You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Credible Think Tank Is Dead

The ousting of a Google critic at the New America Foundation shows how donors have corrupted Washington's policy and research institutes.

Flickr/New America

The New America Foundation is reeling from controversy after its decision late last month to “part ways”—in the words of the group’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter—with anti-monopoly crusader Barry Lynn and his Open Markets project. It’s a complicated story with diverging accounts, but The New York Times summed it up neatly: “Google Critic Ousted From Think Tank Funded by the Tech Giant.”

In a nutshell, according to the Times and correspondence released by New America: Google and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are major donors to New America, and Schmidt served as New America’s chairman. Lynn and his project have been critical of the tech giants, and in June published an endorsement of the European Union’s antitrust judgment against Google. Company representatives expressed their displeasure to Slaughter, and she accused Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole.” Slaughter asked Lynn and Open Markets to leave. 

Lynn says he was ousted because Slaughter succumbed to pressure from Google. While no evidence has surfaced that Google representatives demanded his ouster, there seems little doubt that the conflict between him and Slaughter stemmed from his “imperiling” a major donor. Slaughter says she fired Lynn because of a lack of “collegiality.” Lynn had failed to give Slaughter adequate notice of a conference last year that was going to single out Google for criticism, and had not allowed her to review his statement on the EU’s antitrust judgment. From Slaughter’s standpoint, Lynn was not simply an independent scholar, but the head of a program and had a duty to warn her and other program directors if his group was doing something that might alienate a major donor.

I can’t claim definitive knowledge of what happened. But as someone who spent a few years at a Washington think tank, and has written extensively about these institutions, I can say that the controversy at New America bears out the credibility problem facing think tanks. Instead of bolstering public trust in expertise, as the think tanks were initially supposed to do, they are increasingly feeding the growing distrust.

In fact, one can connect the events at New America to the transformation of American think tanks over the past century. The term “think tank” didn’t appear until the Kennedy administration, which relied heavily on Rand Corporation research, but these policy groups and research institutes date from 1916, when philanthropist Robert Brookings established the Institute for Government Research, which later became known as the Brookings Institution. Robert Brookings was one of a group of very wealthy businessmen who had become convinced that through the application of social science, government policies could be devised that would stem the rising conflict between the classes and parties and also achieve world peace. They were Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson progressives in the broadest sense of the term. 

Brookings wanted a research institute that was “free from any political or pecuniary interest.” The scholars didn’t raise their own money, but were employed like university faculty. In founding the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Andrew Carnegie went farther: In 1910, he endowed the new institution with bonds that he hoped would allow it to forego fundraising entirely. Other groups that began during those first decades included the Council on Foreign Relations, the Twentieth Century Fund (now the Century Foundation), the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Committee for Economic Development. 

The groups attained a reputation for intellectual independence. When coal company officials complained in 1933 to Brookings’ first president, classical economist Harold Moulton, about a study recommending their nationalization, Moulton responded, “We are concerned only in finding out what will promote the general welfare.” That reputation lasted into the 1960s, when, under John F. Kennedy, think tanks were conspicuously welcomed in the policy debate. But Robert Brookings’s early model of political disinterestedness and scientific objectivity began to erode soon afterward.

Three developments contributed to this change: Beginning in the 1940s, and in earnest in the early 1970s, conservative Republicans and business groups established think tanks and policy groups that had a specific economic and/or factional purpose. Businessmen dissatisfied with the New Deal created the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in 1943. In 1964, it served as the policy arm of Barry Goldwater’s right-wing campaign for president, and in the ‘70s became the preferred think tank of the Fortune 500 and of center-right Republicans, even when, for appearance’s sake, AEI kept around a few liberal researchers.

The Heritage Institution was founded in 1973 as a sophisticated business lobby (its first president came from the National Association of Manufacturers) that, unlike the more scholarly AEI, actively worked on Capitol Hill to develop legislation. It became a key player in the growth of Republican conservatism. Other groups included the American Council for Capital Formation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and later “action tanks” like Citizens for a Sound Economy and its successors FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

Together, these business and conservative Republican groups attempted to take advantage of the reputation created by the older think tanks: They demanded attention for their “experts” in the media—on op-ed pages and, later, TV news shows—but they were in fact the kind of political organization or business lobbies that Robert Brookings and Andrew Carnegie had wanted to avoid at all costs. These groups’ scholarly output, particularly from a group like Heritage, was nugatory. They debased the coinage of the older thinking. And their model of partisan intervention and policy briefs spread leftward to groups like the Center for American Progress, which is something of a Democratic version of the Heritage Foundation. 

The second development was related to the first. Beginning in the early ’70s, businesses began expanding their Washington lobbying operations. They established corporate offices in Washington and hired lobbying firms. They also spent huge amounts on funding studies that supported their point of view. This contributed to the growth of groups like AEI, but the money also flowed to scores of other groups, many of which had claimed an overt neutrality. They included the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Institute for International Economics (later the Peterson Institute), as well as the older think tanks. In the new environment of Washington, these older think tanks became eager for funding, even at the cost of their intellectual independence. 

