If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely to be someone who’s interested in ‘truth’ – finding out the evidence on inequalities, and using this as a platform for action. You might have protested about the way that politicians and the media perpetuate inequalities by peddling ‘myths’. You may even have dedicated your whole life to finding out truths and spreading them far and wide – however uncomfortable for people in power, or even yourself.
But what if all this actually makes it less likely that inequalities will be tackled?
That’s the possibility raised by an intriguing book chapter by Andrew Rich, which studies US think tanks to try and understand why conservative ideas have been dominant over liberal ideas in the US in recent decades.
‘Think Tanks as an Infrastructure for Ideas’
Why look at think tanks? Rich starts by making the case that “Think tanks have been a driving force in what is often called a war of ideas in American politics, a war that conservatives are winning. They are a key organizational vehicle for promoting ideas. They offer a way for ideas to gain adherents and to inform the substantive underpinnings of policy debates. And think tanks are not just an engine for ideas. They are also a reflection of ideas.” Rich’s study looks at these think tanks in two ways – a survey of 78 think-tanks from 2003 (representing a response rate of 68%, and with 34 conservative, 19 liberal, and 25 that present themselves as disinterested), together with a few qualitative interviews.
You might expect all think tanks to use the same tactics in the service of different ideals – but Rich points out that these ideals actually influence the way that think tanks go about their business (p196). Liberal think tanks – according to Rich – typically see themselves as ‘disinterested experts’, using objective research to try and solve social problems. Conservatives, however, typically see themselves as salesmen for ideas; research is felt to be inherently ideological, and to be used in the service of promoting their core beliefs. It’s not that conservatives see themselves as ‘anti-truth’, but instead that their truth is a deeper, philosophical truth about the nature of the world. And as a result of their lesser concern to objective evidence, Rich suggests, they are more effective at selling their ideas to politicians and the public.
The evidence for this claim is not overwhelming – but I was somewhat convinced, partly because it seems to ring true, and partly because there is some suggestive evidence in the chapter. In the survey, conservative think tanks report that ideological orientation is the most important criteria for hiring staff, while liberal think tanks primarily emphasise about advanced degrees and experience in government (p199). Similarly, liberal think tanks tended to see think tanks as places for policy researchers and issue activists, whereas conservatives saw them more as places for public intellectuals (with its undertones of shaping the public worldview).
“Our belief is that when the research has been printed, then the job is only half done. That is when we start marketing it to the media.… We have as part of our charge the selling of ideas, the selling of policy proposals. We are out there actively selling these things, day after day. It’s our mission” – Herb Berkowitz, the Heritage Foundation’s former vice president for communication
We can explicitly contrast this to a liberal think tank talking about how they work differently:
“The important thing for us, and it’s not true—and I don’t say this purely out of a spirit of rivalry and competitiveness—but it’s not true, for example, for the Heritage Foundation. They don’t really care whether their numbers meet academic standards. For us, it’s a question of survival. We know that we can’t make it unless we continue to be credible to places with our numbers. So we try to be bold politically, but we spend a lot of energy making sure our numbers are right” – president of liberal think tank, 2005
Advocacy without truth?
Rich’s claim is that “ideas are really not important to liberals—pragmatists or activists—in the ways that they are to conservatives” (p206), and that therefore liberal think tanks “are not organized to be effective counterweights to conservative think tanks in the war of ideas” (p203). So does this mean liberals we ditch the ideal of truth, and get down and play dirty instead? Well, I have two worries about this.
Firstly, this is clearly not the full explanation for the dominance of neoliberal ideas in the US, the UK and elsewhere. The evidence in the chapter is interesting but hardly definitive, and the idea that all liberals have a firm commitment to truth is, to put it mildly, an exaggeration – I’ve seen plenty of gross misuses of statistics that are done in the service of tackling inequalities. Fewer than I’ve seen conservatives use, perhaps, but it does happen. And more importantly, the power of think tanks is easy to over-state; there are sweeping tides of social change that have brought neoliberalism along with them in their wake, with think tanks bobbing along on the surface.
Secondly, truth can be a valuable public currency, even if advocates themselves don’t believe it. From informal conversations with think-tankers and civil servants, any idea that is clearly wrong has the risk of being shot down in public debate – or if not in public debate, then at least in the elite policymaking circles that many operate in. Conservatives have to pay some attention to truth (or at least pay lip service to it), and any clumsy attempt by liberals to lie their way into a winning argument is likely to backfire.
Yet despite my misgivings about a simple form of this argument – the simplicity, I should add, in part due to my blog post rather than Rich himself – there does seem to be something important here. And indeed, there are substantial overlaps here with the work of people like Drew Westen, arguing that Democrats excessive reliance on rational argument over emotional appeal has disadvantaged them in the battle for votes; as I’ve written recently, putting the truth in front of people doesn’t necessarily change their minds. Which all raises much bigger questions about the role of evidence and truth, questions which I’ll return to over the coming months…