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The Powell Memo and the Disappearance of the Credible Think Tank

October 23, 2017

Yesterday Diane Ravitch wrote a post based on “The Credible Think Tank is Dead”, a New Republic article by John Judis. In the essay published in mid September, Mr. Judis bemoaned the outsized influence Google, a major donor to the New America Foundation, had on the firing of anti-monopoly crusader Barry Lynn from that organization because of his outspoken criticism of Google. Lynn’s “misdeed” was summarized as follows:

In a nutshell, according to the Times and correspondence released by New America: Google and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are major donors to New America, and Schmidt served as New America’s chairman. Lynn and his (Open Market) project have been critical of the tech giants, and in June published an endorsement of the European Union’s antitrust judgment against Google. Company representatives expressed their displeasure to (New America Foundation CEO Mary Anne) Slaughter, and she accused Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole.” Slaughter asked Lynn and Open Markets to leave.

Mr. Judis then describes the back-and-forth debate between Mr. Lynn and Ms. Slaughter over the rationale for the dismissal, with Ms. Slaughter downplaying the role of Google. In the final analysis, Mr. Judis sees the donor as dictating the outcome, and that troubles him:

I can’t claim definitive knowledge of what happened. But as someone who spent a few years at a Washington think tank, and has written extensively about these institutions, I can say that the controversy at New America bears out the credibility problem facing think tanks. Instead of bolstering public trust in expertise, as the think tanks were initially supposed to do, they are increasingly feeding the growing distrust. 

Mr. Judis then offers a history of think tanks, which began with the Brookings Institute in the early 1900s. He goes on to describe their evolution, noting that President Kennedy made extensive use of the Rand Institute in formulating policies during his administration. He then notes the point in time when the think tanks devolved into the partisan fray, with my emphasis added:

Beginning in the 1940s, and in earnest in the early 1970s, conservative Republicans and business groups established think tanks and policy groups that had a specific economic and/or factional purpose. Businessmen dissatisfied with the New Deal created the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in 1943. In 1964, it served as the policy arm of Barry Goldwater’s right-wing campaign for president, and in the ‘70s became the preferred think tank of the Fortune 500 and of center-right Republicans, even when, for appearance’s sake, AEI kept around a few liberal researchers.

The Heritage Institution was founded in 1973 as a sophisticated business lobby (its first president came from the National Association of Manufacturers) that, unlike the more scholarly AEI, actively worked on Capitol Hill to develop legislation. It became a key player in the growth of Republican conservatism. Other groups included the American Council for Capital Formation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and later “action tanks” like Citizens for a Sound Economy and its successors FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

Together, these business and conservative Republican groups attempted to take advantage of the reputation created by the older think tanks: They demanded attention for their “experts” in the media—on op-ed pages and, later, TV news shows—but they were in fact the kind of political organization or business lobbies that Robert Brookings and Andrew Carnegie had wanted to avoid at all costs. These groups’ scholarly output, particularly from a group like Heritage, was nugatory. They debased the coinage of the older thinking. And their model of partisan intervention and policy briefs spread leftward to groups like the Center for American Progress, which is something of a Democratic version of the Heritage Foundation.

As noted in two earlier posts on the evolution of education reform, the roots of the conservative think tanks that  was a memo written in 1971 by Lewis Powell where he explicitly encouraged the creation of partisan think tanks… think tanks that began somewhat innocuously with the Heritage Foundation but eventually devolved into organizations with innocuous names but toxic missions… like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch brothers organization that develops boilerplate libertarian legislation.

These partisan think tanks gave birth to “reform” initiatives like NCLB, RTTT, and now DeVos’ voucher plans. Each of these ideas was based on the notion that privatization of public services would force competition and that, in turn, would lower costs and increase quality. The reasoning was that if we ran government like a business the profit motive would ensure cost effectiveness.

In the end, the conservative idea of creating partisan think tanks enabled them to frame the debates about the role government. We went from wholly liberal concepts like Lyndon Johnson’s Medicaid and Medicare programs to wholly conservative concepts like Obamacare. We went from big government programs like the War on Poverty to “reinventing government” by injecting competition wherever possible, We went from think tanks that were high-minded and non-partisan to a world where the majority of State Legislators get their advice from a think tank funded by billionaires who despise government regulations of any kind and want low taxes and no safety nets.

As noted in my two earlier posts on the Powell memo, if those of us who value progressive politics and progressive education principles want to put an end to this devolution, we need to play the long game and we need to be ready for criticism. Pushing back is not for the faint of heart… but pushing back against the racism, economic segregation, and fear-based policies developed by the likes of ALEC puts progressives on the high ground.

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