A "think tank" is, in general American
parlance, an institution dedicated to research and/or analysis which does not directly produce any marketable
product. All it produces is knowledge, or "thought
", thus the name.
One notable flaw of this model is that if you desire to significantly advance the state of knowledge in any given field, you're going to want to retain the services of a lot of smart, well-trained people, and give them plenty of tools and opportunities for study and experimentation. This requires a lot of money, which, if you're not selling anyone anything, can be a bit of a problem. There's a reason why so many research labs are integrated into some broader scheme. The fabled Xerox PARC, held up as an exemplar of pure, unapplied research, was an exception more out of managerial myopia than of principled design.
One way for independent think tanks to square the budgetary circle is to solicit funding from external parties who might be interested in your research, and accept grants or commissions to pursue certain lines of inquiry. This has the potential to make you look like a mere tool of your sponsors, but you can maintain your indie street (boardroom?) cred to some degree by erecting institutional barriers to undue influence, soliciting multiple patrons, and openly publishing research results. Think tanks pursuing this path operate somewhat like major research universities minus the attached college and football team.
Another option is to be sponsored by a monopoly, which offers cash to spare, a desire to be the first to know about any breakthroughs that might upset the status quo, and a sense of stability that encourages research that might prove useful several decades down the road, if ever. Bell Labs survived for decades on this basis. Tellingly, shortly after the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996 stripped AT&T of many protections against competition, it spun off many of Bell Labs' more abstract programs into Lucent, which has been flirting with bankruptcy for most of its history. Of course, as monopolies go, you can't top the government, and many US think tanks, from DARPA to the Congressional Budget Office, function as government agencies.
Naturally, it's possible to mix these approaches. The RAND Corporation, for example, is a nominally independent organization that does most of its thinking on the US government's dime, while also accepting support and commissions from other governments and private interests. Still, all this is kind of mercenary, and seems to violate the idea of the think tank as a haven for pure thought. If only there were some field where people would give you money for chasing concepts. Some field of human endeavor where it's normal to throw millions of dollars after abstract ideas. Something like... politics.
Think Tanks and Contemporary American Politics
Unless you're involved in a specialized technology field or tight with The Custodian's warrior-egghead crew, the American think tanks you're probably most familiar with are "public policy research" institutions. Now, even that's still a broad field – the aforementioned RAND and various government branches do plenty of research dealing with public policy. But unless you're a wonk with a thing for studies on the influence of subsidized lending on urban housing patterns, you're probably not going to run into their work.
The public policy think tanks with real pull these days are ideological think tanks, organizations which might produce the same kinds of dry studies but go a step further. These think tanks work with an eye towards political goals, and even if and when they produce work that stands up to ideal standards of accuracy and cold-eyed neutrality, their selection of topics frequently reveals their position. It won't be a conservative think tank publishing a study on the relationship between lowered emission standards and increased rates of cancer, nor a liberal one linking tax cuts and business deregulation to increased economic opportunities for minorities. Further, think tanks usually publicize favorable studies widely to politicians and the media, frequently including "helpful" addenda on possible policy implications which often amount to little more than a set of talking points.
Aside from these studies, political think tanks pursue their ideological goals in plenty of other ways. They use their websites, newsletters, and journals, closely followed by Congressional staffers and other power brokers, to publish their "scholars"' analysis and recommendations. They serve as a central clearinghouse for media outlets looking for experts to explain a proposed initiative, analyze a policy development, or generally comment on the state of things. If Moses won't come to the mountain, political think tanks will actively circulate the abovementioned writings to newspaper editorial boards and serve as booking agents to lobby for their talent with television news producers. Think tanks publish extensive background documentation and policy recommendations for the benefit of overworked legislators and their staffs. They sponsor all-expenses-paid retreats for judges to ideal vacation settings, who in between their leisure time and scheduled entertainments are given the opportunity to fulfill their CLE requirements by attending seminars on new developments in legal theory and practice the institution finds to be of particular interest. Likewise legislators and their families are whisked away to be wined, dined, mingled with, and addressed by selected speakers. Not to be overlooked is the role of think tanks and related organizations in grooming like-minded individuals for positions of power. As a committedly libertarian Ivy League undergaduate senior working with culture and markets, believe you me, I've been made plenty aware of internships, conferences, retreats, research fellowships, and scholarships that I might be interested in.
While these think tanks hold and promote definite political philosophies and stances on various issues, they are nominally nonpartisan, which frees them from certain financing regulations and brings tax benefits to their members and them. Even so, given the US's two-party system, these stances usually transparently align them with a political party. Of the four largest national political think tanks, The Heritage Foundation's conservative approach to economics, foreign policy, and social issues tends to align them with the Republican Party, as does the American Enterprise Institute's pro-business conservatism, while the moderate to liberal Brookings Institution is obviously in tune with the Democratic Party. The Cato Institute's libertarianism syncs best with the relatively small Libertarian Party, but while they clearly don't see eye-to-eye with the GOP at all times, especially on social issues, their concentration on economic issues and focus on institutional, "achievable" change has made them many Republican friends. With these wink-wink allegiances, think tanks also serve as the closest thing America has to a shadow cabinet – when one party, or even faction within that party, loses control of the executive branch, prominent members of the outgoing administration frequently shift over to think tank jobs and fellowships. There they polish their resumés, write op-eds and make television appearances describing exactly how things would be going better if they were in charge, waiting for the next electoral upset to sweep them back into power.
