conservatism in the tank

Illustration of Jim Demint by Stephen KroningerWhen Sen. Jim DeMint, the upper chamber’s godfather of Tea Party nihilism, abruptly announced his retirement from his lawmaking career and his plans to take over as president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, the consensus in Washington was that this was a step down for a guy who had never done all that much in the first place. For goodness’ sake, the pundits wailed, what legacy does this man think he’s leaving behind? What authorship can he claim for any significant—or, for that matter, trivial or failed—piece of legislation? He must be going from do-nothing legislator, the thinking went, to a sinecure outside the official branches of power purely for the money. The money! What a useless person that Jim DeMint is, and ever shall be.

So far as it goes, this appraisal of DeMint’s legacy is accurate enough—he’s the sort of lawmaking mediocrity who makes, say, Montana’s onetime senator-cum-Abramoff-bagman Conrad Burns look like Daniel Webster. But measuring DeMint’s career move on the usual Washington grid of legislative achievement also completely misses the point.

Just consider, in this regard, the verdict of—yes—the Heritage Foundation. According to Heritage Action for America’s first-ever legislative scorecard, released in August 2011, DeMint was the finest legislator in the federal government that year. “Heritage Action’s legislative scorecard isn’t graded on a curve—it is tough and we don’t apologize,” the new advocacy group, spun off from the Heritage Foundation proper, explained. “After all, we are conservatives, not tenured university professors.” Heh, indeed—and behold the ambitious sweep of the grading curve:

With each vote cast in Congress, freedom either advances or recedes. Heritage Action’s new legislative scorecard allows Americans to see whether their Members of Congress are fighting for freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society. The scorecard is comprehensive, covering the full spectrum of conservatism, and includes legislative action on issues both large and small.

Jim DeMint scored a 99 percent on this proudly nonacademic report card, just edging out one of his Tea Party protégés, freshman Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Rounding out the top ten were DeMint’s other pupils, who similarly voted against most everything that had any chance of going anywhere that year.

The whole curious DeMint affair bespeaks the ongoing shift of power in Washington away from the people’s business—and toward the ideological donor class. Heritage’s new advocacy shop, Heritage Action, brings the organization the sort of power that Washington’s predominant think tanks never previously considered theirs to wield: that of enforcing conservative ideological orthodoxy among lawmakers. Instead of handing them conservative policy research to inform decision-making, it’s issuing scorecards that gauge lawmakers’ ideological fealty to pet conservative causes—and ensuring that these scores get circulated far and wide among the powerful donors behind the conservative movement. While technically separated from its ideological parents at the Heritage Foundation by its 501(c)(4) status, Heritage Action “seeks to convert the think tank’s more than 700,000 members into a potent political force,” according to an admiring notice in the National Review. As outgoing Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner described Heritage’s two wings upon Heritage Action’s conception—riffing on a Ronald Reagan quotation—“The Heritage Foundation makes [politicians] see the light, Heritage Action makes them feel the heat.”

Welcome to the new incarnation of the “think tank” world, over which Jim DeMint—its ideal-type avatar—now presides. Instead of letting scholars of various shades of true believership study what interests them without predetermined conclusions, think tanks are now expected to formulate new ways to echo one or another approved ideological dogma—and then marshal lawmakers, none too subtly, to march in lockstep behind it. DeMint, a top advocate of banning earmarks and other parliamentary tools that might actually induce a fence-sitting lawmaker to vote for something, now sits atop a stockpile of direct-mail-solicited cash overseeing all legislative action, demanding constant “no” votes and signatures on petitions for actions that will never materialize, running scary ads, and sending stern email “alerts” back home to those who dare to defy DeMint and the movement he manages.

In other words, to consider DeMint’s legacy simply because he’s exiting the Senate after eight years is silly, when he’s just beginning to craft it, finally, from a position of actual power.

