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Dan Rothschild talks with Jerry Brito about the role of think tanks in policy making and the difference between high and low politics
By Daniel M. Rothschild and Jerry Brito
Tangents is a podcast presented by Coin Center, a think tank focused on the policy issues surrounding cryptocurrency technologies. Jerry Brito is the executive director of Coin Center. He also writes a weekly newsletter about the geopolitics of money. Daniel M. Rothschild is the executive director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously worked at the R Street Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. In this episode, Jerry and Dan discuss the current state of American politics, the past and possible future role of think tanks in policy making, the challenges presented by today’s media environment and much more.
JERRY BRITO: Welcome to Tangents. I’m Jerry Brito, executive director of Coin Center. With me today, I’m very happy to have Daniel Rothschild, who is executive director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Hello, Dan.
DANIEL ROTHSCHILD: Hey, Jerry. Thanks for having me.
BRITO: My pleasure. If anybody detects something weird here, Dan’s a very good friend of mine. That’s why this thing is going to just sound awkward.
ROTHSCHILD: Having a conversation with you that’s fit for public release is a little bit of a strange feeling. We’ll have to see how it goes.
BRITO: Dan, the reason I wanted to have you on is to talk to you, executive director to executive director. Like you, I’ve spent my whole career in public policy and in particular in think tanks. Before starting Coin Center just over 6 years ago, which is amazing, I was at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University for almost 10 years. Before that, I was at the Cato Institute.
You, this is your second tour of duty at Mercatus. Before that you were at AEI, the American Enterprise Institute. You too have been in think tanks essentially your whole adult career, right?
ROTHSCHILD: Yes, and I was at the R Street Institute between the time I was at AEI and at Mercatus. I’ve had three different experiences in three very different intellectual research, think tank environments. I’ve done a whole bunch of different jobs within each of these institutions.
Think Tanks and Policy Making
BRITO: What I wanted to talk to you about—and I hope it’s interesting to our viewers—is, we’re in a really weird time, a really weird moment for policy making and for the things that think tanks do to try to influence policy making. I just wanted to explore that with you. Maybe we could start off by you telling us, how does policy making take place? Or maybe, how did policy making take place? Start with that.
ROTHSCHILD: I think that the old story—and all of these are stylized facts, they’re stylized stories, so they’re not 100% true—it went something like this: Research would be done by academics, and it would bounce around in the academy for a while. Academics would go to think tanks, or people at think tanks would read academic papers and start to think about, how do you apply some of these ideas?
Then at some point, there was, depending on what metaphor you wanted to use, the Overton window shifted, or if you’re into John Kingdon’s kind of thing, the policy stream went in such a way that ideas on particular policies could come out of think tanks and enter the public discourse.
This was either something where they were taken up by a particular politician or by someone who had the ear of politicians. Think of someone like Steve Forbes on tax policy. Then that became something that became a big policy issue and a political issue. I use those two terms relatively interchangeably at this point in time, because the politics was to a large degree about the implementation of policy ideas.
You think back to the 2000 presidential election, for instance, I can tell you even now basically what Al Gore’s policy positions were and what George Bush’s policy positions were, and the debate that they had was to a large degree over those policy positions.
Think tanks played this important intermediary role between the academy and between implementation and public policy. Well, fast-forward: the role that think tanks as well as a lot of other intermediating institutions play right now is completely different, or in many cases nonexistent, compared to what it was 20 years ago.
I can’t really tell you what the presidential election that we just concluded was based on in terms of policy differences, in terms of the major policy ideas that were put out by the two major campaigns. I can probably tell you more about campaigns from a hundred years ago than from what we have right now.
We’ve seen this decoupling, if you will, between policy and politics and this decoupling between academic ideas and the implementation of ideas, and all of this has made the position of think tanks at worst precarious, but in a more optimistic direction, up for grabs going forward.
