Myth: Conservative think tanks are the answer to liberal academia.

Fact: Conservative think tanks lack the checks and balances of academia, and produce crank science.


In response to liberal academia, wealthy conservative businessmen are funding a growing number of far-right think tanks to establish a theoretical footing for their causes. Lacking all the checks and balances that keep academic research honest, these think tanks produce highly flawed and biased studies whose only purpose is to promote policies that favor the business classes that fund them.


By and large, academia tends to be liberal. There are conservative professors, to be sure, but they are usually moderate, and in the minority. But what of the far right? For many decades now, the far right has been gradually disappearing from American universities (with a few notable exceptions, like the computer science department). The steadily growing influence of liberalism in academia has alarmed many on the far right, because without a source of ideas and theories, the influence of their political movement will crumble.

For this reason, the last decade or so has seen a phenomenal rise in the number of far-right and libertarian think tanks. They have received heavy funding from wealthy conservative businessmen who are eager to reclaim the debate from liberal scholars. William Simon, president of the conservative Olin Foundation, argues that businesses who donate indiscriminately to universities are "financing their own destruction. Why should businessmen be financing left-wing intellectuals and institutions which espouse the exact opposite of what they believe in?" (1)

The solution to the far right's problems is the think tank. Actually, the term is something of a misnomer here. Traditionally, think tanks analyze policy problems and suggest solutions. The current organizations are more properly defined as advocacy groups, or hired intellectual guns. Their sole purpose is to sell policies to the public and Congress that favor the wealthy special interests that fund them.

Think tanks are ideal for this salesmanship, because they lack many of the checks and balances that keep academia honest. Consider their differences in method:

And these differences of method lead to startling differences of result. Consider the following examples: The Rector quote shows that think tanks also take advantage of sound bites. For example, they might issue a catchy one-liner, like "All families experienced real income gains during the Reagan years." The sound bite is easy to repeat, but the rejoinder is not, because it requires a lengthy explanation concerning the business cycle, falling individual incomes, the rising percentage of wage earners in the family, the longer hours worked, the shorter vacations taken, etc. Of course, the media will only report the sound bite. And even if people are exposed to both, they will understand and remember the sound bite more easily than the detailed rebuttal.

The conservative donors behind think tanks

Think tanks also take advantage of the financial limitations of academia. Economist Paul Krugman writes: The rapid rise of far-right think tanks has been financed by wealthy conservative businessmen. Five donors especially stand out: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Koch Family foundations, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Scaife Family foundations and the Adolph Coors Foundation. (William Coors, you may recall, reportedly told a 1984 meeting of African-American businessmen that "one of the best things they [slave traders] did for you is to drag your ancestors over here in chains.") The amount of money they give to funding and promoting think tanks and other conservative academic endeavors is nothing short of astounding. In 1988, the Olin Foundation alone distributed $55 million in grants. The Scaife family has donated more than $200 million over the years. Million dollar annual grants to individual think tanks are routine. (8)

These Foundations have also been instrumental in creating the most famous think tanks. The Heritage Foundation, considered the leading think tank in America, was created in 1973 with $250,000 in seed money from brewery mogul Joseph Coors. The Cato Institute, the nation's leading libertarian think tank, was founded in 1977 by the Koch family foundations. (9)

The foundations are also active in trying to turn back liberalism in academia, donating tens of millions to promote conservative programs in the nation's most elite universities. In fact, Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, is heavily promoted by the Bradley Foundation, which has installed him as a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks to the foundation's support, Murray and Herrnstein were able to bypass the usual process of academic peer review and deliver The Bell Curve directly to the American public in a splendidly organized and financed media campaign. This included a Newsweek cover story that called the science behind the book "overwhelmingly mainstream." The next year, the National Academy of Sciences denounced the scientific basis of The Bell Curve as "fraudulent." (10)

Unfortunately, progressive think tanks find themselves heavily outspent. According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, the major conservative think tanks in Washington had a combined budget of $45.9 million, while the major progressive think tanks had a combined budget of $10.2 million. What this means is that far-right think tanks are better able to publicize their findings, stage more conferences, lobby harder for their policies, and present more and better-packaged information before Congress. (11)

And the far right is reaping the rewards of this blitz. A Nexus search of think tanks mentioned in newspapers, radio and TV transcripts for 1995 found that conservative think tanks were mentioned 7,792 times, compared to 6,361 for centrist ones and 1,152 for progressive ones. (12) An even more significant measure of their success is Congress. Often, studies by conservative think tanks end up in legislation, and become reflected in official policy. Think tanks affect even the executive branch; one of the more dramatic examples of this was the Heritage Foundation's Mandate for Leadership, which became the blueprint for the Reagan Revolution. Reagan adopted two-thirds of its proposals in his first year in office alone.

The far right's effort to create an intellectual conservative movement is truly comprehensive, well-funded and well-organized. They are not only building think tanks at the national level, but the state level as well, since congressional conservatives are trying to devolve power to the states. They are targeting the nation's elite universities, providing funding for conservative academic programs, conservative college newspapers, and conservative scholarships. Financially, liberals fall far behind in all these efforts. (13)

Related links:

"Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics" (Click through the pages)

"Think Tanks: Creating the Machinery for Downsizing Labor Costs"

The Origins of the Overclass.

Myth: There's no "vast right-wing conspiracy" to get Clinton.

A Timeline of CIA Atrocities.

Return to Overview


1. Quoted in "Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics," People For The American Way, 2000 M Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036.

2. The number of higher academic institutions is for 1992, and includes 2- and 4-year institutions. U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1992.

3. Supply-siders in AEA: James Carville, We're Right, They're Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives (New York: Random House, 1996), p. 12. Supply-siders in universities: Paul Krugman, Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in the Age of Diminished Expectations (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 85.

4. Robert Rector, "The Impact of New Jersey's Family Cap on Out-of-Wedlock Births and Abortions," Heritage Foundation, September 6, 1995. Findings of Rugters University study reported by Michael Camasso in letter to the Washington Post.

5. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "The Cato Institute Report On Welfare Benefits: Do Cato's California Numbers Add Up?" (Washington: March 7, 1996).

6. Robert Rector, Heritage Foundation, testimony before the House Subcommittee on Human Resources, August 9, 1994. Poverty rate: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P-60 series. AFDC total: "What Do We Spend on 'Welfare'?," Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Food stamps total: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, in Social Security Bulletin, Annual Statistical Supplement, 1995.

7. Paul Krugman, "Supply-Side Virus Strikes Again," The Dismal Scientist, Slate (Internet magazine), August 15, 1996)

8. "Buying a Movement."

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid. Newsweek assessment: Geoffrey Cowley, "Testing the Science of Intelligence," Newsweek, October 24, 1994, p. 56. NAS assessment: Don Lattin, "'Bell Curve' Called Political, Not Scientific: Psychologists Examine Race-IQ Controversy," The San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, August 11, 1995, A6

11. "Buying a Movement."

12. Michael Dolny, "The Think Tank Spectrum: For the Media, Some Thinkers Are More Equal Than Others," Extra!, May/June 1996, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

13. "Buying a Movement."