Right Thinking

The thing about modern think tanks, or advocacy organizations, pressure groups, whatever you call them now—the line has been blurred enough by this point to send IRS investigators into panic attacks as they try to determine a group’s taxable status—is how cheap and reproducible they’ve become. Lawmakers frequently grumble about the need to spur twenty-first-century entrepreneurship in our economy, and in the think tank sector, all by itself, we find a true American success story. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s most recent Global Go-To Think Tanks Rankings report, as explained by former George W. Bush policy aide Tevi Troy, the number of think tanks has grown “from about 45 after the Second World War to about 1,800 today, including nearly 400 in the Washington, D.C., area alone.” Wherever a federal, state, municipal, or company-level policy decision is to be made nowadays, a think tank is there to offer its opinion.

But don’t worry, prospective think tank entrepreneurs: not all of them have to be good, long-lasting, creative, or thoughtful. Consider the example of Bill Kristol, the neoconservative operative who edits The Weekly Standard but moonlights as a developer of insta-think-tanks filled out with half-employed partisan policy veterans. Kristol works in creating rickety, fly-by-night think tanks the way a prolific impressionist might toss off a series of gauzy pastel watercolors. Reporter Jason Zengerle, writing in The New Republic, notes that Kristol “may in fact be the most talented political operative of his generation,” touting not only his accomplishments in helping to quash Hillary Clinton’s 1993 health care reform proposal and advocating successfully for the arbitrary killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but also his “methods.”

Bill Kristol works in creating rickety, fly-by-night think tanks the way a prolific impressionist might toss off a series of gauzy pastel watercolors.

Kristol, Zengerle writes, specializes in “cooking up conservative think tanks that churn out pseudo-intellectual arguments to serve the GOP’s immediate political interests.” Over the years, Kristol’s projects have included the Project for the Republican Future, the Project for the New American Century, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and, more recently, e21, a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to economic research and innovative public policies for the 21st century” that, in Zengerle’s words, “turns out to be nothing more than a political pressure group.” Perhaps the focus on “economic research and innovative public policies” may be new in its domestic mission, as opposed to most of Kristol’s work, which involves getting lawmakers to bomb whatever country in the Middle East is next on the list. But whatever policy area they’re customized to mine, all of Kristol’s organizations, after half a second of inspection, turn out to be nothing more than political pressure groups.

You may be noticing that most of these think tank/advocacy/pressure/message organizations land on the conservative side of the political spectrum. Liberals, as we’ll explain in a bit, have tried to catch up in the last decade. But the American think tank explosion over the last forty years mostly served as a means for conservatives to move their historically outsider views to a place of influence within Washington circles.

The oldest generation of established think tanks, like the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a handful of others that are nearing their centennial anniversaries, thought of themselves as nonideological “universities without students” that offered Washington crash pads for academics to guide lawmakers through the array of complex policy issues suddenly facing the new American empire. Members of Congress and their staffs needed help, mostly to avoid sounding stupid on important subjects, and these institutes were there to provide them with the necessary white papers.

To the nascent conservative movement, however, this nonpartisan, “nonideological” view was precisely the problem. Because in the conservative mind, the consensus of the time—a liberal, Keynesian technocracy that readily availed itself of the machinery of government intervention—was itself the fierce ideology keeping the business community and its pet free-market prescriptions for social improvement out of the policy discussion.

The first major conservative think tank erected to combat this liberal consensus was the American Enterprise Association, founded in 1938 and now known as the American Enterprise Institute. According to scholar Jason Stahl of the University of Minnesota, who wrote his dissertation on the post-war growth of the conservative think tank, AEI’s leaders were careful not to play up their private-sector origins at first, since a pro-business lineage was, oddly enough, a liability in Washington before the age of Reagan:

AEI’s first well-known president, William Baroody, knew this liberal consensus discourse well and fully understood just how hard it would be to challenge this specific ideology in the early 1960s. Thus, when he became president of [the American Enterprise Association] in 1962, he immediately changed the name to the American Enterprise Institute so as to distance the think tank from any “business association” understandings while simultaneously adopting the more academic “Institute.” Baroody even went so far as to state to one of AEI’s fellows in 1962 that the “Institute does not press any particular policy position or even attempt to form, suggest, or support any particular policy position. The Institute does attempt to provide the research assistance which will bring to bear upon any policy consideration the most pertinent facts available and the most knowledgeable considerations by acknowledged authorities in the field.”

