Ideas & Philosophy — 22 February 2006
US Think-Tanks: Casualties in the War of Ideas

In the 1960s Bill Baroody Sr, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) coined a phrase that became famous: “the competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society.” AEI and other conservative think-tanks were setting out to develop an alternative set of ideas that were intended to challenge the liberal orthodoxy that dominated policy debates in Washington and on college campuses throughout the United States. AEI and many of the think-tanks in Washington ultimately achieved their objective through thoughtful and independent analysis of policy issues.

In the last decade, however, this marketplace of ideas has been transformed into an uncivil war of ideas between conservative and liberal ideologues. Think-tanks and their scholars are becoming the latest casualties in this ground war. Think-tanks, long recognised for their independent analysis, are now at risk of losing their credibility and independence as they get drawn into and polarised by this conflict. How and why did this happen? More importantly, what can be done about it?

Liberals love to blame conservatives for their own declining influence at the national and state level. They complain about being outspent by the donors on the right. Conservatives counter that the majority of the 1,500 think-tanks in the US are on college campuses and are controlled by the liberal elite.They also suggest that the majority of private foundations are of a liberal persuasion. Some scholars and journalists go so far as to suggest that liberal donors only support “objective research,” and that is why the left is losing the war of ideas.

Such simplistic and one-sided explanations miss the big picture.They also enable the partisan merchants of fear on both sides to raise huge sums of money while providing a smokescreen for the shortcomings of their analysis.

What has happened

To understand what is really going on, we must consider the sevenfold range of environmental forces that have impacted on the ability of think-tanks to provide independent analysis and advice:

  • the development of partisan politics
  • the growth of liberal and conservative advocacy groups
  • the restrictive funding policies of donors
  • the growth of specialised think-tanks
  • the narrow and short-term orientation of congress and the White House
  • the tyranny of myopic academic disciplines
  • the growth of 24/7 cable news networks

Data collected from thirty-four of the leading United States think-tanks found that the rise in partisan politics and the pressure to align politically is polarising Washington think-tanks and compromising the quality of their debate and research. At the same time, cable news networks have created a demand for sound-bites rather than sound analysis.

Even more troubling is the fact that some liberal and conservative think-tanks have lost their independence and have been captured by these larger forces and a worldview that is negative and misanthropic. The convergence of these trends in recent years has threatened the important role think-tanks play in helping policy-makers meet the domestic and international challenges the United States faces.

Partisanship and the clash of cultures in Washington have recently reached a fevered pitch. One think-tank executive has noted that partisan politics creates a situation where there is little or no interest in balanced analysis because if a group does not lend unquestioned support on an issue, the group is thought to be as an ally of the “enemy”.

How then can think-tanks address complex and dynamic issues, if answers have to be defined on partisan lines? What would happen if the public becomes willing to dismiss a particular institution’s report based simply on its liberal or conservative agenda, rather than engaging in proper discussion of potential merits within a particular policy proposal?

The overwhelming complexity of most issues and the flood of information that is generated by them leads many voters either to throw their hands up or to choose an overly simplistic solution. This is precisely why think-tank scholarship, not interest-group propaganda disguised as scholarship, is so important. It must be the job of think-tanks to explore ways to effectively use television, the internet and other technologies to advance and improve the dissemination of their ideas and policy proposals. It is essential that these institutions not only increase the measure of listeners and readers, but also truly engage citizens in meaningful dialogue on key policy issues.

Because much of the money coming into think-tanks has been donor defined project specific grants, these institutions have been forced to narrow their research agendas and time horizons to meet the dictates of donors. Project-specific grants are most damaging when the donor directly or indirectly uses targeted funding to influence the research agenda of an institution, or worse, the research findings. Even more insidious are donors who try to distort the magnitude of a problem or attempt to alter the course of politics by flooding the marketplace of ideas with money that funds their issues or world-view.

These distortions in the free market of ideas are hindering the ability of think-tanks to produce innovative ideas and new research on truly important emerging issues. Think-tanks now have a tendency to move away from the kind of research that focuses on understanding problems and toward an increased emphasis on prescription, so that they can demonstrate their impact to donors. While many donors operate in the public interest, there are those partisans on the right and the left who serve as the paymasters in the war of ideas. Why should donors, who are neither the users or producers of policy research, and who may not be acting in the public interest, determine the research agendas of think-tanks?

What should be done

In order to be effective, think-tanks must preserve their independence and objectivity,they must continue to support active participation without being drawn into the partisanship and the ideological battles that are currently consuming American politics.

Think-tank scholars must be allowed to conduct their research without having donors looking over their shoulders trying to dictate the scope and nature of their work. Donors must develop more transparent mechanisms for evaluating and making grants to think-tanks, and think-tanks must be more transparent about where their money comes from and how it is used.

Change, however, must not come from funders alone.The think-tank community should be proactive in developing industry-wide standards in order to ensure that the credibility and independence of their research is not jeopardised. It can be assumed that if donors witnessed liberal, conservative, and centrist think-tanks collaborating to help funders understand how their current funding policies undermine the effectiveness of policy research, they may be more likely to alter their funding guidelines.

Donors and the think-tank community, in other words, need to explore ways to foster greater synergies, collaboration and consolidation among the more than 1,500 publicpolicy think-tanks in the United States. A broad cross section of the donors, as well as citizens’ groups, policymakers, media and think-tanks need to engage in a constructive dialogue that is more positive, innovative and interdisciplinary – most importantly a dialogue that acknowledges these new developments and challenges.

It is through this type of synergy and collaboration that the changes in Washington’s political environment can be utilised positively and channeled in such a way that the integrity, independence and scholarly character of think-tank research is not jeopardised, but instead empowered by change. This partnership between the funders, producers and users of public-policy research is critical and must be forged now if we want the light of well-reasoned analysis to prevail over the heat of partisan warfare.

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