Before the 1970s, the idea of a political party’s leadership tipping the scales in favor of one candidate would not have been the slightest bit odd – that was simply how the presidential nominating process worked. The heyday of the proverbial “smoke-filled room” in which party leaders made big decisions was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but party elites still played a decisive role in picking the president up through 1968. Falloutfrom the Democrats’ disastrous convention that year led both major parties to adopt democratizing reforms, resulting in the system we have today (in which high-profile endorsements still matter but party leaders generally cannot dictate the outcome of a primary contest).
Even after the presidential nominating process democratized, however, traditional party organizations were still important players. Not only did they raise money to give directly to their candidates, they also continued to play an important role in mobilizing the electorate and setting policy agendas. Their relative autonomy allowed them – at least sometimes – to act as honest brokers between competing interest groups and candidates within their respective coalitions. At the same time, they continued to provide an important avenue for ordinary citizens (sometimes called the “party faithful”) to exert influence over the process beyond simply casting their votes.
The last decade, however, has seen the dramatic weakening of traditional party organizations (even as the parties’ ideological brands are in many respects stronger than ever). A lot of the reasons for this decline come down to money. From the 1970s through 2008, the parties vastly out-raised other interest groups, and were second only to candidates in their fundraising prowess. But since 2008 party fundraising has essentially been flat, even as spending by outside groups like super PACs and secretive dark money organizations has skyrocketed thanks to Citizens United and related decisions. And while some of these nominally independent groups are aligned with party leaders in Congress, many more have close ties to individual candidates – who now have more of an upper hand than ever.
This is a troubling development. Political parties are far from perfect, but they remain integral to the American system of government. The fallout from the Democrats’ 2016 contest has already led to calls for reform of the presidential nominating process – most notably the abolition of “super delegates” (elected officials and other party leaders who get a free vote on the party’s nominee for president no matter what their state’s voters or caucus-goers want). If we really want to return to the era of party organizations as honest brokers between different factions, however, we need to address party fundraising.
The most simplistic solution is to significantly raise or abolish most campaign finance limits for parties. Unlike super PACs and dark money groups, party committees are still subject to contribution limits under the landmark McCain-Feingold law, provisions the Supreme Court has shown little interest in overturning. The law’s critics have suggested Congress ought to revisit and significantly loosen or abolish many of these provisions on its own. That might prevent a leading candidate from dominating the party – but it would open parties up to domination by the sort of mega-donors who already bankroll super PACs and other outside groups. That is not exactly a recipe for strong, independent party organizations.
The Brennan Center has argued for a different package of reforms, including public financing and a more targeted loosening of McCain-Feingold’s most burdensome restrictions, particularly those on state and local party committees. Such measures would continue to account for corruption risks related to party fundraising, while recognizing the vital role parties play in mobilizing the electorate and organizing governing coalitions. Best of all, these changes would encourage party organizations to bring more people into the political process, rather than fostering a sense of exclusion.
For all their flaws, we need strong political parties for our democracy to function. The sooner we can get past fruitless debates about what the DNC did or didn’t do in 2016 and focus on real solutions to make the parties work again, the better off we will be