BRITO: If politics is no longer about policy, and I concur completely with you, I guess policy is still enacted in the sense that government does stuff on a daily basis, and that stuff is policy. To the extent that, look, when people are running for Congress or different arguments that they’re having in the discourse, as you say, in the pages of opinion, it’s rarely these days, if you really take a look, about policy. If it’s not about policy, what is it about these days?
High and Low Politics
ROTHSCHILD: My mental model of this, and I’m open to challenge on this, is that there’s basically two different types of policy discourse. There’s high-policy discourse and there’s low-policy discourse. These names are a little bit perhaps incorrect. High-policy discourse, this is the stuff that the media covers. It’s the stuff that is basically, as Robin Hanson would talk about, the fighting about the cultural status of different groups.
It’s only secondarily or tertiarily about policy. We talk about things like, for instance, Second Amendment rights and gun owners’ rights. We talk a lot about it in terms of policy; we like to think about it in terms of policy. But really what it’s about is, is owning guns, is shooting, is hunting, is a gun-culture lifestyle something that is acceptable in America?
Broadly speaking, the Right wants to say this is a relatively high-status thing, it’s acceptable, and the Left wants to say your lifestyle is unacceptable, you can’t be doing this kind of thing, and to make gun ownership a low-status activity. Yes, there are policies that happened at the margin, but the through line of the last 15 years, it’s just not a whole lot has changed in terms of gun policy at either the federal or the state level. That’s high policy.
Then there’s low policy. This is the stuff that the media doesn’t cover. This is the stuff that most politicians don’t know actually very much about. This is the stuff that actually has an impact on people’s lives. This is the stuff where you actually can see positive-sum solutions. This is really where think tanks continue to shine. This is where having specialized expertise, for instance, in things like fintech and blockchain technology really matters.
I don’t think that anytime in the near future, we’re going to see the major journals of opinion, major presidential candidates staking out detailed policy platforms around Bitcoin and the blockchain. The work that’s happening here is really, really important, and it’s in the kind of low-politics realm of things.
BRITO: In the high politics, to the extent that Bitcoin or cryptocurrency would get covered by the media, be part of the discourse—and we’ll get to that maybe in a minute—it’s going to be, there is this hack, or there are these drug markets, here are these bad things. Once in a while might be some feel-good story.
That’s generally going to be it, where the nitty gritty about what are . . . okay, well, given that there’s some good stuff and there’s bad stuff, and we have to balance these things, where do we set the dials on which thing? That doesn’t get covered, and nobody runs on that. Nobody in Congress calls a hearing to talk about that. Nobody in Congress gives a speech about those things. They give a speech about the high policy.
ROTHSCHILD: Right. The high-policy stuff is basically whether or not blockchain and Bitcoin entrepreneurs should be high status or low status, whether or not they are great innovators who are helping to develop the next technology that’s going to have economic ramifications, or whether or not you wave your hands and talk about the dark web or whatever else.
BRITO: Where does this high status, low status come from? Why?
ROTHSCHILD: That’s a great question. If you talk to someone like Robin Hanson, this is something that the politics has always been about. It’s been about the varying status of different groups. There has always been this kind of status thing that’s been built up in the policy debate. These two things, they’ve always been connected.
What we’re really seeing is that they have been bifurcated over the last, I don’t know, 5, 10 years, something like that, as politics becomes more about tribalism and entertainment and a lot of other stuff that Martin Gurri and others have written about. The work of actually making policy still happens, but it doesn’t happen in developing policy platforms for parties.
A lot of that agenda setting, a lot of that developing policy ideas that can actually be implemented is stuff that’s done on the think tank level or by people in the intellectual research environment. I think that’s really the story of the Trump administration policy-wise in a lot of ways. Stuff that was really high profile that he ran on in 2016—immigration, tariffs, trade—he found very little think tank support on a lot of those things.
The stuff that he ran on in 2020, the stuff that—“Aren’t you excited about what I did?” It was regulatory reform. It was healthcare, which was a lot more smoke than fire. It was judges. It was stuff that came out of think tank and think tank–like institutions that were implemented at medium level or the medium levels of the executive branch.
