How political culture shapes think tanks: Advocacy tanks in D.C. versus networking tanks in Brussels

9 April 2018

How do different political contexts shape the operations of think tanks? This is the central question that Christopher Rastrick explores in his book “Think Tanks in the US and EU,” which compares and contrasts policy institutions in the US with those focused on the European Union in Brussels.+

In Rastrick’s view, think tanks in D.C. primarily play an advocacy-oriented role, while those in Brussels predominantly focus on networking policy elites. He traces this difference back to divergent political cultures. Reflecting – and contributing to – what he calls the increasing “politicization” of American public and policy discourse, think tanks in the U.S. are increasingly fighting partisan battles, with the media and Congress as key staging areas. In contrast, their counterparts working in Brussels target technocratic institutions that are largely insulated from the democratic fray, and put their efforts into hosting events that bring together “influential and powerful policy-relevant actors,” providing avenues for policy inputs outside the formal EU consultation processes.

In a nutshell, Rastrick concludes, American policy shops tend to be individualist and adversarial, while those in Europe are collectivist and consensual: instead of shouting at each other on cable television, policy wonks in Brussels facilitate schmoozing amongst Eurocrats, scholars and businesspeople.

The downstream implications of these different roles in the two policy landscapes are considerable, Rastrick argues. At times, he reaches surprising conclusions. For example, he posits that conducting original, in-depth research is a low priority for think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic, though for different reasons. U.S. players primarily focus on repacking and marketing existing policy ideas from other sources and aggressively pushing them out via the media, while those in Brussels only produce research to the extent required to affirm their scholarly credibility with policymakers. In both cases, scholarship is only a means to an end, and the quality and depth of scholarship is a secondary consideration.

Definitions and measurements of impact (and relevance), too, vary between the two ecosystems. Rastrick posits that the U.S. scene is increasingly pursuing only two key quantitative indicators: Congressional testimonies and media mentions. In contrast, Brussels think tanks emphasize the number and diversity of their events, and the quantity and quality of their institutional members.

Driving these dynamics are the different motivations of the supporters institutions rely on to thrive and survive. In Ratrick’s view, U.S. think tanks operate in a “hyper-competitive environment” where institutions struggle to maintain and increase contributions from private individuals within an increasingly partisan landscape. Marketing themselves to those donors – including many small citizen contributors as well as plutocrats – requires think tanks to begin their research “by identifying the conclusions that best promulgate their ideological credibility, and then formulate and disseminate repacked research on that basis”.

While scholastic purists may shudder at this American approach to ‘research’, Rastrick interestingly – and with considerable originality – expresses more concern about the integrity pitfalls of the networking—focused European model, where dependence on EU grants has bred an ecosystem in which all think tanks appear to endorse the Eurocratic vision of an ever closer and more powerful European Union. Also, in order to attract their second major source of funding, corporate donors, think tanks in Brussels are offering membership packages that appear to sell opportunities to influence policymaking processes, which takes them “dangerously close to the mandates and activities of consultancies and lobby groups”.

Rastrick’s book has some weak points. Most obviously, squeezing the diverse community of U.S. think tanks into a single analytical box is an oversimplification. Heritage and CAP may be among the most visible think tanks, but whether they are typical is questionable. However, the copious referencing throughout the volume demonstrates that the author has an in-depth grasp of the literature and is well aware of the nuances he chooses to omit; without heuristics, cross-continental comparative scholarship would be impossible.

A more serious weakness is the absence of quantitative data to substantiate many of Rastrick’s grand narratives. For example, numerous major U.S. think tanks also rely heavily on corporate memberships and contributions to fund their operations, and they too offer membership packages that tout opportunities to exert influence. Whether policy shops in D.C. are on average more or less dependent on the private sector than those in Brussels is an empirical, not a theoretical, question. Without supporting hard data, some of the conclusions Rastrick reaches may better be seen as hypotheses.

Overall, the strengths of the book by far outweigh its weaknesses. First and foremost, as Rastrick himself highlights, it breaks new ground by providing a framework and model for comparative cross-country analyses of think tank landscapes. Future scholars will be able to apply this framework to other ecosystems such as Germany (a consensus-based political culture and publicly funded think tanks affiliated to rival political parties), Georgia (combative political culture and almost entirely foreign-funded think tanks) and China (one party dictatorship and government funded think tanks) to tease out how political cultures shape institutions in those contexts.

Secondly, the book generates enough interesting research questions to keep the tiny community of academic think tank nerds entertained for years to come. For example, how much effort do U.S. think tanks put into media visibility versus securing Congressional appearances? Is there a historical trend towards shorter studies that parallels the rise in political polarization? Do think tanks that are more reliant on corporate funding organize more events? Is there a correlation between reliance on small individual donations and think tanks’ wonks-to-comms ratios?

In sum, the book is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on think tanks, and seems set to become essential reading for anyone seeking to systematically compare different groups of think tanks within as well as between countries.