Michael S. Joyce could easily be mistaken for a middle-aged Clark Kent: glasses, hair thinning at the top, a waistline that’s growing but not out of control, a well-tailored but bland suit and tie. Nothing in his appearance compels one to take a second look.
But beneath that Clark Kent facade lies someone who, while not a superman, is arguably one of the most powerful conservatives in American politics.
Joyce, 51, was named in an Atlantic Monthly article in January 1986 as one of the three people most responsible for the triumph of the conservative intellectual movement. The Chicago Tribune noted a year ago that he may be the voice of the GOP’s future. A confidant of former Reagan appointees and current presidential hopefuls such as William Bennett and Jack Kemp, he is a protégé of Irving Kristol, widely considered the godfather of the neoconservative movement.
Joyce’s power does not rest with the company he keeps, however. It rests with his job. As president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation based in Milwaukee, Joyce makes crucial decisions on who will, or won’t, receive some of the millions of dollars in grants the Foundation makes each year — $22 million in 1992. No matter how you count it, that’s a lot of money.
Under Joyce’s leadership the Bradley Foundation has become the country’s top funder of conservative research, publications and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Further, Joyce has helped establish a network of conservative foundations who together fund an even broader nexus of think tanks, researchers and publications, with the explicit purpose of trying to mold public opinion and policy.
“Mike is pretty close to being the central figure [within conservative foundations], the chairman of the board or whatever you want to call it, ” according to Waldemar Nielsen, author of Golden Donors, a book on the foundation movement.
Describing Joyce as “a committed activist,” Nielsen noted that the Bradley Foundation is one of several militantly conservative foundations that link their grantmaking to their political agenda. Although more liberal foundations outnumber the conservatives, the liberal foundations “don’t have a really sharp political program that they are seriously pushing,” Nielsen told Rethinking Schools.“They are kind of bumbling along. But the neoconservatives are much more consciously, purposefully, and in a focused way, trying to advance their ideas.”
So what does this all mean?
For one, it means that it is impossible to enter into a debate on key issues in American politics, whether crime, teenage pregnancy, drugs, welfare, or school “choice,” and not butt up against Bradley-funded research. More important, it means that one ignores Joyce and the Bradley Foundation at one’s own peril. One may strongly disagree with their ideas and agenda — but one cannot dismiss them.
Further, the Bradley Foundation’s influence on Republican and conservative politics is likely to become even more influential because “the White House is no longer a steady source of patronage,” the Chicago Tribune noted in a March 4, 1993, article on Joyce and the Bradley Foundation. “There probably will be no shortage of proposals to revitalize the right, but it usually takes money to compete in the marketplace of ideas.”
Of special concern to those involved in education, Joyce has taken on school “choice” as one of his pet projects. Unfailingly critical of public schools, Joyce argues that school “choice” is the central reform in education today.
“School choice, the reason why it evokes such a shrill response from the defenders of the monopoly, is because it is about real reform,” Joyce told Rethinking Schools during a wide-ranging two-part interview. “It is about changing power relationships.” Asked what might be other important education initiatives, whether curriculum reform or funding equity, Joyce dismissed them by saying: “All the rest are palliatives. They are incremental at best. They palliate and disguise.”
It is classic Joyce: take a complicated issue that is of legitimate concern to people, present a simple solution that furthers your conservative agenda, wrap it in populist rhetoric, and dismiss your critics as defenders of monopoly, bureaucracy, the “nanny” state or some similar pejorative.
The Birth of the Bradley Foundation
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation began its journey to the world of major league politics in 1985. In that year the Allen-Bradley Co. in Milwaukee was sold to Rockwell International Corp. for $1.65 billion and the foundation, which owned about 20% of the stock, saw its assets jump from less than $14 million to more than $290 million. They now stand at about $407 million.
The infusion of money allowed the foundation to move beyond its emphasis on local giving and to enter the national political scene. It did so, not surprisingly, with a decidedly conservative bent (see article on page 18).
In the summer of 1985 several foundation directors made a national tour of conservative public-policy foundations to find someone to head the newly flush foundation. In New York, at the John M. Olin Foundation, they found their man: Michael Joyce. “Well-read, well-spoken, and well-connected, Michael Joyce so impressed the Milwaukeeans that they offered him their own top job on first meeting,” according to the official history The Bradley Legacy: Lynde and Harry Bradley, Their Company, and Their Foundation.
