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Citizens Union

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Think Tanks

by Joshua Brustein, Mar 29, 2003
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David Frum's trip from the think tank world to the White House and back was brief but eventful. Frum left the New York-based Manhattan Institute in 2001 to join the Bush administration as a speechwriter. It was there that he coined the term "axis of evil" to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. This became the signature phrase of President George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union speech and shorthand for Bush's war on terrorism.

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Frum left the Bush administration for another think tank soon after -- some say as a result of a mass e-mail by his wife expressing her "wifely pride" at her husband's previously anonymous authorship of the phrase.

But his phrase lives on, as do other ideas borne of think tanks. The concept of "pre-emptive war" was pushed by another think tank, the Project for a New Century, and the New York based Council on Foreign Relations was developing plans for post-war Iraq months before the first bombs hit Baghdad.

Think tanks long have been associated with issues of war and peace. But an increasing number also deal with domestic and even local issues, none more prominently than the Manhattan Institute. President Bush credits the institute with inspiring his program of "compassionate conservatism." He also calls The Dream and the Nightmare, a book written by Myron Magnet, the editor of the Manhattan Institutes's City Journal, the most important work he has ever read, after the Bible.

The well-financed Manhattan Institute, whose "fellows" have gone on not just to the White House but to head the CIA and serve Margaret Thatcher, clearly has influenced domestic and foreign policy. But the institute, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has had even more of an impact on former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who adopted the think tank's ideas (and phrases) on crime, "quality of life," homelessness, and welfare.

The effectiveness of the Manhattan Institute, the only sizable national think tank that has turned its attention to the policy of a particular city, is at a crossroads. Its long dominance in New York City is being undercut by a mayor who isn't nearly as partial to their ideas as his predecessor, and challenged by a group of liberal start-ups.

Most recently, 2001 Democratic mayoral candidates Fernando Ferrer and Mark Green both have joined the world of think tanks, Ferrer becoming the president of the Drum Major Institute and Green restarting a think tank he originally launched in 1981 -- the New Democracy Project.

"There is already a war going on in this country," Green told Newsday shortly before the war on Iraq began. "And it is a war of ideas."

FROM THINKING TO MARKETING

Defining the term think tank is a bit tricky. In America, the phrase first came into use during World War II, describing secure rooms where military planners could plot without being overheard. But the organizations to which the term is generally applied -- policy research institutes -- have existed since the early 20th century, when Progressive Era philanthropists established organizations designed to enable intellectuals to share their expertise with politicians.

While those early research organizations were intended to inform instead of persuade, think tanks' priorities have changed. The 1970s saw the start of a new generation of think tanks whose research sought to advance a specific ideological line.

Because of this, the once venerated role of the intellectual in policy making has been denigrated, in the view of Andrew Rich, a professor of political science at Wake Forest University in North Carolina who studies think tanks. "So many organizations right now have started to call themselves think tanks to cash in on the credibility associated with think tanks," said Rich. "There is no credentialing organization for think tanks, so if you want to start a research group and say you're a think tank, there is no one there to stop you."

In many ways, the defining goal of a think tank is no longer expertise, but impact. "We aim to influence the influential," said Larry Mone, the president of the Manhattan Institute, in a speech last spring. "In any process of social change, some people matter more than others. That's our constituency. . . .We make sure our ideas cross the radar screens of these key people."

Sometimes this means working directly with public officials. Other times it means advising leading professionals in the private sector or offering expert opinions to the press. Think tanks employ policy experts to publish reports and write books and articles in newspapers and magazines. Some publish their own journals, like the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, which are distributed to journalists and policy makers.

Conservative think tanks often focus on economic issues and look to the private sector to solve many of the country's problems. The left encompasses a wide range of groups with sometimes conflicting agendas, such as labor activism, environmentalism, economic justice and minority rights. But most of its policy organizations are more likely than their conservative counterparts to see government as able to provide solutions to many of society's ills.

The marketing of ideas, particularly to the press, often becomes as important as the ideas themselves, and in this respect conservatives have been much more successful than their liberal counterparts, according to a 2001 survey, by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a leftist media studies group. The survey found that 48 percent of media citations of think tanks were from right-leaning groups, 36 percent from centrist groups, and 16 percent from groups that lean left.

