Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about challenges facing think tanks.
Jane Harman is president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
A senior senator from one of our two dysfunctional political parties told me that he describes the Wilson Center with three words: “safe political space.” I know how that sounds. Every think tank in Washington calls itself nonpartisan; few of them walk the walk.
Like many media outlets, think tanks are scrambling for the attention of an increasingly polarized public. For some organizations, this increased rigidity of thought is an existential threat, and many have tried to meet the challenge by narrowcasting: seizing the largest share they can of a small, self-selecting audience. I strongly believe that strategy is self-defeating. Even where it “works,” it undermines the public role our organizations can play.
[Other perspectives: For think tanks, it’s either innovate or die]
The Wilson Center was chartered by Congress as the nation’s living memorial to President Woodrow Wilson, the only commander in chief with a doctorate. Following his example, it’s our responsibility to create connections between scholarship and policy. We offer a forum for actionable ideas — whether they were hatched in government, academia or the business community — and we answer to the elected representatives of the American people. In theory, all think tanks promote knowledge in the public service. In practice, for most organizations, the incentives point the other way.
A real “safe political space” has to be safe for controversial ideas; it has to welcome perspectives that disrupt, threaten or unsettle. I’ve watched pro-Palestinian protesters confront former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert from the audience here. I’ve seen members of Congress take their own parties fiercely to task with our logo and banner flying in the background. We’ve welcomed dissidents from Egypt, Burma, Bahrain and elsewhere; one of our recent fellows, a leading Egyptian scholar, was sentenced to death in absentia by his home government.
For many think tanks, open discussions are just bad business. How can you afford to challenge members of your audience if they might take their ears and eyeballs elsewhere? With more and more Americans wrapping themselves in ideological bubbles, shaped by social and partisan media, how can you risk popping them? Some outfits will decide it’s not worth the headache. But it’s in our charter — and our culture — to try.
Explore these other perspectives: