Ryan Anderson On EPPC’s 2023 And Running a Think Tank In the Battle of Ideas

Published May 31, 2024


For decades, the Ethics and Public Policy Center has been recognized as one of the premier right-of-center think tanks in Washington DC. But it has had a lower public profile than some of the more famous ones like Heritage, AEI, or Cato. And, fairly or not, an image as a bit stuffy and sleepy. (Full disclosure: PolicySphere Publisher Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry was previously a fellow at EPPC.) Roughly three and a half years ago, EPPC appointed a younger president, Ryan Anderson, in part with a mandate to make EPPC a more visible, results-oriented organization. Anderson added younger scholars and a sharper focus on impact.

EPPC just published its 2023 Annual Report, and we found it impressive. So we wanted to talk to Anderson, not just about EPPC’s last year, but what it’s like to run a think tank, to be a policy entrepreneur, and to try to convince donors to give money for ideas and impact. We found it to be a very enlightening conversation. It was conducted over videoconference and lightly edited for clarity.

PolicySphere: You just published your annual report for 2023, can you give us the highlights?

Ryan Anderson: Where to start? There’s so much. EPPC is somewhat unique in the think tank space in the sense that we are explicitly Judeo-Christian. That’s a somewhat dated expression today, we were founded in 1976. I like to say we are in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, plural, because the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition are separate things. There’s not really a Judeo-Christian tradition, but we’re explicitly Abrahamic in that sense. And we’re also explicitly pro-America. And we think those two things have something to say to each other. And so as a result, I think we’re lucky that we’ve never been a libertarian think tank, but we do believe in liberty, rightly balanced with order. 

The annual report points out we’ve been able to have legislation based on our models to empower parents to protect their kids from some of the harms of big tech, social media, and smartphones. I believe it was five states last year that had acted based on some of the reports put out by Clare Morell, who directs our Technology and Human Flourishing Project. 

On the education front, a lot of conservative think tanks focus on school choice. And I’m in favor of school choice. I think we should empower parents. I think the funding should follow the student. But the sad reality is that something like 85% of students attend the government-run schools that we call public. And conservatives have not done enough to actually think through: how should we actually govern these schools? And so what I love about Stanley Kurtz is that that’s Stanley’s entire project. He says: “If everyone else is doing school choice, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. I’ll let the other groups work on education reform understood as choice. I want to reform K-12 and higher education institutions that are dependent on my tax dollars, and people in red states should think more seriously about how they govern the K-12 public school system, and then also higher education.” And so for example, some of Stanley’s model legislation was enacted: one on prohibiting litmus tests in hiring university faculty, and one protecting intellectual diversity in public universities. 

Adjacent to that–it has nothing explicitly to do with EPPC, but I’ll just plant it as something that might be of interest to your readers–a year and a half ago Governor DeSantis and the board of governors for the Florida higher education system appointed me to be a trustee of New College of Florida. The reason I agreed to do this is that I think the value proposition here is that if we can successfully renew New College, if we can say: “In a red state like Florida, there’s no reason why every institution of higher education should be as woke as the Ivy League, and these are public institutions, they should be serving the public,” that then sets a model for other red state governors. We should think about how our public universities can best serve the public of the state. Which doesn’t mean turning them into conservative echo chambers, or doing ideological indoctrination. It just means actually doing education. Actually getting back to Western Civ and the basics. 

Anyway, that was a tangent. There are so many highlights of EPPC’s year. We have, to my knowledge, the only program that exists to assist the Catholic Church in responding to gender ideology. One of the other nice things about EPPC is that precisely because we have two audiences, the state and the church–“the church” understood to mean religious communities, not just the Catholic Church–, we’re able to have programs that are explicitly geared towards religious communities. We have a Catholic Studies program. We have an Evangelicals program. We also have a program called the Person and Identity Project. And they’ve provided so many in-person briefings to Catholic bishops, school superintendents, school principals, school teachers on what the policy should be in the diocese, what the policy should be at the Catholic school, what the curriculum should look like, what the truth of the human person is when it comes to our embodiment as male and female in light of gender ideology. 

