The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks And The Rise Of The New Policy Elite
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Given these concerns, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of the Washington think tank and its consequences for the nation. For many decades, the classic definition of think tanks as "universities without students" fit reasonably well. From their beginnings in the early 20 th century well into the post-war period, Washington think tanks tended to be research centers modeled on academic institutions and devoted to addressing technical questions relevant to government policy. The Brookings Institution, founded in as the Institute for Government Research, is generally considered the original Washington think tank.
Its founder, businessman and philanthropist Robert Brookings, defined the new entity in the words of the institution's official history as "the first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy. According to James A. Smith's The Idea Brokers , Brookings was one of a number of institutions propelled by the metaphor of social afflictions as maladies and public-policy experts as the physicians who could heal the patient.
Brookings scholars were generally academics on loan; in its early years, in fact, the institution actually served as a kind of university with students, operating a graduate school in Washington that granted a small number of degrees. Brookings was also, for the most part, a bipartisan institution. In the s, for instance, a number of its scholars conducted a study on the causes of the Great Depression that helped President Franklin Roosevelt's administration design its early economic agenda.
And yet the institution's president — former University of Chicago economist Harold Moulton — and several other Brookings scholars were among the leading opponents of the New Deal, arguing that it would hamper economic recovery. Other early think tanks followed a similar model. For instance, the Hoover Institution originally called the Hoover War Collection was established on Stanford's campus in with the purpose of "constantly and dynamically point[ing] the road to peace, to personal freedom, and to the safeguards of the American system.
By the late s, critics had begun to argue that some of these institutions — while formally non-partisan and largely academic — represented a left-leaning intellectual consensus and required some counterbalance. The organization's purpose, as they put it, was to promote "greater public knowledge and understanding of the social and economic advantages accruing to the American people through the maintenance of the system of free, competitive enterprise. They relocated the organization in , and eventually renamed it the American Enterprise Institute. In the decades following the war, these think tanks — joined by about 40 other institutions, such as the RAND Corporation founded in , the Aspen Institute in , and the Hudson Institute in — played an increasingly significant role in the development of federal policy.
Brookings was deeply involved in the design of what became the Marshall Plan for the post-war redevelopment of Western Europe.
The Council on Foreign Relations was pivotal in shaping the policy of containment toward the Soviet Union. The AEA helped engineer the dismantling of wartime production and price controls. And other think tanks increasingly came to supply outside researchers and policy architects to federal officials often overwhelmed by the growing size and complexity of the government.
The development of these institutions was greatly helped along by the fact that they were, from the start, granted tax-exempt status, meaning that contributions to them were and remain exempted from the contributors' income-tax liabilities. Because think tanks are understood to offer important support to the process of making good public policy, they have been included among the charitable and other public-service institutions exempted from the income tax since its creation in But this tax-exempt status results in some important limits on what think tanks may do in the political arena.
In , Senator Lyndon Johnson offered an amendment to tax-reform legislation that restricted political activity by tax-exempt groups under section c 3 of the tax code , and Congress has refined and clarified this provision over the years, usually with the intent of making the restrictions on political activity more difficult to circumvent. Thus, since the mids, think tanks have had to be careful not to cross the line from policy research into explicit political or partisan activity. They can be very actively involved in policy debates, but may not offer material support to specific parties or candidates for office.
Although they were becoming increasingly important in prominent policy discussions, think tanks in the s and '60s intentionally kept some distance between themselves and the most heated political debates of the era. They saw it as their role to inform but not quite to advocate — to help clarify policy alternatives, but generally not to choose among them.
This may have been driven in part by their understandable desire to retain that all-important tax-exempt status. Still, most think tanks went well beyond the requirements of the tax code, having made a very deliberate decision to distance themselves from direct policy advocacy. It was frustration with this studied aloofness that eventually ushered in the age of more activist think tanks, beginning especially on the right.
In his book The Power of Ideas , Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards describes a pivotal moment in this evolution when, in , AEI produced a study of the benefits and drawbacks of the supersonic transport aircraft that Congress was considering funding for the Pentagon. The study was delivered to congressional offices a few days after the Senate had defeated funding for the project in a close vote.
After receiving the apparently tardy report, Paul Weyrich — then an aide to Colorado Republican senator Gordon Allott — called AEI president William Baroody to ask why the helpful analysis could not have been available before the vote. Baroody's response, according to Edwards, was that AEI "didn't want to try to affect the outcome of the vote. Baroody's answer shocked Weyrich and his fellow congressional staffer Ed Feulner, who wondered what the purpose of such research was if not to affect the outcome of exactly that sort of vote.
Weyrich and Feulner hatched the notion of a new think tank that would see as its mission the development of serious policy research to advance a broadly conservative agenda. Encouraged by Nixon White House staffer Lyn Nofziger, they began the work that would, in , result in the creation of the Heritage Foundation. Heritage was a different breed of think tank, and augured the new direction in which such institutions were headed.
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A far cry from its avowedly hands-off predecessors, Heritage tried explicitly to "formulate and promote conservative public policies," as the organization's mission statement put it. It sought not only to serve as a source of basic research and analysis but also to help drive the agenda on behalf of conservatives around the country. To that end, Heritage pursued direct-mail fundraising, a tactic more typical of political campaigns and mostly unheard of among think tanks at the time.
