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Replacing thought with ideology, one think tank at a time

By Laurie Bennett

December 9, 2012 at 9:50am

At first glimpse, Jim DeMint’s appointment to head the Heritage Foundation is “the scholarly equivalent of appointing Michael Moore to head the Brookings Institution,” Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post.

On reflection, however, Milbank decides that the departing senator is the ideal candidate for an era when think tanks do much less thinking and much more advocating.

Milbank concludes his column with a question: “If DeMint is the right man to be running this prestigious policy shop, perhaps the resident scholars at Heritage should be researching this question: Is thought dead?”

It’s a theme we’ve written about here and elsewhere. Many of the institutions that once fashioned themselves as independent research groups have become content creators for political ideologies. The trend is obvious on both the right and the left.

One reason is funding. America’s top think tanks have grown into multi-million-dollar operations with expensive real estate in Washington and other cities. (Heritage, headquartered on Capitol Hill, values its properties at more than $50 million.) Some organizations, including Heritage, offer seven-figure salaries to their top execs.

As our Muckety map above shows, Heritage funders include some of the most conservative wealthy families in the country.

Many of these families, such as the Kochs, the Scaifes, the Popes and the DeVoses, are also big political donors. It’s hardly coincidence that as benefactors have become more overtly political, so have the think tanks receiving their money.

DeMint will likely attract the same donors who have backed the Tea Party, a group that includes the Kochs.

The importance of money-raising in his new job is evident in the multiple roles played by Edwin Feulner, the outgoing president of Heritage. Feulner sits on the boards of two funders of Heritage - the Roe Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation.

Note: To explore the connections between political donors and Heritage, try the large version of the above Muckety map. You can also search for other think tanks.

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