Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Liberal Think Tanks

It's hard not to copy a good idea.

After reading about the well-oiled conservative thinktank-media-politician complex in books like David Brock's mea culpa, liberals have apparently decided to replicate that establishment. With their own millionaire benefactors, they've quietly laid the groundwork for new progressive thinktanks. But the Left's current political and intellectual situation is much different from that of the conservative movement of the 1970s that spawned the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

Universities were firmly liberal by the early 1970s and many conservative scholars in economics, journalism and other social science disciplines felt unable to break into academia. This created an opportunity for millionaire benefactors to set up thinktanks in Washington DC where conservative ideas could be generated in close proximity to decisionmakers. Today these institutions have a fast line to Congress and the White House as expert sources, and continue to keep themselves relevant to policymakers by offering a variety of services. You'll note from the link the pre-made talking points.

The liberals still by and large are the majority of faculty in university social science departments. While perhaps Richard Rorty's dream of reuniting the early twentieth century academia-labor alliance is not viable, the liberals shouldn't forget about the influence academia wields, and their best minds are already concentrated there. Investing in academia builds the farm team, while investing in think tanks yields short-term political influence.

Conservatives developed think tanks when they were low on policy ideas and felt locked out of academia. Liberals today are low on policy ideas and feel locked out of government. They have the institutional infrastructure to develop novel proposals, but they're not using it well because the incentives for individual researchers' career advancement encourage more theoretical research than policy work that can be sold directly to politicians. Rewarding academics in their tenure tracks for participation as well as publication might go a long way to salvaging the listing liberal ship.

Moderates are interested in maintaining a viable minority, not just to keep parliamentary bodies pluralistic, but because the minority has the greatest incentive to think creatively and ask good questions about what the majority does. The Democrat minority of the past 5 years has in many ways been a disappointment, but copying the conservatives' institutions is not an easy fix; it's an example of the me-too attitude that loses elections.

Perhaps most distressing is imagining a liberal doppelganger Heritage-FoxNews-Rove political complex in constant rhetorical warfare with the original. How sad it would be if that turns out to be the only way to reach a political equilibrium. But it seems unlikely to work since the liberal thinktank network is being born out of contrivance rather than addressing the movement's specific needs. Besides, who would be the conservative version of Colmes?


At 1:15 PM, Blogger Jiminy McCricket said...

Hi, there. Jiminy McCricket here, a/k/a J. Dorsi.

Your arguments are all well reasoned enough to call for only a well-deliberated reply, Modo. That's why I have read but not replied yet. I'm either lazy or busy. Both, I guess.

Regarding the issue at hand, I thought of your comments when I read this Salon article: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/05/25/blackwell/

It's worth a read. Granted, it's posted on a site that clearly favors the liberal causes, but I found it to be fairly frank and objective. The disturbing parts are likely to disturb the ideals of liberals and conservatives equally.

Keep it up--I'll try and be a better participant in the future.


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