Both conservatives and liberals agree that this reflects a think tank community whose right is much stronger than its left. According to David Callahan, co-founder of the New York-based national progressive think tank DEMOS and author of several studies of think tanks, "The left can't get it together. . . .It has lost the war of ideas. And if you're losing the war of ideas then you face an uphill battle on every other front.

"New York City," according to Callahan, "is a classic microcosm of this broader phenomenon. There's a handful of conservative intellectuals who have been running circles around the liberal establishment."

THE MANHATTAN INSTITUTE AND NEW YORK

The sheer size of New York City's budget attracts policy advocates, who are after either their piece of the pie or a say in deciding how the pie is cut and served. In a historically liberal city, most New York policy advocates have been liberal. Groups working on policy issues from a liberal or leftist perspective include City Project, the Fiscal Policy Institute, the Community Service Society and Advocates for Children, as well as various research organizations affiliated with labor unions(such as the Five Borough Institute), and universities.

"There are dozens, hundreds, of liberal organizations and policy groups and institutions in New York that already exist and that already receive funding," said Neil Kleiman, director of the Center for an Urban Future. "The issue is that they are just so scattered - a thousand points of light as opposed to one focused beam."

The conservatives have that focused beam in the Manhattan Institute, which operates on a budget of $5 million a year. In 1978, as Tom Wolfe recently recounted, British millionaire Antony Fisher, who had already established a British think tank to promote free market economics there, founded the Manhattan Institute to push for similar policies in the United States. The institute first came to prominence when one of its staff, Charles Murray, published Losing Ground, a book arguing that the 1960s War on Poverty had hurt, rather than helped, low income Americans. (His later book The Bell Curve, which argued that differences in IQ scores between races are real and do matter, caused even greater controversy.)

As the group gained prominence, those active in its early days moved on, one to become head of the CIA under President Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, another to advise British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The think tank itself, meanwhile, started looking at urban issues, developing its position as the sole conservative voice in New York City's liberal choir.

Besides wanting a chance to change New York, the Manhattan Institute saw an opportunity to use the city as a testing ground for its vision.

"If you really wanted to have [your] ideas reach the cities, you had to become a think tank for the cities," said the institute's vice president of development, David Desrosiers. "So in the '90s we started looking in our own backyard."

At that time, New York presented an ideal laboratory for the Manhattan Institute to formulate an urban plan, according to Fred Siegel, who from 1992 to 1993 was both a Giuliani advisor and the editor of the City Journal. The city was struggling with a sinking economy, a soaring crime rate, and a mayor whose popularity was waning. It was this environment, more than anything else, Siegel said, that led Giuliani to the Manhattan Institute.

"There was a sense in the early '90s of complete collapse," said Siegel. "Crime completely out of control, the rule of law seemingly broken. There was a sense of panic in the city, a sense of complete breakdown. In that framework, there was a lot of ferment. The Manhattan Institute had the largest vision that emerged out of that ferment."

On the heels of his loss to David Dinkins in the 1989 mayoral election, Giuliani was looking for vision and attended a Manhattan Institute conference on crime. The premise of the "Quality of Life" workshop was George L. Kelling's Broken Windows Theory. The theory, which held that policing minor disorderly behavior like graffiti or fare beating in the subways would help reduce violent crime, would become one of the foundations of Giuliani's remarkably successful policing strategy for New York.

The institute also helped Giuliani reverse his position on the homeless, according to Jack Newfield in The Full Rudy, his new book appraising Giuliani. While the candidate at first "ran for mayor as a crusader for more humane treatment for the homeless," Newfield writes, late in the campaign Giuliani changed his position; "he began attacking the right to shelter...Overnight he started to sound like the Manhattan Institute...which had..been tutoring him...They gave Giuliani a way of looking at poverty through a filter of 'a culture of dependency,' and fiscal tough love."

After becoming mayor, Giuliani continued to borrow heavily from the organization. He was particularly influenced by Murray's ideas concerning welfare reform.

Giuliani hailed the Manhattan Institute for allowing him to challenge what he referred to as the "intellectual rigidity" of New York. In a 1999 speech, Giuliani stated, "The Manhattan Institute and the City Journal have helped to shake up that rigidity. It's allowed us to think thoughts that were impossible for New Yorkers to really embrace in large numbers in the past."

