One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policy makers on think tanks. Most Americans—even those who follow politics closely—would probably struggle to name a think tank or explain precisely what one does. Yet over the past half century, they’ve come to play a central role in government policy development—and in the surrounding political combat. And over that period, the work of think tanks has undergone a profound transformation.
From their beginnings, think tanks were described as “universities without students.” The Brookings Institution, founded in 1916, is considered the original Washington think tank. Its founder, philanthropist Robert Brookings, conceived the new entity as a research center modeled on academic institutions and focused on addressing the questions of the federal government.
Brookings was a bipartisan institution. In the 1930s, 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 was a leading opponent of the New Deal. Other early think tanks followed a similar bipartisan model. The Council on Foreign Relations was founded in 1921 to bring together “knowledgeable specialists of differing ideological inclinations,” explains Peter Grose in Continuing the Inquiry.
These think tanks—joined by about 40 others, such as the American Enterprise Association (founded in 1938)—played a significant role in developing postwar federal policy. Brookings was deeply involved in the design of the Marshall Plan for the redevelopment of Western Europe. The Council on Foreign Relations was pivotal in shaping the Soviet Union containment policy. And the AEA helped engineer the dismantling of wartime price controls.
These institutions were helped along by their tax-exempt status. Because think tanks are understood to offer important support to making good public policy, they are included among the charitable and public-service institutions exempted from income tax. But this status results in some important limits. Since 1954, when Senator Lyndon Johnson offered an amendment to tax-reform legislation that restricted the political activity of tax-exempt groups, think tanks were careful not to cross the line from policy research into partisan activity. Their role was to clarify alternatives but not choose among them.
Frustration with this studied aloofness ushered in the age of activist think tanks. Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards describes a pivotal moment when, in 1971, the American Enterprise Institute (which grew out of the AEA) produced a study of the benefits and drawbacks of the supersonic transport aircraft Congress was considering funding for the Pentagon. The study was delivered to congressional offices a few days after the Senate denied funding in a close 51–46 vote. After receiving the apparently tardy report, a senatorial aide called AEI’s president to ask why the analysis could not have been available earlier. The response: AEI “didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the vote.”
The answer shocked the aide, who wondered what was the purpose of such research if not to affect the outcome of exactly that sort of vote. He hatched the notion of a new think tank to advance a broadly conservative agenda—a notion that resulted, in 1973, in the Heritage Foundation.
Heritage was a different breed of think tank, auguring the new direction in which such institutions were headed. Its stated mission was to “formulate and promote conservative public policies.”
When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, Heritage spotted its chance to influence policy directly and compiled a comprehensive agenda for the new administration. Mandate for Leadership contained 2,000 specific recommendations, from ways to pursue a more assertive approach toward the Soviet Union to minute alterations of environmental regulations. Reagan adopted 60 percent of the proposals, including, most famously, across-the-board tax cuts. As the Washington Post wrote, Mandate “came to be known, hyperbolically, as ‘the bible of the Reagan Revolution.’ ”
Heritage was hardly the only conservative partisan think tank to blossom in those years. By the 1980s, many right-leaning intellectuals regarded the academic world as stultifying and unwelcoming. Think tanks allowed these scholars to flourish free from the strictures of oppressive political orthodoxies.
Indeed, politicians on both sides of the aisle have found advocacy-based think tanks increasingly useful. After Democratic losses in 1980 and 1984, for example, a group of moderates founded the Democratic Leadership Council—not a think tank but an advocacy organization, meaning that donations to it were not tax exempt. Bill Clinton was part of the organization from the beginning and eventually became its chairman. In 1989 the DLC created the Progressive Policy Institute, a tax-exempt think tank. After Clinton’s 1992 victory, PPI was just as hot as Heritage had been after 1980, serving up ideas that became Clinton policies such as AmeriCorps and welfare work incentives.
Think tanks affiliated with the left or the right are most active when their parties are out of power, since they tend to be robbed of their best people by friendly presidential administrations. Furthermore, as each party has drawn lessons from electoral failures, their conclusions have pointed to the need for new think tanks. This “lose an election, gain a think tank” mindset has made their work all the more responsive to particular, narrow political exigencies—for better and for worse.
The next big move in the think tank arms race was the 2003 founding of the left-wing Center for American Progress, an institution that was explicitly political to a degree unmatched by prior think tanks. With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, CAP’s purpose was not to generate original research so much as to promote Democratic policies like universal health care and green jobs. CAP’s affiliated advocacy organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, even has a “news service” called Think Progress that sends staffers out to report news. Think Progress has had some success breaking stories—typically stories damaging to Republicans, such as the 2011 report that GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain said he would never select a Muslim for his cabinet.
The “do tank” model is by no means limited to the left. Republican losses in 2006 and 2008 have led conservatives to pursue their own public relations think tanks. These institutions have drifted far from the traditional university model and even from the advocacy-oriented think tank. The generational differences among think tanks are evident: Among those founded before 1960, 53 percent of scholars hold PhDs; among those founded between 1960 and 1980, 23 percent have PhDs; and among those founded after 1980, only 13 percent are as highly educated. The decline in rigorous scholarship goes hand in hand with the rise in glib, TV-friendly representatives who eschew serious research in favor of analyzing every issue through a partisan lens.
The number of think tanks has ballooned from about 45 after the Second World War to 1,800 today. Amid this competition, young institutions have found that they stand out by adopting a strident ideological bent. The 24-hour news channels are constantly looking for new stories to draw ratings, and complicated studies with cautious conclusions do not fit the bill.
With think tank donations one of the few tax-exempt ways to support political causes without running afoul of funding limits, donors are increasingly uninterested in funding scholars to kick around ideas regardless of political impact. Actual “bought and paid for” research remains quite rare, but the relationship does create self-censorship. A researcher is unlikely to write an essay or publish a study that will make donors unhappy, and an entire think tank may remain silent on an issue about which it had previously been vocal. For instance, the New Republic noted in June 2011 that CAP’s Wonk Room blog had not run a single story about the Afghanistan war in the prior five months. During the Bush years, CAP had adamantly critiqued the administration’s war policies; once President Obama more or less continued those policies, however, CAP grew silent.
The independence and the value of the original think tank model cannot be overstated. It brought serious, original, expert research to the task of analyzing policy problems and proposing a range of solutions grounded in hard facts and figures. Nothing is inherently wrong with advocacy or public relations think tanks intended to hone an existing line of thinking; in an age of fast-paced politics and new media, such institutions surely play a useful role. But there is also a real need for original thinking that breaks the mold of familiar debates and proposes plausible solutions to the enormous policy problems that confront us. In other words, there is plenty of room for the new kind of think tank, but there is plenty of need for the old kind as well.
Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency. Excerpted from National Affairs (Winter 2012), a quarterly journal of essays about American public policy.