Think Think Tanks Are Nonpartisan? Think Again - Miller-McCune
Once seen as non-ideological “universities without students,” the American think tank has, in many cases, become a partisan stalking horse that devalues the sector’s scholarship.
While think tanks claim to be nonpartisan, most in Washington know their ideological leanings. One think tank scholar has posited in a new article that think tanks have proliferated to the point of devaluing the research and ideas that come out of them. (Jupiter Images)
One of the strangest institutions in Washington — and perhaps the hardest to comprehend from the outside — is the think tank, that quasi-academic, sort-of-political organization that offers, as its primary output, ideas. Universally, think tanks claim to be nonpartisan, and as tax-exempt nonprofits, this is a basic requirement in the tax code. But most people in Washington know the ideological leanings of think tanks that may obscure this fact in their titles: There’s the Cato Institute (libertarian), the Heritage Foundation (conservative), the Brookings Institution (moderate liberal) and the Center for American Progress (progressive).
And that’s just four of the 400 think tanks that have grown up in town, by Tevi Troy’s count. Troy is a think tank scholar himself, from the Hudson Institute (“a nonpartisan, independent policy research organization dedicated to innovative research and analysis that promotes global security, prosperity, and freedom”). In a thoughtful new article in the journal National Affairs, he argues that think tanks have proliferated to the point of devaluing the research and ideas that come out of them. Most damning, he suggests that these institutions — once thought of as “universities without students” — have become political, stripping them of the power to float new ideas that politicians would never put forward.
THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune’s Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.
Outside of Washington, Troy’s criticism resonates for a reason that may disturb academic researchers: it is the work of think tanks, and not cloistered scholars at traditional universities, that really influences Washington policy. In his article, Troy unearths a telling 1988 quote from Ronald Reagan: “Today the most important American scholarship comes out of our think thanks,” the president said, pointing to one in particular, the American Enterprise Institute.
From the creation of AEI in 1938 (originally the American Enterprise Association), Troy traces a dizzying think tank “arms race.” Like some of the earliest think tanks, including Brookings (1916), the Hoover Institute (1919) and the RAND Corporation (1946), AEI was long in the business of informing but not advocating. The conservative Heritage Foundation was born in the early ’70s as a direct response to AEI’s hands-off approach. Heritage became extremely effective at not just pondering ideas but also pushing them, particularly in an era when conservative public intellectuals didn’t feel welcome in academia.
Liberals, startled by the effectiveness of Heritage, created their own counterpoint at the end of the Reagan era, the Progressive Policy Institute, which powered many of the ideas that came out of the Clinton administration. Conservatives in exile from the federal government in this era created yet more think tanks, just as liberals did again during the George W. Bush years with the Center for American Progress. Troy refers to many of these think tanks as “governments in waiting.”
“Lose an election,” he quips, “gain a think tank.”