Policy Relevance 101: Intellectual promiscuity is bad for your reputation

The American Political Science Association runs a fellowship program that funds political scientists to work on Capitol Hill for a year as a legislative assistant in the office of an individual member or committee. As part of my quest to understand what it means to do “policy-relevant research” I’ve accepted a fellowship position for this academic year. I figure that if you want to learn to talk to policy makers the best way to do that is to become one–listen to the way they talk, what questions they ask, what matters to them and why, and then practice doing those things yourself so that you develop an intuitive sense of how to negotiate that space where policy meets politics and ideas get translated into laws.  

As part of our orientation, APSA arranges for the fellows to meet with individuals from think tanks, lobbying firms, government agencies, and the press. One of the stops on this insider’s tour of Washington was the Heritage Foundation.  The Heritage Foundation “develops and promotes conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense.” A standard account of Heritage’s origin story appeared in a recent article by Julia Iofe from the New Republic:

Edwin Feulner

Edwin Feulner

In 1971, [Edwin Feulner] and Paul Weyrich were two Republican Hill staffers who witnessed President Richard Nixon’s plan to fund a supersonic transport plane defeated in the Senate. Two days later, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), then the only conservative think tank in town, delivered a positive assessment of the plane. When Weyrich asked why the report arrived after the fight was over, the people at AEI told him that they didn’t want to be seen as influencing the vote.

This, the story goes, was why Feulner and Weyrich decided to found Heritage: to influence the vote. It was also why their model focused on short backgrounders, rather than long reports, so that congressmen could get a quick opinion on their way to the floor. Unlike AEI or Brookings across town, Heritage set up shop on the Hill, down the street from Congress. And unlike AEI and Brookings, Heritage was not so much about exploring ideas as it was about pushing a political line. 

According to Iofe, Feulner relished in telling this founding myth and, as I can attest, it is still a proud part of his legacy at the organization. We heard the story second hand from  Edward Corrigan, a group vice president for policy promotion. Corrigan is a recent hire who arrived at Heritage with former Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) in 2013 when Demint took over from Feulner as President. The choice of DeMint to replace Feulner was controversial because unlike Feulner, Demint does not have a PhD. DeMint is not a policy wonk; he is a politician. His selection coincides with the growth of Heritage Action, an advocacy arm founded in 2010, and has tipped the careful balance of power between politics and policy at Heritage Foundation firmly in favor of politics. Iofe again:

Jim DeMint

Jim DeMint

DeMint also brought in his own management lineup from his Senate days: Ed Corrigan, Wesley Denton, and Bret Bernhardt. At Heritage, the three became DeMint’s enforcers. There is now a political check on all Heritage research papers to make sure they conform to the political and tactical line before they go out the door. Corrigan killed one such paper, defending the law authorizing National Security Agency practices as constitutional, only to have the Brookings Institution, a relatively liberal think tank, publish it. Corrigan also put the kibosh on several policy papers on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, including one by Heritage scholar Edmund Haislmaier about what states should do on Medicare expansion. Because the official Heritage strategy was now to defund Obamacare, any paper acceding to a reality in which the law existed was verboten. The scandalous Heritage report on immigration, co-authored by a scholar who had once claimed that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than whites, was also the product of DeMint’s approach: Policy analysts were shut out of the discussion, and the paper, which was written to conform with DeMint’s anti-immigration stance, did not go through the standard vetting procedure.

Corrigan and three Heritage Foundation scholars met with our group. They were all white men that, with the exception of Corrigan who is quite striking with his pre-maturely silver hair (you can see a picture here), looked so much alike that I would not be able to pick them out of a line up (having failed to note their names, I actually went to the Heritage Foundation website to try and identify them from their photos and couldn’t do it).

Washington etiquette, and the terms of my fellowship, prevent me from reporting the details of our discussion, but I can certainly share my experience of the event. Personally, it was excruciating sitting through the presentations from Corrigan and his colleagues, especially since many of their positions on civil rights are in direct conflict with my own interests and experience. And, I was not the only one squirming in my chair. Many of the questions my colleagues asked were vaguely, if not openly, confrontational.

Initially I wanted to get up and walk out, but then I began to channel my anger into seeing this as an opportunity to learn how these Heritage scholars think about negotiating the boundary between politics and policy. They work at an organization that, unlike “liberal think tanks” such as Brookings whose policy analysts could, and do, make conflicting policy recommendations, is explicitly committed to conservative public policy. I wondered how self-aware they were about the epistemological implications of this position. On the one hand, what they are doing appears to violate the basic foundation of mainstream social science research in America, namely that the minimum standard of good research is not whether or not it accords with a set of values-based criteria, but rather that it must meet criteria of falsifiability. You have to be able to answer the question, “How do I know if I’m wrong?” On the other hand, there is something vaguely Marxist in their insistence that all think tanks have a political agenda. If all knowledge is value-laden, perhaps they could argue that they make their agenda explicit while others hide behind a veneer of objectivity. I decided to try and find out if they are as intellectually promiscuous as they appear.

