The Sociology of Think-Tanks

This article in The Nation is likely to cause some considerable embarrassment to the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Though the think tank didn’t disclose it, First Solar belonged to CAP’s Business Alliance, a secret group of corporate donors, according to internal lists obtained by The Nation. Meanwhile, José Villarreal—a consultant at the power-
house law and lobbying firm Akin Gump, who “provides strategic counseling on a range of legal and policy issues” for 
corporations—was on First Solar’s board until April 2012 while also sitting on the board of CAP, where he remains a member, according to the group’s latest tax filing. … Nowadays, many Washington think tanks effectively serve as unregistered lobbyists for corporate donors, and companies strategically contribute to them just as they hire a PR or lobby shop or make campaign donations. And unlike lobbyists and elected officials, think tanks are not subject to financial disclosure requirements, so they reveal their donors only if they choose to.

However, it would be grossly simplistic to see think tanks as just clandestine lobbying shops. UC San Diego sociologist Thomas Medvetz has an interesting book on the delicate balancing acts that think tanks have to perform in order to continue and to succeed. He borrows his ideas from Pierre Bourdieu, arguing that think tanks are in a liminal position between the worlds of politics, literature and academia, trying to borrow prestige from each of these worlds while resisting being defined by them. This article provides a shorter version of Medvetz’ argument:

there is a certain danger for a think tank in achieving ‘‘too much’’ political access, or in any case, access of the wrong form. Doubtless the greatest danger is that of becoming transparently tied to a single party, interest group, or political candidate (even if the strategy may have short term advantages). Indeed, the history of think tanks is replete with cases of organizations that enjoyed a brief moment in the sun by virtue of some privileged form of access to a specific political network or agency, only to be pushed to the margins of the think tank world when that access either evaporated or lost its value. The Progressive Policy Institute, for example, a think tank once considered influential as the intellectual base of the New Democrat movement, offers a clear case in point. By the end of the Clinton presidency, PPI’s status among think tanks had fallen considerably along with that of the Democratic Leadership Council that sustained it.

While think tanks can dance along the abyss of out-and-out hackishness (indeed they often have to, both for financial resources and certain kinds of legitimation), they cannot allow themselves to fall in. Instead, they shift back and forwards between different kinds of legitimation, manipulating the exchange rates between the different kinds of social capital offered by academe, journalism and politics. Some think tanks (e.g. the New America Foundation) are closer to journalism (although perhaps that will change a little under Anne-Marie Slaughter’s presidency). Others (e.g. Brookings) are closer to the academic world. Yet none want to be defined too precisely, since that would limit their flexibility – their stock of capital rests not only on their connection to academia, journalism or whatever, but the fact that they do not belong to academia, journalism or whatever. Likely, the CAP’s ability to redefine itself in future has been significantly limited by these revelations – rightly or wrongly it will be harder for CAP in future to plead disinterested research morals, or journalistic integrity.

(lightly re-edited for clarity).

3 Responses to The Sociology of Think-Tanks

  1. jonathan May 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    I think of think tanks as essentially a repeating method: this is our take and we apply it over and over.

  2. Brett Glass May 22, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Think tanks are just lobbying shops that masquerade as “educational” or “public interest” groups to avoid taxes. The fact that they are not required to disclose their donor lists makes it difficult for the public to call them out as the corporate lobbyists they are; for example, the New America Foundation is essentially a lobbing shop for Google, Inc., whose Eric Schmidt is its chairman.

    If you wanted to start a lobbying firm in DC today, you’d have two choices: start it up as a law firm or PR firm (in which case it’d pay taxes) or make it a faux nonprofit. The latter approach has so many advantages — not only in monetary terms but in terms of secrecy and difficulty of falsifying the group’s claims to be part of the “public interest” community — that it’s becoming the way to go.

  3. LFC May 24, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    The fine art of debate at The Monkey Cage:

    Henry Farrell in the OP: “it would be grossly simplistic to see think tanks as just clandestine lobbying shops.”

    A commenter named Brett Glass: “Think tanks are just lobbying shops that masquerade as “educational” or “public interest” groups to avoid taxes.”

    End of discussion.

    Actually think tanks are not just lobbying shops. If Brookings is a lobbying shop, why the f*ck does it bother to publish a hundred books a year (or whatever the number is)?