Power Sheet: Why Think Tanks Now Have A Credibility Problem

August 8, 2016, 3:19 PM UTC

Writer Tory Newmyer (@torynewmyer) is filling in for Geoff Colvin this week.

There’s been no shortage of hyperbole this election season about all the ways typically unassailable institutions — blue-chip companies, the court system, international alliances — are fleecing the American people or otherwise wiring outcomes against them in favor of an entrenched super-elite. Donald Trump has gotten so loose with the charge he’s now making it prospectively. Last week, the Republican nominee earned bipartisan opprobrium for declaring that the general election itself will be “rigged,” in what looked like an attempt at a face-saving hedge in a race that’s been slipping away from him.

It’s hardly the first time in American history a candidate has sought to exploit wariness of the powerful for advantage in a campaign. Here’s the historian Richard Hofstadter, writing in 1964: “Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” Tracing the impulse back to the country’s founding, Hofstadter notes that “it is admittedly impossible to settle the merits of an argument because we think we hear in its presentation the characteristic paranoid accents.” Conspiracy theories, that is, often proceed from a kernel of truth.

And for those convinced every corner of the governing class in Washington is on the take from corporate interests, the front page of the New York Times today offers some fresh evidence. An investigation into Washington think tanks — “universities without students,” as they sometimes call themselves — details how these non-profit research centers are increasingly behaving like lobbying partners for their corporate sponsors. The story dwells on the Brookings Institution, arguably the most prestigious think tank in the world. Drawing on a trove of internal documents, the Times lays out the scholarship and meetings with government officials that the organization set up for deep-pocketed interests including Lennar, the home-building company, JPMorgan Chase, K.K.R., and Hitachi, the Japanese conglomerate. The picture in sum, of an august institution renting its name and facilitating contacts with policymakers, is not pretty. It’s made uglier by the fact that the corporate contributions are tax deductible, meaning taxpayers have been subsidizing this activity. Brookings is already out with a rebuttal that says the piece “fundamentally misrepresents our mission and distorts how we operate.” But this isn’t the first time the paper has documented how outside money shapes think tank work — and it’s long been one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington.

Does it matter? It may be hard to imagine this story breaking directly through on the presidential campaign trail. Yet we’ve seen this summer what happens when an angry electorate withdraws their faith from leading policy brains. In June, then-British justice secretary Michael Gove dismissed the consensus among economists that Brexit would be a disaster by declaring, now famously, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.” The lure of multimillion-dollar sponsorships is no doubt hard for think tanks to resist. It may be even harder to regain credibility once its squandered.


— And, on another note, be sure to check out Fortune Unfiltered, our new podcast, for an exclusive interview with GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving. A former skater turned tech exec, he’s trying to remake the web hosting company’s image among women; that’s no small feat, since GoDaddy built its name with provocative ads. It’s an interesting listen into how a CEO works to redefine a company.


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Produced by Ryan Derousseau

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