre-Cursors, Launch, Early Advances

A.    Pre-Cursors

Modern America arose in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Our industrial revolution exploded with the production of steel, oil, processed food, railroads, shipping… and spawned a class of millionaires such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Swift & Armour.  It was punctuated by an economic transformation – subsistence farming to wage laborers in giant factories, an urban migration – from the countryside to rapidly growing cities, and a population explosion due largely to immigration.

Suddenly America faced major new obstacles such as these and on a very grand scale:

•    Labor exploitation – low wages, poor working conditions

•    Widespread discrimination – especially against immigrants, women, people of color, and children

•    Industrial strife – as workers struggled to organize and resist

•    Massive immigration – millions of un-melted people in our Melting Pot

•    Boom and bust cycles – 20 of the 35 years between end of Civil War and 1900 were depressions (panics) or        recessions

•    High unemployment -- with widespread homelessness and starvation

•    Redundancy – workers outlived their usefulness to employers
•    Monopolies -- by giant, national corporations over entire industries (US steel, Standard Oil, Swift and                Armour…)

•    Overcrowded cities -- with tenements, disease, crime, & ethnic gangs

•    Food safety problems – as most food was mass produced and packaged far away 

•    Deep, conspicuous inequality – extreme poverty next to extreme wealth

This is an immense array of serious human and societal problems, far beyond the imagination or experience of our Founders.  It challenged Americans to comprehend it and to decide if and how to address it. 

The initial answers came from prevailing elites.  Key economists, calling on Adam Smith, urged us to welcome the invisible hand that eventually would bring prosperity to all who worked hard.  

Key academics, calling on Charles Darwin and Mother Nature, invented Social Darwinism, the belief that life is a struggle to survive and thrive, and that the wealthiest are the fittest in that struggle and the poor the least fit.  The following snippet from Yale professor William Graham Sumner, the leading proponent of Social Darwinism, suggests its tenor:

The millionaires are a product of natural selection…  It is because they are thus selected that wealth… aggregates under their hands….  They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society.  (Sumner, 1902)

Key clergy, calling on the Lord himself, shaped what came to be called The Gospel of Wealth (a term coined by Andrew Carnegie) which saw wealth essentially as God’s reward to the righteous.  The Right Reverend William Lawrence, an Episcopal Church leader and friend of J.P. Morgan, offered this phrase that embodies the Gospel of Wealth: 

It is only to the man of morality that wealth comes….  Godliness is in league with riches.  Lawrence, 1901).

These elite rationales imagined the free market as a fair playing field where individuals compete, not only to determine the distribution of wealth, but to determine who is fit and unfit, who is moral and immoral.  A hundred years later, leaders of the Right-Wing Movement look to this same playing field to distinguish “makers from takers;” “self-sufficient, self-respecting people from parasites.”

But another group began to understand Gilded Age changes differently.  It believed that America had a responsibility to protect people against the harms of big corporate capitalism and its many severe shortcomings.  The group included victims of the Age, especially factory workers; but it also included large numbers of others who were doing OK but felt compassion for those who were suffering.  Calling themselves “Progressives,” its leaders – for example, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, W.E.B. Dubois, Julia Lathrop, sociologist Lester Ward, Samuel Gompers, Jacob Riis, John Dewey, Upton Sinclair, and Teddy Roosevelt -- saw big government as the only force strong enough to address most Gilded Age shortcomings. 

Reforms came somewhat slowly and in roughly three stages:

•    The Progressive Era (1890s – 1920s) brought protective regulation; e.g., of banks, monopolies, food and drug safety; establishment of a U.S. Department of Labor (1913).

•    The New Deal (1933 – WWII) expanded regulations and added federal social welfare, e.g. unemployment insurance, social security retirement insurance, and Aid to Dependent Children.  

•    The Post-WW II Era (1945 ff.) expanded regulations (e.g. to include clean air and water and consumer protection), expanded social welfare (e.g. to encompass disability and housing, health, and food aid), and added civil rights protections against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and so forth.

Over the course of the Post-War period, Democratic and Republican leaders developed a loose consensus.  They realized that big government was needed to address big problems generated by big business.  They argued over the proper amount of taxation, social welfare, and regulation.  But almost no major Republican or Democratic leader questioned the need for Social Security, national parks, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, food safety regulations, building codes, Medicare, Food Stamps, homeowner tax breaks, public education, progressive income taxes, and many other things.  They accepted the necessity of what often was referred to as a “mixed economy.”

