To be sure, a significant number of policy groups had existed for decades by the time the Heritage Foundation and its ilk arrived on the scene. But Medvetz focuses on the way these upstarts’ outward, more public-oriented focus influenced their stuffier, better-established counterparts. They attracted significantly more corporate donations, too. Before long, older organizations had no choice but to remake themselves in order to survive. Soon, Brookings hired a full-time public-relations flack, instructed its researches to write op-eds for magazines and newspapers, showcased its findings in two in-house publications, and invited Washington journalists to weekly lunchtime lectures.
This competitive, imitative atmosphere, Medvetz contends, marked the birth of a new sociopolitical space, one “situated at the crossroads of the academic, political, bureaucratic, media, and economic fields . . . .” Newly reliant on public attention, think tanks became marked by relatively fast, assiduously promoted research transmitted via readable reports. Now, of course, they serve as a faithful source of sound bites and relevant data. In order to succeed in today’s “political setting increasingly structured around and responsive to the news media,” think tanks must adapt their work to journalists’ needs. Indeed, some think tanks have absorbed journalists into the fold. Among these is the 15-year-old New America Foundation, which counts two editors among its founders and employs prominent journalists like Katherine Boo and Margaret Talbott. Steve Coll, now the dean of Columbia Journalism School, served as the foundation’s president from 2007 to 2013 and remains a senior fellow there.
Medvetz characterizes the relationship between think tanks and journalists as symbiotic. Media attention gives think tanks—and their potential donors—tangible evidence of political influence. Meanwhile, time-strapped reporters can always rely on think-tank experts for pithy quotes and enough intellectual heft to lend gravitas to most arguments. “Crucially, think tanks with stated ideological agendas are often no less valuable to reporters than ideologically neutral think tanks,” Medvetz writes. After all, reporters are often obligated to present both sides of an issue.
The cumulative effect of these efforts has made think tanks equally central in shaping both punditry and policy. “[Why] should we assume that their effects are focused entirely, or even primarily, within the sphere of official politics?” Medvetz asks. Too right.
But not too Right: Think tanks inevitably pull public debate toward the center. First, though, they must create a center, like Charles Murray did while working for the Manhattan Institute. In 1984, he published Losing Ground, a book that promoted welfare reform and whose prescriptions were dismissed by the Reagan administration as too laissez faire, and derided by academic social scientists for their reliance upon highly selective data. The popular press had no such problems, discussing Losing Ground at such length that it became a cultural touchstone. Around the time Murray published The Bell Curve, Bill Clinton made Murray’s welfare reform a central part of his reelection campaign. As Murray told Medvetz, “Holy shit!”
Although Murray’s runaway success should put to rest any questions about the efficacy of public engagement, think tanks do maintain a pesky credibility problem. While well-connected policy and media experts increase visibility and inspire donations, they also summon the looming specter of the think tank as a coterie of stooges at the mercy of the elite. “The goal of demonstrating intellectual autonomy,” Medvetz writes, “tends to operate at loggerheads with all of the other forms of credibility because it demands insulation from commercial pressures, freedom from political constraint, and relative indifference to publicity.” This conflict results in image control resembling a tightrope walk, its precariousness evident in the Manhattan Institute’s peculiar mission statement: “Combining intellectual seriousness and practical wisdom with intelligent marketing and focused advocacy.”
The responsibility of maintaining a semblance of intellectual freedom rests squarely on the shoulders of the policy experts that think tanks employ. Here, Medvetz’s insistence that think tank-affiliated experts are not total patsies becomes a bit confusing to those of us who haven’t studied sociology on the graduate level, especially since his real-world evidence consists of the testimony of the experts themselves and academic research that suggests, rather meekly, that “think tanks can at times establish a degree of autonomy from their sponsors and political clients.” No matter: Medvetz reminds us that, “the distinction between pure freedom and constraint is of little use when describing most forms of social action, including intellectual production.”
Questions of autonomy aside, Medvetz proffers insight into the mind of the policy expert in pamphlet-worthy form. Think tanks are simply too new and too vague to have a codified set of employee behaviors. Instead, those in the field must look to the more established professions that inform their work, which Medvetz defines as a combination of policy aide, media specialist, scholar, and entrepreneur. The best think-tankers are a little bit of each.