Policy making did happen. It was just nowhere to be found in the 2016 presidential race, and it certainly wasn’t to be found in the 2020 GOP platform, which didn’t exist.
BRITO: That’s right. It literally didn’t exist, for viewers or listeners who don’t know this. They literally voted, the platform committee I guess voted not to adopt a platform because what’s the point, right? We’re not running on a platform anyway, right?
ROTHSCHILD: Yes. That’s the low-policy detail, and that’ll be figured out by the think tanks and the deputy assistant secretaries, but that’s not the stuff that gets people excited. It’s not the stuff that turns out people for rallies. It’s not the stuff that gets low-dollar donors to open their wallets.
Politics and the Relative Status of Groups
BRITO: I want to go back to low status, high status or relative status of groups. Again, what does that mean? Here’s what I take it to mean—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that when we say that politics is about status, you’re going way back to the savannah, and you’re saying that humans are tribal by nature and that it’s in our nature to try to raise the status of our coalition or our group and to lower that of others. Is that your point, that it’s about human nature?
ROTHSCHILD: Yes, that’s something that’s always been there, and politics has always been used to some degree for that purpose. What I’m saying is that in recent years, it’s been used much more explicitly and almost exclusively, at least in some areas, for that purpose. That’s really the difference that we’ve seen.
BRITO: How do you distinguish that from Reagan vs. Carter or Mondale? Was much more about policy, certainly about Cold War policy, foreign policy. It was also about tax policy, lots of other things. It was definitely about education. It was definitely about those policy ideas, and people could tell you what were the different policies that they were voting on. At the same time, you still had all the same culture war stuff, didn’t you? What’s different?
ROTHSCHILD: Yes, you did, and it was always there, but it was a lot more in the background. And the groups that were part of different coalitions were much less likely to be associated . . . a couple of things. You have groups like the Reagan Democrats, where there certainly was a cultural play associated with that, but Reagan articulated a host of policies that he said would benefit the Reagan Democrats, and that’s how he brought them over onto the team.
It was not tribalism first, policy second. It was articulating a policy platform that got people to agree with you. But what we’re seeing right now is that if I know what you believe, for instance, about school choice, I can say with a very high degree of probability what you believe about taxes and abortion and guns and all sorts of other things. We’ve seen these hardening of these different things into these two different tribes, and they’re just all at war with each other in the high-politics side of it.
The low-politics side is still where there’s a lot more opportunity to bring new evidence to bear, to engage in liberal discussion and debate, which is what think tanks were meant to do: to bring new data to bear, to bring new studies to bear. I can’t recall a single major study or white paper or anything else that was brought up in the 2020 election. But that stuff still does really matter when you’re working on implementing, say, policies for emerging technologies like drones.
BRITO: Why did it happen? Why was there this bifurcation? I’ll throw out something: I think it’s about the media environment almost completely. I think it’s about clicks. I think the high-policy stuff . . . it’s funny you call it high policy, low policy, because I think of high culture, low culture. And it’s kind of flipped, where high policy is actually low culture.
ROTHSCHILD: That’s why I said those names might be a little bit confusing.
BRITO: We have turned politics into entertainment, and once you accept that, that leads you to the result that you’re describing. And then the question is, why did politics all of a sudden become entertainment? It became an entertainment because the media environment changed.
It used to be that you had three networks and a local paper and et cetera, and so there was no room. And they had certain incentives where politics was going to be politics, but it wasn’t going to be entertainment. Now that you have million channels and you have Twitter, you can see how quickly it becomes entertainment.
ROTHSCHILD: The business model of media, which Andrey Mir has pointed out and really well chronicled, has gone from manufacturing consent in the Walter Lippmann sense of things to manufacturing rage. That feeds into tribalism. And I don’t know where all of this started and where it ended or what specifically is driving it, but I know that it does represent a fundamental challenge to the kind of business model of think tanks compared to what it was 5 or 10 or 15 years ago.
