Over the past half-century, think tanks have become fixtures of American politics, supplying advice to presidents and policy makers, expert testimony on Capitol Hill, and convenient facts and figures to journalists and media specialists. But what are think tanks? Who funds them? What kind of “research” do they produce? Where does their authority come from? And how influential have they become? In Think Tanks in America, Thomas Medvetz argues that the unsettling ambiguity of the think tank is less an accidental feature of its existence than the very key to its impact. By combining elements of more established sources of public knowledge—universities, government agencies, businesses, and the media—think tanks exert a tremendous amount of influence on the way citizens and lawmakers perceive the world, unbound by the more clearly defined roles of those other institutions. In the process, they transform the government of this country, the press, and the political role of intellectuals. Timely, succinct, and instructive, this provocative book will force us to rethink our understanding of the drivers of political debate in the United States.
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Think Tanks in America
By THOMAS MEDVETZ
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Rethinking the Think Tank
The peculiar difficulty of sociology, then, is to produce a precise science of an imprecise, fuzzy, wooly reality. For this it is better that its concepts be polymorphic, supple, and adaptable, rather than defined, calibrated, and used rigidly. —Loïc Wacquant
For the scholar who wishes to understand the think tank and its place in American society, the basic problem is that the central concept itself is fuzzy, mutable, and contentious. As Simon James noted a little more than a decade ago, "Discussion of think tanks ... has a tendency to get bogged down in the vexed question of defining what we mean by 'think tank'—an exercise which often degenerates into futile semantics." While the academic discussion on this topic has certainly deepened in the intervening years, the view I will develop in this chapter is that the so-called "dilemma of definition" to which James and other scholars have pointed has never truly been resolved. The task I set for myself, then, is to render the subject matter of this book more intelligible while still preserving a sense of the fuzziness that I will insist is built into the think tank itself. As Wacquant suggests in the epigraph above, social reality itself is inevitably "wooly" and imprecise. It is for this reason that we will need to develop a conceptual approach to think tanks that remains flexible while still capturing the particular kind of wooliness they exhibit.
My argument will be that think tanks are best analyzed, not as organizations of an entirely novel or discrete "type," but as a constitutively blurry network of organizations, themselves internally divided by the opposing logics of academic, political, economic, and media production. To clarify the status of these ambiguous creatures, I will apply and extend the analytic method developed by Pierre Bourdieu, especially as it is built into the concepts of social space, field, capital, and field of power. My starting point will be to establish what Bourdieu (quoting philosopher Gaston Bachelard) calls an "epistemological break" from both everyday and scholastic commonsense uses of the term. As I will show, these uses typically rest on the false presupposition that think tanks are marked by formal independence from bureaucratic, market, academic, and media institutions. This is an arbitrary and misleading definitional assumption, I will show, inasmuch as think tanks are also genetically dependent on the same institutions for their resources, personnel, and legitimacy. Any definition of a think tank based on the idea of independence or dependence is bound to miss the fact that the opposition itself poses a strategic dilemma for the think tank. To be recognized as a think tank in the first place, an organization must gather a complex mixture of institutionalized resources (or forms of capital, in Bourdieu's terminology) from the academic, political, economic, and media fields. However, the same organization must also seek to avoid the appearance of complete dependence on any of these institutions.
To manage this dilemma, I will argue, think tanks perform a complex juggling act that involves using each form of association to mark their putative separation from the other institutions. For example, the best strategy available to a think tank for avoiding the charge that it is simply a "lobbying firm in disguise" is to bolster its academic credibility by aligning itself temporarily with the world of scholarly production. By the same token, a think tank can avoid the charge that it is merely an "ivory tower" institution—disconnected from everyday political battles—only by boosting its political know-how and cultivating extensive ties to politicians, activists, and other political actors. Nevertheless, the danger of having "too much" political connectedness is that of appearing subservient to a particular party or political faction—a risk that can be mitigated through financial independence. To raise money, a think tank must orient itself to the market for donations by tailoring its work to the interests of potential sponsors. Finally, think tanks can bolster the image of independence by seeking publicity, which nevertheless requires establishing social ties to journalists and media institutions. The result of this "quadruple bind" is a precarious and never-ending balancing act, or a dynamic game of separation and attachment vis-à-vis the fields of academic, political, economic, and media production.
These observations push the discussion of think tanks beyond a conventional reading of Bourdieu's field theory. After all, I will argue, think tanks seem to thrive, not as members of a particular field, but in what sociologist Gil Eyal calls the "spaces between fields." The idea of a space between fields will therefore become useful for capturing a key dimension of the think tank's existence: namely, its capacity to suspend conventional questions of identity, to establish novel forms and combinations, and to claim for itself a kind of mediating role in the social structure. Yet there is a twist to my argument. The twist is that as think tanks have become ever more enmeshed in relations of "antagonistic cooperation" with one another, they have also developed certain field-like properties of their own. To reconcile these two points, I will depict think tanks as members of an interstitial field, or a semi-structured network of organizations that traverses, links, and overlaps the more established spheres of academic, political, business, and media production. The upshot of this approach is that we must combine two separate but complementary modes of analysis: On the one side, we must pay special attention to the curious forms of freedom and flexibility that think tanks enjoy by virtue of their liminal positions in social space. On the other side, we must try to understand the specific illusio of policy research, or the historically unique form of interest that makes membership in a think tank compelling to a particular category of social agents. The tension between these two modes of analysis will remain a major theme in this book, one that can be resolved only through a historical approach.