It rightly considered itself as much an organ of the conservative movement as of the Washington intellectual world. When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in , Heritage spotted its chance to influence policy more directly, and worked to compile a comprehensive conservative policy agenda for the new administration.
Titled Mandate for Leadership , the publication contained more than 2, specific policy recommendations, from ways to pursue a more assertive approach toward the Soviet Union to minute alterations of environmental regulations. But Heritage was hardly the only conservative think tank to blossom in those years. It is true that, over the past few decades, think tanks affiliated with the left and the right have tended to be most active and important when their parties have been out of power — as opposition makes for more intensity, and think tanks tend to be robbed of their best people by friendly presidential administrations.
Even so, in the s — perhaps because the Reagan administration made a special effort to draw on the work of right-leaning think tanks — conservative research institutions prospered.
The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks And The Rise Of The New Policy Elite
Martin Anderson, a senior Reagan economic-policy advisor, recalled that Mikhail Gorbachev waved a Hoover Institution book, The United States in the s , in front of Reagan aides at preparatory talks for a summit. According to a New York Times report about the incident, Gorbachev cited the book as "the real blueprint for Reagan Administration policy.
Reagan's reference to scholarship points to another potential explanation for the rise of the conservative think tanks in the s. By that decade, many conservative intellectuals had come to regard the academic world as stultifying and unwelcoming, as the politicization of many university campuses caused right-leaning professors to feel like pariahs. For the most part, think tanks allowed these scholars to flourish free from the strictures of both academic coursework and oppressive political orthodoxies.
In the Reagan White House, he helped funnel think-tank ideas and personnel into the administration. The practical success of the conservative think tanks in this period, coupled with Heritage's new and more activist approach — which, to varying degrees, was embraced by the other major think tanks on both sides of the aisle — ushered in the era of what political scientist Donald Abelson has called the "advocacy think tank. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have found these advocacy-based successors to the original staid Washington think tanks increasingly useful.
After Democratic losses in the presidential elections of and '84, for example, a group of moderate Democrats founded the Democratic Leadership Council — not a think tank but an advocacy organization, expressly designated as such under section c 4 of the tax code, meaning that donations to it were not tax exempt.
The DLC was designed to pull the party in a more centrist direction; Bill Clinton was part of the organization from the beginning, and eventually became its chairman. After Clinton's victory, PPI was just as hot as Heritage had been after , serving as the "president's brain shop of choice," according to the Washington Post. PPI ideas that became Clinton policies included AmeriCorps and Vice President Al Gore's efforts to "re-invent government" by modernizing the bureaucracy and making better use of technology.
Perhaps more important, PPI gave Clinton crucial Democratic blessing to introduce work incentives into welfare, a policy that became an important component of the welfare-reform law Clinton signed in While PPI was clearly an advocacy think tank, it differed from Heritage in a number of important ways.
First, it explicitly grew out of an existing advocacy organization. Second, it was far smaller than Heritage and its other rivals on the right.
Idea Brokers | Book by James A. Smith | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster
Called the "Mighty Mouse" of the think-tank world by the Post 's Von Drehle, PPI has typically had fewer than ten scholars, but those scholars were generally more prominent and more senior than the rank-and-file Heritage scholars. Third, PPI sought to take its party in a specific direction, while Heritage was trying to refine and market the conservatism that had become the prevailing Republican ideology. In this way, PPI — which is no longer linked to the recently shuttered DLC — was less of a Heritage clone and more of a precursor to other left-leaning "third way" think tanks, like the New America Foundation founded in or the Bipartisan Policy Center founded in Right-leaning think tanks, too, have functioned as governments in exile.
After Clinton's win in , former Bush-administration officials created two new advocacy think tanks of their own: the Project for the Republican Future and Empower America. PRF, founded by William Kristol who had previously been Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff , was intended to serve as a "strategic nerve center for a network of thinkers, activists, and organizations committed to a coherent agenda of conservative reform.
Empower America — founded by former education secretary and drug czar Bill Bennett, former Republican congressman Jack Kemp, and former U.
Empower America, meanwhile, was closer to Heritage in its focus on not just policy development but also message distribution. Neither organization exists in its original incarnation today, as PRF closed its doors in when Kristol and others left to start the Weekly Standard magazine , and Empower America merged with Citizens for a Sound Economy to become FreedomWorks in Thus, by the late s, think tanks had evolved significantly from their origins as "universities without students.
By early , with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, Democrats started contemplating their next move in the think-tank arms race. Ken Baer, a former speechwriter for Vice President Gore and now communications director at the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama White House , warned in Slate of an intellectual missile gap between the parties. Democrats, he noted, needed to find professional homes for talented policy experts — including Baer himself — who were leaving the Clinton administration.
According to Baer, the left had "failed to develop any sort of farm system for its displaced wonks," while the right devoted almost "limitless policymaking resources to its unemployed policy wonks. Republican policy experts, by contrast, needed to find Washington-based perches because they did not feel comfortable — and often were not welcome — on university campuses. In , though, Democrats were being squeezed from three directions at once. First, Baer argued, they held none of the levers of power in Washington.