“Ideas Move Nations”

How conservative think tanks have helped to transform the terms of political debate.

  1. As recently as 1950 Lionel Trilling could proclaim, as if it were incontestable, that American Conservatives had no ideas, only "irritable mental gestures." Today, though many conservatives remain irritable, ideas they possess in abundance. Conservative thinking has not only claimed the presidency; it has spread throughout our political and intellectual life and stands poised to become the dominant strain in American public policy. While the political ascent of conservatism has taken place in full public view, the intellectual transformation has for the most part occurred behind the scenes, in a network of think tanks whose efforts have been influential to an extent that only now, five years after President Reagan's election, begins to be clear.

    Conservative think tanks and similar organizations have flourished since the mid-1970s. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) had twelve resident thinkers when Jimmy Carter was elected; today it has forty-five, and a total staff of nearly 150. The Heritage Foundation has sprung from nothing to command an annual budget of $11 million. The budget of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has grown from $975,000 ten years ago to $8.6 million today. Over a somewhat longer period the endowment of the Hoover Institution has increased from $2 million to $70 million.

    At least twenty-five other noteworthy public-policy groups have been formed or dramatically expanded through the decade; nearly all are anti-liberal. They ...