Sunday, August 14, 2005

Partisan, Ideological, and Even-Handed

Partisan Weekend Continues.

What does it mean to be non-partisan? The dictionary definitions of “partisan” are all over the map, ranging from a guerilla fighter to someone who feels strongly about an issue.

The legal definition of non-partisan is not quite as broad as the dictionary definition, but still murky. Requirements of non-partisanship are usually found in tax or campaign finance law. A cursory review of the requirements in these areas reveals a range of definitions from affiliating with a named political party to lobbying on specific pieces of legislation.

Many people fail to recognize the difference between “partisan” and “ideological.” One can be a Republican with a liberal ideology, or a Democrat with a conservative ideology. It gets more confusing in countries with parliamentary governments, since the ideological labels of conservative and liberal are also the names of political parties. But the difference between being non-partisan and non-ideological is very important.

There is a misconception that being non-partisan means that a group must be even-handed or neutral on every issue. That would be news to most churches and other houses of worship, which are typically non-partisan, non-profit corporations organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Can you imagine if religious groups were forced to give equal time to opposing views on the question of whether God exists? A non-profit that is one-sided in about specific candidates in voter guides before an election may run afoul IRS rules. Similarly, one-sided informational programs on a specific piece of legislation may be problematic. Still, there are a lot of myths about what non-profits are allowed to do while remaining non-partisan.

Admittedly, I have not read every ruling on the non-profit statutes and regulations. It is not necessary to be obsessively immersed in the topic to realize that an organization can have a perspective on the issues, while remaining non-partisan.

One person who has obsessively immersed himself in the whole non-profit regime is Rob Levine, a former Minneapolis Star Tribune photographer who operates the Cursor and Media Transparency websites. Cursor is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. Media Transparency is and outgrowth of a project that analyzed the “grant making of a dozen conservative philanthropies.”

One of Levine’s targets was the local Crossfire-style debate program, Face to Face, which ran from the mid-1990s until last year. Levine makes some technical points about the number of donors required to qualify for a 501(c)(3), but mainly it is a rant about alleged partisanship. Levine questions the liberal credentials of former co-host Vance Opperman (!) and complains that former co-host Jason Lewis was part of the “All-Republican” lineup on a local radio station. Levine also complains about the “far out libertarian positions” of Lewis, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Libertarian Party is different than the Republican Party. If he meant libertarian in the lower-case "l" sense (meaning ideological, rather than partisan), he demonstrates my point that ideological does not equal partisan. If he meant the actual Libertarian Party, then at worst, Face to Face was tri-partisan.

Another one of Levine’s targets is the conservative Center of the American Experiment (CAE). He wrote an article in 2000 for Minnesota Law and Politics (“Is the Center of the American Experiment for Republicans Only? What Some Call a Tax-Exempt Think Tank Others Call a Partisan Research Arm”) , and a similar City Pages article in 2002. An anti-CAE article in The Pulse, remarkably not written by Levine, notes that Center founder Mitch Pearlstein, in responding to one of the hit pieces, actually rebutted claims that Levine did not make. Can you blame him? The Captain Ahab-like pursuit of CAE is tiring and predictable. Levine has a canned article; the Center has a canned response.

Now the Star Tribune has joined the chorus. In a recent story, the Star Tribune makes the same error, confusing partisanship with ideology. The story uses the terms “conservative” and “Republican” interchangeably. The newspaper also intimates that an alleged failure by CAE to present opposing views equals partisanship. A side bar to the story lists the six degrees of separation that supposedly prove "Republican Ties." My favorite example is that Powerline bloggers John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson have served on the board. The implication is that exposing Dan Rather’s reliance on forged documents in the 2004 National Guard story proves that Hinderaker and Johnson are partisan operatives. Does that mean that Dan Rather is also partisan for airing the fraudulent story in the first place? Perhaps the 60 Minutes piece was an illegal campaign contribution from Viacom to the Kerry campaign.

Yesterday, the Strib printed criticisms of a report that labeled Minneapolis as a liberal city. The criticisms correctly explained that party affiliation is not the same as ideology. Too bad the Strib missed the very same point in their earlier article.

There are many other problems with the repeated attacks on CAE for imagined violations of non-partisanship. If Republican politicians adopt certain policies that conservative think tanks have talked about (say, welfare reform or school uniforms), is it any different than if a Democrat politician (say, President Clinton) adopts those same policies for pure political purposes? The logical conclusion of the argument of Levine and others is that a non-profit must hope that one politcal party or another won't look favorably on its ideas and proposals. Also, if CAE simply parrots the Republican platform, where are the position papers on abortion? Founder Mitch Pearlstein has specifically avoided that issue. In addition, the focus of the Center and the practical geography of being located in Minnesota means that it mostly stays out of the many military and foreign policy questions addressed by both major party platforms.

Finally, if Cursor is going to take the position that failure to present an opposing view jeopardizes your 501(c)(3) status, I look forward to equal time on their website. Maybe SwanBlog and Cursor can combine our readership and meet in a phone booth somewhere.

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