Raised in a blue-collar, Irish-Catholic Democratic household in Cleveland, Michael Joyce had shed his liberal leanings by 1972, when he voted for Richard Nixon. Over the years Joyce worked himself up from high school teacher, to assistant director of an education research council in Cleveland, to head of the Goldseker Foundation in Baltimore. His move to the political big time came in 1978, when he went to New York to work for the Institute for Educational Affairs, a neoconservative organization started by Irving Kristol and William Simon, secretary of the treasury for Presidents Nixon and Ford. The following year Simon asked Joyce to head the Olin Foundation. (The Bradley Foundation, along with Olin, The Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Smith-Richardson Foundation are often called the Four Sisters because of their dominance of conservative funding.)
Joyce also served on President Reagan’s transition team in 1980 and over the years had been on several other Reagan-Bush advisory boards and task forces. Some even credit Joyce with helping William Bennett land his job as secretary of education under Reagan, according to a 1985 profile in The Milwaukee Business Journal. Bennett, meanwhile, calls himself a “good friend of Michael’s” and described Joyce to The Business Journal this way: “He’s the kind of guy you think about when you’re in a really tough jam and you want one or two people next to you. When I’ve needed his advice, he has returned my calls saying: ‘This is Coach Joyce and this is what I want you to do.’”
Despite Joyce’s background in high-powered politics along the Boston-Washington corridor, he seems to have had little trouble adjusting to life in Milwaukee. In a profile in The Milwaukee Journal Sunday magazine several years ago, Joyce unabashedly boasted about his new home: “People are so civil here. Businessmen act like working-class people, doctors go for fish fries. It’s an almost classless society.”
Joyce, meanwhile, received $310,000 in salary and benefits in 1992.
Joyce as Neoconservative
Joyce shuns political labels but admits that neoconservative probably fits best. The term was originally associated with former Democrats who in the 1970s adopted conservative perspectives. In recent years, the terms neoconservative and conservative have become increasingly blurred, with the problem of definition further complicated by the politics of centrist Democrats who have adopted what formerly were seen as neoconservative positions. Some of the defining features of neoconservatism, however, remain: a strong faith in “free market” economics and American capitalism to solve social problems; a strong critique of government programs that perpetuate an “underclass;” an emphasis on “traditional” cultural values; an international perspective that eschews an isolationist foreign policy; and a tendency to shy away from right-wing religious issues such as abortion and school prayer.
Joyce is credited with making the Olin and Bradley Foundations more politically focused and organizationally coherent, and with also spurring the entire conservative foundation movement in this direction. The main vehicle for doing so has been the Philanthropy Roundtable.
Joyce is chairman of the Roundtable, and the Bradley Foundation granted $150,000 to support Roundtable activities. The Roundtable, which was formally established in 1991, helps conservative grantmakers develop strategy and coordinate their efforts. It is through the efforts of Roundtable members, for example, that a network of conservative think tanks have proliferated at the statewide level, providing policy papers on local issues. Despite the greater financial clout of more liberal foundations, there is no comparable liberal statewide think tank movement. In Wisconsin, for example, the Bradley Foundation provided $2.4 million over five years to set up the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in 1987. The Institute consistently churns out policy papers on issues such as crime, welfare, and education issues such as school “choice” (see article page 14).Two Bradley Foundation board members also sit on the Institute’s board and the Institute’s president, James Miller, was hired at Joyce’s recommendation.
The Roundtable was set up as an alternative to the Council on Foundations, the non-profit umbrella of the philanthropy movement. Conservatives had been critical of the Council for its alleged “political correctness,” funding of liberal causes, and encouragement of including more women and minorities on foundation boards and staffs. Joyce, for instance, had complained that “to go to a meeting of the Council on Foundations is to expose yourself to the extremism of feminist ideology. You would have to watch what was said; they are very unhappy places.”
There is little fear, however, of extremist feminist ideology being funded by Bradley. (There is only one woman on the Bradley board of directors and, except for one board member with some Native American ancestry, no people of color. The woman, Sarah Barder, is the adopted daughter of Allen-Bradley founder Lynde Bradley and was chosen because she plans to leave more money to the foundation, according to Milwaukee Magazine). Joyce seems to have a particular antipathy for feminist issues, particularly sexual harassment. In an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal, for example, he criticized public schools for “everything from environmental extremism, to virulent feminism, to racial separatism, to a radical skepticism about moral and spiritual truths.” Joyce was asked by Rethinking Schools to cite some examples to back up his claim. He responded that virulent feminism “seems to be rampant” in schools, with “speech codes” the most obvious example. When pressed to cite an example among elementary and secondary public schools, he referred to what he called “the famous code of what’s that school in the [Milwaukee] north shore, Nicolet, which had a whole recitation of forbidden terms.”
