“From totally geek to totally chic”
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with Round 2 of my guest stint at OrgTheory.
Here’s a trivia question for you: What do actors George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Warren Beatty share in common with former heads of state Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Eduard Shevardnadze?* If you guessed that they’re all members of the Council on Foreign Relations—the think tank with arguably the greatest impact on American foreign policy since its founding in 1921—then you’re correct. Here’s a related query: What does an aging film star like Arnold Schwarzenegger do with himself after having already dabbled in such varied pursuits as bodybuilding; marrying a Kennedy; serving two-terms as governor of California, and alternately threatening and then protecting the human race in its battle against time-traveling cyborgs?†
The answer, of course, is to start a think tank. This week, “the Governator”—together with the University of Southern California—launched the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, a bipartisan center focused on five policy areas: “education, energy and environment, fiscal and economic policy, health and human wellness, and political reform.”‡
“I’ll be back… –ing public policies and conducting research on matters of broad political and economic importance.”
Against all odds, some sort of “think tank chic” seems to have developed in the U.S. in recent years.§ How should we interpret this? And in general, how might we think about a think tank’s role within the broader social relations of power?
On these questions, consider again the Council on Foreign Relations, whose current membership roster includes luminaries from the worlds of business (e.g. Richard Branson, Frederick W. Smith)¶; media (Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, and Brian Grazer); academia (political scientist Peter Katzenstein, economist Martin Feldstein), and politics. In the latter category are numerous former National Security Advisers (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell); past and present Supreme Court Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor); and former Secretaries of State (Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice).
At first glance, CFR would seem like an organization drawn directly from one of C. Wright Mills’ fevered nightmares—the very nerve center of the “power elite.” It should not be surprising, then, that the first major scholarly studies of think tanks were conducted in the 1970s by political sociologists following closely in Mills’ tradition, including G. William Domhoff. And as anyone familiar with the “power elite” perspective would guess, these scholars portrayed think tanks as instruments in a more or less coordinated ruling class project. (The Council Foreign Relations in particular, in these studies, became something like the Bohemian Grove of the Upper East Side.)
In my recently-published book on think tanks, however, I argue that this view is too simplistic. Crucially, however, I don’t revert to the perspective that became the standard alternative to elite theory in the 1970s and ‘80s: namely, the pluralist approach associated with scholars like Nelson Polsby and Robert Dahl. When the pluralists studied think tanks, they tended to depict them in more or less opposite terms—as lofty sanctuaries for independent reflection and analysis. A “true think tank,” wrote Polsby, “obliges its inhabitants to follow their own intellectual agendas.”**
I agree with the elite theorists on two key points: first, that class interests have a clear primacy in shaping the social relations in which think tanks are embedded; and second, that most think tanks are (and always have been) unambiguously elite in their composition. What’s my quarrel with the elite theory approach, then?
Two things: In the first place, I’d point out that while most of the key figures in the think tank world are indeed elites (however you like to define the term), their organizations never simply represent the “ruling class” as a whole—only specific fractions of it. Put differently, after a certain point, the breadth of the elite concept becomes a major hindrance. The more we expand our notion of “the elite” to include all of the relevant fractions, the less we can simply take for granted their affinity.
Which fraction(s) of the elite think tanks represent, and in what proportions, are always the relevant questions.
Second, the modality of the encounter among think tank-affiliated elites is never one of simple harmony, but also one of “horizontal” struggle. Specific elite subgroups collaborate in the making of think tanks, but often in the context of struggles against other elites. Even within specific think tanks, cooperation often accompanies internecine struggles for control over an organization’s agenda.
Both of these points suggested to me the need for a more open-ended, historical approach. As I show in the book, the most influential think tanks of the postwar era (like the Brookings Institution) were built on partnerships of politically moderate capitalists, aspiring civil servants, and a technocratic fraction of the intelligentsia. In matters of economic policy, they were typically Keynesian—which, crucially, placed them in opposition to certain other elites, especially businessmen committed to an aggressively free market vision of capitalism and libertarian economists. However, the latter groups flooded the think tank arena in the 1970s and ’80s and became its dominant figures.
In the book, I break with the Millsian approach by replacing the elite concept with the idea of the field of power. (Briefly, this is Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the social space in which powerful agents and groups collaborate and compete to determine which resources will be considered the most legitimate and valuable in modern societies.) Applied here, the purpose of the concept is to encourage us to think about think tanks as sites of collaboration and struggle among holders of various forms of power. At stake in the encounter isn’t just the accumulation of power (as the elite theorists would have it) but the relative values of its different forms (e.g. money, bureaucratic authority, political expertise, social scientific knowledge, and, increasingly, media access and publicity).
Gene Sperling (JD, Yale University and director, U.S. National Economic Council) and Angelina Jolie (star of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) discuss “Iraq, Education, and Children of Conflict” at an April 2008 Council on Foreign Relations event.††
This point brings us back to my original question: Why are think tanks suddenly popular among celebrities, journalists, media moguls, and others who control access to the means of publicity? I believe the trend is indicative of a broader shift in American politics toward growing responsiveness to the media. I’ll return to this theme in a future post, but for now let me recommend two recent books on the topic that deserve more attention: Ron Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley’s The Space of Opinion and Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics.‡‡
* Shevardnadze was president of the republic of Georgia from 1995 to 2003.
† Or so I gather from the extraordinarily convoluted Wikipedia synopses of the four Terminator films, three of which featured Schwarzenegger, and only one of which I remember actually watching from start to finish. More vivid in my memory, however, is Schwarzenegger’s synergistically brilliant appearance as the T-800 cyborg in the 1991 Guns N’ Roses video for “You Could Be Mine” (which was also included on the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack).
‡ The quote is from “USC and Arnold Schwarzenegger Announce New Institute on State and Global Policy.” Retrieved on September 26, 2012.
§ I say “against all odds” because of the manifestly boring work carried out at most think tanks. I remember, for example, the reply given to me by one of my thesis advisers, Jerry Karabel, who was already quite knowledgeable about think tanks, when I suggested doing ethnographic observation at a think tank: “Okay, but I’m just afraid that it would be kind of like watching paint dry.”
¶ Not to mention CFR’s extensive corporate membership list.
** Nelson Polsby. 1983. “Tanks but no Tanks.” Public Opinion April/May: 14–16, 58–59.
†† To be fair, Ms. Jolie has served as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, a role that was critical in securing her CFR membership. On the other hand, I have no idea what Warren Beatty did to earn his invitation to CFR (or whether it involved Carly Simon).
‡‡ Bonus trivia question: I did not plan, and am powerless to explain, the emergent film motif in my OrgTheory posts thus far (starting here). And while I should probably rein it in a little, let me point out that the title of this post refers to another late 1980s movie—and that the first commenter to name that movie will earn the title “Distinguished Fellow of Film Policy Studies” at my think tank, should I ever start one. (No Google-cheating allowed.)