The Distillery: The Rise of the Shadow Parties

Political spending by outside groups may have weakened the traditional party machinery.

July 30, 2015

The Distillery: A Money in Politics Digest will provide a periodic look at the latest legal research in the ongoing national debate about the role of money in politics.

It almost goes without saying that each presidential election is more expensive than the last.  This reliable upward trend already seems likely to hold next year.  One estimate (admittedly rough this far in advance) puts federal election spending at nearly $10 billion in 2016.  By comparison, 2012 spending was “only” $6.3 billion.

While there are many reasons to be troubled by the awesome sums coursing through our politics, quantity is not the only cause for concern.  After all, even Donald Trump has TEN BILLION DOLLARS.  Also troubling is where all this money is flowing.

Until recently, political party establishments – the Democratic Party and the GOP – were dominant fundraisers in American politics.  But a 2002 campaign finance reform and more recent Supreme Court decisions lowered the bar for outside groups – corporations, super PACs and “social welfare” nonprofits – to collect unlimited contributions.  Parties, on the other hand, remain subject to contribution limits.

Like floodgates on a river of money, these developments shifted the flow of cash – and with it the balance of political power – away from organized parties and toward these outside groups.  In their recent article, law professors Joseph Fishkin and Heather K. Gerken describe the resulting rise of these outsiders (they call them the “shadow” parties) at the expense of official party organizations.

“Official” versus “shadow” parties.  A distinction without a difference?  Probably not.  The organizations that Fishkin and Gerken describe as “official” – traditional party establishments and their fundraising committees – have long played a major role in organizing American politics.  Among their many activities, they recruit candidates, develop policy platforms, organize donors and rally supporters.

Fishkin and Gerken view the official parties as classic, “small-d democratic” institutions, offering a menu of options for average voters to participate in the political process.  Official party members, whom Fishkin and Gerken call “the party faithful,” are not limited to voting.  They also can shape the party platform, stand for nomination, staff phone banks, knock on doors or otherwise donate their time and money.  With control over so many means of participation, official parties have long been the engines driving broad civic engagement, from average voters to mega-donors.

Shadowy outside organizations, on the other hand, are more hierarchical and less inclusive.  Priorities USA Action and Right to Rise – super PACs aligned with Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, respectively – have no policy platforms, local chapters or deep benches of small donors.  By and large each is run by political elites, beholden to large donors and organized for the sole purpose of electing its candidate.

If you care about political participation, the shift in fundraising from official parties to outside shadow parties is disquieting.  But civic engagement may not be the only casualty.  Official party organizations exist to win elections and accumulate governing power.  Accordingly, some have argued that parties tend toward moderation – in order to win supporters and elections  – and away from ideological extremes, which tend to lose both.

Of course, “moderate” is not how many would describe political parties today.  Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have become endangered species.  But as my colleagues Ian Vandewalker and Daniel I. Weiner explain in a forthcoming paper, the fact remains that traditional party organizations are more transparent, accountable and inclusive than the upstart, outside groups.  Vandewalker and Weiner will build on the insights of Fishkin, Gerken and others to suggest how the official parties can be reinvigorated as engines of broad civic participation.

Money, like water, will always find an outlet.  But the outlet matters.  As record sums flow into the 2016 campaign, the path that money takes will determine who gets to participate in the conversations and choices that define our political process.