Rethinking Schools asked the Nicolet High School District for a copy of the code, and high school officials were somewhat surprised to hear how it was characterized. In essence, the policy is part of broader recitation of rights within the district, such as equal educational opportunities. Under the section on harassment, it is noted that the district “is committed to fair and equal employment opportunity for every person,” with a list of possible areas of discrimination ranging from age, race, religion, marital status, and sexual orientation to membership in the armed forces. The policy states that the district “desires a work environment, and an environment for students, that is free from intimidation and harassment based on any of the above-listed protected categories” and notes that intimidation and harassment “can arise from a broad range of physical or verbal behavior.” As part of that the policy mentions examples such as physical or mental abuse; racial, ethnic or religious insults or slurs; unwelcome sexual advances or touching; sexual comments, jokes, stories or innuendoes; or referring to another person as a “girl, hunk, doll, babe or honey.”
Ellen Bravo, director of the working women’s organization 9to5 and a nationally recognized expert on sexual harassment, was asked to examine the Nicolet policy and to respond to Joyce’s characterization. She said that Joyce, as is common with critics of sexual harassment policies, sensationalized the use of one or two phrases and failed to acknowledge that the policy distinguishes between one-time or friendly use of such words and use of such words as part of a broader, ongoing pattern of harassment. “People who trivialize or minimize the extent of sexual harassment in the schools really do a disservice both to the students who are affected by it and to the people who are trying hard to correct it,” Bravo said. “Obviously, the overwhelming majority of us who are trying to correct harassment fight for due process and fight for common sense. We know the difference between appropriate behavior by kids discovering sexual identities and behavior that is in fact abusive.”
A look at Bradley’s national grants underscores the overall thrust of the foundation’s perspective. A significant portion of the money goes to support conservative research at well-known universities. Despite the foundation’s often populist rhetoric, it has an acute sense of the need to influence elite opinion makers. As Joyce told the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago, “Elite opinion is formed in America at the top of a pyramid … elite institutions [are] important in the shaping of public policy.”
Thus from August 1990 to December 1992, to name just a few examples, Boston College was authorized $2.3 million in grants, Harvard University was authorized $3.58 million, and the University of Chicago was authorized $3.7 million. The grants generally were to fund Bradley Fellows or specific programs and studies with a conservative orientation. (Figures for this story refer to grants authorized between August 1990 and December 1992 period, unless otherwise indicated.)
The foundation has also been a key funder of conservative think tanks and policy centers, and its list of grantees reads like a Who’s Who of nationally prominent organizations. They include: The American Enterprise Institute ($2.38 million); American Spectator magazine ($345,000); Center for Strategic and International Studies ($587,302); Center for the Study of Popular Culture ($265,000) Commentary magazine ($450,000); Educational Excellence Network ($780,000); Ethics and Public Policy Center ($642,000); Foreign Policy Research Institute ($520,600); The New Criterion magazine ($560,000); Free Congress Research and Education Foundation ($1.47 million); Heritage Foundation ($2.7 million); Hudson Institute ($708,517); Institute for Contemporary Studies ($900,000); Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis ($459,579); Institute on Religion and Public Life, Inc. ($645,000); Landmark Legal Foundation ($310,000); Manhattan Institute for Policy Research ($275,000); The National Interest and The Public Interest magazines ($1 million); National Association of Scholars ($378,400); National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise ($720,000); National Endowment for Democracy ($555,000); National Strategy Information Center ($781,535); and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation ($1.5 million).
While few of these groups are household names, most are well-known among the power elite in the government and the national media, who in turn help disseminate the think tanks’ ideas. The neoconservatives, for all their complaints about the media’s liberal bias, are far more adept at playing the media game than liberals. William Greider, in his widely acclaimed 1992 book on the demise of democratic institutions, Who Will Tell the People, has a telling passage about the relationship between conservative think tanks and the media. He writes:
“The sponsored research at Washington think tanks has become a principal source for the ideas that reporters judge to be newsworthy and for the packaged opinion from ‘experts’ that reporters dutifully quote in every current subject. David Ignatius, former editor of ‘Outlook,’ The Washington Post’s Sunday opinion section, wrote: ‘It often seems that these large and well-endowed organizations exist for the sole purpose of providing articles for opinion sections and op-ed pages.’ That, of course, is precisely why they exist.
