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‘Think tanks in America’ by Thomas Medvetz


Some of the first posts I wrote in On Think Tanks were based on Thomas Medvetz work. In the time since he has written a book on think tanks in the United States that presents a powerful conclusion and warning:

think tanks have collectively developed their own social forms, including their own conventions, norms, and hierarchies, built on a common need for political recognition, funding, and media attention. These need powerfully limit the think tank’s capacity to challenge the unspoken premises of policy debate, to ask original questions, and to offer policy prescriptions that run counter to the interest of financial donors, politicians, or media institutions.

And based on this he argues that the growth of think think tanks over the last few decades:

has ultimately undermined the value of independently produced knowledge in the United States by institutionalising a mode of intellectual practice that relegates its producers to the margins of public and political life.

I could finish this post with this statement. It is, if you ask me, one of the most interesting things I’ve read. I guess I have been thinking the same thing for some time.

My post on the ‘development industry‘ (slightly off-topic for On Think Tanks) suggests that the industry has developed its own conventions, norms, hierarchies, etc. for their own benefit.

Last Wednesday’s post on a new think tank typology made a reference to think tanks’ think tanks; which in a way suggests that there are think tanks that are quite comfortable in their own space -the world of think tanks.

But Medvetz goes a bit further. He argues that the natural space that think tanks inhabit is the source of their power. In the past I had assumed that the space he refers to was somewhere in between the fields of the media, politics, academia and business. A sort of left-over space or an overlapping space. Medvetz uses the concept of boundary workers to describe the simultaneous participation, by think tanks, of two or more spaces. But goes further to suggest that that space is actively constructed by think tanks themselves as a means to an end.

This end, if I understand correctly, is power.

This space is constructed by simultaneously appropriating and rejecting attributes from organisations in the other spaces. This balancing act involves, for example, claiming academic qualifications but rejecting the academic style of doing things; the relevance and poignancy of the media but not its analytical shallowness; or the policy of politics but not its partisanship.

The ultimate objective, though, is power. Think tanks are not, as some would like to see them, neutral and purely technocratic. Their claim of technical expertise is intended to award them legitimacy in a policy process in which legitimacy is normally gained by public support (representation or votes, in other words). Their claim to neutrality has the same purpose.

This is not to say that think tanks are never to be trusted. Wanting to participate in politics is perfectly fine -it is, after all, the right of every citizen. But they should be trusted as much as we trust a broadcaster or newspaper -aware that they have their own agendas and interests.

Recognising that think tanks are attempting to claim power is important. It makes them, in my view, easier to understand. Brings them down from their pedestal; or out into the public with the rest of us.

Being political comes with responsibilities … and makes things more interesting

Having power has responsibilities. Participating in policy decisions that have the power to affect the lives of millions -often of the most vulnerable- demands greater transparency that few think tanks have hitherto been willing to provide. The US policywonk world has been captured by a series of articles and discussions on think tank transiency, recently. Last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren challenged banks and other financial institutions to disclose their contributions to think tanks. This generated a sudden wave of online traffic that was mostly focused on and read by think tanks themselves. It has led to some think tanks revealing their funders (See this very interesting graphic from the Center for American Progress that shows some interesting and surprising funders.) They do this, in part, to differentiate themselves from other players in the political process: lobbyists, interest groups, political parties, etc.

The debate (it it worth doing a simple google search and read up on the reaction it has elicited) that has ensued, however, illustrates the political dance that Medvetz describes. InTheCapital writes:

Friday’s disclosure was an attempt to try to inoculate Podesta [Former President of the Center for American Progress] from potential criticism that his financial ties could cause complications and conflict of interest for the Obama administration as he heads into the West Wing as senior adviser. “I don’t even think he [Podesta] knows who our corporate supporters are,” Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, told POLITICO last Thursday.

“So, not so different after all,” appears to be the sub-text of this reaction.

Read Think Tanks in America to find a world in which think tanks are described as political actors: very refreshing.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Rising Continent and commented:
    That’s exactly what I thought of them. They are very political, meaning pursuing power.