A Murky Object: Think Tanks in Popular Discourse
A brief history of the term think tank will offer some sense of the semantic continuities and discontinuities marking its use over the last century and a half. Dating to the late nineteenth century, the phrase itself did not originally refer to an organization. Instead, it was a colloquial and often vaguely condescending expression for a person's head or brain. Playful references to "think tanks" can be found in novels, advertisements, and newspaper articles from the 1890s until about the 1960s. The first-ever mention of the phrase in the New York Times, for example, appeared in an 1898 crime report in which a one-armed vagrant caught trespassing in the home of a wealthy Harlem couple pled with the arresting officer: "Say, cop ... Something's the matter with me think tank." A few years earlier, a Washington Post sportswriter described a disappointing Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder as a good hitter who nonetheless "lacks a balance wheel in his 'think tank.'" What is arguably most striking about these early uses is how often they refer to some kind of lack or failing of the mind, and to a suspicion of the intellect in general. Thus among the Oxford English Dictionary's sample sentences is a passage from a 1964 newspaper article in which former President Harry Truman jokes about the onset of senility: "Truman ... said he hoped to live to be 90 but only 'if the old think-tank is working.'"
The Oxford English Dictionary lists the organizational sense of the term think tank as having entered the English language in 1958. One particular organization appears to have enabled this semantic shift from brain to research organization. This was the Stanford University–based Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), which acquired the nickname "the Think Tank" (singular, and usually capitalized) around this time for its high concentration of "brainpower" and technical proficiency. Until 1960, nearly all published references to think tanks as organizations referred specifically to CASBS, although for reasons I will discuss below, the center today does not count itself (and is not typically counted) as a think tank. In 1958, the New York Times noted with seeming fascination CASBS's "formidable generating capacity in cerebral energy" and the "virtually complete freedom" its fellows enjoyed "to pursue their work as they wish ..., [to] set up free swinging topical discussion groups or lead a semi-monastic life reading and writing." Descriptions of this sort helped establish the first of two foundational ideas that now underpin the folk concept think tank: the idea that a think tank is a privileged sanctuary for independent reflection and analysis on matters of public importance.
Over the next decade, the semantic reach of the term grew considerably, and its center of gravity shifted accordingly. Most often, think tank referred to meetings of experts convened by political or market actors, sometimes in conjunction with universities, to offer "advice and ideas on national or commercial problems." A Washington Post postmortem on the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, for example, alluded to "the 'think tank'—the name Republican politicians contemptuously gave to Sen. Goldwater's brain-trust at the Republican National Committee." In this and other cases, the term's meaning was both informal and vague. A notable shift in usage occurred in the 1960s, however, as the term began to attach more consistently to the growing set of post–World War II military planning agencies, of which the RAND Corporation was the prototype. This change was likely abetted by the double meaning of the word tank, as both a repository (of knowledge, technical proficiency, etc.) and a military vehicle. At the same time, several organizations that are today counted as exemplary think tanks were not typically classified as such in public discourse. I am referring to the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and several other policy-oriented research centers established during the Progressive Era. During the 1960s, journalists and public figures usually referred to these organizations on a case-by-case basis using generic terms such as "research institute," "private research center," and "nonprofit research corporation." As I will elaborate in the next chapter, these organizations were not consistently associated with the military planning groups, or with other organizations later described as think tanks.
Muddying the term's meaning further in the 1960s were occasional references to think tanks that alluded, not to brains or research organizations, but to computers and other technical devices. Thus in 1962 a nonprofit organization issued a report predicting that, "Government will become a matter of whirring computers.... The 'think tanks' will successfully invade the managerial field to displace many at the 'middle manager' level."
As many of these examples suggest, a pejorative, sometimes ominous, connotation attached to the term think tank and the people associated with it. Newspaper reporters of the early 1960s were especially given to the idea that think tank–affiliated researchers lived in states of gratuitous luxury, infantile dependence, or narcissistic self-absorption. A 1963 Los Angeles Times profile of the Huntington Hartford Foundation ("Plush Retreat is Genius Think Tank"), for example, managed to capture all three images in its sneering description of the foundation as a "154-acre establishment" that "rooms, boards and cleans up after its Fellows." Surrounded by "lush eucalyptus trees ... spectacular canyon vantage points [and] border-to-border quiet," the article noted, the Huntington Hartford Foundation fellow lives in a "modern cottage" with "none of the discomforts of home, such as bedeviled children, borrowing neighbors or braying telephones. He may have visitors, but only if he invites them.... He may socialize with his peers at breakfast and dinner in the main building but the world has been simplified for him so that it revolves around his private pursuit of what may be beautiful or true." The same article also mentioned a local joke that mistook the foundation for a treatment center for albinos, when in fact "any pallor or pink eyes had ... come from the indoor non-sport of artistic effort." As I will argue later in the book, think tanks have long been sites in which the question of the social value of intellectual activity is posed most acutely. Accordingly, they have become focal points for both pro- and anti-intellectual strains of American cultural discourse.