“‘I will confess here to a dangerous vice,’ The Post editor declared. ‘I like think tanks, and mainly for one simple reason: their members know how to play the game, that is, they know how to be provocative, they can write quickly under deadline pressure and they don’t mind being heavily edited.’ Ignatius mentioned as his favorite sources of opinion the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute. Except for Carnegie, all of these organizations are financed by major banks and corporations as their self-interested and tax-deductible contribution to the democratic debate.”
And, one might add, all except for Carnegie receive substantial Bradley money.
The Washington Post’s reliance on conservative think tanks is minor, however, compared to that of The Wall Street Journal. Recipients of Bradley money routinely appear on the Journal’s op-ed pages. Some of the Bradley-related opinion articles in The Wall Street Journal in recent weeks included a piece from Irwin Stelzer of the American Enterprise Institute ($2.38 million in Bradley grants) headlined, “There Is No Health Care Crisis.” and an appeal on “Morality and Homosexuality” from a conference sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life ($654,000 in Bradley grants) that argued, “Permissive abortion, widespread adultery, easy divorce, radical feminism, and the gay and lesbian movement have not by accident appeared at the same historical moment. They have in common a declared desire for liberation from constraint — especially constraint associated with an allegedly oppressive culture and religious tradition. … In a fallen creation, many quite common attitudes and behaviors must be straightforwardly designated as sin.”
Caught in Controversy
Bradley-funded research rarely stirs enough controversy to tarnish the foundation’s image. But there are exceptions.
Among the grants in 1992 was $11,850 “to support a book project on Anita Hill.” The book by David Brock, The Real Anita Hill: the Untold Story, attacked Hill’s credibility and was a follow-up to an article by Brock in which he had called Hill, among other things, “a bit nutty and a bit slutty.” The book was the subject of a blistering critique in the May 1993 New Yorker, which suggested that it was little more than a hatchet job on Hill. Joyce, however, defended the foundation’s funding of the book. The book “was a very thorough and meticulous piece of research,” he told Milwaukee Magazine.
The Brock/Hill incident is also illuminating because it reveals just the tip of the iceberg of the interlocking connections among conservative foundations, publications, and key ideologues. The Brock book, for example, was also funded by the Olin Foundation — whose head, William Simon, was the finance chair of the Citizens’ Committee to Confirm Clarence Thomas, according to the New Yorker article. (Simon was also the one who hired Joyce to run Olin.) Further, the original article was printed in the American Spectator—also funded by Olin and Bradley. Brock, meanwhile, was through early 1991 a fellow of the Heritage Foundation, another Bradley/Olin grant recipient. (Brock has recently garnered even more national notoriety for his article in the December 1993 American Spectator on Bill Clinton’s love life — a follow-up which led NewYork Times columnist Frank Rich to describe Brock as “a smear artist with a right-wing agenda.”)
The Brock book was not the only time in the last year that a Bradley grantee was accused of smear tactics. Another controversial incident involved Clint Bolick’s attack on Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — a campaign that even in the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics was seen as a particularly low point. Bolick is litigation director at the Washington-based Institute for Justice, which Bradley granted $35,000 in general support funds. (Interestingly, and here are those interconnections cropping up again, Bolick was an assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when Clarence Thomas was chairman; he forged a close friendship with Thomas and asked him to be godfather to his youngest son.)
It was Bolick who led the charge on Lani Guinier with a Wall Street Journal opinion headlined, “Clinton’s Quota Queens.” The name stuck, preventing Guinier from mounting a defense before she was jettisoned by a nervous Bill Clinton. But Bolick used more than clever headlines to defeat Guinier. Bolick and colleague Chip Mellow “became what they call ‘information central’ for the Guinier battle, running up thousands of dollars in photocopying bills as they distributed more than 100 copies of her articles to key Senate staff aides, journalists, editorial writers and other ‘opinion leaders,’” according to the June 6, 1993 Washington Post.
The Washington Post also noted that the anti-Guinier campaign was joined by another Bradley grantee, the Free Congress Foundation ($1.47 million in Bradley grants). Phyllis Berry Myers, a policy analyst with the Free Congress Foundation, told the Postthat her group did “a lot of phoning and telefaxing” about Guinier. The Free Congress Foundation also featured the controversy on its recently formed satellite network, National Empowerment Television.
