U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historicizing the Conservative Think Tank by Jason Stahl

Dear Readers: Today I present to you a guest post by Jason Stahl (@stahljason).


A few weeks back, Andrew professed his happiness at the “return of the culture wars” given the fact that he is writing a book on the subject. I find myself in very much the same mood now that think tanks have been popping up in news stories over the past month. I wrote my dissertation on the subject of conservative think tanks in the postwar period and am currently working on a book which seeks to historicize the think tank from 1916 to the present. In all of my work, I show how intellectuals used the institution of the think tank to alter consensus narratives of politics, public policy, and political economy in a mostly rightward direction. In particular, and of most importance to this blog post, I show how and why conservative think tanks and their intellectuals were instrumental in undermining an understanding of policy making as a “data driven” endeavor and replacing it with a narrative much more amenable to conservative political activism. Such a narrative relied instead on understanding politics and policy making through discourses of “the market” and “ideological diversity.” For these reasons, recent discussions of the think tank have directly intersected with my own work.

For those who have missed the current conversations, they have revolved around two basic questions. First, have think tanks become overly politicized/overly partisan in a way that they were not in the past and is this “over-politicization” something to be lamented? Secondly, is this supposed new over-politicization connected to the funding sources of the think tank? That is, to what extent have the bankrollers of think tanks contributed to their partisanship and over-politicization?

The starting point for these recent discussions and questions was this article by Tevi Troy—former Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy to President George W. Bush and now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. The article led to this symposium at the same think tank. While Troy and the panelists reject the obviously false notion that think tanks were once apolitical, they nevertheless all seem to be in agreement that today’s think tanks of the left and right are politically partisan in a way they once were not and that this “political combat” (borrowing Troy’s formulation) has supplanted more intellectually-rigorous “policy development” as the think tank’s core mission.

Recent events seem to confirm the analysis of Troy and others. Just last week, there was a dust-up at the libertarian Cato Institute after one of its founders, billionaire conservative Charles Koch, sued the Institute in order to exercise more power over its activities. This immediately led to worries that Koch was attempting to make Cato into a more reliable mouthpiece of conservatism as represented by the Republican Party as opposed to a think tank more interested in promoting libertarian conservatism and policy. Cato research fellow Julian Sanchez even went to far as to say that he would resign if Koch took control of the Institute.

As Paul Krugman correctly notes here, the idea that Cato has not been a reliable supporter of the Republican Party is somewhat overblown, but it is true that Cato also opposed the War in Iraq, has reliably fought against the bipartisan “Drug War,” and spoken out forcefully against the encroachment on civil liberties associated with the “War on Terror.” And as Corey Robin rightly notes here, there is some irony involved in the way Sanchez constructs his “presignation letter” given his professed libertarianism.

However, while both of these critiques are worthwhile, I find the laments of Sanchez and others, while understandable, to be somewhat hollow for another reason—namely their lack of attention to the history of the conservative think tank and how those think tanks gained power over the past four decades. In particular, I want to focus on the intersection of ideas and money that led the conservative think tank to be what it is today. It just so happens that I just finished an essay on this very subject for the upcoming book The Right Side of the Sixties. [1] So, I want to talk about my conclusions in this essay here as I believe it they are directly relevant to the Cato/Koch debate we are witnessing. While my case study in this chapter was primarily another conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), I think the analysis directly applies to the Cato/Koch debate, so I’ll try to link the two at various points and then return to the Koch/Cato debate at the end of this post.

One of the primary problems conservative think tanks had to overcome in the mid-twentieth century (to the extent that they existed then) was the idea that they were mouthpieces for capital—that they contained “rentellectuals” who would say anything as long as they were paid enough. When AEI emerged in 1943 as the “American Enterprise Association” there existed a deep suspicion of any organization that spoke on behalf of big business. With the memory of the Great Depression not far from Americans’ minds, a “business association,” as the think tank was then known, had to tread lightly when advocating for corporate interests to policy makers and the public at large. AEA’s head, Lewis H. Brown, who was also the president of the Johns Manville Corporation, understood this well. He knew that his organization, a partnership of top executives of leading business and financial firms, would have this bias immediately taken into account when they put forth public policy recommendations.