Karl Hess, a former Goldwaterite who would eventually wind up as a tax-dodging radical left-libertarian living off the barter system, worked at AEI in the early sixties. He described in one of his memoirs, Dear America, how the conservative think tank would operate below the level of overt advocacy. Calling AEI “the strongest intellectual-effort bastion of conservative thinking in all America,” Hess wrote:

Month by month, Administration by Administration, the American Enterprise Institute, through solid research, reliance on studies by the most respected authorities, and the most cautious, low-profile approach in all political influence—by all these ways, the American Enterprise Institute presses the conservative cause more effectively and persistently than any group in America and perhaps in the entire world.

This system of handing out conservative-tinged research to legislators to do whatever they wanted with was a start, but it left the conservative movement craving greater influence. Fortunately for the harder-right advocacy set, the post-war liberal technocratic consensus spent the seventies in a period of crisis marked by stagflation, self-defeating unions, and collapsing profit margins: all the elements, in other words, for a coming-out party. And the event planner par excellence was the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973.

“Heritage was a different breed of think tank,” Tevi Troy writes, “and augured the new direction in which such institutions were headed.”

A far cry from its avowedly hands-off predecessors, Heritage tried explicitly to “formulate and promote conservative public policies,” as the organization’s mission statement put it. It sought not only to serve as a source of basic research and analysis but also to help drive the agenda on behalf of conservatives around the country. To that end, Heritage pursued direct-mail fundraising, a tactic more typical of political campaigns and mostly unheard of among think tanks at the time. It rightly considered itself as much an organ of the conservative movement as of the Washington intellectual world.

During Ronald Reagan’s two terms, his administration adopted 60 percent of the more than two thousand policy proposals outlined in the Heritage Foundation’s 1980 Mandate for Leadership.

A Despicable Vacuum

But what of the liberals? Where were the liberal think tanks to offer a counterweight to their aggressive, activist conservative peers? Ha ha, the liberals were nowhere. The technocratic consensus collapsed, or at least stumbled along in hated zombie form for perpetuity. And this state of affairs—talk about stagflation!—freed up the strictly conservative “free-market” think tanks to continue currying access to their beloved savior, Ronald Reagan. What there was of a Left academy in the eighties sort of gave up on policy to stick their thumbs up their asses and pursue useless niches of deconstructionism and identity theory. In other words—and this may just square up with the layman’s observation—liberal economic policy as a force died in the seventies and eighties and never came back. (Too harsh? Well, then, riddle me this: See all that trade union power shaping our economic agenda today? Alright, then.)

To recall just how badly liberalism was beaten in the eighties and how poor the prospects for its revival were at first, look at the first wave of activist Democratic think tanks that emerged in the eighties to combat creeping Reaganism. The Democratic Leadership Council was established during that era of three consecutive presidential defeats, to move the party away from post–New Deal liberal orthodoxy and toward neoliberal, market-based, Wall Street–friendly solutions to social and economic problems. The DLC may have shuttered in 2011, but not after getting one of its former chairs, Bill Clinton, elected to the White House twice, and leaving a pro-corporate legacy in the party that plays no small role in the current president’s thinking.

Riddle me this: See all that trade union power shaping our economic agenda today? Alright, then.

The second wave of activist Democratic think tanks came to be after George W. Bush’s election when, again, the party realized it was being systematically out-jousted by the array of conservative organizations working closely with the Republican Party to put its politicians in power.

