Saturday, September 22, 2012

Thomas Medvetz's "Think Tanks in America"

Thomas Medvetz is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Think Tanks in America, and reported the following:
At first glance, the Page 99 Test did not seem to work for my book, which focuses on how the organizations known as “think tanks” emerged and multiplied in the United States over the last century and became fixtures of the political scene. More broadly, the book is about the changing relationship between social knowledge and political action in the U.S.

In two ways, page 99 seems out of step with the rest of the book. First, the text is part of a case study of the Institute for Policy Studies, an extreme outlier among think tanks for its association with New Left radicalism. In the world of think tanks, it is conservatives, not progressives, who have dominated the action. Second, contrary to the thrust of page 99, the book is not about any specific organization or organizations per se. Indeed, it is about the competitive and collaborative relations among organizations that enabled them to form a nebulous (and always changing) network and set themselves apart from other knowledge-producing institutions. For this reason, to take page 99 out of context would be to “miss the forest for the trees.”

However, on second thought, I saw that two of the book’s main argument were indeed signaled on page 99. The first is tied to the fate of the Institute for Policy Studies. During the 1970s and 1980s, IPS became the target of intense FBI surveillance; it was also charged with a series of tax code violations by the IRS (albeit unsuccessfully), attacked vigorously
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by its political opponents, and abandoned by most of its sponsors. IPS’s calamitous fate offers a topsy-turvy illustration of one of the book’s central themes: namely, that conservative think tanks have enjoyed enormous advantages in financial support from American business relative to their progressive counterparts, as well as relative freedom from state repression. The same conditions that disabled IPS, in other words, bolstered think tanks of the right, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

Second, the closing lines of page 99 allude to what is ultimately the main issue raised by Think Tanks in America. As the last paragraph explains, Marcus Raskin cofounded IPS in the hope that it would do more than influence public policies. Instead, he wanted the organization to contribute to a wholesale reshaping of the “relationship between social thought and public action” (p. 99). My argument in the book, in fact, is that the growth of think tanks has indeed reconfigured this relationship—albeit not in the way Raskin envisioned. Instead, its main effect has been to relegate the most autonomous intellectuals to the margins of political debate.
Learn more about the book and author at Tom Medvetz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue