BY TAMMY PETTINATO
Remember when Hillary Clinton claimed there was a vast right-wing conspiracy? Turns out that in spite of that crazed look she often has in her eyes, she was actually on to something.
My job this past summer as an intern for the Institute for Democracy Studies, a small, left-wing think tank in New York City, was to root out that conspiracy. More specifically, I was researching the people, policies and legal theories behind George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. I sifted through everything from executive orders to college alumni websites looking for pieces of information that would help solve the puzzle of how Bush was able to institute reforms that flirt with unconstitutionality on a number of fronts and rip a hole in the wall between church and state.
To be fair, however, what I uncovered was less a conspiracy than a carefully coordinated, if widely-strewn, network of people and organizations that have spent years mainstreaming what were once considered radical political ideas. Remember when the idea of government taking an active role in elevating the lives of the poor was considered not only a good thing, but natural to a civilized society? When exactly did our view of the government transform from a father figure into a bumbling big brother? One of the most important things I learned this summer was the parallel between the push for welfare reform and the sudden popularity of church-based social services – after all, if we take away the safety net someone had better be there to clean up the mess.
Conspiracy theories aside, this information was easy enough to find. The bigger problem was turning a bunch of seemingly disparate points into a coherent report showing the connections between certain groups, people and policies that aren’t obviously linked. This involved making countless charts, graphs and timelines showing the whos, whats, wheres and hows of the history of the faith-based movement. Organizing the information in this way made it easier to see the missing links in the right-wing machine.
For example, after researching the roots of “compassionate conservatism,” which includes faith-based institutions as a key tenet, I discovered that the most influential book in its genesis was “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” by Marvin Olasky. The preface to the book was written by Charles Murray, who soon after published his infamously racist “The Bell Curve.” Another interesting find was a law review article written in the early nineties advocating biblically-based law. The author was John Porter, Bush-appointed director of the faith-based center at the Department of Education and the law review was that of Regent University Law School, founded by none other than Pat Robertson.
But though I spent much of my time in New York sitting in front of a computer getting creeped out, the Bush Administration wasn’t the only thing giving me the chills. Living in New York was a learning experience in and of itself and one that, frankly, I could have done without. I often woke up in the city that never sleeps wishing I didn’t have to get out of bed.
New York is great for certain groups of people – Type A personalities, hipsters, women who enjoy being hit on by odd-smelling strangers who’ve “always had a thing for redheads.” But for those of us (i.e. me) who only pretend to be edgy by spending too much money on Doc Martens and glittery eye shadow, the real thing can be overwhelming, to say the least.
That said, there are some good things about New York. Despite the rumors, there were many friendly people there. In fact, I can’t count the number of times I was sitting alone trying to read when some chipper stranger forced me into a conversation against my will. The city also has a stellar public transportation system punctuated only by the occasional announcement that the subway train that was going to the upper west side when I got on had now decided to head for Queens. And, of course, the cultural opportunities are unparalleled. In fact, Senator Hillary Clinton herself held a signing for her new book in which she carefully avoids mentioning the right-wing conspiracy while talking all about… well, the right-wing conspiracy.
So what did I learn from my summer “vacation?” Like most of what I’ve learned in life, it can be dismissively and condescendingly boiled down to two major points:
1)New York is a dynamic but overwhelming place with far too many electoral votes; and
2)Hillary Clinton is smarter than she looks.