Book Review: ‘Think tanks in America’ by Thomas Medvetz

15 January 2014
SERIES The On Think Tanks review of books 7 items

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.