Lose an Election, Gain a Think Tank

Over at National Affairs, Tevi Troy reviews the evolution–and, he believes, devaluation–of America’s think tanks. He leads off by noting how many think tanks have shifted toward political combat and rapid response and away from non-partisan research:

One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington 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 [DM: This is true; even close friends and family often wonder what I do.]. 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 Washington 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 White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition’s ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.

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).

He summarizes this trend as “lose an election, gain a think tank”. Looking ahead, he then notes:

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.

Needless to say, I hope–and intend–that there remains a place for policy research separate from the political noise.

In addition to recounting the origins and activities of many prominent think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, and the Heritage Foundation, Tevi offers some interesting facts about the industry, including the rising number of think tanks (1,800 today versus 45 after the Second World War) and the declining share of Ph.D.s on think tank staffs (13% of scholars in think tanks founded since 1980 vs. 53% in those founded before 1960).

The entire essay is well worth your time if you are interested in the evolving role of think tanks in policy discussions.

P.S. Tevi’s article make no mention of my research center, the Tax Policy Center, or my employer, the Urban Institute.