The rise of conservative think tanks in the U.S. marketplace of ideas

17 February 2011

Warning: This is NOT a 1-pager. Jason Stahl spent a year studying the records of the Library of Congress so, if you have an hour (well, his talk is only 30 minutes long), and want to understand the sudden rise of conservative think tanks in the 1970s, then watch this. Really, watch it.

But if you have access to Daniel Ricci’s The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks, then read it. He traces the main social, economic and political trends that transformed American Politics and their effect on the current ‘ideas marketplace’: the growth of expertise and professionalism, the dissonance of values and the collapse of traditional civil and political religion, the rise of marketing and its adoption by traditional and new think tanks and politicians, and the increasing disorder in political institutions -partly generated by the very advice marketed by think tanks:

Ricci argues that since the late 1960s Americans have lost sight of the familiar guidelines that used to help them assess issues and have become more hospitable to think tank research and advice. He examines the flood of policy-relevant information that has resulted from the growth of expertise and the advent of big government; the confusion over national goals that comes from the decline of the Protestant ethic and the empowerment of minorities; the growing influence of television and its focus on instant testimony from experts; political changes such as the decline of parties, the move to an “open” Congress, and the growth of an independent presidency; the pervasive power of modern marketing; and much more. According to Ricci, policy ideas generated by think-tank research and commentary are helpful in providing greater objectivity and political insight, not only because of their general reliability but also because in their ideological variety think tanks generate a substantial range of policy proposals, giving voice to a healthy factional pluralism and facilitating a constant testing of ideas. In today’s dissonant politics, Ricci concludes, think tanks contribute some order—and occasionally wisdom—in the ongoing battle in Washington over political ideas.

I’ll come back to Ricci soon. Now watch the video.