More recently, Bolick tried to counter the new nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Deval L. Patrick. In a Wall Street Journal opinion Feb. 2, Bolick called Deval Patrick a “stealth Guinier.” As evidence he noted that both Guinier and Patrick had litigated with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; while Guinier focused on voting rights cases and Patrick on criminal and death penalty cases, Bolick criticized both for arguing “that unconscious racism permeates American society and can be removed only through race-conscious social engineering.”
Columnist Carl Rowan blasted Bolick’s attack on Patrick, saying of Bolick and his associates: “So the closet racist, and those over-dosed on what Business Week magazine recently called ‘white male paranoia,’ are already attacking Patrick, hoping to disembowel him with the same phony propaganda they used to force Mr. Clinton to abandon Lani Guinier, his first nominee for this job.”
To education activists, meanwhile, Bolick is known for his advocacy of school vouchers. His Institute for Justice, for example, has filed lawsuits demanding that low-income parents in Chicago and Los Angeles receive state vouchers for private school tuition. The Institute is also defending the school voucher plan in Puerto Rico. And while at his former job with the Landmark Legal Foundation (which received $310,000 in Bradley money), Bolick successfully defended a legal challenge to the Milwaukee private school voucher plan.
The Bolick/Guinier and Brock/Hill incidents were not the first times that the Bradley Foundation found itself embroiled in controversy. One incident that raised more than a few eyebrows involved Charles Murray.
Murray is perhaps best known as the author of the 1984 book Losing Ground, which argued that social programs did more harm than good and should be abolished.
The book was widely discredited among social scientists but welcomed by members of the Reagan administration. Michael Katz, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare, said of Losing Ground:“I’ve never seen a book so totally discredited as Charles Murray’s was. … Responsible social scientists have taken every statistical argument he made, you know, all the supposed facts, and just made mincemeat of them.”
In 1989, Murray found himself in the thick of a new controversy that raised the delicate issue of whether certain conservative social policies might be based on unabashed racism.
After Losing Ground, Murray’s research on the “underclass” ventured into explorations of whether there might be a racial basis to intelligence. The New York Times explained the controversy this way in a Nov. 30, 1990, article: “He [Murray] is asking one of the most explosive questions a social scientist can pose: whether there are differences in intelligence between blacks and whites that help explain differences in their economic and social standing.” It wasn’t just Murray’s topic that raised hackles, however. He was collaborating with Harvard psychologist Richard Hernstein, who had attracted national attention “when he predicted that as a society became more meritocratic, individuals with low I.Q.’s could congregate on the bottom of the economic scale, intermarry and produce offspring with low I.Q.’s,” as the Times wrote.
It was too much, even for most conservatives. Murray and his employer, the Manhattan Institute, agreed it would be better if they parted company. One conservative group that did not desert Murray, however, was the Bradley Foundation.
Bradley had funded Murray’s research at the Manhattan Institute and was willing to continue his $100,000 annual grant at his new home with the American Enterprise Institute. To this day Murray remains a Bradley grant recipient.
Michael Joyce, asked by Rethinking Schools about the Murray controversy, responded: “Charles Murray is someone who this foundation has been associated with from the very beginning. … Charles Murray, in my opinion, is one of the foremost social thinkers in the country.” Joyce said that Murray’s controversial research was not based on race but on what he called the “fascinating and proper question” whether social policies fail because they do not “take into account intellectual differences among people.”
As social scientists have long argued, it is one thing to recognize differing intellectual abilities among individuals and quite another to claim that an entire class, or race, or social grouping is less intelligent than their more well-to-do or whiter counterparts.
Joyce was asked to give a concrete example of how social policies allegedly fail because they are not based on understanding differing intellectual abilities. He answered: “Well, to expect perhaps that someone of somewhat limited intellectual ability to manage a rigorous curriculum in foreign language, or for that matter in any language, could explain some of the frustrations which young people exhibit. It might explain, for example, fairly high dropout rates.”
Murray, meanwhile, is now focusing on the danger posed by “The Coming White Underclass” — as an opinion he wrote in The Wall Street Journal was headlined this October. In the opinion, Murray noted the increasing illegitimate birth rate among African-Americans and decried the “physical violence, immediate gratification and predatory sex” that “is the culture now taking over the black inner city.” More alarming, Murray continued, is the growing incidence of illegitimate births among whites. “The brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic minority,” Murray wrote. “It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.” To counter illegitimacy and restore the rewards of marriage, Murray called for economic penalties including an end to all government programs that provide economic support for single mothers such as AFDC, subsidized housing, or food stamps. The only exception would be medical coverage for the child, although not necessarily for the mother.
