The Center of the Center

At a time when academics, politicians, and journalists are all equally suspect, think tanks have become the last redoubts of authority. Where else can a Fox News producer find a statistic that won’t be immediately dismissed by the Left, or a Times reporter track down an expert too unremarkable to be worth a doxxing from MAGA trolls? And the journalist’s cabinet is well stocked: there are 1,872 think tanks currently operating in the United States, a number that has doubled in the space of only three decades. Such rampant growth is hardly exclusive to America—at last count there were as many think tanks in Europe as on this side of the Atlantic, and the numbers in Asia are rapidly expanding. 

 think tank citations in axios vice buzzfeed new york times wsj politico Citations were parsed by searching for all mentions of any think tanks listed in the Wikipedia list of American think tanks along with context words (‘said’, ‘say’, ‘explained’, ‘explains’, ‘according’, ‘report’, ‘replied’, ‘replies’, ‘study’, ‘told’, ‘tells’). Mentions were then manually annotated as either a citation (in which a report, expert, or any other entity affiliated with the organization was used as a source of authority) or a mere mention, which were then aggregated to assign a citation probability value for each think tank for each publication. That value was then applied to that publication’s total number of mentions.

Only a few institutions in the United States command the monolithic recognizability of Pew or Brookings. For the lesser known organizations, proof of their reliability rests in a name that either suggests some hyper specific inquiry (The Urban Land Institute, The Migration Policy Institute, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), or else connotes weighty meaninglessness (RAND, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, The Economic Policy Institute). Any Politico intern can tell you the Center for American Progress and Roosevelt Institute are the architects of Democratic orthodoxy, while the Cato and American Enterprise institutes have the ear of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Yet few and far between are the Washingtonians, let alone lay citizens, who have any clear idea of the process through which policy actually emerges from any of them. All that is known is that there are people…thinking.

If one institution has become synonymous with the conservative side of the ledger, it is the Heritage Foundation. In 2015, James Carafano, one of the group’s vice presidents, defended the continuing dominance of centers like his over the terms under which America’s political battles are waged. His argument begins from the hackneyed premise that think tanks are contemporary embodiments of the Euro-style salons that spread throughout the young republic in the 19th Century, representing a “gathering of bodies as well as minds, where thinkers could converse face to face, exchanging information, offering ideas, and advancing theories.”

Sumptuous as that sounds, few, if any, think tanks were expressly founded for dignitaries to have a place where they could sit in armchairs and sniff brandy. Robert Brookings’s motivation for launching the institution that would eventually take his name was very clear: he wanted to address what he considered the nation’s lack of an ability to effectively mobilize for battle, a deficit he confronted while serving on President Wilson’s War Industries Board and Price Fixing Committee during World War I. While not every think tank’s origins are so transparently tied to the project of American hegemony, it’s surely no accident that none existed until the United States had arrived on the world scene as a so-called great power. How else to understand the logarithmic rise of think tanks with the onset of the Cold War other than as a manifestation of the need to stoke the ideological furnace of American dominance?

Though America’s primacy is undeniably waning, Carafano, in keeping with Heritage’s reputation as a staunch defender of plutocracy (founded by the Coors and Mellon families in the 1970s, Heritage is now a prime beneficiary of Koch money), opens his coat like a back-alley watch salesman to reveal a full array of anodyne, market-friendly bits of jargon to make the case for why “the think tank community” has any continuing utility. Think tanks, he writes, offer a “collaborative, interdisciplinary environment” capable of “turning human capital into a competitive advantage.” Such language underscores Heritage’s commitment to…well, nothing. This is a body whose governing ideology, if it has one, is corporatist expediency. Which, it turns out, is a pretty good sobriquet for Trumpism. A recent Heritage “commentary” called our current age of catastrophic wealth inequality “a Middle Class Boom”; another, from Carafano himself, excused the President’s incoherent decision to allow Turkey to invade northern Syria by arguing the war-torn country had “always been peripheral to American interests.”

Heritage’s lapdog creed is so obvious and overwhelming that it’s tempting to simply dismiss their work the way any thinking person ignores Breitbart or Fox News. Yet it is the fourth most cited think tank by Politico, a dutifully non-partisan site. And Heritage is far from the only conservative organization to receive featured billing there: the American Enterprise Institute—who we can thank for inventing neoconservatism and whispering justifications for the Iraq War into George Bush’s ear—has been cited by Politico writers more than any other think tank since 2016.

Politico’s preference for Heritage and AEI over their liberal equivalents is hardly some covert attempt by its journalists to feed conservative talking points to their readers. Rather, it evinces how skilled conservative think tankers are at playing the Washington game. Politico, like the cable news networks, survives by offering politics as a 24/7 lifestyle, a hobby that can be pursued from the office, over drinks, or while sitting on the toilet. Having one’s free time consumed by congressional jockeying would be bizarre anywhere else in the country, but it is second nature inside the Beltway, and Heritage and AEI have apparently done a bang-up job of ingratiating themselves into the toxic culture of schmoozing that thrives there. The “researchers” from those think tanks are the ones who Politico’s reporters are seeing out and about—it can’t be surprising that those same reporters, when it comes time to cite a stat or forage for a quote, reach for one of the business cards already tucked in their pocketbooks.