The Center for American Progress (CAP), started by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta and featuring a mix of old Clinton hands and future Obama policy aides, launched in 2003 with the aim of serving as a liberal version of the Heritage Foundation—seemingly forgetting that Heritage never intended to be a conservative version of anything, but merely to win, over and over and over again.

At places like CAP, AEI, Heritage, and many of the other approximately 1,812 American think tanks, policy studies are still part of the operation, but their most vital public role is to act as partisan hacks for whichever side of the major-party duopoly they’re associated with. And the conservative think tanks are now reliable dispensers of ideological discipline on the right: they do exactly what is best in the short term for the Republican Party at all times and punish anyone who dissents.

Purge, Rinse, Repeat

During Obama’s presidency, the GOP’s strategy has been never to compromise or vote for anything and then to blame all the ensuing dysfunction on the president. When American Enterprise Institute fellow David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, wrote in 2010 that Republicans should have cut a deal with Obama on health care reform, AEI president Arthur Brooks asked him to leave because donors were complaining. (Brooks got a rare dose of poetically just comeuppance, though, when it was revealed that a conversation with the AEI sachem was what inspired eventual 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney to ad lib so destructively before a group of Boca Raton fundraisers on the shiftless socialist leanings of the 47 percent of Americans who allegedly pay no income taxes.)

Also in 2010, the Cato Institute, the top libertarian think tank in Washington that’s less partisan than others on the free-market right but is nevertheless the go-to place for perpetually trendy D.C. proposals such as Social Security privatization, fired two of its scholars known for developing a “liberaltarian” set of policy proposals designed to bridge the gap between the Left and libertarians. More recently, two of Cato’s four shareholders, industrial billionaires Charles and David Koch, attempted to reassert their control over the think tank for not doing enough to help elect Republicans in the 2012 campaign cycle. The Kochs’ remedy was the now-standard ploy in conservative think tank circles: pack the board with Republican Party operatives. Some libertarian purists blanched initially at the putsch, but soon enough, Cato’s new leaders brokered an accord in which the Kochs backed off—only after getting a new Cato president in place.

And then, again, we have the new Heritage Foundation with its new wingnut president and new action-fund wing, all of which exists to punish legislators who so much as give an open-minded reading to a Democratic policy proposal.

Keep in mind that when President Bush was in power, Heritage and AEI didn’t so much as lift a finger when Bush would do something heretical to apostles of free enterprise, such as distributing free prescription drugs at sticker cost to all seniors with no offsets in the federal budget. Occasionally, a dissenting voice like former Reagan economic adviser Bruce Bartlett would come along and point out, in book form, all the very non-conservative things the Bush administration was doing. But one scarcely needs to point out the sort of karma that such outbursts would call down. When Bartlett’s 2006 work Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy was about to come out, he was fired from his position as a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank in Dallas, under donor (and White House) pressure.

Over the past seven years, Bartlett has moved further into conservative apostasy. In a recent Fiscal Times column titled “The Alarming Corruption of the Think Tanks,” Bartlett writes of how the pseudo-intellectual arms race among competing, cheaply built institutes represents “a very dangerous trend”:

Policymaking must, ultimately, rest on a foundation of facts, data, analysis based on scientific methods, and be as free as possible of partisan bias. But these days, policymakers, like the public and the media, care more for congenial opinions that suit their partisan or philosophical predisposition than solid research that may undermine simplistic but deeply held opinions.

Bartlett doesn’t get his hopes up, and neither should we. Just consider the limit-case example of where the think tank industry appears to be headed. FreedomWorks, another Koch-funded operation peddling ideological purity on the right is, by one measure, the biggest intellectual success story in Washington. Not only has it ruthlessly enforced movement discipline on the small-government right, it’s done more than any traditional ideas shop in Washington to ensure that actual lawmakers do its bidding, by funneling all sorts of freshly unregulated PAC money into activist efforts and primary campaigns.