In addition to this collective memory of the Depression, there had also by the 1950s and early 1960s emerged a period of liberal technocratic consensus within the federal government whereby social scientists and politicians were deemed capable of defining social problems and then coming up with solutions to those problems through “scientific” techniques. So, within elite policy-making circles, contesting the idea of policy making as an “objective,” “rational,” and “scientific” endeavor would have been extremely hard. This dominant understanding of liberal technocratic expertise meant that groups funded by wealthy donors (such as AEI) would have trouble inserting themselves into policy discussions, given that they were immediately deemed too biased by their corporate funders to come up with “scientific” solutions to the nation’s problems. AEI’s first well-known president, William Baroody, knew this liberal consensus discourse well and fully understood just how hard it would be to challenge this specific ideology in the early 1960s. Thus, when he became president of AEA in 1962, he immediately changed the name to the American Enterprise Institute so as to distance the think tank from any “business association” understandings while simultaneously adopting the more academic “Institute.” Baroody even went so far as to state to one of AEI’s fellows in 1962 that the “Institute does not press any particular policy position or even attempt to form, suggest, or support any particular policy position. The Institute does attempt to provide the research assistance which will bring to bear upon any policy consideration the most pertinent facts available and the most knowledgeable considerations by acknowledged authorities in the field.” [2]

Here, then, one would imagine, existed the more “pure” think tank model which those who lament its over-politicization in the present would want a return to. Baroody himself was a staunch conservative who worked as an intellectual advisor to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for the presidency. However, he didn’t let this “political combat” get in the way of rigorous policy development at AEI.

While there is certainly some truth in this “glory day” interpretation of the conservative think tank, the idea that it can be resurrected in the present is naïve and ignores the fact that the liberal-technocratic ideal of public policy on which it was based was thoroughly discredited by conservative intellectuals and conservative think tanks themselves in the late sixties and 1970s. In fact, it was this discrediting which led to not only their newfound relevance and power but also to the acceptance of their wealth funding sources as uncontroversial and even something to be desired. I’ll return to the history of AEI to elaborate my point…

By the late sixties and early seventies, as liberal technocrats increasingly came to be blamed for a whole host of problems including urban blight, rioting, fiscal and monetary problems, and the war in Vietnam, conservatives in think tanks and elsewhere began to identify the whole liberal technocratic ideal of policy making as the fundamental problem. A July 1968 Baroody letter to a corporate funder of AEI demonstrates this newly emerging critique. While still making an appeal to the “objective, nonpartisan” research of AEI, Baroody nevertheless situated liberal technocrats as the main source of the nation’s problems:

“Much of our thinking at AEI is conditioned by a conviction that the intellectual community plays an increasingly major role in the formulation of public policy—in short the conviction that most governmental programs, for example, enacted in the last thirty years did not originate either in the mind of a politician or from the overwhelming demand of the people or from the planks of a party platform. They were born in and can trace their origins through the thought and writings of an academic or a group of academics whose views concerning the organization of a society may not necessarily coincide with yours or mine.” [3]

Here we see Baroody positioning the conservative think tank as a counter to academia, liberal think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, and foundations such as the Ford Foundation, arguing that because liberal technocrats in these organizations had planned policy without the conservative counterpoint, the nation now had the problems that it did.

Thus, what I’m arguing here is that in the late sixties and seventies, conservative think tanks were in the process of creating a new discourse of public policy to replace and discredit the liberal technocratic ideal. In essence, the new framework was situated around the idea of intellectual and political combat with liberal ideas—a “marketplace of ideas” where the highest value was to have a “diversity of opinion.” Here is Baroody in another letter to a wealthy funder in 1974 elaborating the point while totally abandoning the need for “objective nonpartisanship”:

“Paul McCracken recently said: ‘A free society can tolerate a monopoly in the production of widgets but it cannot survive a monopoly in public policy idea formation.’ The results of such a near-monopoly in the intellectual community are clearly evident. It is certainly safe to say that the long-term trendline in public policy has been toward more rather than less regulation of business, toward higher rather than lower taxes on business—in short, toward more rather than less government intervention in the private sector. And—growing public hostility to business is a fact. Effective competition of ideas is the American Enterprise Institute’s approach to the problem.” [4]

Once again, “objective, nonpartisan” of analysis of public policy by think tank intellectuals is no longer the goal. Instead, political combat of those ideas in a “marketplace” is now held to be the highest purpose of the think tank. Moreover, and most importantly for the ongoing Koch/Cato debate, Baroody and other conservatives used this new way of thinking about public policy debates to defuse a critique of corporate donations as such donations were now welcome and necessary to create competition on a supposedly level playing field. Thus, the donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, far from being something to be ashamed of, were cause for celebration as the corporate “little guy” was finally having his voice heard in, for instance, debates over regulation and taxes.

Thus, not only did the corporate and wealthy funding of conservative think tanks now not matter, the bias created by it was actually highly sought after in the name of an ideological competition in a “marketplace of ideas.” This created a massive shift to a new language of public policy argumentation, one which would greatly aid in shifting policy discussions to the right in that it would allow conservatives entrance into public policy debates by virtue of their identity as “conservatives” rather than on the specific content of their beliefs or the rigor contained in their analysis. It was merely enough that they could “create competition” with other institutions and intellectuals that were declared hopelessly liberally biased. This shift created a new dominant discourse of public policy expertise and debate that exists to this day and continues to shift such debates rightward. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this discourse would be the necessary solution for conservatives in think tanks seeking to give their institutions new power and diffuse critique of their wealthy donors.

This history is truly what makes the lamentations of present-day conservatives for a conservative think tank (or think tanks in general) dedicated to rigorous policy development so hard to accept. In the sixties and seventies conservatives in places like AEI, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute did more than anyone else to discredit the idea of policy making as a social-scientific endeavor. Instead, policy debates became primarily concerned with political identities and political combat and provided the foundation for the elite media discourse within which Americans live today, where “balancing” public policy debates between “two sides” in a “marketplace of ideas” effectively takes precedence over policy content and, dare I say, truth.

Likewise, this history makes the lamentations of Julian Sanchez at Cato equally hard to have sympathy for. As the brief history I’ve outlined here suggests, the political subjectivities and biases of the wealthy funders of conservative think tanks were integral to the success of these institutions. Obviously, such monies were used to develop the institutional infrastructure, but even more importantly their biases and subjectivities were used as a way to change and enter public policy debates. So, it is hard to feel sorry for those at Cato who are now lamenting what Koch may or may not do to the institution. When the history of the institution is wrapped up in a project which uses the biases of wealth funders to gain power and change the way people discuss politics and public policy, you can hardly be angry when those funders want to change the political identity that you’re promoting.

And this, ultimately, is what the debate at Cato is about. Since it has been a long time since the technocratic ideal held (if it ever truly did—that is a discussion for another post) this is not a debate between one side that wants an institution dedicated to Republican Party political combat (Koch) and one side that wants rigorous truth-seeking and a development of policies that “work” (people like Sanchez at Cato). No, it is instead the battle that conservatives (in think tanks and elsewhere) have been wanting for the last four decades—a battle of identities in a political marketplace. Who will win: the millionaire who is seeking to “re-brand his product” or the old-school libertarian brand? According to the narrative conservatives have been offering us, only “the market” can decide.


1. Portions reproduced with permission from Palgrave Macmillan Press: Jason Stahl, “From Without to Within the Movement: Consolidating the Conservative Think Tank in the ‘Long Sixties,’” in Laura Jane Gifford and Daniel K. Williams, eds., The Right Side of the Sixties: Reexamining Conservatism’s Decade of Transformation. Palgrave Macmillan Press, forthcoming August 2012.

2. William J. Baroody to Karl Hess, November 30, 1962, folder 7, box 13, William J. Baroody Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (hereafter, Baroody Papers). Emphasis in original.

3. William J. Baroody to Orville E. Melby, July 8, 1968, folder 4, box 59, Baroody Papers.

4. William J. Baroody to Lewis A. Lapham, May 31, 1974, folder 5, box 56, Baroody Papers.

28 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. George Lakoff had a good piece on Huffington Post yesterday in which he reminds Democrats that, when it comes to public discourse, morality trumps policy. The Republicans are pro’s at framing their issues in terms of moral beliefs.

    The Democrats must get better.

  2. All that is correct, but still it’s true that the AEI of today is very different from that of the 60s and 70s, and that Cato will be different from what it now is if the Koch takeover succeeds.

    When AEI entered the scene as conservative competition for Brookings et al, it made a serious attempt to match Brookings standards in terms of quality of research, and there was some willingness to publish pieces that deviated from the party line.

    The second stage can really be dated to the entry of Heritage and CEI which were propaganda outfits from the start. AEI had to match them to keep its support and did so.

    Finally,I’m surprised that you give a free pass to the false equivalence of “today’s think tanks of the left and right are politically partisan in a way they once were not”.

  3. @ John Quiggin:

    On your first point: Yes, AEI was different in the 60s (as I contend here) but in the seventies there was the shift that I describe here in my essay. You’re right, that at points in that decade, they did attempt to “match Brookings standards in terms of quality of research, and there was some willingness to publish pieces that deviated from the party line.” However, the seventies should be seen primarily as a decade of shift to the new “marketplace” paradigm. So, while it is inevitable that some rigorous analysis was still produced, it was also true that the trend was away from this.