    January 15, 2014
  2. Enrique: Thanks for a provocative post. I read a good portion of Medvetz’s book and learned a lot, especially on the history of US tanks. I guess I didn’t get far enough to distill the take-away messages you summarize here. (his book is, after all, pretty academic). I find your second quote from him revealing to the point of self-parody. Think tanks, he writes, have:

    “undermined the value of independently produced knowledge in the United States by institutionalising a mode of intellectual practice that relegates its producers to the margins of public and political life.”

    when I untangle the prose I think he is saying “Yikes, these guys are eating our lunch!” He is longing for a vanished time (perhaps imagined) when academics were pure, independent and highly regarded as thought leaders. To be sure, some have been in the past and still are today. But you only need to look at the funding of university research budgets to see that they are as rife with potential conflict of interest as the think tanks. If the difference comes down to mode of expression, then perhaps the university academics who fear being relegated to “the margins of public and political life” need to up their (communications) game.

    January 16, 2014
    • Thanks Lawrence. I agree. There are few institutions, certainly in developing countries, that can claim unblemished intellectual independence and funding (sources and mechanisms) play a big role in this situation.

      I think that in the end it is the public that has been relegated to the margins. Politics is increasingly conducted by experts in think tanks, private consultants, lobbies, etc. The claim to expertise is often sufficient to be let into the decision making space, a space that leaves ordinary people (or those who could ‘represent’ them) out.

      There is an interesting study from Argentina that looks at the privatisation of economic policy over the Menem years. The study found that of those consulted by parliament and the media became increasingly private: from professors in universities to experts in consultancies, from political party spokespeople to fellows in party affiliated think tanks.

      January 16, 2014
    • Hi Lawrence,
      I just saw your post about my book. First, thank you for reading parts of it. Here’s a quick reply to your comment.

      I think it was Burger King that used to say, “The customer is always right”—and since you’re the customer, let me start by saying that any failure to get across one of the book’s core points lies with me. Plus you’re right that it’s written in a very academic-y voice, which, unfortunately, tends to happen when professors write their first books….

      However, I should mention one slippage in your point. When I write that intellectuals with less cognitive autonomy have come to dominate American public debate, I am EXPLICITLY INCLUDING ACADEMIC SCHOLARS in that category. That, in fact, is one of the central arguments of the book. That’s why I argue that the main effect of think tanks has not been to create direct policy effects, but to ‘drag down’ the level of public debate in general—that is, among all kinds of intellectuals. That’s also why I say that a major “tendency among scholars has been to engage in policy debate by imitating the style of intellectual production institutionalized in. . . think tanks” (224).

      And it’s why I use admittedly cumbersome phrases like “modes of intellectual practice”—i.e. to avoid the false suggestion that academic scholars are somehow always “independent” and think tanks are always not.

      So when you write that “you only need to look at the funding of university research budgets to see that they are as rife with potential conflict of interest as the think tanks,” we are in full agreement.


      January 21, 2014
  3. Dear Tom,

    Your thoughtful and gentle reply makes me feel embarrassed for being so snarky. I apologize. However, I think we may nonetheless have a difference of opinion.

    I realize now that I had misunderstood a key part of your argument. You are not worried, as I thought, that think tanks have relegated academics to the margin. Rather you conclude that:

    “the main effect of think tanks has not been to create direct policy effects, but to ‘drag down’ the level of public debate in general—that is, among all kinds of intellectuals.”

    Now I don’t intend to set myself up as a defender of think tanks. Certainly in Washington there are a number of organizations that call themselves think tanks that are highly ideological and give the entire category a bad name. But even these not-so-good tanks are in the business of applying research to create and push policy proposals. I think that this has been their main effect–to good or ill–and that their impact on intellectual discourse is secondary. It reflects something about the academic mindset that impact of think tanks on the mode of intellectual discourse can seem to be more important than real-world policy change.

    To be sure, the think tank “mode of intellectual practice” is different from academics. And no doubt some academics (including those top development scholars at universities who sometimes seek affiliation with us at the Center for Global Development) have been influenced by tanks in this regard, for example, to Tweet, blog, and in general write shorter, more accessible pieces. But to characterize this effect as “dragging down” the level of public debate in general seems to me to reflect an academic bias. We might as easily say that think tanks have served to “enliven” academic discourse. Where you stand depends on where you sit.

    I suspect that you and I agree that the level public discourse leaves much to be desired, and that it seems to have become worse (“lower”) in recent years. There are many possible reasons for this, including talk radio and cable “news” (mostly but not entirely on the right of the political spectrum). I’m not convinced that this has been the main effect of think tanks, nor that I would put tanks at the top of the list of villains in this regard.

    Let me add that I really did learn a lot from your book, especially on the history of American think tanks, and that I hope our little debate will encourage more people to buy and read it. It’s by far the most thoughtful piece on US think tanks that I have come across.


    January 22, 2014

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