Based on public polling, voter trends and the continued appeal of populist outsiders from Washington to Warsaw, it’s abundantly clear that there’s an erosion of competence and confidence in governments. It’s a global phenomenon, and U.S. President Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the slow, steady decline in the capacity of formal public institutions to make wise policies and implement them.
In this age of uncertainty, however, civil society organizations have proven more able and willing to fill some of the gaps. While it is true that they lack the legitimacy of elected officials, and cannot actually make policy or represent citizens and their demands legally, these organizations have become more important players in articulating policy needs, partnering with governments to execute many programs, and, recently, trying to offer some models of cooperative behavior across the cavernous political divide.
Much has been said about the vital role of journalism in this moment when the political culture of the United States is so poisoned that there is not even consensus about basic facts. The public is subjected to weekly dramas where Republicans and Democrats scream at each other and no common ground can be reached because there is no collective sense of reality. Journalists have worked tirelessly to stay true to their core principles of truth-telling, and tales of heroic journalism in popular culture, such as two Academy Award-nominated films, “Spotlight” and “The Post,” make clear that the public appreciates the role journalists are playing in sustaining democratic values and culture.
Of course, some journalism has succumbed to the passions of the divided society, feeding one side or the other a diet of opinion and selective reporting that perpetuates the problem. Some corners of cable TV have become openly partisan and should not be seen as part of the solution to society’s anguish about the failures of leadership.
Beyond the media, think tanks are also hard at work maintaining a culture of respect for empirical evidence that should inform policymaking, on issues as diverse as health care reform, nuclear weapons policy and strategic planning for the impacts of climate change. This past week, the annual survey and rankings of U.S. and global think tanks was released. It’s a modest endeavor led by one scholar, James McGann, based at the University of Pennsylvania, but it has had an important impact on the think tank sector and its willingness to address challenges as a group, not as single, competitive organizations.
McGann has made his greatest contribution in creating conversations among think tanks, through yearly events for the report’s release in cities around the world. Washington hosts one of them, where presidents and senior staff of major think tanks meet privately and publicly to discuss best business practices and ongoing challenges in their field. This year’s release at the Wilson Center addressed how think tanks need to navigate in an age where the fundamentals of truth and technology are shifting the ground on which these institutions operate.
At a panel discussion at the Wilson Center, Ivo Daalder of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs praised the annual exercise not so much for the rankings—everyone loves to complain about the methodologies but celebrates when its scores are high—but for the convening power and the opportunity to share suggestions and strategies. A few years ago, when think tanks were struggling to respond effectively to investigative journalists’ coverage of their foreign funding, leaders of think tanks shared ideas about internal policy changes and external communications strategies that set new norms and practices for many think tanks. It was all voluntary and optional, to be sure, in the absence of a kind of governing body that oversees think tanks. Some think tanks still choose to provide transparency into research methods, for example, rather than transparency into their donor base.
Given the administration in Washington, think tanks that openly espouse conservative values and policy visions are feeling pretty great these days. At the Wilson Center event, the Heritage Foundation’s new president, Kay Coles James, was effusive in her excitement about the impact Heritage scholars have had in shaping the Trump administration’s policies. She made clear that they focus on their conservative vision, not on the needs of the Republican Party. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the president of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, who was still licking the wounds of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, remained earnestly committed to fighting the good fight for health care, immigration and energy, among others.
Tanden and leaders of many large, expressly nonpartisan think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, generally agree that, like journalists, their missions to provide factual information and analysis are more important than ever. They serve the public, and most are attending to smart ways, via social media and other platforms, to reach larger and younger audiences. At the same time, they also want access and influence in the corridors of power. Despite Trump’s cavalier disdain for elite producers of knowledge, think tankers report numerous anecdotes of positive and respectful encounters with professional staff in the White House, who seem to welcome the input, irrespective of political affiliation.
Which leads to the final and somewhat surprising point about think tanks in the current moment. Some of these institutions are now modeling the behavior they wish the government would demonstrate. They are trying to create a safe space where experts of diverse political backgrounds can have civil conversations about contentious issues, and perhaps even find some common ground. The Center for American Progress on the left and the American Enterprise Institute on the right are developing collaborative projects on big, challenging topics, such as America’s role in the Middle East. They are not expecting to find agreement, but they know that both sides will benefit from listening to the other’s way of thinking. The New York Times editorial page lauded the effort.
In 2015, four Tunisian civil society organizations won the Nobel Peace Prize for intervening to resolve a dangerous political stalemate in their fledgling democracy. Known collectively as the National Dialogue Quartet, the four organizations broadly represented labor unions, the business community, lawyers and human rights activists, with each one promoting particular policies or political philosophies. They did not aspire to replace government but to push Tunisian politicians who were trapped in uncompromising stances. It took civil society to overcome their differences and find a solution for the good of the country. Maybe that’s starting to happen here in Washington, too.