And then on the state-facing side, we have a project which is still technically named the HHS Accountability Project, but has quickly grown to monitor all of the various alphabet soup regulatory agencies in the fourth branch of government, the administrative state, that intersect with human dignity, religious liberty, and good medicine. So they’ve been doing regulatory comments and amicus briefs on HHS regs, on EEOC regs, on Department of Education regs: whether it’s abortion mandates, contraception mandates, transgender mandates, a whole host of stuff, and they’ve successfully blocked and delayed some of the bad mandates. 

I’m sure there are several more in the actual report. But this is just an overview.

PolicySphere: As you pointed out, EPPC was founded in 1976. In some ways, in the world of DC think tanks, that’s ancient. We wonder if you could talk about the evolving role of the think tank. One of the original visions of conservative think tanks was to say: “Conservatives are discriminated against in academia, so we’re just going to create our own academia, we’re going to do scholarly research for the sake of scholarly research, and our donors are going to give money for that because they want to see that scholarship be produced.” Since then, many think tanks have evolved towards a much more policy-focused, results-oriented vision. EPPC has been an example of that history. Could you share your thoughts on that?

Ryan Anderson: You know, Aristotle says virtue is the mean between two extremes. I think for a think tank, the two extremes that you have to avoid is, on the one hand, just being a university without students, just writing the book or the journal article that no one’s going to read to add something to your CV. That’s not particularly interesting to me. The opposite of that is being so dependent on the 24-hour news cycle, on click-bait social media, always being in response mode to the latest thing coming out of the Hill or the latest thing that cable news is talking about, and being so heavily focused on lobbying and Hill mobilization that you actually sacrifice the think part. People have two images of the term “think tank.” Is it like a fish tank in which smart people sit in a tank and think? Or is it like a military tank, where smart people sit inside a thing with a giant cannon and they go to war? And at its best, it needs to be both.

I’ve been president of EPPC for three and a half years now, and I think this is part of our DNA. If you go back, the immediate prior president was Ed Whelan, and the previous president was George Weigel. Both are now distinguished senior fellows at EPPC. So even though they stepped down from the presidency, they didn’t leave. Neither of them was doing intellectual work just for the sake of thinking deep thoughts, right? All of George’s work in Catholic theology, ecclesiology, Catholic social thought was really meant to change things, primarily inside of the Church. All of the Ed stuff was really meant to reshape the nature of the Supreme Court. It was meant to defend the justices and the judges from unfair attacks, to defend many of the nominees. That’s how we got a 6-3 Supreme Court. Ed’s work in defending the good judicial nominees, combating some of the bad ones, commentary on their decisions, defending them from unfair attacks in the media, has been crucial. I don’t know if Ed’s ever written a law review article. And it doesn’t really matter, because he’s reading other people’s law review articles and making them digestible on his Bench Memos blog. And he’s having real impact. I think next to Leonard Leo, Ed is probably the person most responsible for the Dobbs decision. 

All of which is to say, when I’m hiring younger scholars, I want people who are at the top of their intellectual game, but who are then deploying those intellectual talents at the service of actionable goals, either cultural or policy ones. So Mary Hasson is doing this on the cultural and ecclesial side, helping the church combat gender ideology. Patrick Brown is doing it on family policy. Clare Morell is doing it on tech policy. That’s our sweet spot. We want to be at the top of the intellectual food chain, not in the abstract scholarly sense, but in producing actionable practical ideas. But we also don’t want to be chasing the latest clickbait stuff.

PolicySphere: What would you say is the biggest challenge in finding that balance, as you’ve tried to shift EPPC a little bit on the spectrum from pure scholarship to more impact-driven?

