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Fusion on the right: An interview with Joe Bast

By Bernard Chapin
web posted June 16, 2003

We are lucky this week, in our Enter Stage Right interview, to have Mr. Joseph Bast, President of the Heartland Institute, which defines itself as "a genuinely independent source of research and commentary founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1984." Mr. Bast was what one might call Heartland Institute "member number one" as he was its first employee and began with budget of only $20 000 a year. Today there are 1 500 donors who support the institute's operations.

Joseph BastOf note in this particular interview, is Mr. Bast's position that conservatives and libertarians should combine to become an united political front. This is certainly sound advice, but as we know from recent elections, the libertarian vote can make or break Republican candidates (although much of the press coverage concerned Mr. Nader and the Greens). Mr. Bast's tone in the interview is an optimistic one, perhaps not for Illinois, but for conservatism in general.

BC: Mr. Bast, you are the President of the Heartland Institute, which is "a nonprofit organization devoted to turning ideas into social movements that empower people." What ideas have you been the most successful in transforming into social movements? Have you found that many of the conservative ideas that were once considered extreme now have gained mainstream acceptance?

JLB: Like most free-market think tanks and advocacy groups, our original mission was to create public support for lower taxes and less government power. We had some success on these topics, particularly in Illinois and the Midwest. For example, we slowed down or stopped public financing of sports stadiums and arenas in a dozen cities, and helped Chicago partially deregulate its taxicabs and launch a series of successful privatization efforts. More recently, as we evolved into a national organization, we have focused on three other ideas: parental choice in education, free-market environmentalism, and customer-driven health care. The first idea is on the brink of victory, the second is winning but has a ways to go, and the third is new and just getting widespread attention.

BC: I've written twice before about the Chicago Conservative Conference, but as one of its organizers, what has been the benefit to the conservative movement of having gatherings like this? What do you recommend to people who may be trying to organize an event like this in their part of the country?

JLB: The Chicago Conservative Conference is an annual meeting of conservative and libertarian grassroots activists from Illinois and neighboring states. The Heartland Institute is one of several organizations that jointly plan and oversee the event and cover its expenses. These events are a great way to bridge some of the ideological differences among the groups that make up the conservative movement. Many cultural conservatives, for example, believe libertarians are all pro-abortion or pro-drugs, and they are surprised to discover most are neither. Similarly, many libertarians think conservatives are soft on taxes, regulations, and private property rights, and they are surprised when they meet conservatives who are every bit as principled on these issues as they are.

I hesitate to give advice to activists outside of Illinois because our situation may be somewhat unique. Illinois has had liberal or very moderate Republican governors for 25 years, casting a huge shadow on efforts to grow grassroots support for conservative ideas. The state's business community has lined up at the trough in Springfield for subsidies and special tax breaks for so long that it lacks a single respected leader willing to publicly endorse conservative or libertarian ideas. As a result, the conservative movement in Illinois has shrunk to a core constituency mostly concerned with social issues like abortion, homosexuality, and pornography, while the libertarian movement hasn't moved much beyond its core constituency of tax protesters and drug legalization advocates. Experience shows these bases are too narrow to build effective political or social movements. Bringing them together increases the odds that they can achieve critical mass and start influencing elections. So for Illinois, it's the right thing to do.

BC: You do something at Heartland that is very unique as you generate three different publications: Environment News, Health Care News and School Reform News. What are the advantages of offering your supporters news and information in such a diverse fashion? Will we be seeing a Heartland Magazine in the near future (similar to a The American Enterprise Magazine)?

JLB: Actually, we published a bimonthly magazine titled Intellectual Ammunition for 11 years, and only this month decided to stop publishing it. Environment News, Health Care News, and School Reform News are genuinely something new for think tanks and advocacy groups. They are monthly tabloid-sized newspapers sent to every state and national elected official in the country (about 8,300 names), plus reporters at every daily newspaper, about 500 talk radio show hosts, and approximately 25,000 individual grassroots activists who sign up for free subscriptions. Each newspaper features the best work of the country's leading think tanks, written in a news style and format that busy people say they want and use.

We switched to the newspaper format after interviews with state legislators revealed that they don't read policy studies, books, or other publications traditionally produced by think tanks. However, they all read newspapers and depend heavily on them to know what is happening at the national scene and in other states. So we figured, why not package free-market research and commentary as news? It's been amazingly successful. According a survey of state legislators conducted last year, 86 per cent recognized The Heartland Institute and 60 per cent thought we were a valuable resource. Over half reported reading each newspaper.

BC: You must often get confused with the Heritage Foundation. In fact I myself was confused as one of the books that I got on education at your conference is actually published by their organization. With so many different non-profit institutions how do you distinguish yourselves from the others?

JLB: Our use of the newspaper format certainly makes our publications stand out from those of other think tanks. We're also distinguished by our focus on state elected officials. Among free-market groups, only the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) targets state legislators, and we reach more state legislators, more often, than they do. The fact that we are located in Chicago gives us a distinctive look and feel and some institutional advantages over groups based in the beltway. And finally, we don't label ourselves "conservative" or "libertarian." Groups on the Left very seldom label themselves "liberal" or "leftist," because they want people to think they are mainstream. We think that's smart strategy, and moreover we have a stronger claim to being mainstream than they do.

BC: I think that if you can make it in a "blue area" section of the country like Chicago you could probably make it anywhere. Is one of the secrets of Heartland's longevity (since 1984) that you've stayed away from party labels? I've found that among the inner city teachers I work with there is considerable sympathy to vouchers and other forms of school reform provided one does not label it "a Republican idea." How you found that many of the policy initiatives you advocate have a natural audience among the inner city population?

