Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise / Edition 1

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Think tanks are nonprofit policy research organizations that provide analysis and expertise to influence policymakers. From the 1970s their number exploded in the U.S. and their proliferation represented a hope that lawmaking might become better informed and more effective as a result of these expert contributions. Instead, as this book documents, the known ideologies of many, especially the newer, think tanks currently contribute to an environment in which they differ little from advocacy organizations, promoting points of view and preordained policy prescriptions. As a result, they fail to achieve desired influence and undermine their credibility.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A lucid well-written empirical study of the influence exerted on public policy by the wide range of think tanks, which provides, for the first time, hard data on the differences between think tanks whose analyses are driven by an ideological agenda and those which derive their policy positions from an objective assessment of the facts." Joel Fleishman, Duke University

"This often fascinating study shines its bright light on think tanks, largely overlooked players in the political process." getAbstract

"This is a terrific book. It is not only the definitive political science treatment of think tanks in the United States, but also an extremely insightful study of the transformation of the policymaking community and process in Washington...Anyone who reads this book will come away with a deeper understanding of the complex forces that shape contemporary policy-making in the United States." R. Kent Weaver, Georgetown University HB ISBN (2004) 0-521-83029-X

"This timely study is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the growing centrality of nonprofit organizations and subsidized expertise in contemporary public life - and indispensable to understanding the institutional basis of America's conservative revolution." Peter Dobkin Hall, Harvard University

"Andrew Rich's study of evolution and role of think tanks in American politics is a first-class contribution to our understanding of public policy making. Employing both quantitative analysis and dozens of interviews, Rich identifies when and how think tanks most effectively influence the policy making process. He also shows that, ironically, as think tanks become more ideologically disposed and play to the media, they lose the very influence they seek. This is easily the best book on the subject." James D. Savage, University of Virginia

"Andrew Rich's new work is the single best book available on think tanks. It's packed with ideas, insights, and fascinating details about the operations of these public policy enterprises. His arguments are carefully drawn and are supported by an abundance of convincing evidence. Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject." Jeffrey M. Berry, Tufts University

"This is a terrific book. It is not only the definitive political science treatment of think tanks in the United States, but also an extrememly insightful study of the transformation of the policymaking community and process in Washington. Rich shows that the roles that experts play in influencing policy are severely constrained, and that think tank efforts to improve the timeliness and visibility of their policy ideas frequently come at a cost in terms of credibility. Anyone who reads this book will come away with a deeper understanding of the complex forces that shape contemporary policy-making in the United States." R. Kent Weaver, Georgetown University

"...Rich's book does a great service: It shows that the timeless question, "where can we find wisdom?" is still very much alove. And at least Rich, for all his latent hostility to conservative think tanks, doesn't follow the lead of Aristophanes and recommend a purification by fire." - Albert Keith Whitaker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521673945
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 5/23/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,535,486
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew Rich is an assistant professor of political science at City College of New York. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. Professor Rich taught at Wake Forest University from 1999 to 2003.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
052183029X - Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise - by Andrew Rich


The Political Demography of Think Tanks

The men of [the] Brookings [Institution] did it by analysis, by painstaking research, by objective writing, by an imagination that questioned the "going " way of doing things, and then they proposed alternatives. . . . After 50 years of telling the Government what to do, you are more than a private institution. . . . You are a national institution, so important . . . that if you did not exist we would have to ask someone to create you.

President Lyndon B. Johnson
September 29, 19661

[The Heritage Foundation] is without question the most far-reaching conservative organization in the country in the war of ideas, and one which has had a tremendous impact not just in Washington, but literally across the planet.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich
November 15, 19942

These tributes by a president and a speaker of the House more than twenty-eight years apart are high praise for two organizations that are both commonly known as think tanks. Yet, in their praise, Johnson and Gingrich characterizethe accomplishments of these organizations in notably different terms: Brookings for its "painstaking research" and "objective writing," Heritage for its "far-reaching" efforts in the "war of ideas." These characterizations evoke two quite different images and suggest quite different understandings of the role of think tanks in American politics. The first emphasizes their role as producers of credible expertise; the second highlights their contributions to polemical debates over ideas.

The differences signaled by these tributes provoke the central questions for this book: Have think tanks generally evolved from producing painstaking research and objective writing to pursuing ideological agendas with far-reaching impact in the war of ideas? If so, what accounts for these transformations, and what are their consequences for the role and influence of their products - expertise and ideas - in American policy making?

Experts have typically been thought of as neutral, credible, and above the fray of the rough and tumble of policy making. Progressive reformers early in the twentieth century turned to the burgeoning social sciences for salvation. Reformers believed that the new ranks of policy experts trained at universities would be capable of usurping patronage politics; experts would develop real solutions to the social and economic instabilities that stemmed from the Industrial Revolution. American politics and American society would be better informed and much improved thanks to their efforts.

