Think tanks are often ideological and sometimes partisan, but critics who deploy these charges interchangeably miss a distinction that makes a difference. “Once seen as non-ideological ‘universities without students,’ the American think tank has, in many cases, become a partisan stalking horse,” Pacific Standard’s Emily Badger complained. On the relationship between partisanship and ideology, she averred: ”Those two terms…have become increasingly synonymous in modern politics.” But while partisanship and ideology can each create conflicts of interest for think tank scholars, the two pressures are distinct, and they often conflict with each other. Only by separating one from the other can we think carefully about how to insulate think tank research from influences that will diminish its quality.
When we refer to a person’s “ideology,” we are usually talking about a stable set of somewhat general (but not maximally general) moral and political principles. So understood, ideological principles serve as normative guideposts for, well, nearly everyone who ventures opinions about public policy. Indeed, even some fully-fledged political philosophers see value in these commitments. John Rawls called them “considered convictions,” and he believed that they play a legitimate role in philosophical deliberation. Elected representatives, opinion journalists, policy wonks at explicitly ideological institutions, grass roots advocates, and family members who discuss current events over the dinner table invoke their ideological commitments as a sort of magnetic north when they explore public policy ideas.
Studies suggest that adults have fairly stable ideologies, but they can evolve over time. Some people experience a dramatic ideological conversion once or twice in their lives, either spurred by philosophical or religious study or as a result of coming to grips with facts about the world that cast doubt on the validity of their formerly-held principles.
Academics, traditional reporters, nonpartisan government analysts, and other political participants with highly technocratic orientations sometimes purport to eschew “ideology.” But as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently pointed out, technocrats need ideologies, too! Ideology is what analysts consult in order to decide which research questions are socially important and which are unworthy of exploration. As former Cato Institute research fellow Will Wilkinson explained:
There’s no avoiding the fact that, if you’re doing anything with policy at all, you’re trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that’s worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that’s the end that we ought to be aiming at.
Even those whose research agendas are set by others—lowly research assistants, OMB economists, and Iranian nuclear scientists come to mind—must at least assure themselves that their analytical skills are not furthering some evil purpose. To answer the question, “Is my job morally acceptable, or must I quit?” a researcher must consult her ideology. When academics undertake projects for the purpose of “advancing the science” of their discipline by refining its methods, they must ask and answer the same question.
“Partisanship” is a different thing. Political partisanship has to do with being a team player in a coalition that seeks electoral victory. To be “partisan,” therefore, is to speak and act for the purpose of advancing the electoral prospects of one’s party. Ideological convictions frequently determine the political party with which a person chooses to make common cause. This is a always choice of lesser evil, though, because ideologies can be as unique as snowflakes, while political parties are coalitions. A religious conservative does not share an ideology with a libertarian, nor does a labor democrat share an ideology with a deep ecologist.
Inevitably, the demands of partisanship will conflict with the demands of ideology. In 2003, for example, small government conservatives at the Heritage Foundation had to decide whether or not they would support President George W. Bush’s creation of Medicare Part D—a huge and unfunded new federal entitlement program. In that case, the think tank’s ideological commitments rather impressively prevailed over the pressures of partisanship. On the other hand, Heritage’s Obama-era about-face on the ideological acceptability of individual health insurance mandates raised questions about whether partisanship does not sometimes masquerade as ideological purity.
Both ideology and partisanship can create conflicts of interest when a public policy scholar hopes, for partisan or ideological reasons, that her analysis will have a particular outcome. Suppose that an analyst at Think Tank A is ideologically committed to a principle of noninterference with the internal conflicts of foreign nations. She may examine the effect of interventionist policies on the federal budget in the hope that her findings will persuade people concerned about the deficit to support a less interventionist foreign policy. If she discovers that foreign policy has little or no effect on the deficit, she will be disappointed. Similarly, a partisan may hope to vindicate the education reforms of a particular president during re-election season. If he discovers that the reforms actually did not benefit students, he will be disappointed by his findings as well.
This kind of conflict does not bedevil wonks alone. Traditional academics also hope that their research will reflect favorably on their ideological or partisan commitments. Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens, whose personal views are liberal, recently published a book in which he reports that George W. Bush’s policies reflected the preferences of poor and working class voters far more accurately than did those of Presidents Clinton or Johnson. Gilens jokingly described his surprise and chagrin:
Certainly for Bush 43—George W. Bush—I would not have expected high levels of responsiveness to anybody except maybe the most affluent. Like a good political scientist, when I found these results, I said there must be some mistake in the coding. I did everything I could, you know, to make them go away. But they were very persistent.
Ideology is not wholly dispensable for public policy scholars, regardless of where they work. Therefore, ideological conflicts of interest cannot always be sidestepped. Because good research is a lot like good driving, such conflicts may negatively impact research quality despite a scholar’s honest best efforts. Ideological conflicts should therefore be acknowledged and carefully managed by both scholars and institutions in a way that protects research quality. At explicitly ideologically committed institutions, I believe that this challenge is among the biggest challenges in think tank ethics.
A scholar’s partisan allegiances, if any, have no necessary role to play in her research process. This is not to say that a passionate partisan is capable of entirely ignoring the partisan implications of her research, but it seems like an unambiguously worthy goal. Indeed, nearly all U.S. think tanks make public claims of nonpartisanship. These commitments are encouraged by the tax code, but when and where they are taken seriously, they promote good research practices by minimizing an unnecessary source of bias. Indeed, it seems to me that nonpartisanship is especially valuable to think tanks with ideological missions. It is challenging, but I believe possible, to maintain good research standards in an ideologically committed institution. Partisanship simultaneously undermines both organizational goals.