The downside, of course, is that FreedomWorks has also instilled a hard core of Tea Party lawmakers in the House GOP caucus who, in many key respects, keep the GOP from tilting in the direction of self-interested compromise. This, it turns out, is bad for both electioneering and governing. Tea Party orthodoxy has effectively prevented the Republicans from winning control of the Senate over the past two cycles, thanks to the conservative base’s stubborn insistence on nominating inflexibly dogmatic candidates who stand roughly zero chance of appealing to independent voters. And FreedomWorks has also used its clout on Capitol Hill to drive Republican House members away from endorsing a deal on spending cuts far more favorable to the Reaganite GOP than the eventual accord to sidestep the alleged “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012.

That record alone should give any pragmatic conservative pause, but FreedomWorks is also, like Cato and AEI, recovering from a bitter purge, one that drove out former House majority leader Dick Armey, who then chaired the group, amid charges of managerial improprieties and possible violations of tax law. Armey claims that FreedomWorks president and CEO Matt Kibbe, a mutton-chopped fixture on the cable news scene, was using the group’s research staff to work on a book that Kibbe was writing under a contract that benefitted Kibbe exclusively.

Kibbe dismissed Armey’s claims as trumped-up distractions from the real struggle between the group’s leaders, which concerned (wait for it) FreedomWorks’ fiercely independent alignment with the Tea Party right over against the Republican mainstream. Since Armey’s abrupt departure from the group, a torrent of sensational charges has ensued—including the claim in a front-page Washington Post story that Armey tried to stage an armed “coup” by taking charge of the group in the final weeks of the 2012 election, with his wife stage-managing many of his staff directives and an Armey ally standing menacingly on site with a gun on his hip. No coup occurred, Armey later insisted—and the heat-packing associate in question was actually a security guard volunteering his services to both Armey and FreedomWorks. The funny thing here, of course, is that the idea of an armed enforcer following former GOP lawmakers in and out of influence-peddling confabs, without even drawing a paycheck for his trouble, is apparently less bizarre in today’s Washington than an armed organizational putsch, but hey, whatever.

Meanwhile, lost in all the rancor and rumored shows of force was a telling detail about the way ideas are packaged for consumption in today’s Washington: Armey revealed that FreedomWorks had both Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on seven-figure retainers to say flattering things about the group and its initiatives in their daily broadcasts. By any reasonable measure, this is full-on journalistic and ideological corruption, in the vein of the radio payola scandals of the fifties or the Bush administration’s paid placement of op-eds from conservative journalists touting its education programs. However, the arrangement scarcely merits comment in today’s Washington—it’s now widely taken for granted that this is just the sort of thing that think tanks do. All of which suggests that the perpetually aggrieved American right can rest easy: the conservative movement has, indeed, won the war of ideas. Real firearms are strictly optional—for now, anyway.

Nonprofits for Profit

For all the money and bells and whistles that have so expertly streamlined the new breed of think tanks expressly to deliver just-in-time ideological talking points, there’s still nothing to prevent their leaders from shooting themselves in the foot. Just consider the big coming-out moment for the new Jim DeMint–helmed Heritage Foundation—the 113th Congress’s springtime legislative session, and a perfect opportunity to make a “power play.”

The Heritage shop sees a key opening: the chance to destroy President Obama’s top legislative priority of his second term, a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Imagine the power and prestige DeMint would gain by destroying an “amnesty” bill that looks, for now, to have rare bipartisan support! This would be a fusillade of creative destruction perhaps even bigger than Bill Kristol’s famous wrecking job on the Hillarycare proposal. It is, in short, Jim DeMint’s moment, and he and his “think tank” will take complete credit if they successfully engineer this purely political operation.

So, in early May, Heritage released a comically heavy-handed report claiming that the bipartisan immigration proposal then under the Senate’s consideration would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion. What a big scary number! Stupid Washington!