Ryan Anderson: I would say that the hardest part is, especially with the younger scholars, is to help them not feel discouraged, or to succumb to the temptation of becoming a social media influencer. Early on, I would have conversations with people who would say things like, “Why is that person going on Tucker and I’m not?” Or “Why does that person have more Twitter followers than I do? I’m doing the work, and they’re just kind of posturing and then getting retweets and whatever.” And I had to say: “Look, there’s a trade-off here. If you want to be a social media influencer, that’s fine, but EPPC is not the place for it. But I actually think that in your case, given your temperament, your inclinations, your gifts, et caetera, you’re actually going to have a larger, longer term impact. Precisely by doing some of the work that is unsexy right now but becomes law 2 or 3 years from now.” The social media influencers, they’re necessary and we need them. They increase public support for, for example, our model legislation. But someone needs to write the model legislation, and often, no one is doing that. To give a different example, when we started our Technology and Human Flourishing project, it was mainly focused on censorship. Trump had just gotten kicked off of Twitter, and we thought, we need to think about big tech censorship. And then very quickly, we discovered that, actually, the more important issue is what these devices and platforms are doing to our children. And now, especially with Jonathan Haidt’s book coming out, everyone is talking about this. But three years ago when we made this pivot and when Clare started writing some of her reports, very few groups were doing this. It was a growth opportunity for us because we could step into a void, but early on, it did require doing the work and actually thinking through what the problems are, what the policy solutions are. And now three years later, we have five states that have enacted laws based on our proposals. We’re on the verge of the US Congress enacting the Kids Online Safety Act, which would raise the minimum age to 16 before someone could open a social media account without parental consent, and would have real enforcement mechanisms. So I would say the biggest challenge is helping people see that playing the long game is actually what will move the dial the most in the long run.

PolicySphere: We have to ask the obvious followup question: do donors agree with you? When you say “So-and-So doesn’t go on Fox that much, doesn’t have that many Twitter followers, but we’re playing the long game.”

Ryan Anderson: (Laughs.) Well, in the three years that I’ve been president, we’ve doubled our fundraising. So we’ve had real growth. But it’s been a slog. And we don’t really do much in terms of direct mail fundraising. We don’t do the type of work where we can send a couple hundred thousand letters saying “Unless you donate this amount of money, Joe Biden is going to kill your puppy.” That’s not our development strategy. For us, it’s more about forming relationships with a relatively small handful of philanthropists who see the importance of ideas, not in the abstract sense, but in the sense of ideas that can then change certain debates as they get operationalized. And there are people who get that. Not a lot of them. And sometimes there’s an education process of actually helping them see that if they want to combat, let’s say, gender ideology, or woke education, they actually need someone like Mary Hasson or someone like Rachel Morrison who’s doing some of the regulatory comments and amicus briefs, someone like Stanley Kurtz thinking through what a red state could enact to reform K-12 or higher education. And then once you have success at that, it can snowball. Once you have proof of concept, you can say: “You made a small investment in us, and now a year later, this is what the return on investment has been.” Then it helps people see the value of some of this.

PolicySphere: Fair enough, but a lot of people will say “That sounds fine, but how do you measure it?” That is a perennial problem in the non-profit world, but particularly in the world of think tanks. What are your thoughts on that question?

Ryan Anderson: It’s like the famous Supreme Court case about obscenity, when the justice says, I know it when I see it. And I think something like that is true when it comes to good public scholarship or good public policy work. 

To give an example, people who follow the courts closely know that it matters that the most prominent center-right court commentator and court watcher also is a social conservative. So imagine if instead of Ed Whalen being the go-to person for court commentary, it was someone who was much more libertarian. Imagine how that would have played out during Bostock, during some of the religious liberty cases, the transgender stuff, and so on. And you start to think, wow, the world would look a lot different if for the past 20 years the most important commentator on judicial issues had been someone different–we just celebrated Ed’s 20th anniversary at EPPC.

