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The Radicalization of the Brookings Institution

One of the more mystifying side-stories of the Watergate scandal was Nixon's directive to firebomb the Brookings Institution in Washington. It's mystifying because to anyone in Washington in the last two decades, Brookings has hardly seemed a left-wing threat to the conservative establishment. Mostly it has been, as Timothy Noah put it in a review of Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, "a bastion of centrist technocrats, many of whom are Republicans." In the early 1990s, I would have said that Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute occupied overlapping positions very near the center of the American political spectrum, with Brookings perhaps two degrees off-center to the left, and AEI perhaps five degrees off to the right. Since then, AEI has moved consciously to the right, and Brookings has not changed in any deliberately way, although the relatively new president, Strobe Talbott, is certainly more dynamic and engaged than his predecessors.

But, perhaps thanks to the radicalism of George W. Bush, these centrist technocrats have been drawn into a position of quite vigorous, and very significant, opposition:
Consider the Tax Policy Center, joint venture of Brookings and the Urban Institute. Home of the best analysis, in real time, of all the tax bills as they've moved through Congress, the best information on the Estate Tax, etc. Look also at this wonderful short essay by Eugene Steuerle -- who's actually based at the Urban Institute, but is a partner in the Tax Policy Center, a Reagan Treasury official, and the very definition of a centrist technocrat. It's a profound indictment of a political culture that rewards the already-advantaged without regard to whether the policies result in any larger benefit for society, all the more powerful because it is written in the measured tones of a centrist.
Or, read the new book by Brookings foreign policy specialists Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, America Unbound. It is a challenge to "the fundamental premise of the Bush revolution, that America's security rested on an America Unbound," but written by people who have a thorough understanding not just of Bush's policies, but of the historical and international context.

There are other examples as well, not only at Brookings but at other institutions. The radicalization -- not by their own choice -- of so many "centrist technocrats" by the extremism of the administration is one of the most important, neglected stories of the last few years. Among other things, it gives the lie to all David Brooks's nonsense about how all opposition is driven by "Bush-hating." These are not people who are eager to hate a Republican president. They are accustomed to serving in responsible positions in both Democratic and Republican administrations and are undoubtedly surprised to find themselves in this position. And this phenomenon will have an impact for years to come, as these scholars help to craft the moderate/progressive alternative to the Bush revolution.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on October 21, 2003 | Permalink


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