It is noteworthy that, during this period (1945 to the late 1970s), the economy grew immensely, especially its big national businesses that increasingly became international.  And it is also important to note that American prosperity was shared during this period more than at any other time in modern American history as real incomes rose in similar proportions for all quintiles of the population.  

It was against this post-war consensus that the Far Right Movement formed.  Its ideology would see each of the policies I referred to above as harmful, unfair, and unwise – and primarily as UNCONSTITUTIONAL.  

To onlookers, the shift from the consensus seemed to happen abruptly in the 1980s with a popular movement led by a popular president and his Reagan Revolution.  But its emergence was not nearly so abrupt and certainly not grounded in a single personality. 

B.     The Launch

Through the first post-war decades, the strident voices of the Far Right receded or shifted their attention to the Cold War and the communist threat at home and abroad.  But Deep Conservative and Libertarian ideology survived in the form of a variety of relatively independent voices such as economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, politician Barry Goldwater, philosopher and media personality William F. Buckley, Jr., as well as through organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) which were supported by the Volker Fund and a small number of other conservative donors.  The Appendix gives brief descriptions of several of these people and organizations.  

John Saloma, writing in 1984, traced the origin of the Movement to the Goldwater era (the early 1960s).  Today, many critics look to the Powell Manifesto (August 23, 1971) as the Movement’s initial call to action.  Lewis Powell was a nationally prominent Virginia lawyer who, for some time had defended tobacco companies against the government.  He submitted his Manifesto, entitled “Confidential Memorandum: Attack on Free Enterprise System,” to the National Chamber of Commerce.  The Memo didn’t remain confidential for long and was widely distributed.

Not only was the Powell Memo a call to arms; it was a blueprint for the ensuing right wing attack.  In it, Powell decries the liberal “attack” on free enterprise.  He sees Liberals as the cause of a large and expanding federal government with its social programs and regulations, and sees Liberalism as the widely accepted national ideology, prominently advanced in academia and the media.  Powell registers his amazement that the business community, despite its power, mindlessly supports this self-defeating ideology.  He reminds business, for example, that:

The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

And he adds that private enterprise owns most of the media. 

He urges the Chamber and big corporations to launch an immediate defense of capitalism and an attack on progressivism.  More specifically, he urges generous funding of “charitable” activities to prepare new free-market scholars, underwrite their articles and books, subsidize right wing professors and curricula in colleges to balance liberals and then move into secondary schools, demand equal time in the liberal media, mobilize voters, and otherwise become highly political.  He adds that ultimately “the judiciary may be the most important instrument for change.”

The Powell Manifesto was a call to action by corporate America and a blueprint of key strategy proposals.  But it also set a vision and tenor for the Movement – the notion that America is in an ideological struggle, a “war of ideas” -- between liberals and us (businessmen) who have enabled this attack but now must fight back.  Powell depicts wealthy businesses and people as a beleaguered minority who still hold a lot of cards. 

Powell considered Ralph Nader to be “the single most effective antagonist of American business,” and he saw “few elements in American society today (that) have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders.”  But despite claims that conservatives were on the margins, it would be Powell himself, not Nader, who would be named to the Supreme Court a mere two months after sending his secret Memo to the Chamber of Commerce.

C.    Early Advances

Immediately after the Powell Memo (1971), the Movement began to take shape rapidly.  In Ominous Politics (1984) for example, John Saloma was able to identify all key strategies that now dominate the Movement.  I describe each of these in some detail in Part IV, and they include:  Creating Think Tanks, Infiltrating Academia, Reforming the Law, Securing A Media Presence, and Creating a Grassroots.  Saloma also was able to name the core Movement donors – the Scaife, Coors, Olin, Bradley brothers, Smith Richardson, Koch brothers, and DeVos foundations.  Recent exposés  such as Democracy in Chains and Deep Money identify this same early core and recognize that all except the Olin Foundation, which spent down its funds and closed in 2005, remain prominent donors today. 

