Six ways think tanks support political parties

22 September 2022

There are many types of think tanks in the world and one common category is the partisan think tank. Partisan think tanks have a relationship (sometimes formalised and explicit) with one or more of the political parties that they cooperate with in pursuit of common goals. In this way they’re unlike their academic counterparts.

A think tank that supports parties that belong to the same ideological family but are from different countries is a cross-border version of this phenomenon (e.g., the Konrad Adenauer Foundation).

The proliferation of these partisan think tanks shows that such relationships benefit both the political parties and the think tanks, alike.

In this article, we explore some of the ways that think tanks can boost political parties and consider the areas where collaboration may occur. Also, we look at areas that help us to explain the widespread nature of this phenomenon, which exists in regions as diverse as the US, Europe and Latin America.

1. Technical backing

Think tanks produce expert knowledge on key policy issues. Political parties can use this knowledge to develop their party positions on issues that are important to the electorate, and to provide the technical backing for their policy proposals. There’s evidence of this happening in different regions. Work generated by think tanks is used in the speeches of political leaders and candidates and can be seen on party platforms and policy agendas.

2. Decision-making

Think tanks work with political parties in the field of decision-making. They play an advisory role in drawing up legislation and in designing public policy. In many countries, they’re also involved in the work of parliamentary groups and government ministries.

3. Political socialisation

Think tanks can convene political actors, thereby, providing valuable opportunities for parties to exchange knowledge and refresh ideas around policy agendas. By doing this, think tanks help parties to socialise their members on ideas that are valued by the party. This also allows parties to strengthen their programmatic positions. The governments of some countries allocate public funds to political parties to invest in training – funds that can be used by their think tanks.

4. Election campaigns

Think tanks are powerful players during election campaigns as they help to consolidate a party’s image and the core elements of their policy proposals. They can achieve this by exerting influence on public opinion and by introducing new debates into the political agenda. Think tanks’ websites and social media networks also provide candidates and parties with a complementary platform on which to position their messages.

5. Movement of staff: the ‘revolving door’

There’s a ‘revolving door’ scenario linking think tanks and parties. Some senior political party members later make a career move to a senior executive position in a think tank. Key figures in a party may even commit to creating foundations that are designed to disseminate the ideas of their political parties. A think tank can also provide a training ground for the subsequent appointment of candidates to representative positions and positions of political responsibility.

6. Citizen trust

Political parties often operate in environments permeated by mistrust in politicians and government institutions. Political parties’ lack of evidence-based ideas is one reason for this. Think tanks have helped political parties to adapt and respond to this environment by offering them new ideas and the ability to structure and communicate them.

Partnership patterns and new power centres

Variables associated with the context are just some of the factors affecting whether a political party may seek the support of a think tank. These variables include national regulations that may allow or restrict formal partnerships.

Aspects inherent to the political parties can also affect the support that a think tank may provide. E.g., a political party’s experience in government increases its ability to build an external institutional network, with which it can establish ‘win–win’ relationships with actors like think tanks.

The progressive role assumed by think tanks in partnering with political parties also affects the organisational nature of political parties. In other words, these dynamics have an impact upon the functions traditionally assigned to political parties. This means that there are now new power centres that lie outside of political parties. This raises issues relating to political representation.

These partnership patterns between think tanks and parties and their impact upon political representation haven’t been examined in detail by the literature on political parties. But these issues are being analysed in the following research project: Beyond the Organisation Chart: Power Centres in Latin American Parties (Más allá del organigrama: centros de poder en los partidos latinoamericanos).