Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Think Tanks Follow the Money

Robert Samuelson states some facts about think tanks that, for some reason, aren't often voiced by elite columnists:
Most think tanks were once idea factories. They sponsored research from which policy proposals might flow. In the supply chain of political influence, their studies became the grist for politicians’ programs. But think-tank scholars didn’t lobby or campaign. Politicians and party groups did that. There was an unspoken, if murky, division of labor. This was [Stuart] Butler’s world.

But it’s disappearing, and many think tanks — liberal and conservative — have become more active politically. They are now message merchants, packaging and merchandizing agendas for a broader public. Heritage has long been aggressive in peddling its message and has become more so. In 2010, it created an affiliate — Heritage Action — that lobbied and mobilized grass-roots conservatives. In this world, I surmise, Butler’s role is diminished. By contrast, Brookings remains a bit more traditional....

What’s occurring is a subtle change to a major American institution. Heritage is not alone. To varying degrees, other think tanks face similar pressures. They will probably do less thinking and more politicking and self-promotion.
Probably? There's no probably about it.

Why would Brookings hire a right-wing ideologue like Stuart Butler? Why would Heritage hire Jim DeMint, a man nobody would mistake for a great thinker, as its leader? Follow the money.

I'm reminded of David Frum's (interesting, but flawed) novel, Patriots, in which a fictionalized think tank... I can't recall the name he used, but "The American Heritage Institute" might be about right... has relegated the old-timers who do traditional, nonpartisan research to its "founder's floor", while the newer "scholars" engage in little more than a free-for-all of politicking and money-grubbing.

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