Joyce, in his interview with Rethinking Schools, echoed Murray’s view that the root of the welfare problem is the behavior of the “underclass” and not issues such as race, discrimination, lack of jobs, and poor education. Joyce went on to warn: “Unless the permanent welfare class begins to exhibit certain behavioral changes like finishing high school, like getting married and like being in the workforce, you are going to have an expanding welfare class or underclass which will by the turn of the century be a considerable segment of the population.”
The ‘New Citizenship’
Joyce rightly argues that he should be judged on the basis of his ideas. The most extended expression can be found in his writings on the “new citizenship.” The importance of the “new citizenship” goes beyond Joyce’s personal philosophy: it is the bedrock upon which the Bradley Foundation will make its grants in coming years (see sidebar at right).
An article by Joyce in the Fall/Winter 1993 Wisconsin Interest magazine of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute summarizes the “new citizenship.” The article can roughly be divided into three sections: a call for involvement in civil as opposed to political institutions; a look at the source of the problems afflicting U.S. society; and an agenda on how to return to the traditional values and vibrant society praised by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s. (For a summary of Joyce’s agenda for reform, see sidebar at right.)
Civil society. Joyce begins his article by extolling voluntarism and American citizenship. “Now, when I mention ‘citizenship,’’ he writes, “the first thing that comes to mind is probably not voluntarism, but more than likely political activity of some sort — particularly voting. The essence of citizenship — or at least so it seems from the hectoring swarms of voter education and turn-out drives descending upon us every election year — is to vote faithfully. …
Citizenship thus understood is necessarily an episodic, infrequent albeit boring, duty.”
Instead of viewing citizenship as a political activity, Joyce calls for involvement in civil society. “Now, civil society is a far more expansive field for human endeavor than the political sphere,” he writes. “Civil society encompasses all of the institutions through which individuals express their interests and values, outside of and distinct from government”[emphasis added].
Rethinking Schools asked several scholars to read and critique the Joyce article. They acknowledged the popular appeal of his rhetoric and noted that he played on legitimate concerns about the problems facing U.S. society. But they argued that both his assumptions and prescription for reform were, at best, misguided, and would further abandon the control of the governmental apparatus to those with power and money and would further marginalize those without.
“He [Joyce] is very, very clever, and he says a lot of things that many people can agree with on various ends of the political spectrum,” said Michael Katz, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “The idea of civil society, for instance, is one that is receiving a lot of attention now here and i Europe. And it’s undeniable that many of the institutions of civil society have eroded and that it’s a huge problem in this country.”
But when one scratches beneath Joyce’s generalities and populist rhetoric, there are potentially “very dangerous” implications, Katz noted. He was particularly dumb-founded by Joyce’s perspective on political activity and voting. “Here he is essentially saying that voting doesn’t matter, and voting’s not important,” Katz said. “Tell that to African-Americans who struggled to vote during the civil rights movement.”
Again, Joyce’s perspective seizes upon legitimate perceptions — in this case that voting is far from enough to guarantee access to political power — to make a fantastic jump in logic, in this case that the political sphere is unworthy of one’s energy.
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of numerous books critiquing the abuse of power in the United States, was also struck by the undemocratic thrust of Joyce’s remarks. “There is a sort of charitable interpretation, which is that he [Joyce] simply hasn’t the foggiest idea of what American society is and he is deeply confused and has real problems in reasoning,” Chomsky said. “A less charitable view would be that it is simply an apology for private power and for the destruction of democracy.”
“According to Joyce,” Chomsky continued, “citizens are not supposed to be involved in [political] organizations that design policy and design legislative programs and move to implement them — or try to control the investment decisions of firms in the workplace and so on. What they are supposed to do is go to the PTA meetings and leave the government to whoever runs it. There’s nothing [in Joyce’s article] anywhere about the political sphere.”
Nor is there discussion of the role of private corporate power in either political or civil society. Joyce makes a passing mention that civil society includes “activities in the marketplace, including acquiring private property, holding a job, and earning a living.” But he never once mentions the role of corporations. Yet as Chomsky said: “The major sector of what he [Joyce] calls civil society is obviously the sector that determines what is invested, what is produced, who has jobs, where it’s distributed, what happens within the totalitarian institutions called corporations.”