    You’re right too, that some of this was due to the entry of Heritage, CEI, and others. I make this point in the larger work but one can only do so much in a blog post. However, I don’t agree with your formulation that “AEI had to match them to keep its support and did so.” Instead, I would argue that all of these think tanks (AEI, Heritage, Cato, CEI, and others) together arrived at a new narrative of policy making which increased all of their relevance and made their funding less suspect. I would even make the case that Baroody and others at AEI came to this narrative first (in the late sixties) even through they are often not given credit for it. So, I think it is incorrect to say that AEI was merely going along to get along. *Maybe* AEI took a bit longer to move away from quality research, but if so, they weren’t too far behind. For instance take a look at Mike Konczal’s discussion of the type of policy narratives AEI was producing in 1977: http://bit.ly/ejDFyV. Also, in my larger work I specifically discuss the debate over supply-side economics emerging out of AEI in the late seventies. It is tough to argue that this analysis was quality research.

    Finally, you totally have me on your final point. I worried about the “false equivalence” problem that is contained in this post. In short, I don’t think there is an equivalence between the problems of think tanks on the right and left. If I wasn’t already at 3,000 words for the post, I would have gone into a more extensive discussion of how I think think tanks of the liberal/left are better on the problems I describe. However, at the same time, I do worry that most are merely becoming media appendages of the Democratic Party—but this is a separate problem. The only one that has not, while still holding to rigorous analysis, is EPI.

  4. Jason – Great post, and thanks for links to the current debate.

    I have a couple of questions: do you know the history of the metaphor “marketplace of ideas?” Is it associated specifically with the conservative tradition? Proponents of “intelligent design” have used the figure to argue for inclusion in science [dis-]courses, as I’m sure you know.

    Also, I’m intrigued by the link you suggest between this market and the notion of a conservative “identity.” How was that articulated? Can you identify a sequence? For instance, did conservatives advance their claims to participate based on an understanding of themselves as an identity group – in the dawning of what’s often seen as “identity politics,” or was it the other way around, in which case they might be considered an “interest group.”

    • @ Bill Fine:

      Thanks for the kind words regarding the post. I’ve been thinking about your great questions all morning and here is my first attempt at some answers:

      I do not know the long history of the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor and whether it can be associated with a distinctly conservative tradition. For what it’s worth, there is actually a Wikipedia entry on the metaphor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marketplace_of_ideas. I’m not sure entirely what to make of it as it seems to stretch the idea beyond the specific metaphor. However, it is worth taking a look at.

      For the purposes of my research, and as I suggest with one of the Baroody quotes in this post, at AEI the concept was always credited to Paul McCracken. McCracken is an economist and was head of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers. After this, he was an in-house economist at AEI where he worked (among other projects) to develop this concept. Everyone at AEI then took it up and employed it in the ways I suggest in this post. I think it is interesting that an economist was the one who developed it at AEI given that it attempts to overlap microeconomic theories of efficient markets with intellectual “products” and identities.

      Which leads to your second question… In my larger work, I argue that one of the main purposes of the conservative think tank in the postwar period (going all the way back to the mid-1940s even) was to develop holistic conservative identities for individuals to fully occupy. That is, think tanks were integral in the process of articulating what it meant to be a “conservative,” a “libertarian,” a “neoconservative,” etc. In many ways, once individuals did fully occupy them, such political identities (subject positions) very often became fixed and entirely holistic (individuals accepted the entirety of the new position as opposed to just parts of it). In this way, I borrow heavily from Stuart Hall’s theories of the production of conservative subjectivities contained in his essay, “The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists.” This essay is not online (I believe) but Michael Bérubé had an excellent write up of it years back. You can find that here: http://bit.ly/yZWsI4.

      So, in terms of your “sequence” question, I would argue that this type of identity production came first. I would argue that conservatives (in think tanks and out) were doing this long before talking about policy and politics in terms of “the market” became dominant. However, once this new discourse was developed in the way I talk about it in this post, it overlapped nicely with how conservatives had been talking about political identity before this — i.e. in the “marketplace of ideas” we are “selling” these “brands” or “products”: conservative, neoconservative, libertarian, paleoconservative, etc. We are not selling “empirical policy analysis” but rather identities. Such identities may have some relationship to policies (i.e. to be a “conservative” you must accept policies x, y, and z) but it doesn’t really matter if the policies are totally thought through or based in any sort of data-driven reality.

      Now, I should be clear (to answer your final question) that conservatives themselves would be loathe to see all of this as being similar to “identity politics” as such a paradigm came to be understood in the seventies and eighties. Such a label (for conservatives) was obviously used derisively and reserved for left movements who based their politics on supposedly more fixed racial, gender, and sexual identities as opposed to conservatives’ more “rational” politics. However, part of what I’m trying to suggest in my larger work and in this post is how think tanks were integral in making certain political identities not only the entire basis for discussing policy but also at the same time making political identities more fixed.

