Think Tanks: A Danger to Democracy


In the United States the power of the people is slowly slipping away into the hands of the ultra-rich and special interest groups. As a result, political policy is guided less and less by the masses and more by the few individuals that hold the nation’s wealth. With the utilization of political think tanks, lobbyist firms, and super PACs the waters of democracy have been effectively bloodied. Our voices, and more importantly our votes, are being stifled by monetary incentives being contributed to legislators and government officials.


This article will focus on think tanks, which are being used to systematically sway political discourse. Think-tanks are biased (typically conservative or liberal) organizations that employ politicians, academics, retired high ranking military personnel, and intellectuals to create policy suggestions as well as strategies. These policy suggestions are not for academic purposes but legislative. They will also circulate publications that are designed to inform and sway policy debate among lawmakers.

Interestingly, most think-tanks in the US (approximately 1,800 in total) are non-profit and tax-exempt organizations. This status creates issues for their political mobility, they can not participate as lobbyists if they are registered as a non-profit. So, the easy fix is to break off specific parts of their operation and relinquish the non-profit title to lobby their policy suggestions effectively.

These organizations will also accept contributions from massive corporations. To date, some of the largest think-tanks in the country have taken money from companies like Exxon, Akin Gump, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics. Corporate donors will send out checks in sums as small as $5,000 and as large as $15 million. This results in policy suggestions that are reflective of the organization or corporation that contributed the most amount of money, rather than the people who should be ultimately represented.

Worse even, is the “revolving door” of ex-politicians and soon to be politicians that move their way through the think-tank world. For example, presidential elect Joe Bidens nominee for Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, currently serves as vice president and director of the international security program at the Center for Strategy and International Studies (CSIS). A quick visit to the CSIS website will procure a list of corporate donors. At the top of their list (which happens to be organized by the largest donors first) is Northrop Grumman Corporation. A closer inspection will show that Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Atomics are all listed under their corporate donors. The glaring similarity between all four is their prominent role as defense contractors for the U.S military. Hicks can now be a very influential mouthpiece for these same defense contractors that helped her structure policy suggestions during her previous tenure.

This is only one of many examples, all it takes is a quick Google search and you’ll find that most politicians (current or ex) have worked with large think tanks like the CSIS. In fact, one-third of Joe Bidens Department of Defense agency review team were recently employed by organizations that took funds directly from the defense industry. Again, the defense industry is only one facet of the much larger issue at hand.


Think-tanks, while once used for non-biased academic suggestion, are becoming representatives for the wealthy individuals and corporations that fund them. The world of political lobbying is evolving and with it are the tactics employed by organizations that would see democracy undermined. Politicians are being manipulated into policy debate that is based on the constituency provided by groups like the CSIS which in turn is backed by wealthy donors. If this were not the case, then JP Morgan Chase would not have donated $15.5 million to the think tank Brookings in 2016. The government is electing to operate in the interests of those who spend the most amount rather than who should be dutifully represented. The right to lobby legislators is universal across the U.S. political spectrum but the ability to do it effectively is being gatekept by the wealthy and corporations alike.

Sources:

  1. https://www.kas.de/documents/252038/253252/7_dokument_dok_pdf_16369_2.pdf/9aad6f30-1117-93fd-dbdc-2e32b49d1f93?version=1.0&t=1539662400177#:~:text=According%20to%20McGann%2C%20there%20are,by%20Great%20Britain%20and%20Germany.
  2. https://onthinktanks.org/articles/think-tanks-and-tax-status-a-note-on-the-501c3-and-501c4-tax-categories/#:~:text=Most%20think%20tanks%20in%20the,many%20limits%20regarding%20political%20activities.
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/us/politics/think-tanks-research-and-corporate-lobbying.html
  4. https://www.opensecrets.org/revolving/rev_summary.php?id=82721
  5. Corporation and Trade Association Donors | Center for Strategic and International Studies (csis.org)
  6. The National Security Revolving Door Starts Spinning – The Daily Poster
  7. Researchers or corporate allies? Think tanks blur the line (tampabay.com)

By: Patrick O’Connor

current events economics Lobbying progressive

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