Expanded Core Giving.  In fact, by 1984 each of these major donors had not only contributed to The Cause, but had greatly expanded their gifts.  For example, the Smith Richardson Foundation substantially expanded its funding of entities promoting free markets and limited government in 1973 when R. Randolph Richardson became its president.  The Scaife Foundation expanded its giving with the arrival of William Simon as its executive director in 1977 when his term as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury ended.  It took a special interest in education.  So did the Olin Foundation which also targeted academia, especially law schools.  

The Koch brothers spent more lavishly on the Movement as their fortune grew, but also after David Koch’s highly unsuccessful bid as the 1980 Libertarian Party nominee for Vice President.  At that point the Kochs seemed to shift their hopes from establishing a competitive third political party to taking over the Republican Party.  

Donor Targeting.  From early on, big donors focused their major gifts on favorite recipients and favorite strategies.  Susan Covington (1997) [2]  looked at grants made by the 12 largest conservative foundations (e.g. Bradley, Scaife, Olin, Smith Richardson, Koch) between 1992 and 1994 and found some clear patterns.  Together these foundations had granted $210 million to 576 grantees, but 60% of this money had gone to just 50 grantees.  For example, they made donations to many universities, but over half of this giving went to 16 schools with the largest grants – from $6 million to $10 million – going to Chicago, Harvard, George Mason, and Yale.  

Covington’s research also revealed that big donors had strategy preferences.  During that 1992-1994 period, 38% of their grants went to think tanks and 42% to academic institutions.  The remaining 20% was divided among the several other strategies. 

Action Campaigns.  Many of the  major Movement organizations – its think tanks, academic institutes, law reform entities, etc. -- were established before 2000 (see Appendix 2 which describes many key Movement organizations including their founding dates).  From the start, the Movement was highly top-down and dominated by its core donors.  In addition, organizations and people were highly networked (see Appendix 3 for an early example of networking).  These features allowed key Movement leaders to quickly launch campaigns by multiple advocacy organizations.  This was the case, for example, with attacks on welfare in the 1990s that led to major welfare reform; with an attack on climate change science in the 2000s that led to climate change denial and the end of a growing bipartisan commitment to radically reduce carbon emissions; with the attack on Obama himself and then Obamacare in the 2010s.

Covington (1997) offers several early examples of these campaigns including one attack on academia during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The campaign began with several books condemning American higher education that were funded by the Olin Foundation.  Then, it aimed at so-called “political correctness,” using a now-familiar right-wing tactic of manufacturing a crisis: 

a slow but steady trickle of [print media] articles about “political correctness” on college campuses [began] in the 1988 to 1990 period with 101 articles appearing in 1988 and increasing to 656 in 1990.  Then, however, the number of articles skyrocketed, with 3,989 articles appearing in 1991.  Reflecting perhaps conservative successes increasing the appearance of crisis, “one of the most noticeable common denominators in these articles was their reliance -- apparently unchallenged by first-hand reporting or by other journalists -- on a relatively small number of campus incidents, often the same few, to bolster the case for an alleged epidemic of suppression.”  

Once the idea of “political correctness” became fixed in the public mind, funders supported both the individual and institutional efforts launched by political conservatives to redirect public and private sector dollars from “liberal” higher education purposes toward conservative ones.  They had the support of Lynne V. Cheney (head of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986-1993).   

The tactic of manufacturing the appearance of a “crisis” has been perfected by the Trump administration. 

Action campaigns have proliferated. Appendix 9 offers brief case histories of two of them, welfare reform in 1996 and climate change denial in the early 2000s.

The Religious Right.  The Movement lacked a broad constituency, and much of the work of building one began early in the Movement’s history.  A key approach has been to loosely partner with broad-based organizations, and the first, largest, and most enduring of these was the Religious Right.  Evangelical Christians were experiencing a major upsurge in the late 1970s and early 80s just as the Movement was emerging, and the two joined together through leaders who straddled both worlds.  More of this story is told below, but Paul Weyrith and Richard DeVos, Sr. are two examples.  Paul Weyrith was a founder of both the Heritage Foundation (1973) and the Moral Majority (1979) which was first housed in the Heritage Foundation.  Richard DeVos, Sr. was the most prominent donor to the Religious Right and an ardent Movement supporter.

