Saturday :: Jun 21, 2003

Think Tanks


by Mary

Building a solid message to counteract the strong current carrying the United States towards a very conservative society is a critical task for the liberals and progressives. The right-wing has a number of think tanks ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to the liberatian Cato Institute to the Heritage Foundation. These think tanks provide the talking points for Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and the news media. They've built up a strong farm team of pundits that regularly provide opinion or oped pieces and appear on the political talk shows. They have been particularly effective in denigrating the policies and approaches to problems that have been the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society. There is a general recognition the groundwork laid out during the past forty years by the right has resulted in the entire society shifting right, so much so that our "center" is now much further right than most other first world societies. One reason that the right has been so effective at building their Wurlitzer machine is because although the various think tanks have different goals and don't alway agree, they recognize they are allied and have enough in common to work together.

On the left there have been various foundations and groups that have been the backbone of the progressive policies, with the Progressive Policy Institute (associated with the DLC) being a key think tank. One problem with the DLC is they are fighting battles on two fronts and sometimes they act like the core activists of the Democratic party are a bigger foe than the right-wing.

Other progressives are now getting in on the act. The Commonweal Institute is working on a number of fronts to build a stronger infrastructure to support the left's goals. And just recently John Podesta announced the formation of a new think tank called the American Majority Institute. Today's papers are speculating that this new institute marks the passing of the DLC's influence and that this new think tank will give more voice to the Clintons in shaping the Democratic message. The Commonweal Institute has already determined that the goals of AMI and CI are complementary:

Commonweal Institute (CI) has been in communication several times over the past six months with John Podesta and Sarah Wartell of the newly-announced American Majority Institute (AMI) in Washington, DC. We are delighted that AMI is moving ahead rapidly and is well-positioned to make a difference quickly. Since AMI has received recent news coverage, CI has been asked a number of times whether the two organizations will be doing the same thing. This memo addresses that important question.

Leonard Salle, president of CI, spoke in early June with Sarah Wartell, the COO of AMI. Sarah said that what AMI is doing is definitely different from CI, and that she considers our two organizations to be complementary. AMI's founders believe affirmatively that there is a need for a number of organizations on the progressive side, since there are many unfilled needs.

Sarah described AMI as a "policy shop" that will address three major policy areas: Domestic, International, and Economic. AMI's fellows will identify and formulate policy concepts for a small set of "hot" issues in each of these areas. Their operation will be primarily Beltway-focused, concentrating on national issues of immediate relevance. AMI seeks to communicate effectively about matters related to the political policy world. Their techniques will include presentations through major media; an innovative web site that will have daily columnists, humor, access to policy issues, and a summary such as The Note of ABC News; media training; and interaction with affiliated scholars in other parts of the country.

By contrast, CI will emphasize longer-term strategies for changing the political agenda, using sophisticated marketing techniques to move public opinion and persuade diverse audiences to support more progressive positions. CI will use a wide variety of communication channels to reach the broad public, not relying only on major media and the Internet. Much of CI's effort will be in cultural, language, and format translation of its own and other organizations' intellectual work, to make it appealing to a wide range of audiences. CI's handling of immediate issues will be in the context of advancing its longer-term strategy and, conversely, CI will be able to leverage off the long-term work to get better impact on related short-term items.

For the progressives to make any long term difference on the political climate in the United States will require learning how to emphasize shared goals, if not necessarily shared methods. Just as the various right wing institutes find ways to work together, our think tanks should as well. A strong, vigorous argument about how to tackle problems is all well and good -- it is one of the better parts of the democratic process. But participating in a circular firing squad must be avoided if we are to build a concensus that helps rescue our country from the right-wing juggernaut.

-- Mary

Mary :: 9:10 PM :: Comments (16) :: Digg It!