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The Party Is Broken – Because It’s Broke

Donna Brazile’s criticism of the DNC should spur talk about addressing party fundraising.

November 21, 2017
Cross-posted on U.S. News & Word Report
Was the Demo­cratic primary rigged? If you ask the wrong ques­tion, you get the wrong answer.
Follow­ing this month’s string of off-year victor­ies for the Demo­crats, Donna Brazile’s revel­a­tion of a 2015 agree­ment that gave the Clin­ton campaign a say on DNC matters already feels like old news. Brazile herself has clari­fied that there is no evid­ence that the DNC liter­ally “rigged” the primary (or could have) since her initial state­ment. This epis­ode is still import­ant, however – but not for the reas­ons most people think.
The real ques­tion is not whether the primary was rigged, but: How did the DNC fall into a fundrais­ing hole so deep as to need a life-line from the Clin­ton campaign to begin with?
The 2016 primary may not have been broken, but the party was certainly broke – thanks in part to changes in the campaign finance land­scape result­ing from Citizens United and related court decisions. If we want the DNC (or the RNC, for that matter) to serve as a genu­inely inde­pend­ent arbiter of future nomin­a­tion fights, we should spend less time arguing about the past and more time trying to make polit­ical parties – in their tradi­tional form – stronger.

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

(Photo: Getty)