Think Tanks

June 20, 1986

Report Outline
Shaping Public Policy
Case Study in Growth
Quest for Influence
Special Focus

Shaping Public Policy

The charter of The Brookings Institution, one of the nation's leading and oldest think tanks, declared that the institution would conduct “scientific research” in “the broad fields of economics, government administration and the political and social sciences generally”; that this would involve determining and interpreting relevant “economic, political and social facts,” and that the work would be done “without regard to and independently of the special interests of any group in the body politic, either political, social or economic.” Much has changed, of course, since the 1920s. The idea that, the facts can be found and interpreted so disinterestedly is now widely regarded with considerable skepticism. Disinterestedness, nevertheless, remains the ideal at Brookings, as at many other think tanks.

In recent years, however, public policy research organizations that are more overtly ideological have risen to prominence. These are primarily the “conservative” think tanks, notably the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Heritage Foundation, both located, as is Brookings, in Washington, D.C. There are ideological think tanks of other persuasions, notably the Cato Institute (libertarian) and the Institute for Policy Studies (leftist); but their funding and influence have been far less than the conservative ones, especially in recent years.

Some observers, in fact, even contend that Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 largely on the strength of his performance as a persuasive spokesman for the ideas advanced by the conservative “ideas industry.” “The Republicans simply left us behind,” commented Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. “They became the party of ideas and we…didn't have any. So, who ends up running the country? Politicians who know how to use ideas, that's who. The end product of government is laws—and laws emerge from ideas.”

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