The Future of Low Politics
BRITO: Where does that leave the people who are working in low policy, which used to be pretty well enmeshed in the campaigns, let’s say, or in government? Again, if you think of the Romney-Ryan campaign versus the Obama-Biden campaign, both of these guys had binders and binders full of think tank people associated with them.
I think if you fast-forward to this last election, that was not the case, certainly not on the Trump side and I wonder even in the Biden side. The Biden side just seemed to just be very message-driven; message was just “Be cool.” Where does that leave think tanks and people working at not just think tanks, but people working in the low policy, the details?
ROTHSCHILD: I think that low policy is—as I said, this is a lot of stuff that really impacts people’s lives, and so it is more important than ever in a lot of ways. There really is no government equivalent of someone who’s going to have the deep expertise that a lot of people in think tanks have, whether it’s on the particular issues in foreign affairs or on tax policy or whatever it might be.
You’ve got smart people in government, certainly, working on these, but we saw this in the tax reform in 2017. That really did rely on a lot of work that had been done by think tanks and models that had been developed by think tanks.
The public debate on that was interesting. It was a rare moment where low policy invaded high policy because the media, you had to pull away from talking about the Russia investigation or whatever was pushing people’s buttons and actually have people come out and cover tax policy debates and explain what the distributional impacts were going to be and the growth impacts and all of that.
That’s the stuff that the media would have absolutely loved to have done 10 years ago, and certainly, there are parts of the media that still do that today. But in terms of what’s driving the day at the New York Times or the Washington Post, it’s not this kind of tax policy work. In fact, I think we’ve seen a lot of people who do really good work here, did really good work here in the media, leave over the last few years for think tanks and for different startup ventures.
BRITO: I think you got lucky with that particular example that you used with the tax policy, last tax reform, because you had Speaker Ryan, who was there and is sort of—which is amazing to say—of an older generation and was able to bring that to bear. Let me ask you this question. So, okay.
ROTHSCHILD: Maybe that just was the last of the old guard, and that’s the last major policy discussion that we’re going to have.
Defining a Think Tank
BRITO: I also think about, think tanks and their relative status in the grand scheme of things is being lowered because what gets all the attention is the politics of it. I think that leads certainly many think tanks to chase clicks themselves and change what they’re about.
We won’t name names, obviously, but you have to ask yourself, think tanks also have donors and the New York Times also has donors, and the New York Times is able to attract donors because it avoids the low-policy stuff, as you say. I sort of see think tanks beginning to also try to attract donations by being engaged in stuff that is more high.
ROTHSCHILD: A couple of things there. One, the term “think tank” is necessarily incredibly broad and covers organizations that run the gamut from effectively totally independent research centers to what are basically advocacy groups around a particular issue. I’m talking about the smart group that’s in the middle.
No need to name names, but the smart group of think tanks that have smart scholars, broad networks, usually a broad base of donors, do work on a whole bunch of different issues, traditionally have a certain degree of intellectual heterodoxy within them. That’s one thing I think that people totally get wrong about most think tanks, is there’s a lot of debate and disagreement within them, probably more than there is in a lot of university departments.
They can be these kinds of fonts of idea generation where people argue about ideas and argue about policy, and you end up with better products as a result. What does this mean for think tanks? I talk a lot to other think tank executives, and there is this pervasive idea that we’ve got to get better on infographics, we’ve got to do more Twitter, we’ve got to tweet, we’ve got to do videos.
It’s all those kinds of stuff that people have been saying for the last few years. I think it’s just utterly mistaken. There’s no way that you’re going to win any of this, win Twitter, trend on Twitter, whatever it is, with the best possible ideas. What actually gets people’s attention right now? What actually drives the kind of social media narrative? It’s stuff that is not only adjacent to reality; in a lot of cases, it’s totally divorced from reality.
