Rethinking the Think Tank

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
November 1, 2015

The debilitating weakness in our democracy today is the growing disconnect between government and citizens. Most Americans now believe that our political system is broken. It is indifferent to the views of the majority. It is captured by monied interests. And it is rarely able to deliver solutions to big problems. The grand bargains of yesteryear’s politics are gone, replaced by the politics of protest.

A hundred years ago, American government was in similar crisis. Civic leaders responded to social inequalities and toxic politics by building the Progressive Movement. Reformers from the right and the left sought to overhaul machine politics and address the tremendous social challenges created by the economic transformations of the Industrial Age. It was in this context that the nation’s first policy research organizations, later known as “think tanks,” were created. Their contribution to the cause of good government was to offer nonpartisan, independent analysis to policymakers. The outputs of these “idea factories” enabled progressive reform for decades by delivering expert counsel and innovative ideas. From the Marshall Plan to USAID to the end of don’t ask, don’t tell, think tanks have helped shape modern America.

Today, it is not enough. Objective research from think tanks can still play an important role in federal policymaking. But the think tank as a policy institution has not adapted fast enough to escape the dysfunction of Washington. Even superb policy analysis seldom results in policy change. One reason is that expert positions in many debates are alien to the mobilized bases of both parties. (Technocratic insiders in D.C. gravitate toward compromise positions that can achieve a result within realistic political constraints.) Another is that the desire to score partisan points trumps the effort to get something done irrespective of whether the “right answer” is served up on a silver platter. Meanwhile, a plethora of specialized research institutions funded by trade associations, corporations, and partisan donors on both right and left have led many to question the objectivity of the policy positions adopted.

It is time to propose rethinking the think tank to meet these evolving challenges. The central mission is the same—to help solve public problems—but the form and function of the work must adapt. The theory of action of the traditional think tank is that change comes from the top-down adoption or abolition of laws and regulations. Papers and reports advocating specific changes are, of course, directly influenced by bottom-up political movements, from labor organizing to interest group coalitions. But the energy of such movements is typically harnessed to pass or block laws in a legislative process that is removed from direct engagement with people. Today, that model is too elitist, too narrow, and too slow.

Read the full piece at Washington Monthly