What do partisan think tanks seek?

17 February 2014

[Editor’s note:  Claudio Jones, researcher with the Fundación Rafael Preciado Hernández in México, wrote a couple of posts for Politics and Ideas. In them he argues in favour of a broader and more active role for partisan think tanks. This is an interesting debate. Not many people are willing to stick their necks out for partisan think tanks -preferring instead to pay more attention to more idealised neutral think tanks. I have edited the Politics and Ideas entry to fit a single-post format.]


It is necessary to persevere in understanding both the real and potential roles think tanks might play in today’s world given the idea (albeit challenged by a number of important cases) that there is a relationship between the spread of information and the expansion of democracy (namely, more and better policies). Think tanks associated with or serving political parties, which Adolfo Garcé terms ‘internal think tanks’, reflect the challenge that parties face in both new and old democracies. The challenge is not only to attend to politicians and party structures, but also to have a greater impact on the public, which, thanks to new information technologies, is composed of increasingly engaged citizens. [See Juan Sheput’s views in this On Think Tanks event in Peru.]

This post looks to investigate the correlation between think tanks, political parties, information, and democracy in order to highlight what is intended to be a persuasive argument rather than an empirical truth:

Organisations that serve a political party can also serve those citizens who are more interested in knowing about policy and participating in the public arena by taking advantage of the debate happening in the media and through social networks. In other words, they can go beyond the boundaries of their parties to reach a wider audience. The new dimension of information and knowledge in democracy – precisely because political change is so complex – demands the transformation of internal think tanks. This would mean the opening of these centers beyond the internal arena of political parties by means of more direct contact with the media and with politically-involved individuals through social networking sites.

Differenciating internal think tanks

There are many ways to define think tanks. Throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia there are think tanks that provide strategic research services to governments, civil organizations, and society in general on specific issues of national and/or international policy. This is a broad definition of a think tank.

As Tom Medvetz of the SSRC (Social Science Research Council) observes, think tanks are generally defined in terms of their relative autonomy with respect to other groups. Therefore there are think tanks that offer their services to political parties, including the legislative communities of parties (for more, review the book on Political Parties and Think Tanks in Latin America). However, it is worth recognizing that – in contrast to think tanks in North America and Great Britain – in continental Europe and other regions of the world, these organizations tend to have direct or organic links to other actors (such as parties) in addition to advising decision makers. That is the case of the difference between The Heritage Foundation or The Brookings Institution (which have to keep their links informal -this is why Heritage is referred to as Conservative and not Republican; and Brookings as Liberal) and German foundations such as Konrad Adenauer Stiftung y Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

One cannot ignore the fact that, as the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) notes, “political groups” – actors that influence or define public policies – include politicians, members of political parties, and experts, but think tanks try to influence the conceptual frameworks that politicians use to produce policies and provide conceptual frameworks about complex institutional reforms to those who have access to citizens so that they may understand the debates between politicians and experts.

This is the case of the energy reform currently taking place in Mexico, which involves complex structural changes in the oil and electric energy sectors. Internally, party think tanks provide research to the government and legislators, but externally, they help students, academics, and citizens in general understand key concepts and facts in the debate over opening these strategic sectors of the economy to private participation.

As Medvetz points out, think tanks participate in a specific arena: that of “the battle for ideas”. That is why it is reasonable to affirm that:

a think tank should participate, on one hand, in the sphere of academic knowledge and, on the other, in spreading specific ideas to inform and persuade key actors and increasing numbers of citizens, both within and outside of civil society organizations, about the structural changes that will take place in the economy and government institutions.