This is something that’s happened on both sides of the aisle over the last few years, and polling data suggests that partisans on both sides have just radically different views of what actual reality is. There’s honestly no video that we can make that is going to get people really excited about how reforming certificate-of-need laws is going to increase the supply of healthcare, lower prices and increase access in their state.
There is no way to make that something that is really exciting to everybody, but that is something that you can engage and talk about through the kind of low-politics means. I think that in a lot of ways, there are more opportunities for think tanks than ever to engage in these kinds of real, nitty-gritty policy debates precisely because the media isn’t trying to turn these debates into Left versus Right, or R versus D, or “our team versus their team” status narratives.
The Evolution of the Think Tank Model
BRITO: There’s a lot there. First, I want to go back to what you just said about what a think tank is, and you gave a very classical definition of a think tank where you’re talking about it’s these things in the middle, which aren’t necessarily specific issue advocates, and they’re heterodox. Universities without students, as someone once said about think tanks. But how many of those are left, and how many of those exist relative to the wide array of policy-generating institutions that have just been created over the years? I’m thinking of, like, Tevi Troy had a great essay. I forget the name, something about the—
ROTHSCHILD: “Devaluing the Think Tank,” National Affairs, 2012.
BRITO: That’s right. It made a real impact on me. Again, because their incentives change, think tanks that at one time maybe were in the middle, as you say—their business model changed, and so they began to equivocate here and there, and pretty soon they were something different. They didn’t have as much heterodoxy as you would want.
They became more careful about what they said because of the incentives that they faced. I think “Are any real think tanks left?” is one question. Number two, what is their relative status when you have so many of these other groups come up, which call themselves think tanks, do things that are very think tank-y, traditionally think tank-y, but it overwhelms the traditional ones?
ROTHSCHILD: First of all, I don’t think that it’s a bad thing the think tanks’ model has changed. The business model of every elite institution is in the process of changing right now, and I think what universities have as their business model is already not what it was 20 years ago. What prestige media institutions have as their business model is not what it was 20 years ago. I think it makes sense for think tanks to come along with that.
Look, everyone I know, basically, who works in think tanks believes in what they say. There’s this idea outside of Washington that people in think tanks are just paid hacks and that for an additional $10,000, you can get someone to go over from the Heritage Foundation to the Center for American Progress and make the opposite argument that they’ve been making. That is something that basically never happens.
People are engaged in the think tank world because they really care about ideas, because they like debating these kinds of policy ideas. They like doing the kind of deep but applied research that you can do in the think tank world. They like seeing that they’re having an impact.
No doubt the entire world of philanthropy has changed over the last 20 years. Think tanks are just one institution that’s supported by philanthropy, but you see it across the board as well. I don’t think it’s a problem that think tanks have changed as long as what they’re doing is intellectually consistent with their vision and mission and they continue to be honest.
Think Tanks and Lobbying
BRITO: Yes, but . . . I definitely take your point, and I think it’s worth highlighting because it drives me crazy when people tell you—as somebody who’s working in think tanks my whole life, whenever somebody says that I say what I say about particular policies because I’m being paid to, it drives me bananas because it’s not true.
Even if you had a donor who wants a certain policy view to be put out into the world, what would be better for them? Would they want to hire somebody who doesn’t believe what they’re saying but will say it for money? Or do they want to hire somebody who passionately believes what they want to be said? That’s the way it works, all of these groups . . .
ROTHSCHILD: Oh, if you know the policy that you want enacted, investing in a think tank is like the worst possible use of your money. If you have a vision of exactly what needs to happen, hire a lobbyist. There’s nothing shameful about that; lobbyists play an important role in the ecosystem of policy making. Go out there and support candidates and hire a lobbyist and vaya con dios. But if you’re actually interested in the process of ideation, that’s where think tank investments are powerful philanthropically.
BRITO: That gets to where I was trying to go, which is a Tevi Troy point, which is that think tanks—and because their business model is changing, they look a lot more like issue advocacy groups these days than simply universities without students. They have GR departments that are trying to lobby. We can’t say that, but they do.