The older think tanks had the organizational logic of a small college, or even college department, where the faculty didn’t have to teach. But with the rise of Heritage and AEI, a third development took place. The older and newer think tanks were swept up in a competition more characteristic of the business world than academia. They wanted the largest number of researchers, the biggest and fanciest headquarters, “centers” around the country and even abroad—and they needed huge sums of money to do it. Carnegie, for instance, abandoned its dependence on an endowment and moved its quarters to an impressive edifice next to Brookings in downtown D.C. Subsequently, it established centers around the world on the model of a multinational corporation. 

As the think tanks sought donors, the donors in turn demanded influence over the product they were financing. Some of the groups, such as Brookings, did (and still do) try to keep the donors at arm’s length. But the relationship between donors and think tanks has produced a succession of scandals over the last 30 years. Last year, The New York Times obtained documents that “show that financial support often came with assurances from Brookings that it would provide ‘donation benefits,’ including setting up events featuring corporate executives with government officials…” Two years prior, a Times investigation found, “More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities.” Those groups included Brookings, CSIS, and the Atlantic Council. 

Donor influence has been magnified by the fact that think tanks often require scholars to seek funding for their research. When I became a “visiting scholar” at Carnegie in 2003, I was under the illusion that think tank scholars were still like university faculty. But after I had finished a book on the Iraq war, I was told that if I wanted to remain in my office to write a book on the history of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, I would have to find funding.  I didn’t want to get funds from either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, because that would allow the other side to discredit my research. But the search for uncomplicated funding proved too challenging, and led to my departure from Carnegie. This has become standard practice at Washington’s think tanks, and it can give donors untoward influence over what is produced.

New America is not, as think tanks go, known as one where donors have especially heavy influence or where researchers are let go on spurious grounds. It was founded in 1999 by Ted Halstead, Michael Lind, and several others, in the older tradition of the progressive policy group. Spelled out in a book, The Radical Center, Halstead and Lind sought to transcend the prevailing partisan divisions. They deplored “the increasingly dogmatic two-party system” and predicted that “political transformations and realignments” were in order. The think tank was initially based on fellows who were appointed for specific terms and guaranteed independence in their work. It has produced a score of interesting books.

But New America became caught up in the competitive war among think tanks. It established centers in New York and California. It set up a host of funded projects like Lynn’s Open Markets. It courted controversy in 2012 when it incorporated an anti-Keynesian project, the Campaign to Fix the Debt, funded by banker Pete Peterson. It was accused of abandoning its original radical-centrist vision for a standard Republican line of fiscal conservatism. And as the controversy over Lynn demonstrates, the profusion of projects invited conflicts between donors and researchers. If Lynn, who is setting up a new group, Citizens Against Monopoly, had confined his efforts to oil companies, it’s doubtful that he would have faced the same conflict with Slaughter.

Kevin Carey, the head of the Education Policy Program at New America, employed the language of the business world to describe the competitive challenges, telling me in an email that it’s “tricky to maintain an exact size equilibrium in the non-profit think tank world. If you’re successful, that creates a lot of opportunities to do more work, recruit better people, and raise more money. People come to you. It’s hard to say no, because the best people like to work at organizations that are dynamic and on the move, and if you can’t recruit or keep the best people, you end up in the alternative state: stagnation, desperately scrounging for money, and decline.” 

The controversy over New America and Lynn has prompted hand-wringing among Washington’s policy community, but some of it seems self-serving. “Slowly, and not so surely, the American media is waking up to the pervasiveness of corporate corruption of the nation’s think tank complex,” wrote Alan Tonelson, who did research for decades at the Business and Industrial Council, which got much of its funds from Roger Milliken and Milliken & Co. Neera Tanden, CAP’s head, told her staff that the controversy is “a good reminder that every institution’s ability to impact the national debate is based on trust.” (CAP is not immune to controversies that threaten the public’s trust.)

Slaughter tried to put the controversy in perspective in an article for Medium. “Nothing we say is going to convince the many people who want to believe a David versus Goliath story of Barry Lynn versus big bad Google,” she wrote. “On the contrary, Barry’s new organization and campaign against Google is the opening salvo of one group of Democrats versus another group of Democrats in the run-up to the 2020 election, at a time when I personally think the country faces far greater challenges of racism, violence, a broken political system, and geographic and partisan divisions so great that we are losing any common sense of what we stand and strive for as a country.” 

But far from putting the controversy to rest, Slaughter’s statement seemed to suggest that what was really at stake was not collegiality, but, as Lynn had charged, his “campaign against Google.” And Slaughter is saying that this campaign, whatever its merits, was of little significance compared to the “greater challenges” that the country faces. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but my own view of high-tech monopoly is probably different from those of Lynn and his colleagues. I lean toward regulating rather than breaking up large corporations. But I’d be the last person to belittle the issue of how the country should contend with the power of Google, Amazon, and Facebook, as Slaughter seems to do in this bizarre statement.

Where will all this end up? I would hope that Slaughter and New America find a way to right their ship. It remains one of Washington’s more valuable research groups. More generally, I would like to see a reaffirmation of Robert Brookings’s original vision of disinterested research that bridges the gap between scholarship and policy and doesn’t get caught up in partisan warfare or succumb to the lure of big money. But I’m not optimistic. In money-drenched Washington, with campaign laws that invite the corruption of public debate, it is hard to imagine any think tank living up to Brookings’s stern standards. Instead, it will take what Bernie Sanders calls a “political revolution”—one that seeks to reduce the role of money throughout American politics—to revive the older vision of the think tank.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the first president of the Brookings Institution. It was Harold Moulton.