  5. This is a fascinating post and great questions Bill. I’m interested in your following statement Jason:

    “We are not selling “empirical policy analysis” but rather identities. Such identities may have some relationship to policies (i.e. to be a “conservative” you must accept policies x, y, and z) but it doesn’t really matter if the policies are totally thought through or based in any sort of data-driven reality.”

    This implies a kind of tribal or true believer mentality that I’m sure some of these institutions are guilty but aren’t there at least some anecdotal exceptions to this? I can think of one, Norman Ornstein from the Heritage Foundation and there are undoubtedly others. Is this an all pervading attitude or one that would be typical of any highly politicized institution?

    • @ Paul:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      As to your questions, yes, what I’m describing here is a tribal identity. And yes, there are definitely anecdotal exceptions. Norm Ornstein has actually been at AEI forever and he is an excellent example of an anecdotal exception. I actually met him when I visited AEI a couple of years back. In talking with him and others at AEI, my impression (and this was only an impression — not anything anyone said directly) was that he was a token liberal (or probably more accurately neoliberal) at the institution. I gathered that he was kept on because he is so well known in media circles and could be pointed to in order to show that AEI wasn’t uniformly conservative.

      However, I think it is notable that Ornstein is liberalish in his political subjectivity. Thus, he was never really part of “the tribe,” so there was not ever a reason to punish him for tribal deviations. The more notable high-profile exceptions to the “tribal mentality” at conservative think tanks in the past years were Bruce Bartlett and David Frum and they were fired for their deviations from conservative identities. Bartlett questioned faith in supply-side economics and other parts of the Bush agenda while Frum questioned uniform Republican opposition to Obama’s healthcare legislation. Both were part of the “conservative tribe” but still tackled policy from a (largely) data-driven mentality. This inevitably then led to deviations from the conservative subject position. For their heresies they were banished from the tribe.

  6. Jason – The Rand Corp. and the Brookings Institute are also considered think tanks, albeit liberal ones, do they also fall into the tribal rubric? I realize this doesn’t fall under your current discussion here but wondered if you knew or had a theory.
    This may be my bias but I’m under the impression that they are legitimate research facilities and have no ostensible agenda with the one distinguishing characteristic that they are not solely conservative institutions. Are there conservative think tanks that aren’t polemical by design?

    • Paul, again, thanks for the great questions. Rand and Brookings fall into a different category for sure, but I would definitely want to complicate your formulation of them as “liberal.” Let me take each separately as I think the history of each is different.

      Brookings is the most complicated. It emerged in 1916 as a way to create an elite politics which would disempower “unruly” populist movements of the time. They had a progressive, technocratic orientation though, so their policy prescriptions were very often what we could consider “liberal” today. During the Great Depression, this continued somewhat, but they also had people in house who were rabid anti-New Dealers. If you want a history of Brookings in this period you can do no better than Donald Critchlow’s still relevant study: http://amzn.com/087580103X.

      In the post-World War II period, Brookings became reliably part of the liberal technocratic consensus that I describe in this post. Particularly in the sixties they worked closely with Congress and the Kennedy/Johnson administrations to write liberal legislation. In the seventies, however, I would argue that things began to change in Brookings. As conservatives and conservative think tanks continually used Brookings as a liberal foil in order to increase their own relevancy, Brookings itself began to change its makeup. Many at Brookings bought into the new “marketplace of ideas” paradigm and started changing their institutional makeup to show that they weren’t “liberally biased.” Here is how I write about this dynamic at Brookings (in the seventies and early eighties) in the chapter I drew from to write the above post:

      “Brookings sought corporate donations in the name of ideological and material balance; it hired Republicans, including as its president, to offset concerns that it was too one-sided and to add ‘diversity’ to the institution; and there was a full ‘flipping of the discourse’ from the previous decade in that the new ‘voice to be suspicious of’ was not corporations, but rather liberally-aligned institutions. This new acceptance of the marketplace metaphor by the very institutions that conservatives critiqued is what truly led to the hegemony of the new discourse.”

      So, while Brookings did not at all become a fully tribally conservative institution, they did — at least at some level — accept the new way of talking about policy which conservative had formulated. This is a big reason why the discourse became so powerful.

      Then, in the nineties and 2000s, I would argue that Brookings became reliably neoliberal in the mold of a Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Neoliberals did not totally abandon data-based analysis but they did accept much of what had previously been seen as conservative policy: free trade, welfare reform, deregulation, etc. Also in the run-up to the Iraq War, writers at Brookings like Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon, provided intellectual support for the war that made it a wholly bipartisan invasion — at least in terms of who was supporting the war in the elite media.

