The Credible Think Tank Is Dead

The Credible Think Tank Is Dead

Together, these business and conservative Republican groups
attempted to take advantage of the reputation created by the older think tanks:
They demanded attention for their “experts” in the media—on op-ed pages and,
later, TV news shows—but they were in fact the kind of political organization
or business lobbies that Robert Brookings and Andrew Carnegie had wanted to
avoid at all costs. These groups’ scholarly output, particularly from a group
like Heritage, was nugatory. They debased the coinage of the older thinking. And
their model of partisan intervention and policy briefs spread leftward
to groups like the Center for American Progress, which is something of a
Democratic version of the Heritage Foundation. 

The second development was related to the first. Beginning
in the early ’70s, businesses began expanding their Washington lobbying
operations. They established corporate offices in Washington and hired lobbying
firms. They also spent huge amounts on funding studies that supported their
point of view. This contributed to the growth of groups like AEI, but the money
also flowed to scores of other groups, many of which had claimed an overt
neutrality. They included the Center for Strategic and International Studies
(CSIS) and the Institute for International Economics (later the Peterson
Institute), as well as the older think tanks. In the new environment of
Washington, these older think tanks became eager for funding, even at the cost
of their intellectual independence. 

The older think tanks had the organizational logic of a
small college, or even college department, where the faculty didn’t have to
teach. But with the rise of Heritage and AEI, a third development took place.
The older and newer think tanks were swept up in a competition more characteristic
of the business world than academia. They wanted the largest number of
researchers, the biggest and fanciest headquarters, “centers” around
the country and even abroad—and they needed huge sums of money to do it. Carnegie,
for instance, abandoned its dependence on an endowment and moved its quarters
to an impressive edifice next to Brookings in downtown D.C. Subsequently, it
established centers around the world on the model of a multinational

As the think tanks sought donors, the donors in turn
demanded influence over the product they were financing. Some of the groups, such
as Brookings, did (and still do) try to keep the donors at arm’s length. But
the relationship between donors and think tanks has produced a succession of
scandals over the last 30 years. Last year, The
New York Times
that “show that financial support often came with assurances from
Brookings that it would provide ‘donation benefits,’ including setting up
events featuring corporate executives with government officials…” Two years
prior, a Times investigation
found, “More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received
tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing
United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the
donors’ priorities.” Those groups included Brookings, CSIS, and the Atlantic

Donor influence has been magnified by the fact that think
tanks often require scholars to seek funding for their research. When I became
a “visiting scholar” at Carnegie in 2003, I was under the illusion
that think tank scholars were still like university faculty. But after I had
finished a book on the Iraq war, I was told that if I wanted to remain in my
office to write a book on the history of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, I
would have to find funding.  I didn’t
want to get funds from either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, because that would
allow the other side to discredit my research. But the search for uncomplicated
funding proved too challenging, and led to my departure from Carnegie. This has
become standard practice at Washington’s think tanks, and it can give donors
untoward influence over what is produced.

New America is not, as think tanks go, known as one where
donors have especially heavy influence or where researchers are let go on
spurious grounds. It was founded in 1999 by Ted Halstead, Michael Lind, and
several others, in the older tradition of the progressive policy group. Spelled
out in a book, The Radical Center, Halstead and
Lind sought to transcend the prevailing partisan divisions. They deplored
“the increasingly dogmatic two-party system” and predicted that
“political transformations and realignments” were in order. The think
tank was initially based on fellows who were appointed for specific terms and
guaranteed independence in their work. It has produced a score of interesting books.

But New America became caught up in the competitive war
among think tanks. It established centers in New York and California. It set up
a host of funded projects like Lynn’s Open Markets. It courted controversy in
2012 when it incorporated an anti-Keynesian project, the Campaign to Fix the Debt,
funded by banker Pete Peterson. It was accused
of abandoning its original radical-centrist vision for a standard
Republican line of fiscal conservatism. And as the controversy over Lynn demonstrates,
the profusion of projects invited conflicts between donors and researchers. If
Lynn, who is setting up a new group, Citizens Against Monopoly, had confined his
efforts to oil companies, it’s doubtful that he would have faced the same
conflict with Slaughter.

Kevin Carey, the head of the Education Policy Program at New
America, employed the language of the business world to describe the
competitive challenges, telling me in an email that it’s “tricky to
maintain an exact size equilibrium in the non-profit think tank world. If
you’re successful, that creates a lot of opportunities to do more work, recruit
better people, and raise more money. People come to you. It’s hard to say no,
because the best people like to work at organizations that are dynamic and on
the move, and if you can’t recruit or keep the best people, you end up in the
alternative state: stagnation, desperately scrounging for money, and decline.” 

The controversy over New America and Lynn has prompted hand-wringing
among Washington’s policy community, but some of it seems self-serving. “Slowly,
and not so surely, the American media is waking up to the pervasiveness of
corporate corruption of the nation’s think tank complex,” wrote
Alan Tonelson, who did research for decades at the Business and
Industrial Council, which got
much of its funds from Roger Milliken and Milliken & Co.
Neera Tanden, CAP’s head, told her staff that the controversy is “a good
reminder that every institution’s ability to impact the national debate is
based on trust.” (CAP is not immune to
that threaten the public’s trust.)

Slaughter tried to put the
controversy in perspective in an article
for Medium. “Nothing we say is going to convince the many
people who want to believe a David versus Goliath story of Barry Lynn versus
big bad Google,” she wrote. “On the contrary, Barry’s new
organization and campaign against Google is the opening salvo of one group of
Democrats versus another group of Democrats in the run-up to the 2020 election,
at a time when I personally think the country faces far greater challenges of
racism, violence, a broken political system, and geographic and partisan
divisions so great that we are losing any common sense of what we stand and
strive for as a country.” 

But far from putting the controversy to rest, Slaughter’s
statement seemed to suggest that what was really at stake was not collegiality,
but, as Lynn had charged, his “campaign against Google.” And Slaughter
is saying that this campaign, whatever its merits, was of little significance
compared to the “greater challenges” that the country faces. I don’t
pretend to be an expert on the subject, but my own view of high-tech monopoly
is probably different from those of Lynn and his colleagues. I lean toward
regulating rather than breaking up large corporations. But I’d be the last
person to belittle the issue of how the country should contend with the power
of Google, Amazon, and Facebook, as Slaughter seems to do in this bizarre

Where will all this end up? I would hope that Slaughter and
New America find a way to right their ship. It remains one of Washington’s more
valuable research groups. More generally, I would like to see a reaffirmation
of Robert Brookings’s original vision of disinterested research that bridges
the gap between scholarship and policy and doesn’t get caught up in partisan
warfare or succumb to the lure of big money. But I’m not optimistic. In money-drenched
Washington, with campaign laws that invite the corruption of public debate, it
is hard to imagine any think tank living up to Brookings’s stern standards. Instead,
it will take what Bernie Sanders calls a “political revolution”—one that
seeks to reduce the role of money throughout American politics—to revive the
older vision of the think tank.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the first president of the Brookings Institution. It was Harold Moulton.

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