National Affairs, Winter 2012
January 3, 2012
by Tevi Troy
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One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policymakers on the work of think tanks. Most Americans — even most of those who follow politics closely — would probably struggle to name a think tank or to explain precisely what a think tank does. Yet over the past half-century, think tanks have come to play a central role in policy development — and even in the surrounding political combat.
Over that period, however, the balance between those two functions — policy development and political combat — has been steadily shifting. And with that shift, the work of Washington think tanks has undergone a transformation. Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition's ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.
Some new think tanks have even been created as direct responses to particular, narrow political exigencies. As each party has drawn lessons from various electoral failures over recent decades, their conclusions have frequently pointed to the need for new think tanks (often modeled on counterparts on the opposite side of the political aisle).
After Democrats lost the 2000 elections, for example, some liberal intellectuals and activists concluded that they were being outgunned in the arena of political communication, and created, among other institutions, the Center for American Progress — a think tank with a heavy emphasis on message development. And in 2008, after Republicans lost amid deep concern about the financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn, some conservatives concluded that they needed more creative economic thinking, and this yielded, among other projects, e21 — a right-of-center economic-policy think tank based in Washington and New York. This trend — which might be summed up as "lose an election, gain a think tank" — has not only increased the proliferation of such institutions, but has also tended to make their work all the more responsive to political needs and developments, for better and for worse.
Today, think tanks are highly influential in our politics; their research and scholars are heavily consulted and relied on by our elected leaders. And in a time of both daunting policy challenges and highly polarized political debates, there is every reason to expect that think tanks will grow only more important in Washington.
As they become more political, however, think tanks — especially the newer and more advocacy-oriented institutions founded in the past decade or so — risk becoming both more conventional and less valuable. At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation. Given these concerns, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of the Washington think tank and its consequences for the nation. . . .
Tevi Troy is a Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute and served as the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2007 until 2009.
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