While full confidence in expertise waned in the decades that followed, the training of new policy experts became an obsession of reformers through much of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. The obsession was reflected in the formation and expansion of social science departments and policy schools at universities across the country. It was reflected as well in the founding of scores of independent think tanks, organizations intended to produce policy-relevant research for Washington decision makers.

These developments were observed by twentieth-century scholars of the policymaking process and contribute to what remains the prevailing understanding of experts in American policy making, as important background voices that bring rational, reasoned analysis to long-term policy discourse based on the best evidence available. From Charles Merriam to Harold Lasswell to John Kingdon, political scientists have portrayed research as principally affecting a "general climate of ideas which, in turn, affects policymakers' thinking in the long run." Technical research can inform particular policy provisions; consistent findings from many studies over time can effectively transform ways of thinking about policy issues.4 Scholars quarrel over whether policy research is most helpful in offering specific prescriptions for public problems or, as is more commonly suggested, as general enlightenment on public issues.5 But by most all appraisals, more experts are good for policy making. For much of the twentieth century, this judgment was accurate; experts fulfilled these mandates. Even if their work was sometimes used by others for quite political purposes, experts remained ostensibly neutral and detached. Experts offered ideas and policy prescriptions that were rigorously crafted, rational, and, in the long run, helpful to the work of decision makers.

Contrary to these earlier experiences and scholarly understandings, however, by the end of the twentieth century, the ranks of real-life policy experts scarcely conformed to the promise of making policy choices clearer and more rigorous and decisions necessarily more rational. In 2002, as members of Congress considered reauthorization of the welfare reforms first enacted in 1996, there was little agreement among the experts outside of government recommending changes to the 1996 law. Experts produced studies advocating everything from expansions in child care subsidies and low-income housing vouchers to provisions that promote marriage and sexual abstinence.6

Along with little agreement among them on how to revise the law, there was also little restraint among experts in expressing their views. Far from reservedly offering detached analysis to affect policy decisions in the long run, many of those who fashioned themselves experts were clamoring to make frequent, loud, aggressive contributions to the immediate public debates over welfare reform. They held press conferences and forums, offered congressional testimony, and sponsored dueling policy briefs. Much of this work emanated from experts and analysts based at think tanks, the numbers of which quadrupled from fewer than 70 to more than 300 between 1970 and the turn of the century.

One typical exchange during this debate was over the effects of welfare on marriage rates. Analysts at the Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institution, Progressive Policy Institute, and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities each produced studies on the subject.7 In fact, between fall 2001 and spring 2002, each promoted an assortment of reports, policy briefs, and press releases on the topic, followed by public briefings, conferences, and press events, all in anticipation of Congress's reauthorization of the legislation, due by fall 2002. And this think tank work was noted; scholars from the Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institution, Progressive Policy Institute, and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities obtained media visibility for this work that greatly exceeded that for the work of counterparts on the issue based at universities.8

The presence of these conflicting, highly visible expert voices illustrates the great distance between historical and scholarly understandings of experts and the ways in which they are most visible and active today. The example points as well to the central role of think tanks in producing research in contemporary policy debates. Many of the most visible expert voices today emanate from public policy think tanks. These think tanks have contributed to a transformation in the role of experts in American policy making. Many experts now behave like advocates. They are not just visible but highly contentious as well. They more actively market their work than conventional views of experts would suggest; their work, in turn, often represents pre-formed points of view rather than even attempts at neutral, rational analysis.

This book examines these developments and their consequences for American policy making. In his analysis of the attributes and roles of experts, Kingdon clearly differentiates the "policy community" from the "political people." Policy experts are part of the former. In his revised edition of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy, he remains committed to the view that politicians and experts operate in mutually exclusive spheres. He observes:

As to the policy and political streams, I still find it useful to portray them as independent of one another, but then sometimes joined. . . . The policy community concentrates on matters like technical detail, cost-benefit analyses, gathering data, conducting studies, and honing proposals. The political people, by contrast, paint with a broad brush, are involved in many more issue areas than the policy people are, and concentrate on winning elections, promoting parties, and mobilizing support in the larger polity.9

Kingdon maintains that researchers and research organizations are generally peripheral to the hard-fought endgames of policy making. Their research is brought to bear by others, including elected officials, interest group leaders, and journalists, who are among the "political people."

Like Kingdon, scholars in the first half of the twentieth century believed that social scientists were equipped to improve the quality of political debate by providing methodologically rigorous, defensible (if not irrefutable) prescriptions for solving policy problems and that they could and should do so while remaining detached, without becoming mired in the messy and divisive political process.10 A similar basic view persisted after World War II. In a volume about the Policy Sciences, published in 1951, Easton Rothwell predicted:

The policy sciences can serve the need for clarification. They offer rapidly developing techniques for making assumptions explicit and for testing their validity in terms of both the basic values which policy seeks to realize and the actualities of human relations to which policy must be applied. By the method of converting general principles into specific indices of action, the policy sciences provide criteria by which to test the applicability of general principles in specific situations. They also equip the policy-maker with a sufficiently sharp image of the full implications of given postulates to enable him to avoid conflicts of principle within the program of action.11

Such optimism was echoed by Harold Lasswell, who added the caveat that "the policy approach is not to be confounded with the superficial idea that social scientists ought to desert science and engage full time in practical politics. Nor should it be confused with the suggestion that social scientists ought to spend most of their time advising policy-makers on immediate questions."12 Through much of the twentieth century, it was viewed as neither desirable that experts should be nor realistic that they could be influential by engaging directly with policy makers in active political debates.