It’s not just about getting new ideas on paper; it’s about getting those ideas into law and lobbying to do that, and it’s about having a social media department that helps in that process but also gets attention. If that’s how the think tanks have changed, and the relative composition of the budget goes more towards GR and social media and media and whatever else and less to simply scholarship, well, it’s not okay that think tanks’ business model has changed, right?
ROTHSCHILD: Yes, but I think you can probably count the number of think tanks on one hand who spend more on government affairs and communications than they actually do on research or, in our case at Mercatus, on student programs. The intellectual work of think tanks is still what drives every credible think tank.
Again, if what you want to do—if you want to go viral on Twitter with the idea that you know that you have, there are many better investments to make than think tank Twitter accounts. I can’t name a think tank Twitter account that is particularly influential or powerful or that has millions of followers. Get Kim Kardashian to endorse you on Insta.
Measuring Success on Social Media
BRITO: [laughs] If you can’t really tweet the low-policy stuff effectively, to have any effect that you’d want to have, how do you convey your ideas?
ROTHSCHILD: I think you can tweet it; just don’t make your measure of that tweet’s success whether or not it gets 500,000 impressions and 100,000 retweets. Look, I would rather tweet something and have it read by the 8 people who are actually working on implementing an issue who actually matter, than to have it be retweeted by 80,000 people who were paying no attention to it at all.
Here’s a way to think about it. When I was first at Mercatus, I was working on a project called Enterprise Africa! And we put out policy briefs based on field research done in sub-Saharan African countries. We would send it to the people at the relevant desk at USAID, at the nascent Millennium Challenge Corporation, the relevant people on the relevant congressional subcommittees and a few people at State.
We knew the universe of people who cared about regulatory policy towards agriculture in Botswana or whatever. That was a known number of people, and we knew exactly who those people were. It is still the case on some of these low-policy issues that we know who these people are and we know how to get ideas to them. It’s on the high-policy ideas where we no longer know, these are the particular people whose opinions matter here, because in high policy it’s an ecosystem that we haven’t made sense of yet.
On the low stuff, being a think tank expert, who’s seen as one of the top few people in your area, I think that still carries exceptional returns to it. Really having that expertise that you can develop as a think tank fellow, that still matters for a lot of people. I have a lot of colleagues who are viewed as top 5 people on their policy issue, and they get calls from across the country from state legislators, from people in governor’s offices, from mayors to talk about their areas of expertise.
BRITO: If I can say, I think the way to leverage social media, because we live in social media these days, is not to institutionally try to create snazzy products that will go viral. Like, “Oh, we have to go viral.” Yes, if you could only plan and execute on virality. The way to do it is the scholars themselves or the people who are ideating is—every field and subfield has its own Twitter.
I think there’s a way to responsibly participate in that. It’s increasingly hard, I think, depending on your field. I think that’s a way to do it, and then as a result, I think you do become recognized in your field. That’s a good way to engage with others with different ideas, et cetera. Again, it’s difficult to do responsibly, oftentimes, because of the nature of social media.
Then the way you measure that success, again, it’s not virality. It’s about what connections do you have, and how you affect the discourse, which more and more is happening on social media.
Success Is Affecting the Discourse
ROTHSCHILD: Affecting the discourse—and this is another thing that I think that people get wrong about think tanks—is not about having people in government read your ideas and say, “I want to write a bill based on that.” Sometimes that happens, but it is more about affecting the larger discourse. It’s about framing the conversation around which these things occur. That’s where I think is the interesting opportunity for think tanks in high politics and high policy going forward.
We effectively have no agenda-setting institutions as a country anymore. I don’t think that this is unique to the United States. We were talking earlier about how the GOP literally didn’t even write a platform this year. They didn’t even say, “If elected, here are the things that we are going to do.” The media tries to set an agenda, but by and large, they only set it for one half of the country.
