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Midnight repost: The think tank culture of Washington

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: The essay below, first posted on June 22, 2016, was the result of a Washington DC. trip, occurring during the heat of the presidential campaign just after Donald Trump had become the Republican candidate for president.

The impression I got of the Washington culture then has sadly proven more accurate than I would have ever guessed. And their response to Trump’s election was just as I feared.

The Think Tank Culture of Washington

On Monday I attended and gave a presentation at the one-day annual conference of the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the space policy paper I am writing for them, Exploring Space in the 21st Century.

CNAS was founded ten years ago by two political Washington insiders, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, with a focus on foreign policy and defense issues and the central goal of encouraging bi-partisan discussion. For this reason their policy papers cover a wide range of foreign policy subjects, written by authors from both political parties. The conference itself probably had about 1,000 attendees from across the political spectrum, most of whom seemed to me to be part of the Washington establishment of policy makers, either working for elected officials, for various executive agencies, or for one of the capital’s many think tanks, including CNAS.

I myself was definitely not a major presenter at this conference, with speakers like Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and Senator Joe Reed (D-Rhode Island). I was part of a panel during one of the lunch breakout sessions, where approximately one third of the attendees came to have lunch while we spoke about space. I only had ten minutes to speak, and used that time to outline (1) the influence SpaceX is having on the entire launch industry and (2) the vast differences in cost, development time, and results between the Orion/SLS program and commercial space. Not surprisingly, the aerospace people from the big established companies appeared to be somewhat uncomfortable with what I had to say, though the Airbus people liked it when I made it clear I thought that the U.S. should allow foreign companies to compete for American business, including government launches.

Their discomfort was best illustrated by the one question asked of me following my talk, where the questioner said that I was comparing apples to oranges in comparing a manned capsule like Orion, intended to go beyond Earth orbit, with the unmanned cargo capsules like Dragon and Cygnus, that only go to ISS. I countered that though I recognized these differences, I also recognized that the differences were really not as much as the industry likes to imply, as demonstrated for example by SpaceX’s announcement that they plan to send Dragon capsules to Mars beginning in 2018. After all, a capsule is still only a capsule. The differences simply did not explain the gigantic differences in cost and development time.

I added that Orion compares badly with Apollo as well, noting that Apollo took about a third as long to build and actually cost less. I doubt I satisfied this individual’s objections, but in the end I think future policy will be decided based on results, not the desires of any one industry bigwig. And in this area Orion/SLS has some serious problems. I hope when my policy paper is released in August it will have some influence in determining that future policy.

My overall impression of CNAS, the speakers, and the people who attended was somewhat mixed. Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area from 1998 to 2011, when I attended many such conferences, I found that things haven’t changed much in the last five years. Superficially, everyone was dressed in formal business suits (something you see less and less elsewhere), and they also got to eat some fancy food at lunch.

On a deeper level my impressions were also mixed.

The good news was that I thought the bi-partisan nature of CNAS to be very positive, allowing for some thoughtful and open-minded discussion. It also meant that, unlike the almost poisonous partisan atmosphere of Washington that we see in the mainstream media, the atmosphere at this conference was quite congenial.

The bad news was that my impression of the topics discussed and the conclusions reached was that this still was a Washington crowd very much caught up in its own bubble and very unaware of the public’s anger and fury, caused by the many bad decisions that have been made in Washington in the past few decades.

For example, when Joe Biden came out to speak the entire audience immediately stood and gave him a standing ovation, which to me seemed somewhat absurd. Then, Biden gave a typically boring and incoherent politician’s speech, stringing together a series of platitudes that when taken separately might each sound nice and agreeable, but when run together made no sense at all. I wondered how many people in this audience of supposedly sophisticated policy makers realized how incoherent Biden’s speech was.

Similarly, Senators Graham and Reed appeared together on a panel, moderated by Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung, to discuss national security and defense issues. Both senators were adamant that the U.S. military was suffering badly from sequestration, and that both were going to aggressively work to get the next Congress to end that budget control measure. Graham even went so far as to say that he would accuse anyone who disagreed with him on this issue to be “an A-hole.”

At no time did the Post moderator think it necessary to note the reasons why conservatives in Congress forced sequestration and how it has actually helped to partly restrain the federal government’s out-of-control budget. Nor did that reporter ever ask for any specifics from either senator on the actual harm sequestration was actually doing. Instead, it was assumed by her that the position of these two senators was correct and did not need questioning or further justification.

I noticed this pattern all day during all the presentations. The speakers and their audience had a whole range of Washington-centered assumptions about policy, and nothing that was happening in the wider nation was going to change their minds about those assumptions. In the Middle East they offered a range of reasonable tactical proposals for dealing with ISIS without once considering the wider problem of Islam itself. In discussing Asian policy they saw no option but to accept the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal negotiated by Obama. In discussing energy policy, human-caused climate change was always a given. And in discussing any budget issue, such as sequestration or an increase in funding for the military, the problem of the vast federal debt was never considered.

