But if the results of the Australian political identity survey are a guide, the left-wing think-tanks are yet to make a big impact among those identifying with the left labels in the survey, social democrat and green.
As the chart below shows, none of the three left-leaning think-tanks attract more than a quarter of social democrat or green identifiers as regular readers. Indeed, in the case of social democrats more read work from the classical liberal Centre for Independent Studies than by any of the left-leaning think-tanks. By contrast, around half of classical liberals, conservatives and libertarians regularly read work by the CIS, and about 40% read work by the Institute of Public Affairs.
Why might this be the case? As I have long argued in the case of social democratic think-tanks, the dominant position of social democracy in the political culture makes think-tanks less necessary. While supporters of other ideologies struggle to get their voices heard and their arguments accepted, the tasks faced by social democrats are of a more technocratic kind, finding new ways of managing and fine-tuning big government.
Much of this work is already being done at taxpayer expense in the public service and in academia, so it is a very unlevel playing field for the social democratic think-tanks. But it also renders largely redundant the particular structural advantage of think-tanks, which is the freedom to say radical things created by separation from interest groups and formal power centres. Social democratic think-tanks generally don’t have radical things to say, and therefore don’t need this freedom.
It’s not surprising that the Australia Institute is the most read – by both left-wingers and right-wingers – of the left-leaning think-tanks, because it genuinely does publish research that is well outside mainstream opinion.
Also consistent with this theory is the relative uniformity of opinion among social democrats compared to classical liberals or libertarians. Social democrats are less likely to be arguing amongst themselves on what position they should take on major policy issues, and presumably social democrats are less likely to be experiencing ideological self-doubt. There isn’t the same need to read publications that might help sort through these issues. Indeed, if the CIS social democratic readership is a guide knowing their enemy is favoured above reading more about social democracy.