Because think tanks have this intellectual heterodoxy built in, because think tanks tend to view one another, even across ideological divides, as good actors, and there are people that go between different think tanks and do different kinds of work, I think there’s an institutional opportunity for think tanks to answer or play a role in answering the question that I think is at the root of a lot of our ennui today, which is, what does it mean to have a good society?
I think that that we should have more think tanks jumping in and saying . . . The view that I think that most of us would take at Mercatus is, “Look, a good society is one where people’s individual rights are protected, that’s innovative, that’s dynamic, that’s forward looking, that is cosmopolitan, that’s pluralistic so that different people in different areas can have different policies and different statuses that support them.”
It’s one that has a rich, robust civil society. I think that we’ve got to have a serious discussion about how we rebuild that. A lot of think tanks are starting to work on this space. A lot of these really big issues that do matter, that should matter, about what the world is going to look like—not just what are the policy things that are being done to raise or lower the status of this group—I think that these are really important conversations to have.
One of the things that I think is really exemplary of the Trump administration approach to this is, we all remember the Carrier jobs thing from—it was, I think, shortly just after the election, maybe before he was inaugurated.
BRITO: I think it was before he was inaugurated.
ROTHSCHILD: He went to the Carrier plants in Indiana, and he said, “We’re going to save these jobs.” Well, a few journalists have done follow-ups on that and found that most of these jobs have actually moved to Mexico and all of that. And then they ask the question, why is it that people still support Donald Trump after all of this?
What he did was, he went there and he said, “You are not low-status people. You matter. People with a high school education who are earning a decent wage and taking care of their families, these are people who actually matter. You are high status.” I think that rather than just making this a status game between whether or not blue-collar workers with Carrier plants in Indiana matter, it’s articulating a vision of a good society where people like that, and people with college degrees in Indianapolis and people who are left behind educationally and the whole panoply of 340 million Americans—what is the society that we should be aiming towards?
Again, with this emphasis on pluralism, recognizing that the policies enacted in Indiana and the policies enacted in New Jersey are probably going to be very different.
The Future of Think Tanks in Politics
BRITO: I wish I could share your optimism, because I think what’s difficult is going to be for a think tank that has developed a good vision of society to bridge the gap to the high politics. Sure, maybe if you’re lucky, Ben Sasse will run and take a lot of good ideas from think tanks, et cetera.
How is he going to do in a field that includes Donald Trump? Or let’s say Ben Sasse is running against Matt Gaetz. I guess I’m allowed to name names a little bit. When politics has become WWE-style wrestling, I don’t see how you translate that. I guess you can write the script for a really upstanding character that comes in, but I don’t see how that character wins.
ROTHSCHILD: I think where I part with you here is yes, politics may be wrestling right now, and it may be tribal and the rest of it, but the politics of negation only goes for so long. I don’t think that this is an equilibrium that’s going to last for another 20 or 30 years.
BRITO: I agree.
ROTHSCHILD: This is a point that others have made, is, what we’re going through is in a lot of ways like what happened when the printing press came into existence and the entire ordering of society was jumbled. This won’t be the equilibrium forever. We’re going to learn how to live with social media, with the decommodification of information, with the disintermediation of experts, and we are going to have new institutions that emerge to fill those roles.
That’s the argument that I’m making. It’s not saying that this is something that think tanks are doing right now. I think it’s something very profitable that think tanks can be doing over the course of the next generation because political parties are not going to stand up to do that. And almost every other elite institution in religion, media, academia, are so associated with one side or the other that none of them have the ability to bridge across those divides.
BRITO: I totally agree with you that the status quo is not sustainable and that something’s going to have to give. I also think that it’s a worthwhile thing for think tanks to do to develop the thinking for what could possibly be the successor status quo. That all said, underlying your optimism is the assumption of progress. You could take a giant step back.
The way that this is not sustainable, and something has to give . . . maybe it gives, and it’s a giant step backwards. Anyhow, I don’t have much more to say, but I’m not super optimistic that some think tank plan about what a good society looks like—because we already know what that is. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what a good society is; it’s that we don’t have shared sense-making anymore, I think is the problem.