Yet it is a central determination of this book that many contemporary policy experts do seek an active and direct role in ongoing political debates. Far from maintaining a detached neutrality, policy experts are frequently aggressive advocates for ideas and ideologies; they even become brokers of political compromise. Many of these most aggressive experts are based at think tanks; think tanks have become an infrastructure and an engine for their efforts.

The Study of Think Tanks

I attribute substantial importance to a type of organization that has received little scholarly attention. Fewer than a dozen books published since 1970 focus on American think tanks.13 No articles specifically about think tanks have appeared in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, or the Journal of Politics in the past thirty years, nor in the major policy or sociology journals. By contrast, scores of books and articles have been published about other types of nongovernmental organizations, particularly interest groups.14

One reason why think tanks historically have been granted little attention by social scientists relates to the traditional characteristics of think tanks; another relates to the biases of social scientists, especially political scientists. On the one hand, until the 1960s, American think tanks were generally low-profile actors in the policymaking process. Think tank scholars developed important and frequently used research and ideas for policy makers to assimilate, but these scholars rarely debated them publicly or in highly visible ways either with one another or with other influential actors in the political process.15 As Kent Weaver recalls, Brookings scholars had a running joke that their "books [we]re written for policymakers and read by college students."16 Think tank research was generally not intended to grab headlines but rather to become infused into the political lexicon over time. This low profile has contributed to their attracting little scholarly attention.

The lack of attention to think tanks also reflects the outlook of the scholars who might be most likely to study them. Political scientists have long had difficulty accounting for the role of ideas and expertise in American politics, the principal products of think tanks. As Peter Hall observes:

Ideas are generally acknowledged to have an influence over policymaking. . . . But that role is not easily described. Any attempt to specify the conditions under which ideas acquire political influence inevitably teeters on the brink of reductionism, while the failure to make such an attempt leaves a large lacuna at the center of our understanding of public policy.17

A generation of political science scholarship has largely neglected this "lacuna," treating interests, often tied to economically rational calculations, as the principal and overriding source of power in American policy making. In these characterizations, ideas and expertise represent strategic currency in the defense of interests but not substantively important and independent forces.18

This limited view of the role of expertise may have been more justifiable in an era when the underlying "rules of the game" were basically agreed by scholars to consist of a "consensus" in support of expanding social welfare commitments on the domestic front. Through the 1960s and 1970s, competing interests may have been legitimately more central to the policymaking process than contending ideas of the appropriate role and scope of government.19 When the underlying tenets of Keynesian economics were basically shared by Republicans and Democrats alike, for example, visible battles were often restricted to competing interests' claims to public privileges and resources.20

Through this period a diverse literature emerged about the attributes and influence of visible and aggressive interest-based organizations.21 Many scholars illuminated the efforts and underlying biases associated with interest group politics and the people who participate in the organization of these groups.22 This empirical scholarship, however, pays little attention to ideas, expertise, or ideological cleavages, and it virtually ignores the efforts of think tanks and experts generally in the political and policymaking processes.

Interestingly, while the political environment by many accounts began to favor the preferences of conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, interest group scholars focused particular energy on understanding the proliferation of mostly liberal public interest and citizen groups. Since Berry's assessment of the proliferation and influence of mostly liberal-minded public interest groups, scholars have followed his example with extensive analysis of the origins, membership, and influence of these organizations.23 While an important area of study, public interest group scholarship and the interest group literature more generally are of little help in coming to terms with the relationship of organizational politics with the ascendance of conservative principles and ideologies in American politics. By contrast, a focus on think tanks helps to draw links between organized group efforts and developments in the broader political environment.24

As the number of think tanks has grown in recent decades, well more than half of those that have emerged have represented identifiable ideological proclivities in their missions and research. The overwhelming majority of these ideological think tanks have been broadly conservative, producing work that favors limited government, free enterprise, and personal freedom. So as contending ideas and ideologies have risen in profile as the principal fodder of political and policy debates, and as think tanks have themselves become more often ideological - frequently conservative - and aggressively promotional, think tanks and their products have come to warrant greater attention. An appreciation of think tanks is helpful not just for understanding the political role of expertise and ideas in American policy making but for accounting for how ideology informs policy making.25

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of tables
List of figures
1 The political demography of think tanks 1
2 The evolution of think tanks 29
3 Political credibility 74
4 The policy roles of experts 104
5 Policy influence : making research matter 152
6 Think tanks, experts, and American politics 204
App. A Details on the characteristics, perceptions, and visibility of think tanks 221
App. B List of in-depth interviews 233
Works cited 239
Index 253
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