Organization Trends

Institute for Policy Studies: The Left’s Original Think Tank


Today, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) probably doesn’t make the shortlist of finalists for most influential left-of-center think tank in the country. Although reasonably well-funded and very much active on many of the Left’s priority sociopolitical issues, it doesn’t have the heft of the Center for American Progress, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or the Urban Institute. If one stretches the timeline back far enough, however, there is a decent case to be made for IPS’s inclusion in any such discussion.

Founded in 1963 by disillusioned former members of the Kennedy administration, IPS has long been associated with the left wing (often the far-left) of the American ideological spectrum. Over the ensuing decades, it developed a reputation for its antipathy toward American foreign policy and global free market capitalism, as well as for the affinity that some of its personnel demonstrated toward foreign socialist and communist governments and movements. Located in Washington, DC, the institute was uniquely successful at bridging the gap between radical-left activism and the mainstream liberal establishment.

More broadly, as was recognized by the Washington Post back in 1986, “IPS pioneered the modern politics of ideas in the capital,” at a time when Washington was “in the Stone Age of think tanks.” The concept “of a politically engaged institute struck a lot of people . . . as a bizarre innovation.” This is what IPS became, with one early institute figure explaining that it stood “on the bare edge of custom in the United States as to what an educational research institution is, as against what a political institution is.”

IPS was thus among the earliest entrants into the now massive (and largely left-leaning) world of ideologically oriented public policy 501(c)(3) nonprofits. A comprehensive profile detailing the institute’s rather interesting history and its current activities is now available on InfluenceWatch.

A Product of the Cold War

The latter part of the Cold War from the mid-1960s through the 1980s was perhaps IPS’s heyday, a period during which it was widely seen as an outgrowth of the New Left movement. Writers who have undertaken in-depth research on the institute—such as S. Steven Powell in his 1987 book Covert Cadre, Joshua Muravchik in publications like World Affairs and the New York Times magazine during the 1980s, and Brian S. Mueller in his 2021 book Democracy’s Think Tank—have all focused on this period. A 1977 article in the Washington Post described the institute as “the first ‘respectable’ offspring of the New Left.”

The scholar-activists at IPS attracted considerable attention during this era for their anti-capitalism and their positive portrayals of foreign socialist and communist governments, such as those of North Vietnam (later Vietnam), Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, and others.  Although the institute was comparatively less sympathetic toward the Soviet Union, it nevertheless tended to be much more critical of the actions of the United States vis-à-vis the Eastern Bloc.

Author Joshua Muravchik coined the term “communophilism” in the mid-1980s to describe what he considered to be the particular vein of leftism that prominent IPS personnel adhered to—something that wasn’t quite liberal, wasn’t quite socialist, and wasn’t quite communist. Rather, IPS viewed the political system of the United States as “fundamentally flawed” and evidenced “a general attitude that the future of mankind lies, as it should lie, with the communist world.”

IPS Today

IPS remains very much active and relevant today, at least within its particular slice of the contemporary Left. During the 2020 election cycle, an article in The Nation observed that while IPS was “a more radical outfit that is usually ignored by the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” Bernie Sanders got “some of his sharpest talking points about inequality” from the institute. Sanders, the democratic socialist standard bearer for the furthest-left reaches of the Democratic Caucus, has made use of IPS research and reports on multiple occasions.

IPS also receives substantial funding from some of the most prominent left-of-center foundations in the country. Major funders in recent years include the Ford Foundation ($1,950,000 from 2017–2021), the JPB Foundation ($850,000 from 2017–2019), the NoVo Foundation ($775,000 from 2017–2019), the Foundation to Promote Open Society ($675,000 from 2018–2020), the Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund ($549,781 from 2017–2019), and the Wallace Global Fund ($445,000 from 2017–2019).

Tope Folarin has been IPS’s executive director since 2021, when he took over from John Cavanagh, who had led the institute for more than 20 years. Notable IPS board members include singer Harry Belafonte and actor Danny Glover, alongside Ford Foundation vice president Sarita Gupta and Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation, is also a longtime institute board member.

Mueller wrote in Democracy’s Think Tank that “the story of the American Left cannot be told without discussing the contributions of IPS.” The institute therefore represents not only an important brick in the ideological foundation of the modern Left, but also one of the very first of its now-ubiquitous public policy nonprofits.

Read the full InfluenceWatch profile on the Institute for Policy Studies here.

Robert Stilson

Robert runs several of CRC’s specialized projects. Originally from Indiana, he has a B.A. from Hanover College and a J.D. from University of Richmond School of Law, where he graduated…
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