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February 27, 2007

The Plight of Liberal Think Tanks

I actually want to focus in on this think tank issue a little bit. Here's the mission statement for The Heritage Foundation:

Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute - a think tank - whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

So they're unabashedly conservative. And here's The American Enterprise Institute:

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research is a private, nonpartisan, not-for-profit institution dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics, and social welfare. Founded in 1943, AEI is home to some of America's most accomplished public policy experts...AEI's purposes are to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism--limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate.

AEI, for their part, makes a play for nonpartisanship, but nevertheless puts forward the conservative principles animating their work, "limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility," and so on. Now look at Brookings:

Quality. Independence. Impact

The Brookings Institution is a private nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and innovative policy solutions...Research at the Brookings Institution is conducted to inform the public debate, not advance a political agenda. Our scholars are drawn from the United States and abroad—with experience in government and academia—and hold diverse points of view.

Bolding theirs. They not only claim independence in the first line, but explicitly disavow any intent to advance a political agenda. And now onto Urban. Their banner, on the main page, proclaims them "A nonpartisan economic and social policy research organization," and their mission statement reads:

To promote sound social policy and public debate on national priorities, the Urban Institute gathers and analyzes data, conducts policy research, evaluates programs and services, and educates Americans on critical issues and trends.

They are, in other words, empiricists. And that's fine. Brookings and Urban both put out reams of high quality research. But they are not liberal, progressive, or movement-oriented institutions. That's simply not their role. Yet they are allowed to substitute for such institutions when foundations write grants, or television bookers search for experts. Conversely, the major conservative think tanks are explicitly committed to the advancement of their ideology, and so when the grants and booking calls come, movement types are funded. And this presents a real problem for progressives. Money and air time that could go towards aiding progressive idea generation instead supports cautious, centrist institutions, even while the donors and the listeners think they're getting the left. And since there's only a limited amount of funding and media time available to left-oriented institutions, this has the explicit effect of denying cash and publicity to actual progressive groups who could use more of both.

February 27, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

This ain't new. It's like David Broder playing the liberal opposite David Brooks on MTP. Somehow, somebody got it in their heads that unless you were pushing a conservative agenda, you were a liberal. It's mind-blowing that they don't see it themselves.

Posted by: jhupp | Feb 27, 2007 2:06:23 PM

Liberals are particularly obsessed with bipartisanship, compromise and centrism. The best current example is the House Iraq Resolution which saw all of 17 GOP defectors voting with the clear will of the American people, the rest voting with George Bush.

The Democrats, instead of simply claiming a victory (however small or symbolic doesn't matter here) for the troops and the American people, played up the "bipartisan" support for the bill. Not only is this factually incorrect, it gives Republicans in the House political cover that, for this issue, they simply do not deserve.

When the Democratic leadership in this country suffers from the exact same problem, it's no wonder that places like Brookings and Urban are considered accurate examples of liberalism. And so long as Democrats are willing to publicly denounce any person or group to the left of Urban as unhinged and extremists, things are in no danger of changing.

In the other thread it was claimed that liberals are willing to condemn their "fringe" elements while conservatives are not even required to consider it. This is basically true, as the careers of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck and Instapundit, to name only a few, show us. These are people who call for assassination, hanging US Representatives, who label their opponents traitors and so much more.

The Left is supposed to denounce Michael Moore for, what? Suggesting that George Bush's ties to Saudia Arabia influence his decisions? That the way in which Bush's government praised the Taliban before 9/11 should give us all pause? That he's fat?

Within this environment, yanked so far to the right, a belief in "free-market" capitalism, limited government and the like is actually considered a liberal position, with anything to the left being just so much moonbat nonsense.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 27, 2007 2:13:34 PM

the left used to rely on universities to provide the social science research and hard facts necessary to support, you know, supportable policies.

the right developed their think tanks specifically to prop up their dream world ... and only when it started working did on did ideas for overtly political think tanks like the center for american progress catch on.

the whole thing is depressing.

Posted by: Chris | Feb 27, 2007 2:30:14 PM

One thing I think the liberal blogosphere forgets or never understood is liberal is not the opposite of conservative. They push for small government, but we don't push for big government. We simply reject the conservative notion small government is a requirement. Those problems that can be solved by the private sector are fine, but some problems are best solved with additional governmental envelopment. We leave all options on the table and determine which is best empirically.