In spite of the highly unlikely possibility of hearing a defensible “Marxist” argument come out of their mouths, I wanted to ask my question in a way that gave them them just enough rope to either save or hang themselves. Already having been told repeatedly, and only half-jokingly, not to use words like “hypothesis” and “epistemology” in Washington, I asked, “If you are committed to a conservative political agenda, yet you perform fact-based research, what do you do with the data that does not support your political position?” After I finished the room fell silent and one of my APSA colleagues simply said “Boom.” Without repeating anything that the Heritage fellows actually said, my impression was that none of them had spent much time thinking about it. Corrigan offered a canned response that did not address the question at hand, but one of the Heritage fellows did appear to grapple honestly with the possibility that reality might diverge from his idealized version of it. It was as if the idea had never really occurred to him before, in which case he is not intellectually promiscuous at all. It’s worse: He’s a true-believer, fully committed to the cause.

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6 Responses to “Policy Relevance 101: Intellectual promiscuity is bad for your reputation”

  1. John Downer November 26, 2013 at 5:53 PM #

    Great post. I guess it’s a pretty thin veneer of objectivity. I worry that US politics has become a battle between a side that fundamentally wants to govern, and a side that fundamentally just wants to win. And that this puts one side at a structural disadvantage. I mean, I am sure there are people at the top on both sides who fit into both categories, but they are beholden to different audiences. I think it is fair to say that if you push a nakedly erroneous and self-interested idea as a liberal then you alienate your supporters in a way that isn’t so true of a conservative.

    I expect political theorists have their own language for this, but it reminds me of Mary Douglas and Cultural Theory. The idea is that people on the ‘periphery’ of society no longer feel bound by its conventions and norms. Perhaps a large community of American voters (primarily old, white, male and Southern) feel so alienated by the cultural and demographic shifts of the last forty years that they no longer feel connected enough to the state to care about things like ‘truth’ and ‘credit’. They just oppose for the sake of opposition. Not because it makes sense by the larger community’s ostensive standards, but because it confirms their own group identity and individual sense of belonging. And the more the larger community pushes back, the closer they feel.

    Or maybe I’m just rambling.

  2. Anne Harrington November 26, 2013 at 6:39 PM #

    Trying to understand and explain the current era of “partisanship” is the recurring theme of our orientation. Explanations abound. The most common is some combination of re-disctricting (too many Republicans with safe seats), the invention of the airplane (members go home to their states and districts on the weekends instead of hanging around and getting to know one another better), and air-conditioning (all those Northern conservatives who felt like a political minority in the North, but hated the heat could finally move to the South). I started carping about the problems of weather-based explanations and technological determinism until we toured the Capitol. It turns out that every state is entitled to place two statues in the Capitol building. Florida chose a statue of John Gorrie, the inventor of air conditioning.

    In all seriousness, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann offered one of the best analyses of among the speakers we heard. They have a book out, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (http://www.amazon.com/Even-Worse-Than-Looks-Constitutional/dp/0465031331). Instead of calling what is happening in American politics “partisanship,” they call it “tribalism” and highlight the fact that one of the parties is much more polarized than the other, and out to win at all costs as you observe. They also argue that the news media creates false equivalences between outlier positions and mainstream positions as if they were both equally valid, which I think is a good point.

    I prefer the cultural explanation you offer and would add that both the right and the left have peripheries that no longer feel bound by societies conventions and norms and refuse to play by the political rules. The Tea Party is busy grinding Congress to a halt, and the Occupiers are refusing to participate in Washington politics all together. I asked about this in one of the Q&A sessions and the speaker told me that it was a “very depressing” suggestion.

  3. Matthias November 26, 2013 at 11:59 PM #

    Boom. That happens often when you ask questions. Keep going!
    Meanwhile in my tiny state of Hessen in Germany the conservatives form a coalition with the green party. I was truly shocked, although both parties share some classic conservative values, a couple of weeks ago they basically hated each other. In the light of your reflections on washingtons stalemate i might be willing to heretically switch position an applaud this approach to politics. Hm, or maybe not.

  4. Anne Harrington November 27, 2013 at 1:47 AM #

    Your comments remind me of Zizek on the special affinity between conservatism and environmental politics:
    The conservatives in Germany are always so much more progressive. In the US they are still busy fighting environmental regulation.

  5. Drew Rae January 29, 2014 at 4:51 PM #

    Anne, this is a great story both for the insight into think tanks and the way you handled the situation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in that spot where I wanted an answer to a question, but couldn’t phrase it in a way that wouldn’t get me a non-answer. It’s particularly bad when I sincerely am not trying to “gotcha” somebody, but just want to know.

    The beauty of the question you asked is that it couldn’t be misunderstood, so even by not getting a straight answer it still got an answer.

  6. Anne Harrington January 30, 2014 at 5:15 PM #

    Hi Drew, Thanks for the comment. I’m realizing that asking questions is an art all its own in Washington.

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