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Explaining the role of a think tank

Jun 30, 2017, 11:03 AM

One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the American policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policymakers on the work of think tanks.

Most Americans — even most of those who follow politics closely — would probably struggle to name a think tank or to explain precisely what a think tank does. Yet over the past half-century, think tanks have come to play a central role in policy development — and even in the surrounding political combat.

Over that period, however, the balance between those two functions — policy development and political combat — has been steadily shifting. And with that shift, the work of think tanks has undergone a transformation.

Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the State House. Some serve as training grounds for young activists.

Some new think tanks have even been created as direct responses to particular, narrow political exigencies. As each party has drawn lessons from various electoral failures over recent decades, their conclusions have frequently pointed to the need for new think tanks (often modeled on counterparts on the opposite side of the political aisle).

Today, think tanks are highly influential in our politics; their research and scholars are heavily consulted and relied on by our elected leaders. And in a time of both daunting policy challenges and highly polarized political debates, there is every reason to expect that think tanks will grow only more important in Washington.

As they become more political, however, think tanks — especially the newer and more advocacy-oriented institutions founded in the past decade or so — risk becoming both more conventional and less valuable.

At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation.

Given these concerns, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of the Washington think tank and its consequences for the nation.

It is important not to overstate the independence and the value of the original think-tank model. Because it informs the political system, policy research has always been political. The Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the other first-generation think tanks drew upon a certain set of political presumptions, and were able to sustain a patina of objectivity only because those presumptions were shared by an extended elite.

The value of that original model, therefore, was not that it was objective; it very often was nothing of the sort. Its value, rather, came from its ability to bring serious, original, expert research to the task of analyzing policy problems and proposing solutions. It sought to expand the range of options under debate and to ground that debate in hard facts and figures.

Some new think tanks, by contrast, are less likely to expand the range of options under debate. Rather, these institutions are helping politicians avoid the difficult task of pursuing creative policy solutions by giving them more ways to persist in failed courses. There are still great exceptions in the think-tank world, on all sides of our politics, but they increasingly have trouble being heard over the din.

It is not easy to see a way out of this problem. Every incentive — political, financial, and professional — points toward the further politicization of think tanks. The countervailing force would probably need to come from policymakers themselves.  Guest editorial

“Think tanks do have points of view, and they are absolutely entitled to defend them”

David Frum