It's worth stepping back for a second to note that of the four abovementioned major national think tanks, three could be broadly described as "conservative" (though the Catoites prefer "classical liberal", thank you very much), while the sole liberal representative is only tepidly so. This trend continues through the ranks of the less famous national tanks, as well as state and regional institutions. As of writing, American ideological think tanks are obviously and overwhelmingly conservative.
To some extent, the conservative dominance of the think tank world can be accounted for by reference to their lack of opportunities elsewhere. There wasn't much demand for conservative thinkers in government – from 1933 to 1981, Republicans held a majority in either chamber of Congress for only 4 years (the 80th and 83rd Congresses), the House drought lasting until 1993's "Republican Revolution". From the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt until that of George W. Bush, Democrats experienced 34 years of unified party government, while Republicans held both chambers and the presidency for only 2, early in the Eisenhower administration. Things didn't look all that good in the academic world, either. Since the 1960s, American academia, the traditional independent power base for researchers and thinkers, has been overwhelmingly liberal, and reports of severe faculty hostility towards conservative thought and adherents were and continue to be common. For much of the mid-20th century, the politics of American intellectual life took on a tone of technocratic liberalism. Prominent conservatives felt marginalized and overlooked as conservatism as a viable political force was increasingly considered dead, especially after its dramatic failure to elect strongly ideological Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Given such conditions, it is unsurprising that conservative thinkers might gravitate towards like-minded think tanks where they would have the opportunity to work with sympathetic compatriots and have their ideas taken seriously.
Such an explanation, however, presents a misleadingly passive picture of American conservatism during this period of "wandering in the desert". Many of these marginalized conservative elites did not meekly accept conservatism's eclipse and actively fought to restore their movement to prominence. This "New Right" established grass-roots networks to mobilize voters, like those who handed Goldwater the nomination in the first place, and to give them something to mobilize behind, intellectual institutions, journals like William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review and, oh, yes, think tanks.
Powered by ideological dedication and millions in funds, most prominently from the industrial fortunes of the Lynde and Harry Bradley, Koch Family (my favorite), Scaife Family, and John M. Olin Foundations, conservatives started organizing, funding, and staffing think tanks, and never really stopped. Mostly starting at the national level and later narrowing focus into regional and state think tanks, they established institutions to observe, study, and prepare suggestions for government at practically every level. If you've been following politics over the last two decades, you'd probably recognize some of the ideas that these think tanks created, nurtured, or promoted. Welfare reform. Supply-side economics. Deregulation. Social Security privatization. The "broken window" approach to urban policing. The necessity of "regime change" in Iraq. The elimination of the estate tax. Washington D.C. these days is a think tank town.
So, why haven't liberals been keeping up on theme tanks? Well for one, to invert the previous situation, because they didn't have to. When your messages have been working for two generations or more, radically reinventing yourself doesn't seem all that imperative. For another, conservatives used their time out of power to reemphasize their intellectual roots. Though by no means does everyone under the conservative "big tent" agree on policy (the paleocons wouldn't trust the neocons with a platoon, let alone the world's strongest military, the libertarians might well oppose the populist social conservatives more often than not), many of them can find some first principles in common. In contrast, from the 1960s onwards American liberalism has in large part been characterized by multiple interest groups banded together for strength, lacking both coherent interests and universal ideology. Charting a bold new course for an aggregation of groups with nothing in common is, as they say, a bit like herding cats.
In spite of these difficulties, the high stakes have motivated some attempts. In 2004, with financing from prominent left-wing donors like George Soros, several leading liberal thinkers founded the Center for American Progress in an attempt to create a heavyweight liberal think tank to counter its conservative rivals. From what I've read of its founding and seen on its website, it's not there yet – while the conservative think tanks spent decades building up ideas and strategies strong enough to take the country with them, CAP seems too smooth and focus-grouped, more interested in packaging attacks on conservatives than in presenting a positive view of liberal initiatives. American liberalism is doing fine on attack dogs, and with their early lead in building the "527" groups that seem geared to be the dominant forces on the post-Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act battlefield, they have the advantage in political organization. As partisans on both sides agree, what it needs is policy organization, an idea machine.
In any case, even if they get their act together, it's going to be a while before liberal think tanks amass the contacts, experience, and institutional weight the current conservative think tanks built up decades ago. One should recall, however, that the very strength of the original conservative think tanks was their outsider status. It's easy to rally the troops around a flag of pure blinding ideas, it's harder to gather loyalty to an implemented program, put through the legislative meat-grinder and then dragged out for testing against reality. It's simple to proclaim the superiority of your plan to their plan, it's awkward to explain why your new plan should be better than your old plan. The longer the conservative think tanks remain dominant, the more opportunities liberal upstarts have to undercut them.