Diary

The think tanks have failed us, too

The rise of Donald Trump is directly related to the failure of the Republican establishment.

We get that. Boy, do we get that.

But let’s dig a little deeper and define the establishment. It’s not just the politicians and the party apparatus.

In fact, I’d venture to say that the average guy and gal, the ones who believed the rhetoric about smaller government being better government, the ones who hear pols and commentators raging against Democrats who want to take everything from gun rights to money (in the form of taxes) from them, defines the Republican/conservative establishment as a big group of policy wonks, think-tanks, well-paid columnists and talk show hosts, and, oh, yeah, the Republican elected officials and hired hands. See, it’s not just the Mitch McConnells, John McCains and John Boehners this crew is upset with. It’s the big creaking machine behind all the Republicans, even the conservative ones like Cruz, they’re washing their hands of. To a certain degree, it includes the newer Tea Party organizations, as well. It even can include, I dare say, sites like this one that seek to advance conservative ideas.

Year after year the everyday conservatives hear the same mantra about individual liberty and smaller government and protection of religious and free speech rights. They might even send in a few dollars when something outrageous happens and a policy house or think thank uses it to raise money.

And then they wait.

And they watch the IRS going after conservative groups and individuals with no consequences. They watch as government is expanded and health care choices narrow. They watch as the economy continues to limp and employment possibilities dry up. They watch as the Veterans Administration handles cases so horribly that they’re sure someone’s head will roll. And yet nothing happens.

Oh, wait. Something does happen. A slew of fundraising pleas from this group or that publication appears in email and snail mail boxes, or as pop-up ads, or in social media news feeds, all asking for money to fight these outrages. The Republican establishment has become, to these people, little more than a fund-raising machine using the latest outrage to fill coffers so they can — what? Advance the conservative agenda? How’s that agenda doing? How’s support for it among the general populace doing? If these organizations were so successful at persuading the public to the conservative point of view, a Republican majority should be able to skate to victory on any number of issues. And yet it struggles.

In a recent article at The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty connects an obscure Pat Buchanan adviser (who held some unsavory views, I should add) to the current Trump phenomena. Dougherty’s article is here. But the following paragraph was the one that leaped off the page at me and had me nodding my head:

What so frightens the conservative movement about Trump’s success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is. His campaign is a rebuke to their institutions. It says the Republican Party doesn’t need all these think tanks, all this supposed policy expertise. It says look at these people calling themselves libertarians and conservatives, the ones in tassel-loafers and bow ties. Have they made you more free? Have their endless policy papers and studies and books conserved anything for you? These people are worthless. They are defunct. You don’t need them, and you’re better off without them.

Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson echoes this sentiment in a recent Politico piece, where he, too, suggests that Trump arose because of the failures of the conservative establishment–and that establishment includes the think tanks and policy organizations. As he put it:

Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on.

I won’t go so far as to say we don’t need the policy papers and studies and books and the institutions that create them. But I will say this: Every conservative institution in America, from state think tanks to national publications, has got to be able to answer this question: What is it we want people to do? Followed by: How successful are we at getting them to do it?

It’s not just the establishment politicians and party leaders who have to answer for lack of movement on the conservative agenda. It’s the array of think tanks, writers (yes, I know that includes in a small way folks like me), and publications who have some soul-searching to do, as well. They all helped create the Trump phenomena by failing to link strategy to actually achieving any goals. No wonder a doer, not a talker, is having such success in the polls.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.