Many other enduring features of the Movement were established early.  For example, in the 1970s, the Movement adopted a strong commitment to prepare its next generation of leaders and carried this out as part of its effort to infiltrate academia.  This is visited below, and Appendix 3 provides an example of one way in which this has been done and continues to be done.

In general, the fundamental shape of the Movement was established early in its history – before 2000 and, for the most part, much earlier.[4]   And, much of what has occurred since has involved expanding upon that structure.



  Selected Pre-Movement Libertarian and 
Deep Conservative People and Organizations

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) (1938).  AEI, founded in 1938, was the most prominent early right-wing think tank.  It remains an important think tank today. 

Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) (1953).  ISI was established to teach conservative students “the core ideas behind the free market, the American Founding, and Western Civilization.” Its founder, Frank Chodorov called for a fifty-year project to revive the ideas of individual freedom and personal responsibility in the minds of the coming generation.” William F. Buckley, Jr. was its first director. ISI remains important today. 

Ayn Rand (1905-1982).  Rand was an author and philosopher who was a particularly popular, strong and enduring Libertarian.  Early libertarian novels, notably The Fountainhead (1943) and particularly Atlas Shrugged (1957), influenced a large number of young people as did her philosophy known as Objectivism.  Many right wing and Libertarian philosophers, politicians, and students were, and continue to be, heavily influenced by Rand (Paul Ryan and Rand Paul are two of many notable examples).  Some foundation grants to colleges have stipulated that all students be assigned Atlas Shrugged.  Today the Ayn Rand Institute, with expenditures of about $8 million annually, sustains objectivism and the contributions of Ms. Rand.

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998).  Goldwater was a key voice of conservatism for years as a Senator from Arizona and then during his unsuccessful presidential run in 1964.  His book, Conscience of a Conservative, was widely read.  

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992).  Hayek was an Austrian-British economist.  During World War II, he began to warn about the dangers of big government.  In a classic book, The Road to Serfdom (1944), he warned of the dangers of central (government) economic planning and its threat to personal and economic liberty (free markets).  He taught in Europe and in America (at the University of Chicago, 1950-62), was a Nobel Prize winner (1974), and was a co-founder of the Mont Pelerin Society.

Milton Friedman and The Chicago Boys.  Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman and others in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago became known as the “Chicago Boys.”  Friedman wrote important rightwing books such as Capitalism and Freedom (1982) and was a key force in American conservatism.  He and “the Boys” spread libertarian ideas here but also, through their government consultations, abroad.

Mont Pelerin Society (1947).  The Society is an influential group of international, right wing economists including a substantial U.S. constituency.  Charles Koch is a Mont Pelerin member, for example, and its current president is Peter Boettke, Director of the Hayek Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008).  Buckley was the voice of conservatism during the mid to late 1900s.  Among many achievements, he established Young Americans for Freedom in 1960.  Its founding document, the Sharon Statement, is a concise and classic statement of deep conservative beliefs.  Buckley hosted a very popular TV show, Firing Line (1966-99), and established the conservative National Review in 1955.  

The William Volker Fund (1932-65).  For decades, this fund was the major one promoting Libertarianism.  It recruited and funded Libertarian scholars to teach at universities (e.g. Hayek at the University of Chicago); funded gatherings that led to key Libertarian publications by Friedman, Hayek, and others; paid for American representatives to attend Mont Pelerin meetings; helped promising young Libertarians and, in the case of F.A. “Baldy” Harper and Murray Rothbard, hired them for a period; and disseminated free Libertarian books to academic libraries.



  [1] See, for example: Andrew Fieldhouse (Economic Policy Institute) (2013).  Rising income inequality and the role of shifting market-income distribution, tax burdens and tax rates at:

   [2]Sally Covington (1997). Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy), at: and   

   [3]Sally Covington (1997), ibid. at page 12. 

   [4]Several studies completed near the end of the century are informative including:  

>  Sally Covington (1997), supra.

>  People for the American Way (1996).  Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics, at:

Karen Paget (1998). State of the Debate: Lessons of Right-Wing Philanthropy.  In American Prospect (Sept.-Oct., 1998) at:   Paget refers to these additional sources:

>  Leon Howell, Funding the War of Ideas: A Report to the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries (1995). 
>  Justice for Sale (Alliance for Justice, 1993). 
>  Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda (Temple University Press, 1996). 

bottom of page