Socially, we are closer to opposites and certainly our values differ, or at least arranged in a different order of priority, but even then the pattern holds. Pro choice isn't the same thing as pro abortion, for example.

Posted by: Mark | Feb 27, 2007 2:33:49 PM

Yet they are allowed to substitute for such institutions when foundations write grants, or television bookers search for experts.

You haven't shown this. They don't substitute for movement-oriented institutions. They make liberal scholars available.

And since there's only a limited amount of funding and media time available to left-oriented institutions, this has the explicit effect of denying cash and publicity to actual progressive groups who could use more of both.

I'm not sure how bad that is. I prefer the eclectic groups like Brookings to Move On and Heritage.

Liberals are particularly obsessed with bipartisanship, compromise and centrism.

"Obsessed" because these aren't good things, right? It isn't true, in any case. Some liberals who are unhappy when bipartisanship and compromise don't lead to what they want are obsessed with blaming those for the failures, but it's misplaced blame.

The point of the claim of bipartisanship with the Iraq resolution is intended as cover for Democrats, not Republicans. It has to do with not wanting to get too exposed on this, not with some concern about bipartisan government.

And so long as Democrats are willing to publicly denounce any person or group to the left of Urban as unhinged and extremists

Who does that? How many condemn Michael Moore, except when he goes after them?

Liberals tend to think simultaneously that most people actually support their views and that the "conversation" has tilted way over to the Right. And conservative think just the opposite. Neither view is nearly as true as perceived.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 27, 2007 2:39:46 PM

I'm keen to start a think tank of my own here in Seattle. I have the office space. I figure I can hire interns to work for college credit, and perhaps get graduate students to contribute papers for publication. I'd give the institute a prestigious sounding name to give resume filler in trade to the students. If I could somehow find a way to get grants to pay for my time, then I'd be set.

Posted by: Steve | Feb 27, 2007 3:04:28 PM

I really prefer a classical definition of "liberal" as someone who values process over outcomes. Free Press, proivate property, free association, the various rights;the balance of powers and exchange of ideas;tolerance and opportunity for participation....etc. The "liberal" is by design vetween the reactionary and the progressive, and is a conservative restraining force on the extremes. It is why Burke, Friedman, Hayek called themselves "classical liberals". Liberalism, even the New Deal & Great Society, creates stabilizing institutions, that is its purpose. Liberalism is conservative.

Progressivism should not be about progressive goals and outcomes. It should be about destabilization, breaking down "liberal" inertia, delegitimizing the center. America has little space for direct action, there is no tradition of street protest, the general strike, political violence.

Attacking Brookings as hard as possible is good. Attacking empiricism, reason, and establishment institutions, in principle and practice is good. You are not going to move the center left. You have to kill the center.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 27, 2007 3:14:28 PM

Ezra, what you must come to realize is that "empiricism" is "liberal." Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Posted by: Sam Hutcheson | Feb 27, 2007 3:16:47 PM

"Obsessed" because these aren't good things, right?

No, obsessed because priority is given to these things even when they aren't appropriate. There is a right time to prioritize these goals, and a wrong time.

I would suggest that the Iraq Resolution is exactly the wrong time. Republican politicians have made the Iraq War a partisan issue despite the continued support of many Democratic politicians. Now that the American public is so overwhelmingly against it, Democrats in Congress are still trying to reach across the aisle - and even when that doesn't work, they are still willing to give the GOP political cover on this issue. And this is not an issue where the Democrats need political cover.

The DLC gives us plenty of examples of politicians and operatives who have criticized any person or group that makes a clear stand for a progressive solution to a problem that doesn't simultaneously accomodate the GOP's view.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 27, 2007 3:28:43 PM

Attacking empiricism, reason, and establishment institutions, in principle and practice is good.

Cute, Bob.

Stephen, I don't think many liberals are all that focussed on bipartisanship and so on over other goods. It's one good among others.

And this is not an issue where the Democrats need political cover.

Whether they do or not, they obviously feel they do. If they didn't, they wouldn't try to portray this, on which they could take full credit, as bipartisan. I think they recognize how dangerous it is to become the party against the war, especially when that opposition takes a form that can be portrayed as potentially harming the troops. As it can in this case because the resolution didn't do squat for the troops beyond telling them that their mission is pointless. Swing voters are very ambivalent on this, and even the comics have latched onto the fact that the resolution didn't actually do what its premise would seem to require. There may be more need for cover than at first appears.

