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Pierre Omidyar
American Compass has received a substantial amount of its funding from the Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network.
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Why Foundations That Back Progressives Are Funding a Leading Conservative Think Tank

American Compass is just one example of the growing left-right alliance on populist ideas in Washington.

A senior aide to House Speaker Mike Johnson decamped with other Capitol Hill staff to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in early April for a weekend hosted by American Compass, a conservative think tank with surprising patrons.

Oren Cass, American Compass’ executive director, gave a talk on tailoring conservative economics to the “economic and cultural concerns of ordinary Americans,” a topic he’s pushed enthusiastically, and increasingly successfully, into the Washington debate in recent years. A former Trump administration aide facilitated a mock legislative negotiation for attendees titled: How hard could it really be?

The agenda for the event did not mention that American Compass has received a substantial amount of its funding from two foundations best known for boosting progressive causes, Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic firm run by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

With those funds, American Compass has become a hub for activity on the right for a small group of thinkers hoping to build a new economic agenda that tees off of Trump-style populism, rebutting neoliberalism and free market economics.

“The fact that markets need appropriate constraints is this emerging shared diagnosis that you see from the best on the left and the right,” said Chris Griswold, policy director at American Compass and a former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio. “I care a little bit less about Republican versus Democrat and more about, do you get it or do you not?”

Unusual cross-partisan partnerships are becoming more common. Across Washington, think tanks and publications that advocate for strong antitrust enforcement and the replacement of free market capitalism are booming.

In the new ecosystem, former aides to Sen. Elizabeth Warren find themselves in alignment with staff who used to work for Rubio and Trump. Progressive funders are putting money into conservative nonprofits. And Democrats and Republicans agree on a core belief about the future: The populist sentiment unearthed in 2016 by Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders could lead to a once-in-a-generation rethinking of the “markets-first” neoliberalism that has dominated policy since the 1980s — if advocates play their cards right.

These thinkers still have many starkly different views on politics, but they’ve agreed on a set of core problems in need of change.

“There’s a lot of concern on the right about national security issues that keep driving up some departures from the free market. And there’s a lot of concern on the left about, you know, climate change or whatever that’s driving their own departures in the free market,” said Julius Krein, the editor of the journal American Affairs, another Hewlett Foundation grantee. “Those issues are not going to align in every case, but at some points they will.”

The dynamic echoes emerging politics on Capitol Hill, where Warren and Sanders have found surprising agreement with conservatives Sen. J.D. Vance, Sen. Josh Hawley and Rep. Matt Gaetz on certain issues like cracking down on Big Tech.

On the left, George Soros and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes have poured millions into expansions for advocacy groups like the American Economic Liberties Project and the Open Markets Institute, both of which advocate for reinvigorating antitrust policy.

Omidyar Network’s “Reimagining Capitalism” program has put millions of dollars into a range of organizations, many of them progressive, like the news outlet The American Prospect. (A different organization funded by Omidyar, First Look Media, was a longtime funder of The Intercept until it spun off in 2023.) Omidyar has also given half a million dollars to American Compass.

“We believe a major shift in economic thinking will be possible when new ideas about how our economy should work become cross-partisan,” said Alexis Krieg, director at Omidyar Network and a former Warren aide. “That’s why we work with a range of partners from across the political spectrum that support thoughtful policy ideas that center working people, challenge corporate power, embrace an empowered role for democratic governance and strive to build a more equitable economy.”

New conservative groups like the Bull Moose Project, which focuses on populism and antitrust policy, and the anti-Big Tech Internet Accountability Project have sprouted up too. The Bull Moose Project joined forces with progressives when it asked candidates to sign onto the No Big Tech Money Pledge, which encourages candidates for office to eschew money from companies like Apple and Google.

The pledge was launched with a bipartisan board that included Dan Geldon, a key adviser for Warren’s presidential bid. The signees have been split roughly 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats so far, said executive director Emily Southard.

American Compass does not describe itself as a “pro-Trump” group. But it has deep ties to the right: It maintains an address at 300 Independence Ave. SE, the hub for Mark Meadows’ nonprofit, Conservative Partnership Institute, and contributed to the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 policy plans for a next Trump administration. (Bull Moose Project also maintains a mailing address at CPI.)

But a “pro-Trump” ideological agenda isn’t itself so clearly defined, as his years leading the Republican Party have shown.

“Trump himself hasn’t really fallen in any kind of new programmatic intellectual orientation or really been consistent in advancing this agenda or showing much interest in that,” Krein said. “But the kind of wounds that he ripped open and the debates that he proposed are still very live.”

Not everyone is comfortable with such cross-aisle collaboration, especially as Trump runs for reelection while facing federal charges related to his involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

American Compass has taken hits from both the left and the right for its unorthodox funding. The group was dubbed “right-wing progressives” by the Cato Institute and subject to a scathing Daily Beast story focused on its contributions to Project 2025.

Jennifer Harris, a former special assistant to the president in the Biden administration who now directs Hewlett’s Economy and Society Initiative, defended Hewlett’s financial support of American Compass and Hewlett “has a bedrock commitment to democratic principles” and “a shared commitment to those principles is a gating requirement for us for continue support of a grantee’s work.”

“I think it’s important that we give money to groups across the ideological spectrum,” Harris said. “I think it was a little bit of a quirk of history that the consensus around neoliberalism moved from an archly conservative cabal of thinkers into Reagan and Thatcher, and then happened to, through longevity, find consensus in Clinton and Blair and Obama after that.”

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Since 2020, Hewlett has poured more than $100 million into creating a post-neoliberal world. The initiative aims to build a successor to neoliberal thinking, an ambitious — and esoteric — plan that foundation officials believe is already showing success.

“The premise here is that we see the early stages of a paradigm change happening, and we think we can be helpful and effective in shaping it,” said Harris.

While significant funding has gone toward thinkers on the left, millions of dollars have also flowed from Hewlett to the right. It has helped fund thinkers like Cass and Marshall Kosloff, who hosts a podcast called “The Realignment” on changing politics, which Hewlett has given more than $300,000 to support. It has boosted the journal American Affairs, which argues populism is “a reasonable response to a misguided and complacent elite consensus,” with more than $1.2 million over the past five years. And it has donated over half a million dollars to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to help fund conservative students.

“The reality is like nobody actually cares what conservatism is,” said Krein. “I mean, everybody said Donald Trump wasn’t conservative. He won. If people want to fight about who funds you, the Koch brothers or Hewlett, you can do that. But I’m not sure that it really means anything.”

Maggie Severns is a reporter at NOTUS. Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated exactly how much of American Compass’s funding has come from the Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. The two organizations gave at least $2.46 million in grants to American Compass.