Think Tanks in America
By Thomas Medvetz
University of Chicago Press
344 pages
Hardcover, $32.50

The Public Broadcasting Service’s round-the-clock coverage of the Watergate hearings stands as a weighty moment in the annals of broadcasting, announcing PBS as a public-affairs contender while laying the groundwork for what would become the NewsHour. Lost to history, however, is the disappointment of Stephen Hess, a fellow at the Brookings Institution whom Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer had invited to the WETA studios. Although Hess would have been happy to lend his insights to the PBS broadcast, his boss, Kermit Gordon, disapproved.

In 1973, the idea of a Brookings fellow assuming the duties of a pundit was not only strange but also a bit unsavory. As suppliers of the nation’s premiere policy knowledge, Hess and his fellow technocrats were to share their expertise directly with policymakers and private institutions. What good was Jim Lehrer?

Forty years later, NewsHour ranks among the most coveted venues for a policy expert, and Brookings fellows are better represented on the NewsHour than those from any other policy group. Although a number of internal factors precipitated the change, including a dip in Brookings’ endowment and the death of Gordon, it took a seismic shift in Beltway culture for the august policy organization to undertake a volte-face.

In Think Tanks in America, Thomas Medvetz explains how and why those at Brookings went from media skeptics to media insiders. In so doing, he exposes the curious nature of the think tank itself, delimiting the fuzzy parameters of a field whose very ambiguousness, he argues, defines it. Medvetz, now an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, applies the methodology of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to free the think tank from scholarly and common-sense preconceptions, and create an understanding of the many ways think tanks have shaped policy. He shows how a field that operates in myriad dimensions has transformed the very nature of the public intellectual while deepening the sway of think tanks over the government and the press.

Although his primary audience is an academic one, Medvetz’s research seems vital for policy-minded journalists. Grander sociological implications aside, his level-headed analysis of what think tanks actually do and are should disabuse the overly credulous of notions that think tanks are omniscient, while reminding the jaded that think-tank research, however politically loaded or quickly discharged, remains a powerful force. Moreover, Medvetz’s insightful history of both think tanks and the discourse that surrounds them, as well as his substantial trove of revelatory interviews with policy experts, current and former, make for a frequently lively read.

Medvetz usefully debunks common perceptions of the nature of think tanks. A think tank is not a “privileged haven or sanctuary for intellectuals,” like The Economist might have it; although researchers have been spared the pain of students and the tenure process, they still must produce and answer to someone. Nor is the think tank a “lobbying firm in disguise,” like the Academy of Tobacco Studies in the movie Thank You For Smoking; similarities between policy recommendations and the interests of the market, Medvetz assures us, have little to do with mercenary yes-men and everything to do with simpatico political views.

To understand how these disparate, if imprecise, ideas took hold, Medvetz takes us back to the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, when a new breed of conservative sprung from the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s defeat to bear glad tidings of individual responsibility and free enterprise. Neocon intellectuals and conservative philanthropists banded together to create a conservative “counter-intelligentsia” movement, an infrastructure of conservative media, legal foundations, PACs, and think tanks. Businessmen like Joseph Coors and Charles and David Koch donated millions of dollars to start conservative policy concerns like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Meanwhile, on the left, new think tanks like the Worldwatch Foundation and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies expended considerable effort to engage the public. “[The] best ideas in the world were worthless if you couldn’t get them out and get them into circulation,” a Worldwatch staffer told Medvetz.

With its close ties to the incumbent Reagan administration, the Heritage Foundation set the bar for political influence. In addition to its fellows with jobs in the cabinet, the foundation shaped policy with Mandate for Leadership, a thousand-page transition report that touched upon every aspect of the federal government. In one stroke, Heritage had supplanted Brookings in power and scope.

Eugenia Williamson is a freelance writer, a columnist for The Boston Globe, and a contributing editor at The Baffler