The term think tank came into wider use in American public discourse during the 1970s as the number of organizations devoted expressly to public policy research and planning grew exponentially. As I will discuss in chapter 3, the so-called "advocacy explosion" of this era yielded dozens of new organizations designed to influence policy making through the application of social research. At the same time, a profusion of journalistic accounts announced the arrival of think tanks on the national political scene. Paul Dickson's 1971 book Think Tanks is one notable example of this pattern that also offers a snapshot of the category's shifting boundary. In keeping with earlier uses of the term, Dickson focused largely on the postwar military planning groups to the relative neglect of their Progressive Era predecessors. (For example, the book contains an entire chapter on the RAND Corporation, whereas the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the American Enterprise Institute garner no mention at all.) Nevertheless, Dickson's book is also noteworthy for describing the Brookings Institution as a think tank—something that was rare at the time—albeit on only 8 of the text's 363 pages.
Over the next two decades, the meaning of the term gradually became more codified in public discourse as a body of writing on the topic grew. As the next section will elaborate, the emergence of an academic literature on the subject was a key part of this process, and one that cannot be separated from the discursive creation of the think tank. During the same period, as a category of social actors began to identify themselves with the term, think tanks entered the competition to define themselves. The publication of numerous think tank directories during the 1990s and 2000s, including the National Institute for Research Advancement's (NIRA) World Directory of Think Tanks, gave the category further recognizability and geographic reach. Also part of this pattern were numerous reports on think tanks issued by foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and other civil society organizations, which increasingly interacted with them. In 2003, for example, the United Nations Development Program published a frequently cited definition of think tanks as "organizations engaged on a regular basis in research and advocacy on any matter related to public policy." Despite the term's growing codification, however, the absence of any firm legal basis for the category ensured that its boundary remained fuzzy, both in general public and specialized political discourses. In the United States, most organizations that are now described as think tanks operate as 501(c)(3)s ("charitable, non-profit, religious, and educational") under the Internal Revenue Code. However, some do not. Furthermore, the vast majority of 501(c)(3)s—of which more than a million exist in the United States—are rarely or never described as think tanks. Nor does the tax category have direct counterparts in other national settings, where think tanks are also a growing part of public life.
The increasing prevalence of activist and advocacy-oriented think tanks after 1970 gave rise to the second major idea underpinning the present-day folk concept. In many writings, think tanks are depicted as stables for "hired guns" whose seeming intellectualism is only a veneer for their self-interest or servility. Because this image is virtually the opposite of the first, the semantic content of the term think tank now oscillates between two radically different profiles in public discourse. On the one side is the idea of the privileged haven or sanctuary for intellectuals. One finds this image, for example, in popular writings that describe think tank–affiliated actors as "public intellectuals." In 2006, the Economist, under the heading "Public intellectuals are thriving in the United States," cited the existence of "Grand Academies in the form of lavishly-funded think-tanks, well over 100 of them in Washington alone" to support its view that in "the world of public policy today ... it is America that is the land of the intellectuals and Europe that is the intellect-free zone." On the other side, however, is the image of the think tank as a mercenary organization—or essentially a lobbying firm in disguise. Christopher Buckley's satirical novel Thank You for Smoking captures this latter idea well in its sardonic portrayal of a think tank–like organization called the Academy of Tobacco Studies that operates as a shameless front group for the tobacco industry. (The novel's main character, Nick Naylor, is a charismatic but disreputable PR virtuoso who boasts of his ability to defend virtually any claim, no matter how untenable.) A similar portrait of the think tank occasionally appears in journalistic accounts, such as the four-part National Public Radio series whose title ("Under the Influence") suggested that Washington think tanks were marked by a combination of servility and mental impairment.
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Table of ContentsContents List of Tables and Figures Acknowledgments Abbreviations Prologue: Gaining Ground: The Rise of the Policy Expert Chapter 1. Indistinction: Rethinking the Think Tank Chapter 2. Experts in the Making: On the Birth of Technoscientific Reason Chapter 3. The Crystallization of the Space of Think Tanks Chapter 4. The Rules of Policy Research Chapter 5. From Deprivation to Dependency: Expert Discourse and the American Welfare Debate Chapter 6. Conclusion: Anti-intellectualism, Public Intellectualism, and Public Sociology Revisited Appendix A: Note on Data Sources Appendix B: Supplementary Graphs and Tables Notes References Index