The source of our problems. Joyce argues that the source of problems afflicting U.S. society is a decline of civil society caught between two negative forces: the “nanny state” central government run by bureaucratic elites, and the proliferation of individual rights.
The chief purpose of voting, Joyce writes, “seems to be to turn over to supposedly qualified experts the real business of public life — namely, designing and launching public programs of all sorts, which will bestow upon the victims of poverty or AIDS or discrimination or some other insidious force the tender mercies of bureaucrats, policy experts, social therapists, and others.” Joyce seems to have a special loathing, at least in his public writings as opposed to his grant-making decisions, for what he terms elites — whether they be intellectual elites, bureaucratic elites, cultural elites, or media elites. “Indeed, it might be said without exaggeration that the central project of our contemporary intellectual elites is nothing less than the abolition of civil society,” he says in a typical reference.
Joyce argues that while the “centralized, bureaucratic state” stifles civil society from above, “From below, the authority of family, church, neighborhood, and school is quietly eroded by the proliferation of individual rights of all sorts, especially the right of self expression — that is, expression of self with utter disregard, or contempt, for civil society.” Joyce then asks:
“What has been the result of this modern assault on civil society? Look about you, at the vast array of social ills bearing down upon us: the explosion of illegitimate births in the inner cities, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the dramatic increase of violent crime in the streets, the rise of drug abuse, the collapse of public education, and the spread of other irresponsible personal behavior of all sorts.
“What is the common thread? Very simply, the collapse of civil society — the decay of its institutions and values, and the loss of control they once exerted over human behavior.
“Is our response to try to strengthen civil society? Of course not. Our elites instead call for more government programs — more bureaucratic experts and professionals to minister to the hurts allegedly inflicted on the hapless victims by industrialism, racism, sexism, and so on.” (Although Joyce’s article is an analysis of the source of social problems in the United States, this sentence is the only time he mentions racism.)
Joyce mixes several interesting points in these sections: his view of who runs the government and for what purpose, a critique of elites, and a disdain for individual rights.
First, on the issue of the government. What is striking is that Joyce ignores the role of corporate and financial power in running the central government and instead acts as if the only purpose of central government is to minister social programs. This failure to mention corporate influence on U.S. politics “is as if somebody were to have discussed the Soviet Union and omitted the Communist Party,” Chomsky said. “It would be a joke.”
“Suppose one were to follow his [Joyce’s] prescriptions,” Chomsky continued. “That is, citizens are to abandon the political sphere, not of course to cultural and bureaucratic elites but to the corporate executives and owners, which he never mentions. … When he talks about getting the government off our backs, he doesn’t talk about ending the huge system of welfare for the wealthy and powerful, like the Pentagon system, for example, … or the enormous welfare benefits that are given to the rich through fiscal measures like mortgage loans, tax write-offs, and so on. So the effect of the system that he describes would simply be to concentrate power in the hands of the privileged, wealthy, and powerful people who control the private economy. That’s the meaning of the prescription that he offers, which he calls decentralization.”
Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science at the City University of New York and co-author of Regulating the Poorand other analyses of welfare, was particularly astounded by Joyce’s analysis of the source of the social problems in our country.
“This is an incredible distortion,” she said. “Just what is it that is creating so much insecurity, that is making family life more difficult, that is making people uncertain about their economic future and insecure about what is going to happen with their children. Is it really the professional bureaucrats or the woman on welfare?
“What could be more widely ideological than that interpretation?” she continued. “Obviously the main source of these insecurities has to do with the vast scale of economic transformation in this country, the deindustrialization, the plundering of the American economy, the incredible wave of speculation that has resulted in the bankruptcy of many businesses that once employed people, the movement of American capital overseas. People understand this. That is why the call, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ resonated with so many voters.”
At the same time, Fox Piven acknowledged the popular appeal of Joyce’s approach. “One of the reasons this argument finds an audience,” she said, “is that people see disintegration all around them.”
What Joyce does with this popular concern over disintegration is very clever. On the one hand, he appeals to the best in people and calls for involvement in important institutions such as school and church. More subtly, but equally clear, he also appeals to the darker side of American populism and targets what have been traditional right-wing scapegoats for society’s problems: the poor and the intellectual elites.
“The bureaucrats, the intellectual elite are an old foil in American populist culture,” Fox Piven noted. “They are Easterners; they are sometimes thought to be Jews.” It was this type of antagonism, for example, that Nixon tapped to counter the antiwar and student movements and which Spiro Agnew essentialized in his famous critique of “nattering nabobs of negativity.”
