Rupert Cornwell: Big money takes aim at the heart of Washington

Out of America: Party political bankrollers are mounting a takeover of think tanks. If they succeed, US politics will become more partisan than ever

Share
Related Topics

'First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League," once ran the joke about this imperial city, in reference to its consistently hopeless baseball team. But that's changed. Great things are expected of the Washington Nationals this year – in the National League, now. As for Washington's role in war and peace, after Iraq and Afghanistan, many people would probably put it at the bottom of the league. But in one area Washington's supremacy is indisputable. When it comes to think tanks, nowhere on earth beats the capital of the US.

A study a couple of years ago counted 393 of them in the city proper, and it's a fair bet that number is higher today. Throw in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs and you're talking 550-plus – hotbeds of wonkery and expertise, researching every subject under the sun, from defence and foreign policy to Aids and inner cities.

Think tanks range from mighty institutes with budgets of close to $100m to a few idealistic souls operating out of rented rooms. The centre of this industry, though, is Massachusetts Avenue, which is to think tanks what Lord's is to cricket, lined by such institutions as Brookings, Carnegie, SAIS, and the Heritage Foundation. Roughly midway, at number 1000, you will find the Cato Institute, embroiled in a dispute that calls into question just about everything that Washington think-tankery stand for.

Cato was founded in 1977. It takes its name from the Roman republican who opposed Julius Caesar, but its direct inspiration was Cato's Letters, the essays by the British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, promoting the ideas of individual freedom and limited government that would fuel the American revolution.

Today, Cato is a bastion of libertarianism, quirky and contrarian, but admired for sticking to its principles. But that may be about to change. Cato is independent, but it is 50 per cent owned by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who control the huge energy conglomerate Koch Industries. The Kochs are bankrollers of the Tea Party movement and "Americans for Prosperity", an advocacy group dedicated to getting Barack Obama out of the White House.

Earlier this month the Kochs filed a lawsuit against Cato that would allow them to appoint a majority of the think tank's board. At which point, critics maintain, Cato's independence would be lost. The Kochs deny such intentions, insisting that any suggestion they would turn it into a partisan political organisation is "absolutely false". But Bob Levy, Cato's chairman, has retorted that if the lawsuit succeeds, the organisation would be reduced to a mere front for Koch Industries. Or, as a Cato researcher Jonathan Blanks neatly put it in a blog post: "Just because we support legalised prostitution doesn't mean we want to live it."

At which point a reader might ask, so what? Is this not merely a spat between the conservative right and the cranky right? However, what Levy calls "this lamentable and unwelcome dispute" does matter – a great deal.

Think tanks occupy a unique position in the Washington firmament, something less than government but more than mere academia, places where officials may recharge their batteries while their party is out of power; and they are important instigators of policy.

In one sense, a Koch takeover would not be a radical departure. Think tanks have always been politically aligned, to a degree. The revolving door tends to whisk officials from a Democratic administration into the Brookings Institution, while Republicans gravitate to the American Enterprise Institute.

But in the 20 years since I arrived in Washington, they've become far more partisan. The Heritage is a Republican megaphone; matched now by the Centre for American Progress, set up by John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff, in 2003 when Democrats realised they were being outgunned in the war of ideas.

In the process, something important has been put at risk. A think tank gains respect for its intellectual honesty, not for toeing the party line. Cato might be dotty on occasion. But in its calls for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, or for the legalisation of drugs, its experts were anything but Republican ciphers.

Happily, Cato has its candidate on the 2012 campaign trail. The libertarian Ron Paul may be seeking the Republican nomination, but many of his policies, including his tolerant social views and his opposition to an attack on Iran, are heresy to the party. At least they make you think – unlike the simplistic pabulum issuing from the mouths of Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. At bottom, a takeover of Cato by the Kochs would dig still deeper partisan trenches in a political system already made near-unworkable by excess partisanship. Is that what people really want?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

 

Political satire is funny, but it also causes cynicism and apathy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links