Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson recently posted an obituary of sorts for American think tanks.
Samuelson warns that in pursuit of more effective issue advocacy, think tanks risk losing their intellectual respectability. They have become “message merchants, packaging and merchandizing agendas for a broader public,” with no room for thoughtful policymakers. This warning presents far-reaching concerns for American conservatism, an intellectually robust movement that gained traction in the 20th century largely through policies and ideas promoted by think tanks and journals.
Though we should consider Samuelson’s criticism, it has two significant flaws. First, his ideal form of the think tank—far more removed from advocacy and political action—does not accurately depict what think tanks do or how they came to be. And second, Samuelson’s vision of the policy landscape is also far too static. Policy institutes are always evolving to respond to changing political dynamics, and a plethora of groups are doing thoughtful, important policy work.
As long as mankind has thought about politics, there have been critics of think tanks. The Greek poet Aristophanes’s fifth century B.C. comedy The Clouds, a satire of Socrates, was likely the first. Aristophanes challenged Plato’s view that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, instead making Socrates the eccentric head of an institution called The Thinkery. The Clouds simultaneously depicted Socrates as a crank detached from reality and as a sophist who teaches rhetorical skill rather than justice. These two paradoxical critiques drive most criticism of today’s think tanks, and they can shed light on the shortcomings of Samuelson’s argument.
The Clouds begins with an indebted man enrolling in The Thinkery not for the pursuit of wisdom, but in order to gain the rhetorical skills necessary to ward off creditors. Socrates’s Thinkery is reduced to teaching the sophistry that Socrates traditionally fights. This view that places of ideas risk being reduced to places of sophistry underlies the concern Samuelson cites, that today’s think tanks pursue “activism and fundraising over intellectual work.”
Aristophanes also criticizes The Thinkery from the opposite direction, depicting Socrates as a pointlessly abstract thinker. Socrates’ first appearance in the play is its most well-known scene, when he arrives in a basket suspended in the sky. Socrates explains that in order to contemplate the heavens he must “suspend my mind up high, to mix my subtle thoughts with what’s like them—the air.” Aristophanes’ parody is not far from Samuelson’s own ideal for think tanks:
Most think tanks were once idea factories. They sponsored research from which policy proposals might flow. In the supply chain of political influence, their studies became the grist for politicians’ programs. But think-tank scholars didn’t lobby or campaign. Politicians and party groups did that. There was an unspoken, if murky, division of labor.
The history of the development of think tanks shows they have always been far more engaged than Samuelson, or Aristophanes, describes. By the 1970s, leaders of the rising American conservative movement had become fully engaged in the war of ideas and were looking for new ways to influence public policy. As historian Lee Edwards describes, conservatives realized they needed an alternative to the Brookings Institution, which had been a “catalyst for many of the legislative successes of the liberals during the 1960s and early 1970s.” Brookings wasn’t successful simply because it had quality research; rather, its scholars met regularly with members of Congress and closely advised them. Conservative think tanks eventually enjoyed similar success. Tevi Troy’s valuable history of American think tanks, “Devaluing the Think Tank,” notes the direct impact groups like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute had on the Reagan administration.
Rather than the detached model of ideation that Aristophanes mocks and Samuelson embraces, we can see think tanks as occupying a broad space linking academia and partisan politics. Different organizations occupy different places in that broad space—some are more removed, while some are more engaged. Troy shows that think tank-like groups gradually expanded to set agendas for political parties and defend the policies of those in power. Notable groups include the Democratic Leadership Council, which helped Bill Clinton move the Democratic Party to a more centrist direction in the late 1980s, and “do tanks” like the Center for American Progress, the purpose of which “was not to generate new ideas so much as to defend Democratic political positions and promote Democratic policies.”
Troy ends his history of think tanks with a consideration and warning that engages Samuelson’s concerns:
There is nothing inherently wrong with the proliferation of think tanks and advocacy organizations intended to hone an existing line of thinking or advance better communication strategies; in an age of fast-paced politics and new media, such institutions surely play a useful role. But precisely in such an age, there is also a real need for original thinking that can break the mold of some familiar debates and propose plausible solutions to the enormous policy problems that now confront us.
It is entirely reasonable to insist that issue advocacy not come at the expense of thoughtful, principled research. And of course, the focus must be on crafting policies that best contribute to the common good, rather than to partisan success. But an increased focus on outreach and advocacy does not create a zero-sum situation in which scholarship and quality ideas must decrease. It simply isn’t true that those who seek to stay out of Aristophanes’ basket in the sky necessarily become sophists.
In reality, there is great conservative policy work being done across think tanks and advocacy organizations. Arthur Brooks and AEI have started to develop “a conservative vision for social justice” focused on the dignity of work, economic mobility, and education. The Young Guns Network has published an e-book called Room to Grow, which features policy proposals from a group of scholars known as Reform Conservatives operating out of various think tanks, journals, and newspapers. Both of these sets of ideas are first-rate and intended to have popular political appeal.
There are less orthodox approaches coming from newer organizations. The Charles Koch Institute has drawn attention to market-based ideas and policies by hosting events with a number of diverse organizations, including an immigration event with Buzzfeed and a higher education conversation that included Mike Rowe from the popular television show “Dirty Jobs.”
Alternatively, Phillip Blond’s traditionally-minded British think tank ResPublica has done thoughtful work on finance, economic development, and energy while challenging assumptions held by many on the political left and right. And The American Conservative has provided a vibrant outlet for conservatives whose views lie outside of the political mainstream, with an exciting new focus on the conservative case for New Urbanism.
Robert Samuelson might or might not be right that the Heritage Foundation has become more focused on issue advocacy at the expense of its policymaking. But those concerned for the future of conservative ideas can draw inspiration from the typically pessimistic David Brooks, who recently praised the intellectual rigor and diversity among young conservatives in his summary of competing conservative camps.
Those concerned with the "future of think tanks" are right to ensure that advocacy is grounded in thoughtful ideas and policy work. But the think tank has always been an evolving concept, not a rigid model. There are plenty of avenues, old and new, for smart public policy focused on the common good.