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Do We Need a Socialist Think Tank?

Socialist politics come from below, not experts. But that doesn't mean we should cede policy debates to neoliberals.

Anthony Mantle / Flickr

Bernie Sanders’s interview with the New York Daily News last month was proof to some that he had little mastery of policy. Hillary Clinton warned voters that Sanders “had [problems] answering questions about even his core issue, breaking up the banks.”

Clinton-sympathetic voices in the media echoed her concerns; Sanders supporters defended their candidate.

It might be tempting to write off the exchange as just more partisan bickering. But it raised a question that has been persistent throughout this election season.

Should candidates have total command of policy details or instead aim to inspire voters with broad statements on shared values? Should policy debates belong to technocrats or the general public?

This year’s presidential campaign offers three different answers.

Donald Trump represents one extreme end. His call for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, and for massive tax cuts for the economic elite show that he cares little about the specifics of his policies or their implementation. His disinterest in technocracy is so accepted that he rarely has to field questions from the media about the details of his plans.

On the other end is Hillary Clinton. She is a committed technocrat, rarely discussing policy in broader moral terms. In her account, carefully planned neoliberal policies are all that are possible and that even those might be asking too much.

Clinton’s approach has been used to discredit Sanders. He represents the third option, arguing that policy details, while important, should not get in the way of more important considerations like movement-building and the need for political candidates to represent the interests of ordinary people in policy debates.

Lack of engagement in policy specifics is an easy critique of Sanders and could come to define future socialist candidates’ fortunes in electoral politics. But there is no reason we need to cede technocratic ground to neoliberals. A socialist think tank would help make sure we do not have to in the future.

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The Reality-Based Community

The think tank as we know it is about one hundred years old. In 1927, two older think tanks (one of which started in 1916) merged to form the Brookings Institute. Brookings was one of a series of “new liberal” institutions formed in the early twentieth century in opposition to the laissez-faire ideology of the nineteenth century. They promised to reform the ills of industrial capitalism through expert empirical investigation.

Institutions like Brookings would develop policies to address the needs of people, and government officials would implement those policies, often establishing new federal institutions.

Many corporate elites sometimes saw such measures as preferable to the alternatives, namely, various forms of radicalism and corrupt party politics.

To set their new institution apart, Brookings advanced a “nonpartisan” identity. Their fellows spoke as high-minded technocrats who understood the world better than rabble-rousing socialists or self-interested party operatives.

Brookings’s nonpartisanship allowed it to succeed until it opposed most New Deal initiatives during the Great Depression. Believing that Social Security and the National Industrial Recovery would be too much state intervention in economic affairs, the think tank’s reformist orientation could not go as far as even the Roosevelt administration.

The anti–New Deal orientation continued into Truman’s administration: Brookings opposed his proposals for national health insurance. But staffing changes in the 1950s fundamentally changed its outlook.

Brookings became a pillar of the liberal technocratic consensus during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It underwrote key elements of Johnson’s Great Society, fusing moralistic policy goals with technocratic expertise.

At Brooking’s fiftieth anniversary party President Johnson declared, “You are a national institution, so important to, at least, the Executive branch — and I think the Congress and the country — that if you did not exist we would have to ask someone to create you.”

Conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) called foul on Brookings’s outsize influence in the late sixties. Congress and the Internal Revenue Service had taken AEI to task whenever it came too close to the Republican Party. AEI staffers argued that Brookings was doing precisely that — cloaking policymaking in an aura of social scientific empiricism to avoid accusations of bias — but getting away with it.

AEI further accused both the Democratic Party and the federal government of being so swayed by liberal institutional bias that they had caused a number of domestic and international crises. Those at AEI and other conservative policymaking institutions, like the Hoover Institution, argued that their voices needed to be amplified within a policy marketplace to find new conservative solutions to these crises.

As a result AEI, and later the Heritage Foundation, changed how Americans understood policy debates. The supposedly “objective” policy debate was replaced by a “marketplace of ideas,” in which their conservative identity, rather than the merits of their proposals, became paramount.

Conservative critiques did have some value. Liberal consensus limited debate from both the Right and the Left. But a truly diverse marketplace of ideas was never on the agenda.

Instead, conservatives obsessed on the need for “balance” in policy debates. In a “balanced” marketplace, what mattered was having only two positions: “liberal” and “conservative.”

While the policies identified as “conservative” could be rigorously thought through and technocratically planned, they did not have to be and most of the time were not. This was the beginning of the long slide toward Donald Trump.

The first example was the so-called “supply-side tax cuts” during Reagan’s first term. Conservative think-tank apparatchiks sold the idea of tax cuts for the economic elite on the grounds that they would pay for themselves and not cause revenue reductions, even if unaccompanied by cuts in government services.

The bill’s main opponents argued that the tax cut, without corresponding reductions in expenditures, might leave the United States in a fiscal hole.

Irving Kristol, dean of neoconservatism and an AEI fellow, answered them: “the neoconservative is willing to leave those problems to be coped with by liberal interregnums. He wants to shape the future, and will leave it to his opponents to tidy up afterwards.”

Such an attitude became the dominant ethos of the much of the Republican Party and its candidates: propose big ideas that shape the future without thinking through policy specifics, their implementation, or their consequences.

Mainstream Democrats have gone along with Kristol’s vision, promising to “tidy up afterwards” and be better technocratic managers and policymakers than Republicans.

In some ways, this made sense. As Bill Clinton’s presidency suggested, there is a public desire for empirical and sound governance. Prodded by think tanks like the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton embraced many conservative ideas — most importantly NAFTA and welfare reform — and wonkishly administered them in a way Republican administrations never could.

The eight years of George W. Bush’s administration solidified the Republican and Democratic orientations toward policy production.

George W. Bush dreamed up multiple catastrophic foreign wars as well as gigantic ill-planned domestic policies including a return to supply-side tax cuts. Just like Reagan’s cuts, they redistributed wealth upward, exacerbating economic inequality.

The Republican Party’s policy orientation was perfectly encapsulated by Bush aide Karl Rove. As he told journalist Ron Suskind in 2004, members of the administration were not “part of the reality-based community.” By this, Rove meant they do not believe “solutions emerge from [the] judicious study of discernible reality.” According to Rove,

That’s not the way the world really works anymore . . . We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

A more explicit rejection of the idea of administrative technocratic expertise could not be found.

Democrats embraced the “wonk” identity as an alternative to the Rove worldview, seeing the technocrat as the only rational response to Republican magical thinking.

Obama, and now Hillary Clinton, have hewed close to this ideology in their brand of Democratic Party politics. However, the more one tightens the technocratic straightjacket — as Hillary Clinton has — the more one sacrifices political imagination.

This is where Sanders found his opening. By demanding that we imagine policies that would create new worlds, Sanders is clearly seeking to stake out a socialist position in the marketplace of ideas where wonkish policy production is less important than big ideas.

Movement and Policy

Traditional media organizations, where most staff members are eager to burnish their “reality-based” credentials, have used Sanders’s orientation against him. Clinton vacuumed up any and all Democratic policymakers into her campaign — even those who might be more inclined toward Sanders. This leaves Sanders largely on his own when offering technocratic policy defenses.

But such defenses are not his job. Sanders needs to stay focused on connecting with voters in the broadest terms possible if he is going to build a movement.

Socialist policy production and defenses need to come from elsewhere. This is why we need a socialist think tank — to make sure that the policy that progressive candidates put forward are being generated by institutions rooted in the interests of workers.

We might worry that elitist policy projects will distract from socialist movement-building and broader politics. But this need not be the case.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation is a useful model in this regard. Unlike most existing think tanks, Heritage has deep connections to the conservative grassroots. It has a longstanding small-dollar donor network alongside its high-dollar corporate and private donors.

Moreover, young conservative activists looking for a start have found a home at the Heritage Foundation. Through its new offshoot Heritage Action, it engages more directly in conservative political movements. There is no reason a socialist think tank could not emulate this top-down/bottom-up model.

Technocratic defenses of Sanders’s policies have been, for the most part, produced on the fly. If future socialist candidates at the local, state, and national levels are to succeed, they cannot give up policy debates to neoliberal candidates. Conceding defeat only further reifies the notion that neoliberals are the only ones with a “workable” agenda.

Jason Stahl is a historian and lecturer in the Department of Organizational Leadership and Policy Development at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He is author of Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture since 1945.

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