Some of the best-known think tanks are true to the original,
independent model typified by the venerable Brookings Institution.
The new breed is different. ‘Disguising themselves as think tanks,
a new wave of conservative political reformers has galloped onto
the scene and is shooting fountains of misinformation, twisting
facts to serve their purposes and making no effort whatsoever at
giving an impartial look at reality,’ writes journalist Melissa
Rossi in her new book, What Every American Should Know
About Who’s Really Running the World (Plume, 2005).
The 1973 birth of the Heritage Foundation, funded in large part
by Pennsylvania billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, ushered in the
era. Eschewing independent fact-based research, Rossi says,
Heritage pumps out a steady stream of biased ‘pseudo-reports’ that
read like ad campaigns. The foundation ‘wielded such formidable
political-religious muscle during the Reagan administration that
some considered [it] to be a shadow government.’
Since then, Scaife and other conservatives, including the Coors,
Olin, Bradley, and Koch foundations, have pumped hundreds of
millions of dollars into policy factories that generate
media-friendly reports, op-eds, and TV talking points on
Some of these think tanks, like Heritage, focus on a
religion-based cultural agenda, but most tend to focus on the
narrow interests of their largest sources of cash: corporations.
Pushing a corporate agenda of lower taxes and less government
regulation, the powerhouses of the business right include such
think tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute,
Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Hudson Institute. Still
others, like the Center for Security Policy, focus on defense
issues and are funded largely by military contractors.
This rightward creep has even affected old-line think tanks like
the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, where a number of neoconservative scholars
took desks before the Iraq war.
In the past few years, unions and progressive philanthropists,
like investors George Soros and Andy Rappaport, have funded
left-wing tanks — groups like the Center for American Progress,
Economic Policy Institute, and Media Matters for America.
This balancing of the scales is not good, in Rossi’s view,
because ‘the emergence of these well-funded ideological
institutions on the political scene is co-opting the collective
cerebral establishment.’ In other words, ideologically driven
research is the problem, not the solution. ‘More than ever,’ she
says, ‘we’re watching the slow death of the true think tank and
with it any semblance of impartial, objective thought.’