Meet the Marketer of Ideas, Arthur Brooks

A discussion on the current state of think tanks

This week’s podcast is a conversation with Arthur Brooks, who runs the American Enterprise Institute, the big conservative think tank in Washington. It didn’t turn out to be the podcast I expected.

I’ve known Brooks professionally for eight or nine years.  I first came across his name when he was writing occasional columns for The Wall Street Journal.  He is a very smart, very passionate, very articulate guy. He always has a take on things that is fresh.

So I wanted to get Brooks’ take on the world of Washington think tanks. He’s been running AEI for five years or so and I thought he’d have some interesting observations. We in the news business use that phrase, “think tank,” all the time. But we rarely look inside them as Washington players worthy of examination.

We call their experts for quotes, wisdom on deadline and TV bookings. And I was especially keen to see whether Brooks thought the world of think tanks and policy analysis has gotten more partisan and politicized in recent years, less authoritative and independent.

A couple of the big think tanks – notably the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left – have set-up separate organizations to do lobbying, electioneering and advocacy. Think tanks, under the tax laws, are research and scholarly organizations that don’t get involved explicitly in elections and lobbying so this new development that has drawn a lot of criticism. Generally, many believe the policy parlors have gotten just as polarized as the rest of political Washington.

Sure, Brooks agreed, some of the players have become pretty hard-core politically. So what?  Brooks’ take is that more is better -- more loud, intense, passionate political voices are good.  It’s okay if the tenor of Washington is a little more obnoxious or fractious.  We’re not so fragile that we can’t take it.

This led to a wider conversation about the state of political debate in America, which Brooks thinks is terrific.  I am not especially sympathetic to that perspective. In fact, I published a book in 2008 that tried to get at why politics and public life have become so coarse and angry.

But Brooks' take got me thinking. I shouldn’t have been surprised by that. In a nutshell, his argument is similar to those who think the Internet is going to facilitate real, positive change in the world – eventually. 

Yes, it might appear that the web has created a lot of trivia, time wasting, irritating social media and obnoxious behavior. It has also undermined the business models of important areas of the economy – like news, music and books. 

But it has also connected virtually all the information in the world; it gives people access to the public domain without a printing press or TV station. Confusing, revolutionary, unpredictable: the Web Utopians think it will lead to great things.

Brooks doesn’t deny that politics has become more polarized, partisan and boorish. But he seems to view it as a stage – and a small price to pay for a burgeoning of active and ornery citizenship and engagement.

I’ll remain skeptical, but much more alert to evidence that I’m wrong.

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