Calculating The Ideologies Of Powerful Think Tanks

By Garth Sundem
Created Feb 23 2009 – 6:00am
It is every geek’s dream to join a think tank and thereby rule the world with nifty numbers and influential ideas—for no think tank is completely without agenda. John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis (not to be confused with the Emmy-winning actor of the same name, most known for his role as the beer-swilling husband on the TV series Roseanne) even-handedly describes the difference in approach of first-rate liberal versus conservative think tanks, saying, for example, “The Brookings Institution is more likely to investigate unmet needs and ask what governmental programs could solve this problem. The NCPA is more likely to investigate how government policies are causing the problem in the first place and ask how the private sector can be utilized to solve it.”

Courtesy of the BBCLess even-handed think tanks such as Seattle’s Discovery Institute write, for example, about their “belief in God-given reason and the permanency of human nature” in their mission statements. (On the other end of the political spectrum, the Tellus Institute hopes to “advance the transition to a sustainable, equitable, and humane global civilization”.)

But just how left and how right are these shadowy think tanks that control law, public policy and thus the world as we know it?

The best—but certainly not flawless—answer comes from a 2005 study by Tim Groseclose (UCLA/Stanford) and Jeff Milyo (Harris School Public Policy, U. of Chicago), who used newspapers’ citation rates of various think tanks to judge media bias (positing that if a newspaper cites a conservative think tank more than they cite a liberal one, the paper itself is more conservative). Of course, to explore media bias via their citation rates of think tanks, Groselclose and Milyo had to first define the relative conservatism/liberalism of the think tanks themselves. Generally their methodology states that because we can fairly accurately describe the political leanings of members of Congress (by ADA scores), we should be able to describe the leanings of a think tank by how often these politicians cite it (if politician X is always blathering on about the findings of think tank Z, it’s likely they share ideologies).

Here are the Groseclose/Milyo rankings of the 20 think tanks most cited by Congress, from liberal to conservative (Groseclose, T. and J. Milyo 2005. “A Measure of Media Bias,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 120(4):1191-1237):

1. (Most liberal): Council on Hemispheric Affairs
2. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
3. Children’s Defense Fund
4. Economic Policy Institute
5. AARP
6. Amnesty International
7. Common Cause
8. The RAND Corporation
9. (Centrist) The Brookings Institution
10. The ACLU*
11. The Cato Institute
12. American Enterprise Institute
13. National Taxpayers Union
14. Citizens Against Government Waste
15. Alexis de Tocqueville Institute
16. National Federation of Independent Businesses
17. Center for Security Policy
18. National Right to Life Committee
19. Heritage Foundation
20. Family Research Council

* The web lights up with criticism of the ACLU’s placement as slightly right of center. Groseclose/Milyo explain this placement as the result of the ACLU’s opposition of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance bill, which congressional conservatives cited very often, skewing the results. Are other results skewed as well? Decide for yourself. (Groseclose and Milyo, both former fellows at conservative think tanks, calculated an overall liberal bias in the media, with print leaning substantially left of TV and radio. Hmmmm. Suspicious.)

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3 thoughts on “Calculating The Ideologies Of Powerful Think Tanks

  • December 12, 2011 at 7:35 pm
    Permalink

    Sounds like a great idea…and I'm always for great ideas.

    Reply
  • December 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm
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    Let me remind you that the political spectrum is a misnomer, because this suggests a rather 2 dimensional view of political ideas from one of the control of one's personal life, to the control of the economy. A more realistic explanation would have four corners where the ideas of conservatism and liberalism are opposite eachother, while statism and libertarianism are also opposed to eachother , crossed over the conservative/liberal spectrum at a right angle.

    Reply

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