‘The Conservative Case for [Liberal Thing]” is a punchline. These “conservative cases” are drafted by think-tankers in the metaphorical hot-take mines who in many cases are paid to do so by a left-of-center foundation seeking to bamboozle Republican policy-makers and conservative supporters into empowering liberal interest groups, undermining long-standing conservative principles, or just doing whatever liberals want to do anyway.
Is that what is going on with American Compass, the think tank led by ex–Mitt Romney adviser Oren Cass that presents supposed conservative cases for organized labor, industrial policy, and calls to “reimagine capitalism in America”? The think tank is the most prominent element of the “labor conservatives” who form a “redistributionist right,” with Politico and other D.C. outlets framing it as the vanguard of a new, capitalism-skeptical Right that would emerge in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise and fall.
But peeking behind the curtain of American Compass’s funding raises concerns as to what that compass holds as its north. Two major liberal funding networks, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network, have provided major grants to American Compass as part of projects to “reimagine” capitalism. The foundation funders’ rhetoric and the fellow travelers they fund alongside American Compass raise questions about what these foundations are hoping to achieve with their funding.
In 2020, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation reported providing $611,000 in combined grants to American Compass. Created by one of the co-founders of Hewlett-Packard, the Hewlett Foundation has a consistent history of funding socially liberal and environmentalist organizations and projects, with major recipients including the ClimateWorks Foundation, Planned Parenthood, and Arabella Advisors’ New Venture Fund.
While Hewlett’s Madison Initiative has funded some right-leaning organizations in the spirit of full debate, that is not how the foundation is promoting its support for American Compass. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the trade publication for the multibillion-dollar nonprofit industry in which the Hewlett Foundation is a major player, portrayed Hewlett’s efforts “to identify a successor to neoliberalism,” which it defined as “the market-based economic theory that has guided academic and policy debate for several decades,” claimed that this theory was expounded by F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, and alleged that its prominence was “supported by grants to scholars and think tanks by a succession of conservative philanthropists such as Charles Koch.”
For its part, the Omidyar Network reported giving American Compass $200,000 as part of its “reimagining capitalism” project. Omidyar is a familiar name to students of righties-pushing-liberalism-for-hire: Pierre Omidyar, who created and funded the Omidyar Network as part of a growing network of grantmaking and advocacy organizations that include Democracy Fund, Democracy Fund Voice, and Omidyar Network, is notable for funding liberal-in-conservative-clothing groups that target former president Donald Trump and his supporters. Stand Up Republic, the left-wing election-administration organization headed by former presidential candidate Evan McMullin? Omidyar’s groups funded it. The Bulwark, the online magazine created by castoffs from the Weekly Standard’s closure that attacks Mike Rowe for opposing anti-COVID mandates? Until recently, it was identified as a project of the Defending Democracy Together Institute, whose 501c(4) organization, Defending Democracy Together, Omidyar has funded through his nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice. This is part of a broader effort to attack mainstream Republicans through a wide array of other dark-money groups. The Omidyar network of organizations isn’t exactly the outfit one would expect to fund the development of a “post-Trump Trump-ism.”
And the fellow travelers of American Compass receiving Omidyar’s “reimagining capitalism” support are a glaring warning light that Cass may be more of a Bill Kristol than an Irving. Also receiving Omidyar funds for “Building alignment around a coherent new vision and set of economic values” are Demos, a socialist think tank; the Roosevelt Institute, a think tank that cheerleads New Deal–style statist policy; and Economic Security Project, a campaign backed by Facebook co-founder and former New Republic publisher Chris Hughes to create a universal- basic-income welfare program. Omidyar Network itself promoted its “Our Call to Reimagine Capitalism in America” in the language of radical academic Ibram X. Kendi and critical race theory, with its second of five “key pillars of change” being “an explicitly anti-racist and inclusive economy.”
With bedfellows that fit more comfortably at a Democratic Socialists of America meeting than the Knights of Columbus or Elks Lodge that Cass and other right-leaning populists might call to mind, for what does American Compass stand? It is hard to say, but there’s evidence that Cass has shifted left since he published The Once and Future Worker, a collection of essays expounding his populist, worker-focused economic-policy approaches.
In the chapter on labor organizing, titled “More Perfect Unions,” Cass offered reforms that limited the political authority of Big Labor while increasing workers’ collective powers, proposing that worker cooperatives take over government social-safety-net functions and recommending that the government recognize independent “works councils” to conduct collective representation outside the adversarial union system. Throughout, Cass recognized that reform of labor organizing had to separate the interests of working families from those of labor bosses, whose activist liberal politics union members often do not share.
But now, Cass endorses “sectoral bargaining,” best known for being practiced in France. In this system, labor unions negotiate contracts nationwide not for the 8 percent of French workers who are union members but for over 98 percent of the workforce. So while the Cass of Once and Future Worker could recognize that “Democrats prize union bosses’ Midas-like ability to transform the dollars and energy of a bipartisan workforce into homogenous left-wing support,” $811,000 in Big (liberal) Philanthropy money later American Compass would give those union bosses more coercive power than even the Democrats’ PRO Act, which is itself little more than a vehicle to funnel even more money from unwilling working families to the Left’s Midases.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a conservative organization taking funds from liberal entities or with a conservative organization dissenting from some conservative orthodoxy. But when nominal conservatives start rushing to the left as left-wing dollars flow into their institutions, skepticism is warranted.