The Think Tank Scholar: Tom Medvetz

29 July 2015
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

You can be policy relevant but there has to be this willingness to go beyond the pale now and then.

Tom Medvetz is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.  He is the author of several publications on think tanks, including the book Think Tanks in AmericaTill Bruckner spoke with him about intellectual independence and the roles think tanks play in democratic debates – for better and for worse.

Till Bruckner: In a recent On Think Tanks interview, your fellow scholar Don Abelson at times heavily criticised think tanks. To what degree do you share his views? 

Tom Medvetz: I agree with his general scepticism above all else. When it comes to the role of think tanks, we should start with the recognition that they act within an elaborate system of constraints. Being able to think independently is the exception rather than the rule. When you’re situated in an institutional space in which being responsive to external interests is a basic requirement of your existence, you can’t help but orient yourself intellectually to those interests, wittingly or unwittingly.

TB: What about think tanks that refuse to take an institutional position on any issue? Some think tanks publish papers by different experts offering diametrically opposed policy prescriptions… 

TM: In the cognitive sciences, it is axiomatic that there are structures of background information that organise your thinking in ways that never even rise to the level of consciousness. How an issue is framed, what the categories of debate are, these kinds of questions are invisibly determined within the think tank world. The horizons of the debate are pretty much established before the think tank enters the discussion. So even if think tanks have the capacity to move policy debates at one level, I think that at a deeper level they tend to reify the political status quo.

TB: Is that not the usual price for being policy relevant?

TM: There is a lot hidden in that word ‘relevance’ Does that mean you are producing this perfectly relevant product suited to the debate at this moment? Intellectual independence means being willing to not be relevant today, in order to be relevant tomorrow. Think tanks are broadly pro-establishment. They need to orient their activities towards the pursuit of money, media attention, and the approval of political elites and bureaucrats.

TB: Overall, do you see think tanks negatively?

TM: Yes. Having spent quite some time immersed in the D.C. policy scene, I see them reinforcing the existing structure and oppositions of policy debate. I do not see them as truly responsive to social scientific, humanistic, or any other truly intellectual principles, whether on the left or on the right.

All the chatter coming from the think tank world becomes a proxy for intellectual discussion, possibly crowding out a more vibrant real intellectual discussion.

By analogy, I think of them like expert witnesses in a courtroom trial, where each side fields its own experts, which then cancel each other out and become almost irrelevant to the discussion. I don’t think that is healthy in a democracy.

TB: Was democracy any better off before think tanks entered the scene en masse?

TM: The high water mark of independent intellectual thought in the United States was probably the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was a period during which a network of relatively high profile public intellectuals was incubating, and in some cases exercising an influence on the policy debate. Soon afterwards, they got crowded out of the debate by the growing industry of ‘policy research’, which is anchored in the world of think tanks and commanded by a growing breed of self-styled policy experts.

TB: To what degree are academic scholars more independent in practice?

TM: Academics are also responsive to extra-intellectual influences like intra-disciplinary fads and fashions, for example, not to mention the temptation of professional closure, political and cultural pressures, and so forth. But they form part of a community with collective standards of judgment, and to an extent they can use these standards to free themselves from external constraints. The key benefit of scholarship is peer review. As an academic, I can’t just say something as an instantaneous reaction to something someone else just said and call that scholarship. With think tanks, there is not as powerful a filter, and it does not work in the same way. It’s true that the boundaries of an academic discipline can inhibit thought and speech. For instance, to the degree that academic scholars become technicians, their enquiry becomes narrow.

TB: What is your favourite think tank?

TM: New America Foundation was my favourite for a long time because they seemed willing to generate policy analyses that questioned the existing terms of debate. They were a rogue organisation and they would ask questions like “what if we reframed the debate on poverty in America?” Few think tanks have done such reframing.

New America was a small organisation, and they acted in a way that suggested they were relatively unconstrained by the pursuit of funding because they were content to remain small. Nevertheless, they were able to get a lot of attention because they were staffed primarily by former and part-time journalists who knew how media debates worked. They used their journalistic and media savvy, not resources, to get attention.

Today I don’t have a favourite think tank, but maybe that is because I am not following the scene as closely.

TB: And your least favourite?

TM: Center for American Progress, because in the name of progressive thinking they copy the model of the Heritage Foundation, which I think in the long run does more harm than good to the left. They are essentially a public relations firm. If you truly believe in progressive ideas and principles, it is a very cynical move to start a PR firm. It doesn’t seem like a sincere effort to promote intellectual discussion. In the end, they do not end up representing the left. I think they end up representing a particular strand of the Democratic Party, and so in the name of partisan ‘balance’, the joke is still on the left.

TB: Do Beltway insiders share your dim view of think tanks?

TM: My general sense is that scepticism within the Beltway is growing. One clear indicator is that 15 years ago, people would often say, as a criticism, “Such-and-such organisation isn’t really acting like a think tank”, the implication being that just by virtue of having earned that designation, an organisation was expected to uphold a certain baseline standard of intellectualism. The term think tank, in other words, carried with it certain degree of authority. But now I think the term has become so tarnished that few people are surprised anymore when a think tank is exposed as a proxy or agent for some strategic political interest, as opposed to a true centre of cognitive autonomy.

TB: How can think tanks shore up their credibility?

TM: The key is to separate the policy world from the process of intellectual production. Fewer tax loopholes would also be a huge help, to make it more difficult to disguise lobbying as independent research. Today people hear the words think tank and they think “lobbying shop in disguise.” I’ll give you an example. The last time I was in D.C., I stayed with a woman working in the NGO sector via Air BnB. I told her that I studied think tanks and she immediately launched into this rant about how think tanks were partisan political hacks and not good for anything. That has become the default position of many people on the D.C. scene today.

TB: What is the alternative? Would a world without think tanks be better?

TM: Fortunately, they are good examples of individual thinkers, organisations, and journalistic organs that produce exactly the kind of intellectual discourse that we need in a healthy democracy. My concern is that they get crowded out of civic and political debates, not that they don’t exist. For example, [Professor] Claude Fischer writes a blog at the Boston Review that comes up with these amazing insights week in, week out. But it is not circulated widely because it gets drowned out. The winners of public debate in America are those with the best connections and the most money.

TB: Do think tanks have no positive role to play?

TM: I can think of two positive roles.

First, think tanks can take complex issues and break them down and summarise them in a sensible way. This is valuable, both for public education purposes and for political decision-makers. There are a few well-established think tanks like Brookings that are part of this venerable tradition and that can avoid being drawn into doing lobbying disguised as policy expertise. But when you start a new think tank today, you have no choice as you need to capture funding that is earmarked for a purpose.

Second, think tanks can try to get new issues onto the political agenda. When that happens, well, those are the refreshing moments. The goal of intellectual independence is not to be unconstrained, but to be constrained by an ethos of autonomy. You can be policy relevant but there has to be this willingness to go beyond the political pale now and then.