America's once-respected think tanks have broken their trust with the public and turned into little more than lobbyists, according to a report this month in the Boston Globe. Supposedly objective think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress have ramped up their lobbying and are now "pursuing fiercely partisan agendas." They have set up separate advocacy organizations to influence legislators, and they conduct extensive lobbying toward the public at large.
While the Globe's attention to this problem is welcome, the politicization of think tanks has, frankly, been underway for a long time. The launch of the 501(c)(4) lobbying arms is just the latest turn. Many modern think tanks serve only to provide a thin veneer of scholarly-sounding rhetoric to positions grounded in narrow self-interest.
Ed Feulner, the president of Heritage Foundation for nearly 30 years, made clear the primacy of marketing in a think tank's mission as long ago as 1986. In a speech he gave to the Public Relations Society of America he said: "Proctor and Gamble does not sell Crest toothpaste by placing one newspaper ad or running one television commercial. They sell it and resell it every day by keeping the product fresh in the consumer's mind. Organizations like Heritage Foundation sell ideas in much the same manner."
The Globe article suggests that the Center for American Progress, or CAP, led the way toward a more politicized approach. "What sets CAP apart," they say, "is that, from the moment it was created, its founders sought to aggressively push an agenda on Congress and the White House." Yet at the time CAP was established in 2004, muscular, politically active think tanks on the right were generally larger, better funded, and more marketing-oriented than their counterparts on the left. Rather than leading the way, the liberals were attempting to catch-up to a long term dynamic that arguable dates to the 1971 Powell Memorandum.
The politicization of think tanks is ultimately harmful to the prosperity and security of the United States. Politicians may be able to mislead the public about the facts for a long time, but at the end of the day, facts matter. Is global warming real or not? Does the use of antibiotics in livestock generate drug-resistant bacteria? Do tough mandatory sentencing rules deter crime? Do pre-school enrichment programs help kids from poor families graduate from high school and get good jobs? Does austerity help an economy recover faster than stimulus?
We all have opinions about these things, but in the long run, if we delude ourselves about what policies work and what policies don't, then we are worse off.
Unfortunately, while some think tanks continue to do good, solid objective work, the field as a whole is now tainted with partisanship, and this taint undermines even the best think tanks. Reporters often label think tanks with their political affiliation e.g. "conservative Heritage Foundation" or "left leaning Center for American Progress," and these labels discourage Americans from taking their work seriously.
In more lucid moments, both conservatives and liberals understand the importance of objective, unbiased inquiry. Liberals proudly affirm their membership in the "reality-based community," despite the ridicule famously heaped on them by a senior George W. Bush advisor. Respected conservative intellectuals decry what they call "epistemic closure" – a willful disregard of objective facts in deference to ideological purity. Earlier, conservative icon Ayn Rand emphasized the overriding importance of cold, hard truth over opinion in deciding matters of national importance.
We need think tanks – both liberal and conservative – that do serious, scholarly objective analysis of the problems facing the United States and the potential solutions. The stakes are too high to settle for less.
David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.