Elsewhere, you’ll find an unfamiliar name that has become bizarrely pervasive across the media spectrum, receiving top billing from both senescent D.C. marms and youthful new-media provocateurs alike: the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Founded in 1962 by a decorated admiral and an author who would go on to serve as Reagan’s ambassador to NATO, the CSIS describes itself as “one of the world’s preeminent international policy institutions focused on defense and security; regional study; and transnational challenges ranging from energy and trade to global development and economic integration.” It’s a sufficiently vague ambit to allow work on all things geopolitical, including a podcast on Ebola in the Congo and infographics about the Arctic. Yet, the organization’s specialization has always been defense, and an enduring Cold Warrior mentality is not hard to detect in its publications, to say nothing of its very name. Earlier this fall, CSIS released a book titled Ironclad: Forging a New Future for America’s Alliances, and in October, one of its researchers warned that a military parade in China “revealed a nation seeking to supplant the United States as the dominant military and technological power in the Asia-Pacific.”

CSIS’s “non-partisan” designation essentially means that its ideology lines up cleanly with the internationalist foreign policy Robert Brookings favored and which has held sway in the US since the end of World War II, regardless of which party controls Washington. And with a name that assures the news media that its research is both strategic and international, most outlets pass the surely authoritative work being done there along to their readers without pausing for even a second to examine the group’s motivations.

But however vociferous CSIS’s arguments for the status quo, its voice and influence are easily drowned out by Brookings. Over the past hundred years, the institution’s mandate has expanded from fulfilling “the need for improved economic research and a trained corps of civil servants” originally identified by its namesake into zeal for business interests writ large. There are a few million good reasons for that: as the Times reported in 2016, Brookings’s unquenchable thirst for corporate dollars has translated into publishing “research” that lines up with its donors’ priorities, helping it to land eye-popping donations, including one from JP Morgan Chase for $15 million. As Senator Elizabeth Warren put it to the Times, such donations allow corporations to buy “the glossy name of independence” associated with a think tank like Brookings without having to meet the rigorous disclosures that traditional lobbying requires.

Such blind reliance speaks not to any political bias, but rather an institutional one, a defaulting back to entrenched systems. Practitioners call this sort of thinking “centrism”, a term that invokes their fantasies about its universality.

Despite its own reporting, the Times has continued to reference Brookings at a rapid clip. And readers are rarely, if ever, given proper context for the information being attributed to it or any other think tank. In a 2010 study of NPR’s references to think tanks, that outlet’s public editor found that AEI, the Center for American Progress, and Heritage were all routinely referred to by the network without any accompanying discussion of their political leanings, let alone their methodologies. If an outlet as avowedly neutral as NPR fails to mention that AEI is conservative, what are the chances that it can be trusted to provide some even more finely grained context for the biases of CSIS or Brookings? Even setting aside ideology, how often are journalists providing any information about the source of these institutions’ funding, or the background of their researchers? How many readers could, based solely on the information offered to them in the news, cite a meaningful distinction between the Middle East Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy? The Council on Foreign Relations and the European Council on Foreign Relations?

Journalists nevertheless continue to lean on these bodies, their very status as think tanks serving to prop up the reliability of whatever information is harvested from them. Such blind reliance speaks not to any political bias, but rather an institutional one, a defaulting back to entrenched systems. Practitioners call this sort of thinking “centrism”, a term that invokes their fantasies about its universality. In contrast, research that originates at universities is thought to lean left, even if it, too, is haunted by the specter of special interests. However suspect, the work of academics is, at the very least, peer reviewed, while the studies, papers, and briefings churned out by think tanks are subject to no outside scrutiny whatsoever. Brookings and Pew fear no public accountability. Their findings may as well be written on stone tablets, so rarely are they critiqued or questioned in the press. This suggests a subtle but systemic inclination toward the perpetuation of a state of affairs that has reigned since the middle of the last century, one that favors an established order built by and for the wealthy, white, and male.

If that seems extreme, just take a look at the regularity with which these think tanks are referenced. In the span of three years, the Times’s 20 favorite think tanks were cited more than 2,300 times—a rate of over twice a day. Politico referred to its own preferred groups  around once a day, and even the young punks at Vice appealed to theirs a few times a week.

The result is little beyond authoritative empty calories: statistics that will be forgotten as soon as the reader is on to the next line, an expert quote that serves only to demonstrate the writer spoke to an expert—if said expert also enjoys the margaritas at the Tortilla Coast in Capitol Hill, so much the better. Though the content of that expertise hardly lasts in a reader’s mind, what does is the impression of competence, a sense that deep in the bowels of some federal-style building in Foggy Bottom, a lot of very important people are sitting at desks, working out the solutions to the problems that ail the nation. That their solutions are more often than not geared to do nothing beyond prop up the systems that have created those problems in the first place falls by the wayside, extraneous context that would only confuse the issue. — Kyle Paoletta

Analysis by Andrew Thompson, video and graphic by Guido Flichman, additional research by Sharon Kelly.