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Think tanks and the future of politics

Conservative Review

This is a pivotal moment.

The future of American politics is up for grabs.

The challenges facing the country today are great. The decisions made over the next four to six years could determine the course of our politics for the next generation.

And despite recent reports, think tanks, or public policy research organizations, will play an important role in charting this course.

As in 1932 and 1980, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election shattered the authority of the prior political order and served as a stark rejection of its discredited and unpopular agenda. But unlike the early months of 1933 and 1981, it is not yet clear what will take its place. That is, the boundaries of the new political order have not yet been clearly drawn. The policy substance of its agenda has yet to be thoroughly defined.

This results, in part, from the fact that both political parties are currently divided on a range of issues. Their members and associated advocacy groups do not agree on the best path forward.

But this disorder is a temporary condition.

The two great coalitions that have imposed order on our politics for the past 160 years are likely to cohere around new governing agendas at some point soon. The side that does so first in a way that appeals to popular concerns will emerge from this latest transition period as the primary force in American politics, potentially dominating our discourse for the next 25 to 30 years, just as the New Deal and Reagan coalitions set the terms of political debate for decades after they were created.

Rigorous policy research can help draw boundaries around the new political order and influence its agenda. If done well, this work will help lay the intellectual foundation for the next dominant coalition in American political history. By housing independent-minded policy analysts, think tanks can help clear the way for something new by supplying the intellectual firepower needed to dislodge established orthodoxies, such as the progressive vision underlying the welfare state, and the institutional structures that support them, such as the administrative state.

But to be successful, this work must be conducted along two parallel tracks simultaneously. Research in the first track should be focused on short- and mid-term issues. That is, it should analyze questions confronting policymakers at a particular point in time. Consequently, it should focus on impacting a specific policy debate and be geared to influencing identifiable policy outcomes.

Research produced in this track should be accessible to its targeted audience and examine the consequences associated with certain policies or courses of action. Such research should be aimed at policymakers on Capitol Hill and in the administration, the media, and the interested public. It is a critical component of a think tank’s overall research posture, directly helping to shape public policy.

Yet while necessary, conducting research only on short- and mid-term issues is insufficient to capitalize on this pivotal moment in our politics. Maximizing the opportunities possible in this moment requires that research organizations also consider more fundamental questions upstream of a narrow policy debate in Congress. Conducting this kind of research has the potential to define what is ultimately considered possible — the conventional wisdom — by placing guard rails around the policy process and setting the terms of future debates before policymakers even take up an issue.

To that end, research in this second track should be focused on providing targeted audiences with a conceptual and analytical framework within which to make sense of complicated public policy problems. Put differently, good research in this track equips its audience to acknowledge and work through the assumptions underlying various issues and debates in such a way that helps them to form a true understanding of the issue. Such research should appeal to thought leaders, the academy, and analysts in other think tanks, as well as the interested public.

This second research track deserves emphasis today. This is because policy solutions centered on human freedom and prosperity will be disadvantaged so long as the political debate takes place within a larger conceptual framework erected by the progressive left.

For example, analysts should attempt to paint a picture of what the American health care system looks like in an ideal world forty years from now. Once this picture is in focus, we can then work backwards from it to identify the major avenues of research that need to be pursued between now and then.

Armed with this information, we are empowered to identify the questions that need to be asked, the conceptual hurdles needed to be cleared to drive the debate forward, and the problems that should be tackled first by policymakers (versus those that can be more easily addressed later).

In addition to providing a blueprint for how to reach a policy destination, such a deductive process makes it easier to evaluate whether specific legislative proposals represent an incremental step in the right direction or an incremental step backward.

This is a pivotal moment. Pursuing a rigorous research agenda along the lines outlined above will best position think tanks to maximize the opportunities possible at this point in our history. Doing so increases the likelihood that their analysts will shape the coming political order and that their ideas will share in defining our politics for the next generation. By extension, taking these steps makes it more likely that rigorous and independent public policy research will influence the nature and substance of the political agenda for decades to come.

James Wallner is an adjunct professor in the Department of Politics and the Congressional and Presidential Studies Program at the Catholic University of America. He was formerly the head of research at the Heritage Foundation.

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