Nor has Trump’s success as a candidate made them wonder or question their assumptions. Instead, his name was generally mentioned with derision or contempt (most often by Republican Senator Graham), followed by scattered laughter from the audience.

While I might actually agree with many of Graham’s conclusions about Trump, unlike Graham I also recognize that Trump is no fool, that he has proposed some worthwhile policy proposals, and that the reason he won the Republican nomination is because the public is very unhappy with many of the policy decisions being made by the very people at this conference. The public is aware of the wider issues, and wants their government to consider them.

Rather than ask why Trump has been successful, however, this crowd was ready to dismiss him, and the people who voted for him. To give another example, consider the first panel, “The Case for Inclusivity”, where four national security leaders expounded the importance of guaranteeing gender equality in the workforce, even on the battlefield. At one point one of the panelists noted that some of the gender policies that Hillary Clinton created in the State Department during her tenure as Secretary of State are now permanent and will never go away, no matter who gets elected in the future. Neither the rest of the panel nor the audience saw anything worrisome about this statement. In fact, it appeared to me that they clearly supported it.

So much for democracy and following the wishes of the electorate.

What will this elite community do should Trump win the presidency and start demanding that they do things differently? Will they recognize that we are a democracy and work with him, the elected choice of the American people, or will they resist because he isn’t the politician they wanted and wants to institute policies they disagree with?

I don’t want to make it sound as if everyone at this conference was unreasonable or close-minded. As I noted already, I was impressed by the effort being made by CNAS to work out bi-partisan solutions to the country’s most important national security questions. Their policy papers, six of which I have now read, are thoughtful, pragmatic, and fair-minded. The problem is that they are mostly written from this moderate establishment position, which unfortunately prevents them from considering the conservative perspective that is outside that framework. It was that perspective that was central to the election victories in Congress in 2010 and 2014, and is why the two most dominate Republicans running for President were outsiders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. That this Washington community seems so unaware of it, even after these political events, is very problematic.

Thus, I fear that the culture of Washington is becoming increasingly hostile to and insulated against the choices of the American electorate. I fear that they will one day soon decide to team up with the politicians they like to use the concentrated power we have given them in Washington to reject those choices, even to the extent of tossing out the Constitution and the democratic legal system that made the United States once the freest and wealthest nation in the history of the human race.

I hope I am wrong. I pray that I am wrong. I think we might very well find out in the coming year.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


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  • Edward

    You wrote: “Thus, I fear that the culture of Washington is becoming increasingly hostile to and insulated against the choices of the American electorate.

    Considering that they tried to overturn the election through an impeachment that was, as the Democrats described it, “bereft of evidence,” I would say that you nailed it right on the head.

    I fear that they will one day soon decide to team up with the politicians they like to use the concentrated power we have given them in Washington to reject those choices, even to the extent of tossing out the Constitution and the democratic legal system that made the United States once the freest and wealthest nation in the history of the human race.

    Well, here we are in a lockdown, shutdown, smackdown Great Oppression, disallowed from doing virtually anything, in most states. Are the beaches open yet? How about the barber shops, because I needed a haircut even before they were shut down — I may have to start using a rubber band in order to make a pony tail to control my flailing hair. Plus they are coercing us to wear masks that they admit do no good for the purpose they say we are to use them, with excessive multi-hundred dollar fines imposed. Our free exercise of religion has been prohibited.

    With a majority of our businesses shuttered and a quarter of our jobs gone, our loss of freedom to be productive hardly allows for much wealth or prosperity creation. These actions were not our choice, having jobs and open businesses was our choice.

    Our freedoms are savagely violated, our rights abridged. The Roger Stone case has demonstrated that an accused person no longer enjoys the right to an impartial jury.

    Add these latest moves to the previously lost rights, such as warrants issued by FISA courts without actual probable cause yet supported by phony oaths or affirmations, private property taken not for public use but for government profit, and civil forfeiture depriving people of property without due process. Wickard v. Filburn: the 1942 Supreme Court case that used interstate commerce clause to give the national government virtually unlimited power over us. The Roberts Doctrine, where five to nine people can change a law so that it does not what the 535 people in Congress and the President wanted but what the Supreme Court justices want, essentially creating a new law from an existing one. Thus resulting in government being allowed to direct We the People as to what to buy, what to do, what to say or what to be, so long as a tax is associated with it. Now they have actual unlimited power over us.

    Government now supports one side over the other during elections. That is not a power delegated by the Constitution, nor is it reserved to the states, but it is reserved to the people, exclusively. This is not a democratic form of government, nor is it a republic. It is an oligarchy that keeps power while giving its populace the feeling of being democratic.

