Let’s Take On Right-Wing Think Tanks

How do you get people to vote against their own interests? How do you get working people to buy-in to false beliefs, such as the theory of trick-down economics? How do you get them to fight against policies and institutions that will give them greater opportunity, such as progressive taxes, regulatory agencies, and workers’ unions? One word: Propaganda.

Since at least the early 20th century, the powerful and privileged have used propaganda, as Walter Lippmann said, to “manufacture consent.” Since the 1950s, one of the primary distribution channels that has been used to disseminate propaganda has been through conservative think tanks. These think tanks are usually privately funded by wealthy families and corporations. They engage in policy research, advocacy, and consulting. Some of the more prominent conservative think tanks include, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hover Institute. Some have called these conservative think tanks a response to “liberal academia.” However, there is a fundamental difference between research conducted at the university and “research” published by conservative think tanks. These think tanks do not have the same level of institutional review that is required at the university. Moreover, think tanks are often exclusively funded by powerful interest groups that have a defined agenda. Not that university research is not funded by interests groups. But there is a code of research ethics and peer-review that helps filter out shoddy research. This is not the case when it comes to conservative think tanks.

This is not to say that all think tanks are negative or turn out poor research. Think tanks like the Brookings Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations are much more independent and bipartisan in their research. The problem with many of the conservative think tanks is that they are not held accountable for the lack of facts contained in their research. The function that they serve is to provide “research” citations—ideology-driven “facts”—for those who are pushing a conservative agenda; whether it is a conservative pushing a big business agenda on the Senate floor, a right-wing pundit trying to create a conservative reality for his listeners, or a columnist or author trying make push a philosophy of free market utopia.

There is nothing wrong with having many voices in a marketplace of ideas—in fact, it is preferable. But when ideas are placed on the alter of public discussion, there should be winners and losers—and ultimately, the facts should stand at the end of the day. Unfortunately this is not what is happening. Propaganda produced by conservative think tanks feeds the myths that reverse progress.

Although left-wing think tanks have also sprung up over the past decade—such as MoveOn.org, ActForChange.com, and TrueMajority.org—they do not have nearly the influence that the right-wing organization have. George Will wrote that liberals were “tardily trying to replicate that [conservative intellectual] infrastructure.” According to a FAIR report, in 2007, of the top 25 media-cited think tanks, the media cited conservative think tanks 37% of the time, whereas progressive were only cited 16% of the time. So much for the “liberal media” myth. As a result, many of the unsupported ideas of these conservative thinks tanks persist in the minds of many voters, leading them to vote against their own interests. Let’s look at one example.

One example of this is the idea that income tax cuts for the rich will stimulate the economy and create jobs. This is a wide-spread belief repeated on both side of the aisle, but it is simply untrue. In fact, the opposite is true. Larry Beinhart (source) has demonstrated that:

  • High income taxes correlate with economic growth
  • Income tax increases are followed by economic growth
  • Moderate income tax cuts are followed by a flat economy

Listen to this engaging discussion on this topic:

Back to think tanks. In her book, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, Kim Phillips-Fein includes think tanks as a component of the rise of the conservative movement: “The think tanks, radio stations, magazines, and intellectual organizations that were funded by business contributions during the 1950s helped to form the infrastructure for the rise of the conservative movement” (p.86).

In his excellent new book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy, Joshua Holland wrote:

“In the early 1970s, a group of very wealthy conservatives started to invest in what you might call ‘intellectual infrastructure’ ostensibly designed to counter the liberal bias they saw all around them. They funded dozens of corporate0backed think tanks, endowed academic chairs, and created their own dedicated and distinct  conservative media outlets…[The efforts of these wealthy families] have had a profound impact on our economic discourse” (p.14).

James Brian McPherson noted in his book, The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right: “The mainstream media continue to rely on conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, even after their studies have been found to be biased and riddled with research flaws that would make the results unpublishable by an reputable academic journal” (p. 200).

In his well-researched book, The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History, Patrick Allitt writes: “The conservative think tanks…proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s…The think tanks in turn depended for their funding on an array of conservative foundations, most of which were the creation of successful business leaders…Their cumulative efect was to create a pipeline so that conservative ideas would find their way into Republican policy initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s.” (p.225). Conservative think tanks spend millions of dollars each year trying to co-opt the media by offering its numerous “experts” to media outlets, boasts its own syndicated columnists and radio hosts, have their own radio and TV studios, publish their own books, and dish out numerous “research” reports, blogs and other publications. Many of the agenda items from thinks tanks end up on the top of the government’s priority list. Examples include, privatization of social security (attempted by Bush II in 2005), invading Iraq (pushed by the Project for a New American Century, which included many of Bush’s advisors),  With sponsors like Exon Mobile and BP, think tanks have also been successful at creating doubt about global warming, even though the vast majority of the scientific community is settled on the facts of global warming (with a small handful simply doubting the level that it is caused by human activity).

Thomas Frank notes in his book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (p.95):

“The [right-wing propaganda industry extends way beyond the well-known think tanks] encompassing numerous magazines, hundreds of lobbying firms, and a daily newspaper published strictly for the movement’s benefit, a propaganda sheet whose distortions are so obvious and so alien that it puts on in mind of those official part organs you encounter when traveling in authoritarian countries. There are think tanks that specialize in reaching highly specific parts of the conservative demographic—interns spending the Summer in D.C., for example. There are political strategists, pollsters, campaign managers, trainers of youth, image consultants and makers of TV commercials, revolutionaries-for-hire, and, of course, direct-mail specialists who still launch their million-letter raids on the mailboxes of the heartland.”


Conservative think tanks are funded by corporate interests. In turn, they distort facts to help maintain public support for policies that will allow the powerful to stay in power, and expand their influence. This damages democracy, and harms the lives of ordinary Americans and people around the world. Think tanks also provide a way for the rich to influence policy, and get a tax write-off at the same time. Again, this undermines government for the people.

How do we combat this harmful propaganda that masquerades as research? Here are a few ideas: Write media outlets when they reference research published by these think tanks, challenge the claims of their publications with facts—through blogging, editorials, etc., and write your representatives when they cite this shoddy research.

How Think Tanks Took Control of US Govt.

Further Reading:

A Short History of Conservative Think Tanks

Timeline of Think Tanks

List of Think Tanks

Public Radio Series on Think Tanks