      I guess this history is all my way of saying that the ideology of Brookings is best described as whatever the Washington Consensus of the moment happens to be. This means that in the sixties they were liberal; in the seventies and eighties they were buying into conservative narratives of policy development; and in the nineties and 2000s they were neoliberal. They never abandoned data-based analysis in the way conservative think tanks did, but they often used that analysis to reliably coincide with whatever ideology was hegemonic in Washington at any given moment. This is how they’ve maintained their relevance.

      (answer continued in the next comment)

    • As for Rand, I write about it less in my work because it is a different sort of institution than the think tanks I write about. If it has an ideology, it is pro-American Empire from the end of World War II to the present. This has been a bipartisan project — liberals and conservatives supported it during the Cold War. However, since the end of the Cold War, the institution has been more reliably identified with conservatives. It has always been rigorously “data-based” but always in the service of the military industrial complex. For more on Rand check out Abella’s book: http://amzn.com/B002YD8GJI.

      Finally, you ask whether there are conservative think tanks that aren’t polemical by design. In the present day, I would argue “no,” but I would love to hear if anyone would argue that there is one and I just don’t know about it.

  7. Jason, I would be very interested to know if/how you are looking at connections between the Olin Foundation and conservative student activism during the “culture wars” on college campuses in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

    • L.D.,

      I look at the Olin Foundation a ton, but only as it intersects with think tanks and their funding. Actually, in the book chapter that I draw this post from, I reference this very revealing exchange between Olin and Baroody in the mid-seventies where Olin asks him (pointedly) to speed up research on the estate tax. The back and forth between them is actually quite funny.

      However, in the larger work, I do talk about how think tanks intersected with conservative student activism from the fifties through the nineties. They were actually doing more work than you would think in the fifties and sixties. Then in the eighties and nineties they were definitely another conservative institution that were intimately involved in the “culture wars” on campus.


  8. You might want to read a recent Hudson Institute roundtable transcript “Are Think Tanks Becoming Too Political,” which takes up many of the themes that interest you.

    Robert Huberty

    • Robert,

      Yes, for sure. I actually linked the video of the roundtable up at the very top of this post. I encourage everyone to check it out.


  9. There’s a quote from William Baroody in Sidney Blumenthal’s *Rise of the Counterestablishment* where he says “The sophisticated ability to relate ideology to constituencies is what counts. And the ideology rests on technique.” ( http://tinyurl.com/7jstox7 ) I’ve never been able to find the full context of this quote, and but it seems like it might be important. Is he talking about how to reach constituencies as in *regions of the country,* with certain favored ideological messages? Does this have anything to do with the “political identities” you’re talking about above? Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but if there’s anything to that, does it have anything to do with Kevin Phillips’ earlier project of figuring out how to build a set of regional constituencies for the Republican party? There’s a statement that Paul Krugman made on a panel for Rick Perlstein’s *Nixonland*: “What happened, very crucially, was that Nixonism got institutionalized. The creation of a set of institutions – think-tanks, media organizations, all of it funded by a relatively small number of sources… creating a structure which perpetuates the political style and political goals that were created during [the Nixon era]” ( http://crookedtimber.org/2008/10/30/nixonland-the-panel/ )

    Again, I might be going far off into left field here, but is there some sort of line from Nixon/Phillips and their regional strategies to what people did at AEI and the “political identities” you’re talking about? (And do you know where William Baroody made that statement?) Thanks.

    (BTW, “Toad in the Garden” is available here: http://tinyurl.com/76ub4ox )

    • JJ,

      Great stuff here and thanks so much for all the links. It has been several years since I read Blumenthal’s book, so I need to dig up my copy and re-read it to figure out the context of this quote. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that “constituencies” does not equal “regions of the country” in a same way it would of for someone like Phillips or Nixon or Buchanan. From heavily researching Baroody, I think by “constituencies” he probably meant any group of people who might be converted by the ideology (or ideologies) they were promoting. This might have meant regional populations but more than likely it meant businessmen or lawmakers or the public at large through mass media. This is my guess at least without the full context and without being able to look at the footnotes. Phillips, Nixon, and Buchanan would have been more interested in developing specifically regional bases for the Republican Party. Although it is also worth noting that Buchanan, after Nixon’s re-election, published a well-known memo to Nixon specifically saying conservatives needed a think tank institutional network to counter academia and Brookings. I think you can think about this in the context of the Krugman quote, which I generally agree with.


  10. Thanks Jason. One point where I pretty clearly see continuity between Nixon/Phillips and AEI is the rhetoric of class war (but cultural class war instead of economic). Phillips talked about a Toryhood of Change. And Irving Kristol (who is in the photo in your post with Baroody and is closely associated with AEI) talked about a New Class. The two cultural class war “theories” seem similar (I put it in scare quotes because both theories were very unrigorous). It’s interesting that Phillips even wrote an piece for a book on the New Class with many of Kristol’s colleagues. Could you characterize the relationship Kristol’s theories had to the mission of AEI?