You’re right, that I gather you’re saying, all these different institutions, from political parties to religious institutions, are now associated with one side or the other. I think implicit in that, you’re saying think tanks aren’t. Think tanks can still be above the fray. But I’m sorry, the people who work at that Carrier plant, they probably don’t see think tankers as on their team, even though that team is an amorphous thing. Maybe sometimes it’s Bernie, sometimes it’s Trump. They certainly I don’t think would see them as part of their team, or no team.
Elite Movements and Mass Appeal
ROTHSCHILD: That’s true as far as it goes, but I don’t think there’s anything . . . In fact, if you look at trust rankings in America, it’s basically only the small business sector and the military that have widespread bipartisan support. There’s no other institutions that have more than 60% support across both political parties. A couple of things. One, this is a time where think tanks are redeveloping a business model.
Most people in America don’t know what think tanks are, what think tanks do. Most people in America don’t read the work of think tanks, and that’s absolutely fine.
It’s not the case that liberalism broadly construed has ever been a mass market movement; it’s always been something that’s been an elite movement. The question is, how do we make it appealing more broadly? Not just to people who work in the Carrier plant, but to the people who are preaching to them on Sunday mornings, to the people who are seen as leaders in the community.
It’s not nihilism all the way down. There are still liked and respected people across the United States. They just happen to not be on the Acela corridor anymore, and that drives people on the Acela corridor crazy. I think the question is, what is the viewpoint that’s going to be had more broadly by elites across America, not elites as have existed for the last 50 years?
BRITO: I think you’re totally right that liberalism is an elite-driven movement or ideology, and the public has kind of come along, partly because of lack of choice, because it’s sort of elite driven as you say. But what’s happening is, in large part due to the media environment, you have a democratization of speech and of just about everything.
If it’s an elite-driven movement, but you have just huge democratization, the elite-driven movements don’t do well in those. The new elites that you’re saying we should be able to appeal to, they’re very populist, because they’re elites because they derive their status from the people. They’re not going to try to lead by leading; they’re going to lead the way you jump in front of a parade.
ROTHSCHILD: Again, negation only goes so far. The politics of negation and nihilism, it can’t go on forever. Eventually, someone is going to have to say what they’re for. I talk a lot to my colleagues about people’s pre-political mental models and their pre-political normative commitments. What is it that people think is the appropriate role for policy to play? All of the other important institutions in society—what’s the important role for the academy? What’s the important role for communities, for grassroots groups? What’s the important role for religion to play? What’s the important role for businesses both large and small to play?
We’ve got to talk through all of this. You can’t just negate everything forever. Because think tanks can play this kind of medium-term game, because think tanks can think about stuff 10 years into the future, I think that we are better suited than any other kind of institution to be thinking about, what’s the kind of society that we want in 2030?
We don’t know who the political players are going to be. We don’t know who the parties are going to be. How do we have a real conflict of ideas and a real discussion about being focused on sustaining the past versus innovating into the future? How do we think about the relationship between production and distribution? These are important questions, and we can’t just wish them away forever.
BRITO: I, for one, am glad that you and the folks at Mercatus are out there doing the Lord’s work trying to figure out what the positive agenda is. I’m afraid, however, that, as you say, negation can’t go on forever. At some point, somebody’s going to have to say they’re for something, and that something is going to be, “We need to water the crops with Brawndo.”
Anyhow, Dan, thank you so much for coming on Tangents. It’s been a pleasure to have you. And I don’t know if we resolved anything, but at least I hope people get a better sense of what people like us who develop ideas to try to get policy that affects real people, how we’re thinking about our jobs these days.
ROTHSCHILD: Like any think tank podcast or event, the baseline is that we raised awareness.
BRITO: [chuckles] All right. Thanks, Dan.
ROTHSCHILD: Thanks for having me.