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What do partisan think tanks seek?

[Editor’s note:  This is the second of a series of blogs by Claudio Jones on partisan think tanks. The first post can be read here.]

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

Accordingly, some of the strategic functionsthat 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 are organically 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.

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 conceptualize parties as complex organizations 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 conceptualize 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.