The mighty influence of think tanks (in the US)

28 November 2011

KCPP discussion on the might of think tanks and the influence they have in US politics and the world. James McGann provides an explanation of this index (you’ll be the judge of that -criteria, ‘experts’, ranking… lots to talk about, but let’s leave that for January).

The conversation focused on some of the following questions:

What is the ultimate goal of heavy-weight think tanks? Do they just add to a cacophony of poisoned politics? Or can their researchers contribute ideas isolated from politicking on the Hill? What are the risks and benefits of relying on them? Should their influence be kept in check? And is there a think tank for every political stripe?

McGann suggests that think tanks can help contribute to an informed debate on policy issues, they provide a government in waiting (a revolving role -and an opportunity for policymakers to reflect on issues of policy), and outside independent analysis. This, he clarifies, is different to other countries where the political culture awards a clearer role to the government for analysis. I agree.

I disagree, however, with his suggestion the independent analysis is unique to the United States. But I am not sure if that is what he meant to say.

What about the clear ideological bias of think tanks, asks the interviewer. What is their value if the ‘thinking’ is rigged from the beginning? McGann responds that the US is a hyper-pluralistic society with a range of institutions and so even if there are clear political opinions and political philosophies can be assigned to specific think tanks, the overall democratic debate is not necessarily affected.

Callers to the programme do not seem to agree -with think tanks: Their ideological bickering is unrealistic and unhelpful.

Should think tanks be sued for the mistakes they make? No, says Mike Gonzalez, Vice President, Communications, The Heritage Foundation, and lists a long list of policies they came up with. But most importantly, he suggests that they have the right to make proposals and governments have the responsibility to decide whether or not to take them on or not.

But Faiz Shakir, Vice President, Center for American Progress and serves as Editor in Chief of Think — a blog created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, suggests that while this is true in theory, in practice it is possible for funding and influence to break down this separation of roles suggested by Gonzalez.

I suggest to listen to the interview -very interesting. The question still remains: are they led by the search for ideas or by ideology or interests (theirs or others)? In other words, is the thinking rigged?

And another question: if think tanks are so good at talking about issues of public interest -sometimes even better than politicians and policymakers- are they letting us (the general public) in or keeping us out of the debate?