    I noticed that former Cato VP Brink Lindzey’s 2010 piece (that he was probably fired for writing) criticized AEI president Arthur Brooks for writing a book that waged cultural class war in the age of Obama, saying that the results would likely be “illiberal”:


    I was interested in Nathan Glazer’s piece on Kristol where Glazer says that Kristol was one of the only people from the alcove group that got interested in electoral politics–this was one of the things that got me wondering if some of what AEI did was move Phillips’ regional project forward:


    • JJ,

      In the larger work, I write *a lot* about the relationship between Kristol and AEI. I think he was integral to the development of think tanks like AEI in 3 ways:

      First, through his post as a Wall Street Journal, he helped mainstream the political/policy discourse I talk about in this post and used it to direct corporate dollars to institutions like conservative think tanks. Here is a small sample of how I write about it in the larger work focusing on an influential op-ed he wrote in 1978:

      One of these new arguments, put forth in a 1978 Kristol op-ed entitled “On Corporate Philanthropy,” echoed the earlier critiques of the liberal establishment given by Buchanan and Powell. In particular, like Powell, Kristol argued that corporations needed to give money to research organizations who would defend the values of capital. Despite the Ford Foundation’s earlier financial gift to AEI, it comes in for flogging as part of the liberal establishment—or in Kristol’s parlance, “the New Class.” “The New Class” consisted of those who made up the staffs at universities and foundations and “who sincerely believe that the larger portion of human virtue is to be found in the public sector, and the larger portion of human vice in the private.” According to Kristol, corporations needed to stop giving money to these organizations—who were hostile to their interests—and instead seek out dissident “elements of the New Class—and they exist, if not in large numbers—which do believe in the preservation of a strong private sector.” Unsurprisingly, Kristol was talking not only about think tanks like AEI where he worked, but also places like “the Institute for Educational Affairs, which he and William E. Simon founded in 1978” and which directed financial resources “toward sympathetic scholars and the research projects of think tanks.” Along with foundations associated with Coors, Scaife, and the Olin family, elite conservatives and corporations were also already in the process of investing in think tanks as Kristol advocated.

      Continued in next comment…

    • Secondly, in his post at AEI and in his spot at the WSJ, Kristol was integral in developing the neoconservative subject position. He was so successful in this regard that by 1980, AEI was thought of as the premier spot for neoconservatives in Washington. This leads to my next point…

      Finally, as you correctly suggest in your comment, Kristol was very interested in electoral politics and thinking about policy which would garner the largest voter support. In this regard, he was enormously attracted to supply-side economics in the late seventies and early eighties. Once the new policy discourse I describe was in place, all sorts of bad policy was inserted into the national “marketplace.” I argue supply-side economics was one of the first such ideas. Kristol loved it because of the particularly fantastic claim being made that lowering taxes would actually increase government revenues. In his mind, this was electoral gold as you could increase government spending (particularly on the military) while cutting taxes. After awhile, Kristol realized the folly of this argument, but I think his response to this realization is worth noting. Note how even after he sees the policy is a mistake, he still wants to continue using it to define the neoconservative position. Here he is in a May 1980 op-ed entitled “The Battle for Reagan’s Soul”:

      “For what if a massive increase in the military budget, not matched by (and it will not be matched by) corresponding cuts in social programs, does create a fiscal problem? And what if the traditional-conservatives are right and a Kemp-Roth tax cut, without corresponding cuts in expenditures, also leaves us with a fiscal problem? The neoconservative is willing to leave those problems to be coped with by liberal interregnums. He wants to shape the future, and will leave it to his opponents to tidy up afterwards.”

      I guess you have to give him points for honesty, but this is exactly the sort of consequences you see when the new policy discourse is in place. It doesn’t matter if the data can make the case for you. All that matters is that the policy can be used to define a political identity.


  11. I apologize for arriving so late to this conversation. Great post, Jason…and great discussion following it! I really look forward to reading the longer, published versions of this stuff! A couple thoughts…

    1) It strikes me that the latest phase of the story you tell, Jason, is the overwhelming dominance of conservative ideas in policy circles during the last couple decades. This dominance changes the valence of those “marketplace” arguments that were so important to conservative think tanks in the ’70s. If imagining–and insisting on–a “marketplace of ideas” back then was a way of getting conservative ideas a hearing, today they don’t need that help…and indeed it’s other ideas that are being largely excluded from policy conversations. Despite continuing fealty to (imagined) marketplaces in general, might not the dominance of conservative ideas in today’s public policy conversation significantly blunt conservative enthusiasm for the “marketplace of ideas”?