But yes, it’s hard to quantify. Arthur Brooks tried doing this at AEI, and there’s a Harvard Business Review essay he wrote where he started measuring, like, how many op-eds in the top three newspapers, how many testimonies, and so on. But then in the same way that, in public schools, the teachers will teach to the test, I think that can create some perverse incentives. We don’t want people to do stuff that they think will look good for our stats, rather than doing stuff that we know actually will make a difference. And EPPC is very decentralized. Heritage is probably the most centralized, with the One Voice policy. When I was there, there would be directions given from the eighth floor that then trickled down. EPPC is very much more of a trickle-up organization. Clare knows how best to have impact on tech policy and Ed knows how best to have impact on court issues, Patrick knows how to do it on family policy. And so I’m not telling people, here’s the next step, here’s what lever to pull. Obviously I give people big picture guidance, and we have conversations. But at the end of the day, they’re very much entrepreneurial in thinking through what is the best use of their time to actually make a difference. And it’s up to me to then sell that and explain that to a donor.

PolicySphere: We end our interviews with two traditional questions. It’s a long established tradition from six weeks ago. The first traditional question is: what’s the most important issue that nobody’s talking about?

Ryan Anderson: I’ll answer this a bit differently. I try to ask myself: what is the next big issue that we’re not prepared for? Which may or may not be the most important issue that no one’s talking about, but it’s close enough. And I think it’s assisted suicide. If I was not president of EPPC, it’s what I would be working on full-time. It’s what I’m currently working on in the very rare moments I have to actually research and write. So if you look at what has happened in Canada and some of the European experiences in suicide, it’s not good. I think as we have the baby boomers entering retirement, there’s going to be massive pressures to spread assisted suicide in the United States. I think some of the libertarian groups are going to be bad on this because they’re going to say, if you want to die and Ryan wants to help kill you, let’s have a free market exchange and kill you. And there are ecological effects here. It’s not just that it’s immoral. It’s also going to totally corrupt the practice of medicine, it’s going to change how we view people with disabilities, how we view people as they age, how we view people on the margins or the periphery of society. It’s going to change how we finance health care. It’s going to change family dynamics and intergenerational dynamics. 

There’s a great essay that I always cite whenever I speak on this topic, from Gilbert Meilaender. He wrote it in First Things something like 15 years ago now, and it’s titled “I Want to Burden My Loved Ones.” Everyone says “Oh, when I grow old I don’t want to be a burden to my loved ones.” And his response is “No, the entire point of loved ones, the entire point of family, is to shoulder each other’s burdens.” When children enter the world, they are our burden on us. We love our children. But things like sleepless nights, nursing, diapers, discipline, these things burden us. He gives an example of going to his sixth-grader’s musical recital. And he says: “Look, they burdened me. The music was not good. I went there because I loved my daughter.” At the flip side, at the end of life, we’re going to burden our now-grown children. And precisely because they love us, they should help us shoulder that burden. So anyway I think if we ever normalize assisted suicide, it would just have profound transformative consequences. And very few people are talking about it, and I don’t think we’re prepared.

PolicySphere: That’s an excellent answer. And our final question is: who’s the smartest person we should interview next?

Ryan Anderson: Oh. That’s an interesting question. Does it have to be on policy or could it be on anything?

PolicySphere: Go wild.

Ryan Anderson: There’s Thomas Joseph White, the theologian at the Angelicum. He might be the smartest person I know, but I don’t know if he has anything to say about public policy. In the policy space, I think you should interview Henry Olsen. Henry is wicked smart. He just celebrated his ten year anniversary with us at EPPC. His big project right now is thinking through what a new fusionism would look like. How do we actually get the various factions within the right–the new right, the dead consensus, Paleocons, neocons, all the various factions–together because none of us can win on our own. And Henry is very practically-minded. He’s a data guy with district-by-district knowledge of the electoral map. And so he’s trying to think through what sort of policy platform we need to run on. And the way I’ve heard him describe it is, I don’t want anybody on our side to be 100% happy. Because if either clan is 100% happy, we don’t win, right? We need to get to a place where each of them is, you know, 75 to 80% happy. And that can actually form the new kind of center of gravity for a political movement that can win.

Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., is the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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