The DLC gives us plenty of examples of politicians and operatives who have criticized any person or group that makes a clear stand for a progressive solution to a problem that doesn't simultaneously accomodate the GOP's view.

The DLC attacks what it does because it thinks it wrong, not because it isn't favored by the GOP.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 27, 2007 3:52:23 PM

If empiricism is a good thing, can we start with requiring commenters here to put a little bit of it in their statements. I read a line the other day that I love: "unsubstantiated assertions are not proof." That's something to remember even in politics. I see many making broad statements here, can you provide some actual examples or links to back them up?

Posted by: akaison | Feb 27, 2007 4:48:34 PM

"unsubstantiated assertions are not proof."

No, they are rhetoric and polemic, which is probably the moral mode of discourse for everyone not in the center with the liberal wonks who actually implement social preferences and values.

And what these social preferences and values? I have some, don't really think I can "prove" them.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 27, 2007 5:58:30 PM

I mean, we do understand for instance that 3000 dead Americans and 1 million dead Iraqis is not an "empirical argument" against the war. Neither is increased al-Qaeda recruitment, loss of "soft power", etc.

It requires the normative not completely scientific step of saying these are "bad things." I don't know that Brookings even considers that in their portfolio. "Just the facts, ma'am."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 27, 2007 6:04:31 PM

But, there are empirical methods of determining whether the war is the correct route or not. And more to the point, there are ways of knowing whether there is global warming or not. Or whether there are market failures happening with regard to education and healtchare in the US or not. People confuse their idealogical perspectives with the basic question- is there a problem? I see too many conservatives denying these days the existence of the problem, and we spend much of our time arguing about the existence of X or Y before we can even get to a solution. The reason to me is abundantly clear- to admit their is a problem is per se to admit that the market can not do everything. I'm not saying the left hasn't been guilty of this in the past- but right now, the group that tends towards excess is the right based on the share amount of assertions backed by proof that it seeks to deny versus the opinion masquerading as proof that it seeks to endorse. Can anyone here seriously claim that there is a disconnect from reality when you listen to someone on the right talking about how 95 percent of the scientists are wrong on global warming? I mean they just said that last year. It's not like we are talking a decade or so ago. Why is this? There used to be middle of the road conservatives who could be convinced on facts, and now you got folks like McCain who has someone wrote would eat a baby to prove to the fundies that he's one of them. Why does he have to be one of them? No Democratic leader has to be at this point- however hard it is- any particular extreme. In fact they try to prove just how much they aren't one of the extreme on average to crazy legislative effects. Why is this? Why are we still fighting the 1960s image of liberalism?

Posted by: akaison | Feb 27, 2007 6:31:52 PM

Why are we still fighting the 1960s image of liberalism?

Mmmmmm.....because you espouse the same rhetoric?

AntiWar (any war)
ProAbortion
AntiGun
High Taxes
Nanny State
Self-loathing
Inability to put America and Americans first
Redistribution of wealth

I guess the question should be "Why wouldn't you still be fighting the 60's liberal image?"

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 27, 2007 7:05:47 PM

Fred, your opinion is about as respected on this subject as Klansman talking about Jews. In other words, not at all.

Posted by: akaison | Feb 27, 2007 7:18:46 PM

Personal attacks are the last resort of those frustrated individuals who don't have facts on their side.

The sad, sad fact is everyone of those issues that I mentioned are the same mantra carried both during the sixties and today.

Say it ain't so.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 28, 2007 8:16:06 AM

AntiWar (any war). Christ, you're ignorant. Liberals thinks the war in Afghanistan was critical, and they're the ones who want to put MORE troops in there right now to take down Al Quaeda (which the conservatives are ignoring--again).

Conservatives aren't pro-war so much as they are pro-"somebody else doing the fighting for me." There's a manpower shortage, Fred. Go enlist if you think Iraq is such a great idea.

Posted by: anonymous | Feb 28, 2007 8:24:37 AM

Well, at least Ezra has better trolls than Kevin Drum. But I have to admit that Fred is wearing a bit thin. Enumerating the wingnut frame for liberalism seems to be intellectually lazy, even for him.

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