Likewise, the poor are another favored scapegoat of the right. “That makes a certain amount of sense to people,” Fox Piven noted, “because it points to a group that has become ‘the other’ for Americans poor people, minority people living in the city.” Without ever mentioning the word race, Joyce not-so-subtly appeals to the racist undercurrents in society. As Fox Piven noted: “If you blame the poor, in the United States you are blaming minorities.”
Katz, meanwhile, was disturbed by Joyce’s denigration of individual rights. “I think in a sense it’s very dangerous,” Katz said. “He [Joyce] more or less seems to be saying that in the interests of community and order and civil society, individual rights take a second place. And while in fact there is a kind of selfishness and disregard for community that is a big problem in modern society, there’s no getting around that, on the other hand, the expression of self is a very essential freedom. And you take that away, along with the disempowerment of political life, and in a sense you are creating something very dangerous.”
Michael Apple, a professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin — Madison and author most recently of the book Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age, noted the contradiction between Joyce’s attack on individual rights and his advocacy of individual rights within the marketplace.
Joyce is performing an interesting sleight of hand that redefines citizenship, Apple noted. “Democracy, which is a political concept, is being transformed into an economic concept so the citizen is being redefined as a consumer,” he said.
The policies that Joyce supports such as school choice and privatization, “are in fact a total redefinition of citizenship,” Apple continued. “It is consumer culture over everything. The ethic of supply and demand, the ethic of privatization, will dominate.”
Returning to the vibrant civil society of the 1830s. In his article, Joyce consistently praises the vibrant society extolled by de Tocqueville in his famous book Democracy in America. (Interestingly, references to de Tocqueville’s book are the only times the word democracy is mentioned in the article.) Joyce writes: “Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is, perhaps, the classic expression of wonder and admiration at the incredible energy generated by the vast array of civil institutions spread across the face of our young nation. Everywhere he looked in America, he noted, our citizens had formed associations, committees, and clubs to tackle one or another of the problems facing them in this undeveloped wilderness. Through such citizenly activity, de Tocqueville believed, Americans expressed and sustained their civil freedom, accomplished an enormous range of tasks, and most important, developed fully as rooted, connected human beings.”
As with so much of Joyce, there is truth here. But it is a half truth. Would that the vibrant, life-affirming civil institutions had been open to all members of society. In 1830, for example, some 18% of the U.S. population was African-American — almost overwhelmingly held as slaves.
Women, meanwhile, could not hold the title to property once they married, were not allowed to vote, and could be beaten with a “reasonable instrument” by their husband. The 1830s are known for the forced displacement of the eastern Native American tribes — a displacement epitomized by the infamous Trail of Tears in which thousands of Cherokees died while on a forced march to what were then unwanted lands in the west.
Joyce’s romanticism of the past goes beyond ignoring those in society locked out of full participation in civil and political affairs. He also romanticizes the role of government, viewing it as an almost nonexistent entity that intervened minimally in society, and the ability of civil society to solve social problems.
“The assumption that once upon a time government didn’t play a role in American life is nonsensical,” Katz said, arguing that “there’s always been a kind of public/ private relationship that’s been very complex. … This notion that there was once an unmediated age of voluntarism is really not historically accurate.”
Apple also criticized Joyce’s view of history. “There is a romantic vision of the past, where everybody sat with their hands folded, everybody did well in school, all communities solved their problems. But one of the reasons for the growth in government programs is because those problems weren’t solved.”
Fox Piven noted of Joyce’s views: “His America is frozen in the 1830s. I am sure he really believes it, but his America isn’t the America of most Americans.
It is a fitting summary of Joyce’s views. No, his America isn’t the America of most Americans. Nor does his view of government accurately reflect the realities of power. Nor does his denigration of individual rights further the cause of freedom.
Ultimately, it is impossible to know whether Joyce honestly believes his analysis is sound or whether it is a populist smokescreen for a hidden, conservative agenda to bolster private power and roll back rights wrested from the government by the civil rights, women’s and other people’s movements in recent decades. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Neoconservative views have helped define the public debate on policy issues and must be debated on their merits, not on analyzing the personal psyche of those advocating such views.
“You know,” Chomsky said, “if you looked at the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, most of them believed they were working for democracy and freedom. It’s really easy to convince yourself to believe what’s beneficial to your interests.”