JLB: Actually, we found that we could not make it in Chicago, which is why we decided to become a national rather than state or regional organization. I'm primarily a writer and publicist, so The Heartland Institute's comparative advantage has always been in writing and publishing. The political parties and governments of Chicago and Springfield, as near as I can figure, are invincible to good ideas, no matter how eloquently expressed or frequently published. After ten years of trying to "speak truth to power," I simply gave up and decided to find more receptive audiences elsewhere.

Politicians change the way they vote only if they believe some number of voters is prepared to vote against them. This means an effective think tank needs to do more than release policy studies and op-eds. It needs to help build social movements and bring those movements to the attention of elected officials, basically to frighten them into doing the right thing. Our monthly newspapers can play an important role in bringing this about. A legislator who reads the current issue of School Reform News, for example, will see a picture of Colorado Gov. Bill Owens on the front page, surrounded by children, signing a statewide voucher bill. That one picture, appearing on the front page of a newspaper that every state legislator and governor in the U.S. receives, is more likely to change votes than all the policy studies and op-eds that have ever been written on school choice.

BC: If you could give George W. Bush one winning issue to enhance his presidency what would it be?

JLB: He should propose shifting resources from the War on Drugs to the War on Terrorism.

BC: I just read an essay today about privatizing parts of the ocean as a way to guarantee its security and also its viability as an economic resource. The author believes that the right must assert themselves in environmental policy and reclaim this issue as an area of competency. You, at Heartland, do this all the time. What environmental policies have you put forth that you most strongly believe in? Do you see the right gaining ground from the left on the issue of the environment in the near future?

JLB: The Left has lost or is losing on many fronts, including taxes, foreign policy, and education. Many of the Left's "best and brightest," such as they are, have migrated into the environmental movement since it is by far the best funded and most influential outpost of the Left that remains. If we want to keep the Left from reemerging as a significant ideological movement in the U.S., we need to follow them back to their deepest holes and root them out. That's why Heartland addresses environmental issues.

The Left is extremely vulnerable in the environment arena, and we're making big strides. Environmentalists have lost most of their credibility with the public, thanks to their repeated lies and exaggerations in the past. The failure of government to protect the environment, in fact, and government's role as a major polluter, is easily proven, and each time we do it, the credibility of the Left's activist agenda takes a another hit. An environmentalism based on sound science and respect for private property rights resonates big time with rural and middle-income Americans, while Al Gore-type hysterical hype and calls for government intervention do not. The red-blue map makes it plain that the 2000 presidential election was at least in part a referendum on two different types of environmentalism, and the Left lost.

BC: I read your open letter on your site to Congress regarding the proposed tax cuts and agree with you wholeheartedly. How is it best for people like myself and others who deal with liberals (leftists) on a daily basis to champion the ideas of decreased government spending and tax cuts? How do you combat the misguided notion that "tax cuts are for the wealthy?"

JLB: I say, "tax cuts are for people who pay taxes, and since the poor don't pay taxes in the U.S., middle- and upper-income people get the lion's share of the benefit when taxes are cut." Before the Bush tax cuts, 36 million families in the U.S. didn't pay any income taxes. That's an astounding number that raises serious fairness issues. But the Bush plan would have increased that number by nearly 4 million, to 40 million. What's "regressive" about that? About 97 million families are left to pay all the taxes. Inflation and economic growth keeps bumping them into higher tax brackets, so leaving tax rates unchanged means their taxes go up every year automatically, without any debate or vote. Fairness demands tax cuts every few years . . . and bigger cuts than even this President has called for

BC: Until the convention I had never heard of the "Center-Right Coalition." Do you think that in this post-9/11 environment the present is the ideal time for the creation of a Republican majority? Mr. Grover Norquist argued that we need to secure 60 per cent of the vote to govern comfortably. Isn't 60 per cent a bit fantastic?

JLB: Grover Norquist is a great political strategist, which is probably just another way of saying I agree with him on this. Conservatives and libertarians are closer to the center of the political spectrum than are liberals and their friends on the Left. Lots of our issues poll at 60 per cent or better. We are not extreme, they are. We need to say this over and over again so that people get comfortable aligning themselves with us.

I believe you don't hear this more often from conservative and libertarian groups because if our ideas are suddenly mainstream, we lose part of our appeal to donors and op-ed page editors. So we deny that mainstream politicians are "really" conservative or are "conservative enough." We deny progress even as we stare it in the face. The alternative, what Norquist and The Heartland Institute both are trying to do, is to acknowledge that getting our ideas into the mainstream was just the first step. Now we need to build social movements strong enough to change public policy. We need even more resources now that we're mainstream than we did when we were at the fringe of public acceptability.

BC: My last question goes back to the schools. Are the public schools going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better? I teach a graduate class to teachers and a majority of them believe that it is the business of schools to raise student's self-esteem. Do you think an overemphasis on unearned self-esteem is one of the major problems with our schools today?

JLB: Honestly, I'm not sure how much worse government schools can get. Most kids already learn more outside of the classroom than they learn inside the classroom, either in their homes or in workplaces after they graduate. The "public school monopoly" is breaking up, thanks to the spread of charter schools, tax credits, distance learning, homeschooling, and school vouchers. That break up is occurring more slowly than most of us would like, but it is inevitable. A free nation that celebrates freedom of choice in so many areas cannot tolerate a school system that denies choice to so many and in so many ways. The most important public policy battle in America is for school vouchers. Once vouchers are in place, America's K-12 schools will be rescued, and with them our culture and political institutions.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Bast.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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