August 14th, 2014
Episode 72 of 250 episodes
This week’s podcast is a conversation with Arthur Brooks, who runs the American Enterprise Institute, a big conservative think tank in Washington and our chief Washington correspondent Dick meyer. It didn’t turn out to be the podcast we expected. Brooks is a very smart, very passionate, very articulate guy. He always has a take on things that is fresh so we wanted to hear his thoughts on the world of Washington think tanks. We in the news business use the phrase “think tank” all the time but we rarely look inside them as Washington players worthy of examination. We call their experts for quotes, wisdom on deadline and TV bookings. But now a couple of the big think tanks – notably the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left – have set-up separate organizations to do lobbying, electioneering and advocacy. Think tanks, under the tax laws, are research and scholarly organizations that don’t get involved explicitly in elections and lobbying so this new development that has drawn a lot of criticism. Generally, many believe the policy parlors have gotten just as polarized as the rest of political Washington. We asked Brooks if he thought the world of think tanks and policy analysis has gotten more partisan and politicized in recent years, less authoritative and independent. His answer surprised us. Sure, Brooks agreed, some of the players have become pretty hard-core politically. So what? Brooks’ take is that more is better -- more loud, intense, passionate political voices are good. It’s okay if the tenor of Washington is a little more obnoxious or fractious. We’re not so fragile that we can’t take it. In a nutshell, his argument is similar to those who think the Internet is going to facilitate real, positive change in the world – eventually. Yes, it might appear that the web has created a lot of trivia, time wasting, irritating social media and obnoxious behavior. It has also undermined the business models of important areas of the economy – like news, music and books. But it has also connected virtually all the information in the world; it gives people access to the public domain without a printing press or TV station. Confusing, revolutionary, unpredictable: the Web Utopians think it will lead to great things. Brooks doesn’t deny that politics has become more polarized, partisan and boorish. But he seems to view it as a stage – and a small price to pay for a burgeoning of active and ornery citizenship and engagement.