    Welcome to Obama’s America, land of the formerly free.

  • Cotour


    Hegemony: “Hegemony is the political, economic, or military predominance or control of one state over others. ” “the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group”.

    Why is this an important term in America and the world today?

    Ask yourself: Who is the hegemon in todays world? The answer to that question is America. Thankfully.

    “The American self-image of a mighty power that is also a benign hegemon, the global custodian of democratic values and human rights, is deeply rooted.” Allister Sparks

    America as formulated is as a general rule a “Benin” Hegemon. And I would add to that a benevolent Hegemon. Why again is this important?

    Because, if America, which based in a rational and well thought out Constitution that is designed to counter balance the nature of man in regards to the abuse of power which frees its citizens and all others who fall under its influence is not the Hegemon of the world, who is?

    Choose one: China. (That is your choice)

    If America is displaced as the hegemon of the world then it will be Communist China that will fill that void. Orwellian, Social credit rating system, world domination plans, Wuhan virus exporting Communist China will fill that void. Don’t know what the Chinese Social rating system is? Don’t know what Chinas formal world domination plans are? Look into it, its like I said real world Orwellian.

    And now we ask: Who in America demands that America as formulated not exist? Objectively, the Democrats and those that support their empowerment.

    The Democrat party leadership and those who support them stands for: Open borders, No borders, Empowering Iran, ensuring Iran has nukes, Eliminating the country of Israel, Defunding the police, Universal minimum income / nation wide welfare, “Free” healthcare, Mandating or limiting speech, Reparations, Globalism, The elimination of the 2nd amendment and the confiscation of firearms, Mandating the wearing of masks (but not if you are black, seriously), Discarding our true American history for a subjective interpretation of what our history should be so everyone “feels” warm and fuzzy (again, seriously). The list is long but I will stop here, its un American, disturbing and above all else, dangerous, self hating and suicidal.

    And who have the Democrat leadership put up to run for president in 2020 to ensure none of this transpires and America remains the Hegemon of the world to protect your freedoms? Joe Biden. Yes that same Joe Biden who along with his son left China after an official state visit while he was vice president with a $1 Billion with a “B” dollar investment from the Communist Chinese government into the vice presidents son’s hedge fund. And then they upped that by another $500 Million to a cool $1.5 Billion with a “B”. The Chinese like to cover their bets, and Biden’s son still to this day still owns his share of it.

    (And I again say here, I do not believe that it will be Joe Biden that will run for president, but there his is all the same)

    Hegemon, Hedge fund its all the same to Joe and the Democrat leadership. Think Biden is a strong man who is a leader of men and countries? Worlds? Not me.

    “The American self-image of a mighty power that is also a benign hegemon, the global custodian of democratic values and human rights, is deeply rooted.” Allister Sparks

    With a Joe Biden presidency this American, rational, benign, benevolent and democratic world hegemony all ends in my opinion and that opinion is based on exactly what I see going on in America and in the world. What do you see?

  • Cotour


    A close family member who is in the process of politically evolving sent me this email:

    “Listen, honestly … I wish there were 2 totally different candidates. I have never seen a Presidential election you could be 100% behind 1 person. It’s usually bad or worse”.

    My response:

    Little boys and little girls “Wish” for what it is that they want. Are you a little boy or a little girl? This is our process, this is our system. Chaotic political warfare that results in the peaceful transfer of governmental power, and that is the prime function of our Constitution as per design. The peaceful transfer of power. Why did the Roman empire fall? Primarily because they had no peaceful way to transfer power. So they had to have chaotic, bloody transfers of power.


    Trump, pro American, pro Constitution as intended, anti Socialism, pro Capitalism, anti Globalist. (By his own words and actions)

    Biden (Or who ever will actually be inhabiting the presidents office if he is successful): Pro open borders, Pro illegal immigration, Pro Globalism, Pro Socialism, Pro “Adjusting” the Constitution, Pro firearms confiscation, Pro defunding the police, Pro Communist Chinese, etc. (By his own words and actions) (If there is no Second Amendment there is no First Amendment, then there is no Constitution and there is no United States Of America.)

    There, its all been boiled down for you, now make your choice, nice and simple.

    You don’t personally like Trump? No? So what? Your not dating him, your hiring him in an executive capacity to run the country. Two polar opposite things.

    Do you need to love the surgeon that specializes in the procedure that you desperately need to save your life? I know I do not.

    Its the difference between seeing things in only in a Subjective or being able to see reality in an Objective and rational manner. You are not dating Trump, or Biden for that matter, you are Objectively hiring a human being to do a job that they say they specialize in. What does Trump specialize in? And what does Biden specialize in? You tell me.

    Objective and rational V Subjective and emotional. Now think, then choose.

  • wayne

    Jordan Peterson / Akira

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