A Passing Comment on “Think Tanks”

Last Friday’s decision by the Left-leaning think tank Demos to cut ties with blogger Matt Bruenig over his behavior on Twitter caused a minor firestorm among online leftists who see the move as an attack on Bernie Sanders supporters by Hillary Clinton supporters. You can read the dirty details over at Politico here. Regardless of what you think about Bruenig’s politics, his social-media antics — and the antics of his supporters — fall a wee bit short of good decorum, but so it goes. There are plenty of, umm, “online personalities” who have made a name for themselves wedding above-average writing with below-average manners, though very few of them work for mainline think tanks which, for better or worse, prefer to maintain an image of intellectual credibility despite operating as ideological black boxes. And so it makes sense that Demos would not want to be associated with an individual who can’t seem to help himself when it comes to taking a 140-character jab at fellow leftists who don’t subscribe to his personal brand of socialistic politics. As I have stated elsewhere, if you take the king’s shilling, you follow the king’s rules, or else. There’s no conspiracy at work here; it’s just the way it goes. Think tanks are not designed to be free forums for open-ended discourse where both the norms of civility and toeing the party line are checked at the door.

Now, some will claim that Bruenig’s Twitter account is his own and that he was not representing Demos when he decided to call a Clinton ally a “scumbag.” That’s a silly defense. Think-tank affiliation, no less than academic affiliation, can’t be flipped on and off like a light switch; it becomes part of your professional (and, to a large extent, personal) identity the second you sign-on. And even if you want to hold that there ought to be some separation between a person’s professional life and personal opinions at a general level, most employers — particularly those in the public eye — do not want persons working for them who are going to undermine their credibility and appeal with unbecoming off-the-job behavior. In my near-decade as an attorney, I have known more than a fair share of lawyers who have lost their posts at various law firms and companies because of comments made on social media and other public fora. Moreover, I have known aspiring, non-tenured academics who have lost their positions because of similar behavior, including questioning certain popular orthodoxies promoted by their coworkers. You can decry that as “unfair” or “not right” if you wish, but everyone who plays the professional game (and it is a game) knows the rules going in, particularly when the environment they choose to inhabit comes packaged with an overt ideological bent.

None of this is to say the think-tank enterprise is good. In fact, very little think-tank behavior is defensible since the last thing that goes on in their walls is actual thinking. Surely Bruenig knew this going in, and so while his lack of employment is unfortunate (as all unemployment is), it’s neither surprising nor tragic. If you desire to be an independent, principled voice for this-or-that cause or political orientation, then a think-tank is the last place on earth you ought to be. Heck, at this stage in the game, being anywhere but a survivalist shack in Idaho is probably unwise if you have anything credible to say at all.