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September 17, 2007

On VSPs, Brookings, CFR and Liberal Institutions
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Matt Yglesias has been rightfully giving Brookings and CFR a hard time for sheltering conservative experts and failing to act as liberal watchdogs that push back on the Administration’s crazy talk.  Ultimately, the problem with the liberal VSP community has less to do with being “serious” and more to do with institutions  On the right, groups such as AEI and Heritage act as a conservative VSP machine that systematically nurtures and promotes its experts.  On the left, there are not enough mechanisms for picking out the best scholars, elevating their work and increasing their media profile.  We all assume that because so many liberal experts sit inside CFR and Brookings, these institutions should play that role, but it’s not what they were set up to do.   Heritage and AEI are there to push an agenda.  Brookings and CFR are meant to be purely idea factories, without a coherent advocacy strategy. 

The Brookings mission is “…devoted to independent research and innovative policy solutions… For policy-makers and the media, Brookings scholars provide the highest quality research, policy recommendations, and analysis on the full range of public policy issues.”  There is nothing here about supporting a governing philosophy.  Compare that to Heritage, where the point is specifically “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.”  Nothing mealy mouthed about this.  The organization exists to push an agenda.  This means, that while Heritage and AEI unabashedly hire and promote only conservatives, Brookings and CFR remain “fair and balanced.”  So, the Max Boots and Peter Rodmans of the world find their way into these institutions.  The reverse never happens.

Another result is the difference in media strategies that the two organizations employ.  The Brookings press shop doesn’t care which expert get on TV, as long as they are identified with Brookings.  Peter Rodman = Mike O’Hanlon = Susan Rice, even if they have very different views on the world.  The Heritage communications office is going to think strategically about the agendas and experts it promotes, and these types of decisions will likely come from the top.  In fact, the media services that Heritage provides are much more useful than anything that Brookings or CFR offer. 

Third, is the question of how certain think tank experts get a great deal more attention than others.  Why do Max Boot and Mike O’Hanlon get so much more space than Ray Takeyh and Jon Alterman?  I suspect it has little to do with a strategic decision on the part of the communications staff of a particular think tank.  From dealing with the wonk community I’ve found that it has much more to do with their own knowledge of how to deal with the media and their willingness to actively pursue media appearances.  O’Hanlon and Boot make being in the media an active part of their job and they are good at it.  I also imagine that Boot got some pretty thorough training in how to deal with the media through his eight years on the Editorial staff at the Wall Street Journal (A notorious training ground for arch conservatives who want to be seen as mainstream conservatives).   

So, how do we fix this mess?  I don’t think calling Brookings out is going to help all that much.  But building more progressive institutions will.  The Center for American Progress is the best response we’ve got right now to Heritage or AEI.  The organization is a think tank, but with a robust communications department that includes Think Progress and the Progress Report.  There are strategic decisions being made at CAP on which issues and experts to promote that are directly linked to a policy agenda. 

In a bout of self promotion I’d also throw NSN into the mix, although we are much smaller than CAP.  Our reason for existing is to take the good work that is being done in think tanks and turn it into material that the media understands and that legislators can use.  The point is also to identify all those great senior fellows at places like CFR and Brookings, who don’t get enough attention, and try to raise their profiles.  It was not hard, for example, to pull together a video full of experts pre-butting the Petraeus testimony and we could have had 20-30 VSPs if we wanted to. 

Many VSPs are eager to play a constructive role in countering the right wing media.  They just don’t have the know how to make it happen on their own, or the institutional support that can make them more effective. 


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On the left, there are not enough mechanisms for picking out the best scholars, elevating their work and increasing their media profile.

There really is no American "left" that currently has any viability at all in the established churches of the American political system. All of the main established political denominations represent one or another variety of liberal capitalism, including the classical laissez faire but socially traditionalist versions of the modern conservative movement and the somewhat more socially tolerant and economically pragmatic centrist neoliberalism of the post-Reagan Democratic party.

This is not to say that there is no American left at all. The dissident and non-conformist left makes its presence felt all the time through grass roots activism. But the left is systematically excluded from participation in elite institutions, so the activists are always fighting uphill against tough odds. A left wing orientation is simply incompatible with the approved ideologies of the US corporatocracy, and since the latter owns and operates the American government, and funds the work of the non-governmental thinkeries that support the government's work and advance the corporate agenda, one cannot look to its institutions for the advancement of the left.

Culturally, however, there is a substantial difference between the modern conservative movement represented by the Republicans and the managerial neoliberalism of the Democrats. For the modern right, politics is an instrument for affecting profound social change, and professionalized government is only one modest instrument of that change. Managerial liberalism, on the other hand, eschews such high ambitions, and is content with proposing modest tweaks, improved efficiencies and bureaucratic reforms in a system they find basically swell. Politics, for the latter, is simply a tool for organizing governance, and governance is itself a job, a career, rather than a cause and vocation. It is something to be handled in an unexciting, rational and professional manner by well-trained technocratic managers, churning out "policy products" and measuring change and success through spreadsheets and benchmarks. The think tanks are uninterested in effecting profound change through the legislative process, but simply sell talking points and lessons in basic competence to legislators and candidates. For them, bureaucracy is the highest form of human endeavor. Such an ingrained end-of-ideology ideology is incapable of leading anything resembling of social movement.

I think you also forgot to mention CSIS as another solid VSP institution. What's your assessment of that outfit?

As for NSN, why not explicitly formulate the objective as a media arm for any liberal institute that might form? Some separation of media promotion from the actual policy making is probably desirable. Let the think tanks come up with the content and let NSN promote it.

I realize it's quaint to bring this up, but why is the correct response to ideologically driven think tanks on the right to create ideologically driven think tanks on the left? If a common complaint about politics is that it is hyper-partisan, why would we seek to widen the divide?

The two obvious (and purposefully abbreviated) answers are: (1) the train has already left the station, and (2) more partisanship is preferable because it causes both sides to sharpen their arguments (and presumably the best will prevail).

Of them, the first only begs the question (why not bring the train back?) and the second defies the history of the foreign policy in the United States. If the second point is to be argued, there are two choices: (1) either the entire history of foreign policy judgments in the U.S. has been wrongheaded, or (2) this particular war requires a different method of decisionmaking--not simply because it is different, but because there is something unique in the way it is different that requires a different approach. To me, advocates of either of these lines of thought bear heavy burdens.

With the election of the Democrat as the next President the left will have the chance to influence the very nature of the foreign policy establishment. If the choice is to further divide the country, the reasons should be unimpeachable.

"On the left, there are not enough mechanisms for picking out the best scholars, elevating their work and increasing their media profile."

Is this when the former stock trader arrogates unto himself the title of "military expert" and bemoans why more people don't take him seriously?

Um, who would this be? Max Boot? The Kagan family? Anybody in that awesome embodiment of military knowledge known as AEI?

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