LIBERALS AND NYC THINK TANKS

With the Manhattan Institute proving itself to be so effective, many New York liberals wanted something similar they could call their own. In the mid 1990s, a set of meetings was put together by Ken Emerson and Sarah Ritchie of the Century Foundation. The organizers quickly realized they did not have the resources to launch a think tank that could counter the Manhattan Institute. To provide an alternative on the cheap, they started the New York Progressive Network. Based on the model of Moving Ideas, a national network of think tanks run by the American Prospect magazine, the goal of the New York Progressive Network was, according to Ritchie, to "thicken the progressive community."

"There were all these smaller research and advocacy groups, some of which were multi-issue organizations, others were more specialized, but they seemed to be less than the sum of their parts," said Ritchie. "So what we were trying to do was basically [create] an organization of organizations that had similar political orientation that represented a wide spectrum of policy issues."

While the network model has had some successes elsewhere, as with the Progressive Los Angeles Network, it does not provide a true substitute for a strong, singular think tank. New York Progressive Network now exists only as a largely inactive web site - a kind of online phonebook for progressive organizations.

A more successful effort was the Center for an Urban Future, which came out of City Limits, an urban affairs magazine, in 1996. Many progressives claim the center as an ally, the closest thing to a strong liberal think tank that New York has.

Still Neil Kleiman, who founded the group with Andrew White, insists that the group is not progressive per se.

"There were about a dozen living room conversations about how people can create a liberal alternative to the Manhattan Institute," said Neil Kleiman. "We decided to do something completely different."

(His comments mirror those of some people connected to the Manhattan Institute who insist that the Manhattan Institute is not conservative -- that its pragmatic scholarly research simply focuses on what works and what doesn't work, and what works tends to contradict conventional wisdom, i.e. liberal beliefs.)

Taking a lesson from the Manhattan Institute, whose City Journal had become popular among urban policy makers, the Center for an Urban Future focused on the presentation of its ideas. The center described its research as investigative journalism - a departure from the academic bent of most think tank research. It sent its staff members into "the field" to do research on New York neighborhoods.

The center's main focus is economic development. It explores the effect that different industries, such as aviation or the arts, have on New York's economy, and examines how state fiscal policy affects the city.

"During campaigns we get a lot of people running for office [calling]", said Kleiman. "Especially during the 2001 cycle when everyone was running. We'd have three [competing] candidates from Bensonhurst calling, with questions about ideas and policies and programs. They want fodder."

END OF AN ERA?

The election of Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York has added two high profile names to the ranks of New York's think tanks.

While it is only in the formative stages, Mark Green's New Democracy Project has begun the Monthly Exchange, regular meetings of progressive policy advocates in New York City, loosely modeled after the Wednesday Meeting, a series of strategy meetings of conservative activists in Washington, D.C.

Ferrer said he joined the Drum Major Institute, which was founded in 1961 by a lawyer for Martin Luther King, Jr., because it presented "the opportunity to take something that had a very good heritage and turn it into a progressive public policy institute" promoting social and economic justice.

Although the organization is small, "in the marketplace of ideas you don't need the resources of the Manhattan Institute," Ferrer said. "You need creativity."

This spring, the group will hold conferences on tax policy and on how population shifts affect urban politics. It produces ProgBlog, a weekly electronic newsletter offering a progressive viewpoint on political and economic news.

Earlier this year, the Drum Major Institute worked with Bloomberg on his education program, advocating measures to make schools accountable to parents. According to Andrea Batista Schlesinger, the group's executive director, Bloomberg was receptive to the initiative and included elements of it in his plan. After years of frustration working on education in New York, she said, having a mayor who listens is "landmark stuff."

Bloomberg's willingness to listen to a variety of policy experts is in sharp contrast to Giuliani's approach, many say, and reflects the new mayor's non-ideological openness to -- in the words of think tank founder Andrew White -- "finding out what works and what doesn't."

The Manhattan Institute would surely have a different interpretation for why its local influence seems, at least temporarily, to be on the wane. Representatives from the institute declined to comment on its relationship with Bloomberg, nor their view of him. A current City Journal article on the administration's taxation and spending policies, however, might offer a clue. Its title: "Bloomberg to City: Drop Dead."


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