    2) One partial exception is academia, where you still do see conservative public intellectual arguing that conservatives should be given a greater role on college campuses out of a commitment to “diversity.” Though in the academic setting, this argument is always tinged with irony, as it’s usually presented alongside a conservative critique of the very idea of “diversity” as a value on college campuses (for a recent, particularly extreme, example of this sort of thing, see the introduction to Peter Minowitz’s Straussophobia).

    3) A terrific account of one phase of the larger history that Jason discusses here can be found in the discussion of think tanks in the early 1980s in Alice O’Connor’s Poverty Knowledge.

    • Ben,

      Thanks for the kind words. I largely agree with all of the points in your response, but I do want to quibble a bit with #1.

      I definitely agree that conservatives “don’t need the help” of the marketplace discourse today in the way they did in the 60s and 70s. However, I still think that the discourse is operative and that conservatives still believe in it and still benefit from it. This is what I was alluding to in this portion of my above post:

      “Instead, policy debates became primarily concerned with political identities and political combat and provided the foundation for the elite media discourse within which Americans live today, where ‘balancing’ public policy debates between ‘two sides’ in a ‘marketplace of ideas’ effectively takes precedence over policy content and, dare I say, truth.”

      So, I still think that conservatives (in think tanks and elsewhere) still use this rhetoric of “balancing the marketplace of ideas” to make sure their “voices” — whatever the truth of those voices — are heard in the media. So, whenever a policy reporter needs the conservative position, they go to Heritage, AEI, etc., and report that “side of the debate” along with some liberal (or more likely neoliberal) position and then call it a day. What this also does is that it can make the entire spectrum move right as a very conservative position will be “balanced” with a neoliberal position in a policy debate — effectively (as you correctly note) eliminating an left, or even liberal, position from the discussion.

      Also, as you correctly note in your second point, one place the discourse is still highly operative is in academia. This is the case despite the irony you note and despite the fact (from my perspective) that universities are one of the most advanced neoliberal institutions in the United States.

      Finally, thanks for the O’Connor rec. I’ve read an article of hers but not the book. I can’t wait to read it because my book manuscript contains a case study of “welfare reform” and the role think tanks played in its development.


    • Thanks for the reply, Jason. A follow-up question:

      Is the discourse of balance really the same as the discourse of the marketplace of ideas? I think the former has grown more common today than the latter. And it’s much more limiting. The discourse of balance, at least in our political culture, tends to suggest that there are two, and only two, sides to any issue.

      “Balance” also allows one to pretty easily set up non-debate debates, in which the two sides represented are, e.g., pro-Iraq War “experts” from Brookings and pro-Iraq War “experts” from AEI.

    • Great question. They’re definitely not the same even though I tend to conflate them too much in the post and in comments. The more I think about this, I would put it this way: the discourse of “balance” grew out of the marketplace discourse, as you needed the latter before the former. In other words, the discourse of a policy “marketplace” needs to be hegemonic so as to allow conservatives entrance into the debate (as I argue here). Then, once this hegemony is set, you can further limit within that discourse through a related discourse of “balance” which implies only two views being allowed into the marketplace — the “liberal” and the “conservative” — i.e. the “marketplace” is closed except for two views.

      Obviously, I put “liberal” and “conservative” in quotes because of exactly the dynamic you see in the 2006 debate that you linked where the whole political spectrum has moved to the right to such an extent that the “two sides” are actually pretty much on the same side of an issue — the politically right side.

  12. GOP think tank refugee Bruce Bartlett just published a piece on supply side dogma this AM:


    On Irving Kristol’s New Class, have you run into the work of the social scientist Steven Brint, Jason?


    (Daniel Bell didn’t think much of it either, calling it a “muddled concept,” but Brint did more work in terms of empirical study.)

    • JJ,

      Thanks for the links. I had not heard of Brint, so I appreciate letting me know about him.

      As for the Bartlett piece, thanks for this as well. I read all of his stuff but had not seen this yet. I thought it was fantastic. In my dissertation, I have a whole chapter on AEI, Wanniski, and supply-side economics. Check out my March 18, 8:45 p.m. comment for more on this.


  13. I’ve commented about this in previous threads, but regarding the New Class, historian and NY Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus had an interesting speech he gave AEI in 2007 as the presidential primaries were gearing up:


    I’m not sure all the ideas in his speech cohere as well as he makes them sound (was James Burnham really a big influence on Irving Kristol?) But it still makes for an interesting listen–it seems prescient about the tea party (whom he calls the “revanchists”) and this is before anyone had even heard of the tea party, Sarah Palin, etc. …

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