One of the many ways that the American political scene differs from that of Britain is that the U.S. is home to vastly more think tanks, with larger budgets. The latest report from the University of Pennsylvania finds that the U.S. has 1, 815 think tanks, compared to the U.K.’s 286. Admittedly, the U.K.’s total is a more than respectable share of the E.U.’s total of 1,485, and it’s obviously not inherently the case that more is better, but the disproportion between the U.S. and the rest, including Britain, is still marked. The same imbalance appears when it comes to budgets. The last time I checked, in early 2008, the top 12 think tanks in Britain spent about as much collectively as one top-tier American think tank. I doubt the gap has shrunk in the interim.
But all is not necessarily well in the world of American think tanks. Working as I do at the Heritage Foundation, and writing for the Centre for Policy Studies, may put me in danger of mistaking the trees for the forest. Still, British readers should check out Tevi Troy’s article “Devaluing the Think Tank,” in the latest issue of National Affairs, available free online. Troy’s claim is that U.S. think tanks play “a central role in policy development,” but that, “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.”
The result, he argues, is that think tanks risk becoming “part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics,” rather than a source of alternative policies and innovative ideas. It’s a sign of the times, for example, when a group of conservatives, “impressed by the effectiveness of the liberal Center for American Progress” – which is rated by UPenn in the top 20 of worldwide think tanks – recently announced they were founding the Center for American Freedom as an advocacy group to oppose “the liberal domination of partisan online media.” This may be a very useful development, but it’s avowedly not going to be a Troy-style think tank.
If read carelessly, Troy’s article leads to the conclusion that there used to be a golden age of apolitical think tanks, and that we are now into the silver age, or perhaps even the tin one. It certainly befits conservatives to believe that some things may have been better in the past, but Troy notes – most explicitly in his conclusion – that the older model of the think tank was actually quite political, though not openly so. It was based on the Progressive belief in the top-down expert, working to embody and develop an elite consensus that had only “a patina of objectivity.” The rapid growth in the number of American think tanks in the 1970s and afterwards was in part a result of the breakdown of belief in that elite consensus, just as Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph’s creation of CPS was a result of their turn away from the British post-war consensus. But neither in Britain nor, certainly, in Europe, did the consensus fracture as totally as it did in the U.S., with the natural result that there are now more think tanks in Washington, DC than there are in all of Britain or Germany.
There is much in Troy’s case that is worthy of careful thought. But he also neglects a few points, ones that are relevant to understanding American politics – and may even have some applicability to Britain. First, while Troy points out the tremendous growth in the number of U.S. think tanks, he does not point out that something else has grown over time: the size of congressional staffs. To take one data point, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had 11 staffers in 1973, when Heritage was founded; by 1996, it had 65. Whether that’s too many, too few, or just about right is not at issue; the fact is that U.S. congressional offices and committees have more bodies to throw at policy problems than they used to, and thus a greater ability to come up with their own proposals without referring to think tanks. As I’ve argued for CPS, Commons committees are if anything understaffed, so without endorsing big government, this is a place when the U.K. could learn a lesson from the U.S. But the rise of the Hill staff does have implications for the place and role of the American think tank.
Second, Troy doesn’t say much about the legal environment in the U.S. I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll tread carefully on this, and just note that, working as I do at a think tank that has tax status as a non-partisan, non-profit charitable organization, I am exceptionally careful to do nothing that would violate that status. Every contact I have with a Hill staffer, for example, must be measured against the total amount of contact time I am legally allowed, with the result that I am much less free than the rest of my family – who don’t work at think tanks – to take part in normal political activity. This legal environment is in part the creation of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (2007), which came in response to one of America’s periodic moments of concern about the activities of lobbyists. But legal remedies like this usually have unintended consequences, and one result of defining the activities of non-profits more tightly has been – paradoxically – to encourage the creation of organizations that are allowed to lobby, in order to protect the legal status of those that are not.
Third, Troy’s model appears to be based on the belief that, as the elite consensus has broken down, American politics have become more partisan – or at least more obviously partisan – and has dragged think tanks along with it. As I’ve noted, I’m sympathetic to the argument that there used to be an elite consensus that has now broken down. But I tend to think that what matters in today’s context is not so much that American politics have become more partisan, but that they’ve become better sorted. In other words, what’s happened is less that the parties are struggling more fiercely, and more that the Republicans and the Democrats have become, respectively, more purely conservative or liberal.
If you look at the scorecard of Heritage’s sister organization, Heritage Action, for example, you’ll see that every Republican Senator scores as more conservative than every Democratic Senator. Other surveys record the same development – and note that most of the very few legislators who were the exception to this trend were out of office by the end of 2010. As a result, as Ronald Brownstein notes, Congress is becoming “an institution defined by much greater partisan discipline and philosophical conformity.” Of course, it might be the case that the breakdown of the elite consensus is ultimately responsible for increased polarization – but the process has been slow enough that it’s useful to treat them as separate, even if perhaps related, phenomena.
Whether polarization is good or bad is a difficult question, but this sorting phenomenon means that it has become more difficult for think tanks to play the kind of role that Troy believes they should play: better sorted parties offer fewer footholds for innovative ideas, because persuasion is decreasingly important in determining the outcome of votes. American politics are in this sense becoming more parliamentary. This is a development that American political scientists have long hungered for, but now that it’s dawning, awareness is spreading that a parliamentary approach – especially when overlaid on a non-parliamentary system – may not be all it was cracked up to being.
One response to this is, simply, ‘so what?’ Well, Troy offers a number of answers to that question. My own take is that conservatives have (at least) three reasons to be concerned. First, the status quo in the U.S. is that of the bureaucratic, administrative, top-down, entitlement-offering, Progressive state. To the extent that Troy characterizes the state of the think tanks and American politics accurately, he describes a system where achieving policy change is very, very difficult – and because the current political order is fundamentally liberal, it’s the conservatives who want change and get the short end of the stick, while the liberals, who are in favor of stasis, have no great reason to be dissatisfied with how things are going.
Second – and here I agree with Troy – the profusion of think tanks, and the politicization that he tracks, threaten to devalue the work of serious policy analysis. As someone employed to do exactly that kind of analysis, I am understandably not enthusiastic about the risk of seeing my work devalued. The same phenomena may eventually take hold in Britain: it’s interesting that in UPenn’s survey, Amnesty International is ranked as the second most influential think tank in Western Europe. Whatever else Amnesty may be, it’s not a think tank in the model of Chatham House, which ranks first. And this problem of devaluation leads to my third concern: to a considerable extent, as Troy points out, the conservative movement in the U.S. has done so well since the 1970s because it’s had better ideas. If Troy’s describing the world correctly, those ideas run the risk of receiving less and less of a hearing, or perhaps even of becoming thinner on the ground altogether.
Again, this is less of a problem for liberals: as long as America’s entitlement state exists in roughly its current form, they’re winning. Now, admittedly, sooner or later, events – known as running out of money – will break the liberal winning streak. But that’s not the kind of victory conservatives want to win, because it would not be a victory for American society or America’s role in the world. It certainly wouldn’t do conservatives in Britain any good either: an actual American bankruptcy would hurt Britain’s interests, just as a conservative American intellectual bankruptcy would impoverish British conservatism. So while Troy’s article doesn’t shed much light on who will win in 2012, it’s one of those pieces that Britons with an interest in the underlying factors of American politics should ponder, because at bottom, it’s as much about the discontents of the system as it is about think tanks.