Right Moves: A book review by Bob Morris

Right MovesRight Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture since 1945
Jason Stahl
University of North Carolina Press (2016)

A brilliant analysis of the impact of the current “marketplace of policy values and ideas,” for better or worse

I agree with Jason Stahl: “Despite the plethora of recent studies examining conservative and right political movements in U.S. history, to date there has been no full-length historical study of one of the central institutions of conservative political organizing: the think tank…Such an omission is in large part due to the way in which historians have written the history of American conservatism over the past twenty-five years.” Stahl’s objective is explored what Kim Phillips-Fein has characterized as the “new intellectual history of conservatism.” That is: “how, when, and why the think tank as an institution became so useful to conservatives in forwarding theist ideologies, policies, and coherent political identities. It is to this story that we now turn.”

These are among the subjects of greatest interest to me:

o The evolving role of the American Economics Association (AEA)

o How and why the AEA became the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

o The major contributors (e.g. William J. Baroody, Jr. and Sr.) to the development and impact of conservative think tanks in “the marketplace of policy values and ideas”

o The nature and extent of the “new liberalism’s” impact within the same marketplace

o Similarities and differences between and among the major think tanks, including AEI, Brookings Institution, Cato Institute, Democratic leadership Council (DLC), Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, and the Progressive Party Institute (PPI).

There are so many “major players” in this book’s lively narrative and, in my opinion, Stahl discusses each without any hint of partisan bias. I share his concern for the current state of policy discussion or, worse yet, the lack of policy discussion in terms of what is in this nation’s best interests. Balance and compromise are emphatically not mutually-exclusive. Our nation needs think tanks that share the compelling vision that the Constitution and Bill of Rights affirm. Obviously there will be liberal and conservative preferences but surely statesmanship could — and should — prevail.

Here are Jason Stahl’s concluding thoughts: Given the fact that so many people “use politics as tribal markers to easily declare allegiances, the best Americans can probably hope for, then, is that the marketplace of policy ideas actually becomes truly diverse as opposed to ‘balanced’ between various conservative positions. The Internet and media fragmentation my make such diversity possible heading into the future. And exposure to a wider spectrum of ideas through such a fragmentation would undoubtedly make for as healthier democracy than the one we have now.”

Meanwhile, we would be well-advised to consider advice offered by Voltaire long ago: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

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