There’s just one problem, though. This impeccable work of scholarship, commissioned solely to produce a nominal figure large enough to give House Republicans a serious-sounding excuse for killing another immigration reform bill, arrives at its number by applying a certain . . . subjective set of economic measures to its findings. Instead of using a typical ten- or twenty-year window, authors Robert Rector and Jason Richwine go with an ambitious fifty-year window. See, over fifty years, stuff costs a lot more! Especially when it balloons with the sky-high (projected) medical inflation that’s driving all of our (projected) long-term budgetary problems, and which will destroy us if left unaddressed—with or without millions of new legal immigrants.

The report curtly dismisses any notion that new blocs of legal immigrants could drive economic growth over all that time. On the other hand, it includes every possible way in which new legal immigrants might mooch from the public. Aside from the major social spending programs they’d be eligible to participate in, these sneaky legal immigrants would also send their children to school: “Public education. At a cost of $12,300 per pupil per year, these services are largely free or heavily subsidized for low-income parents.” You can imagine what other public services these welfare junkies are planning to seize. Will they walk on our public sidewalks? Over a two-thousand-year window, they could very well cost us $900 trillion dollars. We can’t afford to give out lifetime luxury passes to the thrill-a-minute amusement park that is America all willy-nilly, can we?

Things got bad for Heritage when it came to light that Jason Richwine, the report’s coauthor, had devoted his Harvard dissertation to trying to document permanent, and evidently irremediable, IQ deficits among Hispanic immigrants to the United States. As it so often does in its more unbuckled moments of raw ideological confrontation, the right-wing zeal for austerity bled into overt racial reaction. Embarrassed by the controversy over Richwine’s past scholarship, Heritage accepted his resignation.

In the dominant D.C. narratives of the ebb and flow of ideological power, Heritage’s misfire should serve as a chastening moment. Any responsible think tank, after all, would not seek merely to distance itself from the xenophobic past of an in-house thought leader; it might also be moved to revise some of the crackpot speculations it was peddling as serious budget analysis.

But the chastening moment was not long in the fires of redemption, since the Obama administration came to the rescue, as it has done so often, and spared the enemy more than a small moment of public ridicule. Only days after Heritage’s study collapsed in scandal, it came to light that the IRS division certifying tax-exempt think tanks and policy shops has been targeting Tea Party–affiliated applicants. Never mind that none of the conservative applicants was denied a charter, or that immediately following the IRS’s apology and the Justice Department’s decision to investigate on behalf of aggrieved Tea Partiers, the Justice Department itself was revealed to have spied extensively on the nonpartisan, nonprofit reporters for the Associated Press. No, the IRS disclosure was plenty to distract attention from the less sensational story of the ultramodern insta-think-tank and its role in transmogrifying ideas into blunt-force weapons of moneyed partisanship, so that the parties could get on with their shared business of narrowing debate, rewarding themselves, and spying on us.

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent neatly explained after the flimsy scare-mongering Heritage study was exposed, the twisted logic driving the report had nothing to do with the integrity of research, or the good name of the institute as an honest broker of information:

In a sense . . . the substance here is beside the point. What’s remarkable about this whole spectacle is that no one is even bothering to pretend that the Heritage study isn’t simply a last ditch effort to kill the bill. That’s widely, publicly, explicitly acknowledged to be the case. Indeed, a Heritage study back during the last immigration reform battle is widely credited with giving the right the ammo they needed to scuttle that proposal, and opponents are openly discussing today’s study as providing the chance of a rerun of that glorious moment.

In other words: This is all politics, to boost the credibility of Jim DeMint and his foundation as bona fide power players on the Washington right. The measure of an “important think tank report” now is how much ideological manipulation it can get away with without misfiring badly enough to cripple the institution. How bad would that misfire have to be? We’ll let you know just as soon as an example appears.

But don’t hold your breath.

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Editor's Note: this story originally published at The Baffler and is used here with permission. The wonderful image, which accompanies this story, was created by Stephen Kroninger and appears here with his permission.
Jim Newell

Jim Newell

Political writer & editor. Guardian liveblogger, former wonkette/gawker. Will freelance stuff 4 u. [email protected]