Thinking About Think Tanks And Progressive Politics
A theory of change only makes sense if your politics don’t defend the status quo
I’ve spent most of my career in think tanks. Even now.
I’ve seen directly how think tanks as a type of social actor go about making an impact on the world. They’re not all the same, but in the foreign policy world, they tend to do more harm than good—and their impact is a function of their purpose, which is rarely as advertised.
One of the deficiencies I’ve noticed on the progressive left is that its think tank presence is exceedingly thin, and the ones that exist are excluded from the insular elite-swapping world I came from. As I wrote last year:
despite the recurring claim that there is no leftist institutional presence in Washington, there has been for decades; they’re just treated like the skunk at the garden party by the mainstream think tanks….the left think tanks with a physical Washington presence ended up on the outside of elite conversations…which is why it’s become common to think that leftists had no presence in Washington.
And because I saw how influential national security think tanks were on actually existing US foreign policy, in recent years, I’ve been part of two fleeting attempts to create progressive foreign policy think tanks.
Why? Well, to fill an institutional gap that I think has been damaging to democracy and peoples’ lives. But also because the dominant Washington think tanks tend to be inhospitable to foreign policy ideas that might be coded as “progressive.”
That’s a problem. The “ideas industry” in foreign policy is a space that needs to be much more contested than it’s been in recent decades.
All of this is a longwinded introduction to a terrific resource for anyone managing or hoping to build a think tank. But I want to share it with some commentary and at least one big caveat.