Thinking about Trump: American think tanks and their new political reality

17 August 2017

[This is a summary of the  first working paper of the Working Paper SeriesThinking about Trump: American think tanks and their new political reality.]

The election of Donald Trump has represented a significant rattling of the policy-making and public policy landscapes in the US. The beginning period of the Trump presidency has left no shortage of controversy, criticism, and ‘palace intrigue.’ Among the proliferating list of potentially impacted states, actors, and organizations, think tanks face an uncertain trajectory going forward as their strategies, priorities, and perhaps even roles are being ontologically challenged. Among these challenges, there are four that are particularly acute.

First, think tanks that receive funding from the federal government face the most immediate and critical threat. While many American think tanks—including the ‘DC-5’+—do not pursue government funding or contracts on a principled basis, organizations such as the RAND Corporation, Urban Institute, and Wilson Center face a period of budgetary uncertainty. While the RAND Corporation is the least likely to face an institutional crisis, the Urban Institute and Wilson Center may face the need to diversify their funding arrangement.

Second, the Trump campaign and Presidency have ushered the inculcation of a skepticism toward civil society organizations, which Trump has painted as comprising and perpetuating the Washington ‘swamp.’ In attempting to denigrate these organizations as tributaries of the Washington political elite ruling class, think tanks and other civil society organizations face a reputational challenge in justifying their existence as legitimate, objective, and valuable contributors to policy-making and public policy discourse.

Third, the decision-making process of the Trump administration thus far has been defined by a closed process, with little discernible input from non-executive actors. This challenges the norms of previous administrations, in which the input from organizations such as think tanks were seen as welcome additions to the research and analysis informing proposed legislation and policy-making. In this sense, think tanks today have largely been greeted by a ‘closed door’ in the Executive branch of government.

Finally, think tanks face a strategic challenge in maintaining policy relevance as the vicissitudes of the President’s priorities are unpredictable. In the first half-year of his Presidency, Trump has targeted a vast array of policy areas and priorities. This has limited the extent to which policy-makers and the public can dedicate sufficient time and resources to crafting informed, insightful, and robust analysis on a given policy domain. Indeed, it is the creation and dissemination of informed, insightful, and robust analysis where think tanks have a comparative advantage and have historically enshrined their value among policy-makers and the public policy community.

Despite the challenges the Trump presidency is posing for think tanks, there are opportunities these organizations can capitalize on. First, a fractured partisan landscape (particularly within the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives and Senate) affords think tanks opportunities to ingratiate themselves in the policy-making outcomes of individual policy-makers. Though think tanks have long enjoyed a general receptiveness among many policy-makers to their research and analysis, a fragmented partisan unity can serve to further open policy-makers to think tank input.

A second principal opportunity arises from an attentive, engaged citizenry. Regardless of one’s partisan or ideological stripe, a large segment of the electorate is engaged in the ongoing public policy issues the Trump administration is advancing and reacting to. For think tanks, this creates an expanded number of politically-engaged citizens who might derive interest in the publications and activities of their organization. As such, think tanks can capitalize on a captive public by disseminating their research and message to a wider audience. This, of course, has the potential to spillover into increased fundraising yields If these challenges are heeded and incorporated into their strategic planning, American think tanks can not only survive the current period of uncertainty, but could also thrive. +

Read the paper.