What challenges do internal think tanks face and how can they connect to a greater audience

Is the political role of partisan think tanks –in Latin America’s new democracies and elsewhere- equivalent to the standard concept of think tanks from the developed world? For one thing, think tanks are usually acknowledged by their primary role in politics: to exert significant influence on salient policy matters. However, I contend that partisan think tanks in new or emerging democracies should approach the larger public of citizens in order to provide them with more meaningful views on politics and policy reforms as much as they seek to provide sound insights to politicians, policy experts and scholars. There are mainly two reasons for putting forward this broader, more active role of partisan think tanks in democracies:

  • First, new democracies are not all the same throughout the Americas as well as  southern and eastern Europe. In regions such as Latin America, a host of democracies are neither fully institutionalized nor predictably supported by their citizens in the face of ongoing reforms (Adam Przeworski’s work is worth reviewing). Confidence in and support for democratic institutions cannot be taken for granted. Often, states are becoming incrementally effective on implementing sound social policies, achieving sustained growth as well as maintaining inclusive political institutions. If political parties support the citizenry’s involvement in the public sphere –while campaigning, creating legislation or implementing policy- they may better mobilize support for reform programs under democracy.
  • Second, contemporary society benefits from the pervasive use of knowledge and technology both for the sake of economic competitiveness as well as political freedom. The globalization of the new technologies of information connects not only whole societies but also provides a locus for a vibrant interaction among social groups as well as private and public institutions. Governments, firms and political organizations such as parties are becoming more transparent to the public. Hopefully, governments and legislators will be held at least partly accountable to a qualitatively better informed public. Think tanks and particularly partisan think tanks can make information and research available that would promote transparency and accountability.

In short, expert advice on policy matters for politicians, public officers and the like is important in emerging countries but cultivating the citizenry’s better awareness and understanding of public governance appears to be crucial if reforms and structural change are to keep up the pace with pluralism and democracy. Parties, and their think tanks, may play a more active role in strengthening democratic institutions in such countries as Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru or Argentina. Furthermore, technologies have opened up the public debates and these occur not only in closed offices but in open spaces such as social media.

As this was written, a host of issues concerning energy reform (i.e., definition of contracts involving PEMEX as well as Mexican and international companies) was being debated on social networks involving such actors as citizens, scholars, political parties and the media.

Accordingly, some of the strategic functions that partisan think tanks may undertake are  the following:

  • Think tanks provide useful research for informed decision-making as well as a robust analytical perspective on policy issues. But they may also share and generate political and economic thought. In so doing they contribute to leadership and cadre formation for party structures. Arguably, this is the clearest way for think tanks to strengthen party organizations. But even if partisan think tanks areorganically tied to political parties, they tend to draw clear lines of responsibility and performance vis a vis party structures. This entails certain degree of autonomy.
  • A systematic proposal and analysis of social and economic policies characterizes the subject matter of both partisan think tanks and parties. Although these proposals may be linked to the research mentioned above, they go beyond. These proposals pave the way to the party’s larger program or electoral platform.
  • By and large, partisan think tanks should anticipate how the political community views society to be in the future both theoretically and programmatically. This means being strategic in the perspective of significant historical change. Thus, the think tank seeks to enlighten and strengthen the political program that the party embraces. By way of example, effective government and political governance may be as desirable an objective as the realization of democracy.
  • By means of seminars, workshops, courses and publications, partisan think tanks seek to spread political ideas that influence their militancy, interested citizens and eventually society, broadly conceived.

Not just an instrument of parties -also of democracy

Throughout this analysis it becomes clear that partisan think tanks are not only an instrument of parties, but that they can strategically engage with them to help them accomplish their goals. Partisan think tanks conceptualise parties as complex organisations that seek to solve both collective action problems (so as to providing collective or public goods) as well as internal disagreements between similar minded people. In this sense, the think tank may provide strategic advice on the reform of internal institutions as sets of rules that shape the conduct of actors within political parties (i.e., statutes on internal elections).

But the think tanks objectives may go beyond. In this sense, partisan think tanks conceptualise the political party as an instrument of social change, that is, as a means of participation whereby citizens take side on issues of the public agenda. The masses and elites dichotomy –posed by classical sociology – should not be a theoretical or pragmatic concern for contemporary democratic parties if they strive to promote the citizenry’s participation in politics (Its useful to review Robert Michels’ “Iron law of oligarchy” and Cassinelli’s critique). In fact, this is the dichotomy that partisan think tanks may help erase in some Latin American countries.