“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.)


Written by Tom Medvetz

September 27, 2012 at 11:05 pm

11 Responses

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  1. I’m hooked Tom. Can’t wait for the next post. I’m especially intrigued by your comment that we are seeing “a broader shift in American politics toward growing responsiveness to the media.” I’ve noticed the same trend in the corporate sphere and the field of social movement activism. Increasingly both sets of players seem to center their actions around media responsiveness, public relations, etc.


    brayden king

    September 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm

  2. Tom, I’m excited to read your book (sorry that I haven’t yet), but as you describe it here, your theoretical model would me more amenable to seeing the oppositional dynamics among think tanks, and of course this is the part that interests me the most. I imagine that some think tanks–the ones more closely aligned with social movements, for example–are heavily invested in producing research that undermines the work of scholars of other think tanks, but clearly this does not describe all of them. Is this an accurate impression, and if so, what can we make of these battles of the think tanks in terms of knowledge production?



    September 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm

  3. Can’t Buy Me Love. Honestly, who doesn’t know that?!

    Looking forward to receiving a first edition signed copy of your book. Can’t wait!



    September 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm

  4. Amie: you win!

    Tina: yes, you’re right that the book is partly about the oppositional dynamics among thinks tanks—and definitely correct about the split between more ‘activist’ and more ‘scholarly’ think tanks (although the latter have become few and far between). finally, the question you raise is in many ways the million dollar question.



    September 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm

  5. “after a certain point, the breadth of the elite concept becomes a major hindrance”

    yeah, but, but! but some versions of the elites rule argument (i guess gramsci’s hegemony would qualify, chomsky and his -ites) would say that yeah, there can be disagreement among the elites — for certain things. for others, they tend to step nicely together. israel, wiretapping, drones, cutting welfare, some forms of tax cuts, employing armies of goldman sachs employees in your administration, chanting “usa! usa!” these (among many others) are the really important things. yes, there are real disagreements, especially in the cultural realm (abortion rights, perhaps funding for npr). but elites are not uniform; there are important elites, and minor elites. angelina jolie and warren beatty are minor elites — they do not (i’m guessing) belong to bohemian grove or other conspiratorial associations of superelites. that is, there is hierarchy within the elites. that’s something relevant for your second critique, that there’s struggle among the elites. it’s not an even fight. henry kissenger carries way more influence (or at least used to) than colin powell. and greenspan, oy. it’s kinda surprising actually that in a piece about elites you seem to take for granted that all elites are created equal. but this is a blog post — i’m sure hierarchy among elites is much more developed in the book!



    September 29, 2012 at 12:34 am

  6. Have you read Norton Long’s “The Local Community as an Ecology of Games” (1958)? these elites are all involved in different “games” — sometimes oppositional. I’d also recommend Cornwell, Curry & Schwirian, “Revisiting Norton Long’s Ecology of Games: A Network Approach” (2003).



    September 29, 2012 at 11:59 am

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