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Research Report

Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy: Rethinking Reform

Published: September 16, 2015

Here, we conclude that targeted measures to strengthen political parties, including public financing and a relaxing of certain campaign finance regulations, could help produce a more inclusive and transparent politics. Party fundraising should not be entirely deregulated due to corruption risks, but 2010’s Citizens United ruling, and the torrent of outside spending that followed, raise important questions about whether diverting money back into the parties can benefit democracy.


Political parties are a core ingredient of representative democracy. A robust debate has recently developed, however, concerning whether organized parties can still provide the sorts of democratic benefits they traditionally supplied to our political system and, if not, what to do about it. This paper examines these questions from the perspective of campaign finance law. We ask whether there are changes that can be made to the rules governing party fundraising and spending that will enhance parties’ democratic strengths without expanding the risks associated with unfettered money in politics.

Over the last century, parties have been changed, and some would say undermined, by significant legal and societal forces. These include the expansion of party nominating primaries, institutional shifts in Congress and state legislatures, and the emergence of television advertising as the key medium for political persuasion.Today, elections are far more focused on individual candidates than on the parties. And in recent years, even the parties’ important supporting role has been increasingly eclipsed, as financial resources have flowed outside formal party institutions to new, purportedly independent entities like super PACs.

Campaign finance law, many argue, has played an important role in these changes. In particular, the balance of power is said to have shifted more quickly away from parties in the last decade thanks to both the heightened fundraising restrictions in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), also known as the McCain-Feingold law, and the Supreme Court’s elimination of restrictions on purportedly independent non-party groups, most notably in Citizens United v. FEC. The resulting accelerated waning of organized parties is blamed for a host of problems, ranging from greater polarization and gridlock, to instability caused by the weakness of party leaders, to vanishing transparency in political spending, to declining participation by ordinary voters. One often-proposed solution is to allow parties to accept bigger checks: to deregulate party fundraising by repealing or significantly altering not only much of BCRA, but also the older framework of federal contribution limits and restrictions in place since passage of the original Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1974.

Others dispute that the parties have been significantly weakened.They note that party committee fundraising has been relatively steady since BCRA, and contend that party leaders in Congress exert a historically high amount of control over their caucuses. This camp sees polarization and gridlock as the products of broader political forces, such as Americans’ residential sorting by political views, to say nothing of strategic choices by party leaders. They question whether changes to campaign finance regulation can fix these problems, and are especially skeptical of many calls for deregulation.

This is an important debate, but it tends to obscure two threshold questions: First, what is a party? When practitioners in the field speak of parties, they are usually referring to the institutions run by the traditional party establishments — e.g., the Democratic and Republican National Committees and the two major parties’ respective congressional committees, as well as the many state and local party committees. But a growing number of scholars argue for a broader conception of the parties as diffuse networks connected to a common brand, encompassing both established party organizations and a variety of other individuals and entities affiliated with them, including ostensibly independent but party-aligned super PACs and 501(c) nonprofit groups. Clarity on this point is important, because the broader one’s conception of the parties, the less it makes sense to think of them as competing with other political actors so much as themselves encompassing an array of competing interests. Since the various factions within parties differ in their democratic character — some include party activists and organizers while others are controlled by elite donors — the result of this intraparty competition has potentially significant effects on the parties’ contribution to the health of the republic.

Second, what is the ultimate goal of efforts to “strengthen” parties? For example, many argue that strengthening traditional party leaders will promote the stability and compromise necessary for divided government to function. Others advance different goals, like empowering the so-called party faithful (i.e. the party’s rank-and-file activists and volunteers) to make wider party networks more accountable to ordinary voters. While there is significant tension between such objectives, a common thread running through the arguments of many party-boosters is the need for parties to raise more money. Yet, as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC ruling and the recent roll-back of national party contribution limits by Congress, party committees can already accept vastly larger contributions than they could just a few years ago. Such changes may have strengthened the parties in some sense, but they have not necessarily enhanced the attributes that make organized parties attractive as political actors.

Hanging over all such discussions, moreover, are familiar concerns about corruption and political misalignment. It has long been understood that large contributions to parties, like those to candidates, pose an inherent risk of quid pro quo corruption and its appearance. There are many examples in American history of corruption scandals in which the quid took the form of contributions to a political party. The more money a small class of wealthy donors can give to the parties, the greater danger that the parties, dependent on those contributions, will sell policy outcomes in exchange. In addition, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the views of the donor class (which has always been small and unrepresentative of the public at large) have an outsized impact on policy decisions, creating misalignment between public opinion and policy outcomes. Too often, middle and working class voters already find themselves shut out of the policymaking process. Sweeping deregulation of party fundraising risks exacerbating such problems.

All of these concerns — especially the perennial threat of corruption — have driven decades of campaign finance regulation directed at the parties. One need not advocate wholesale abandonment of this traditional regulatory paradigm, however, to realize that the current system is not enough, especially in an era dominated by an activist Supreme Court majority hostile to many of its central components.

Ultimately, legitimate concerns about corruption and misalignment resulting from party fundraising must be balanced against the reality that party institutions do play a salutary role in our democracy, one that risks being eclipsed in the new era of unlimited fundraising by both party-affiliated and truly independent outside groups. Not only do the parties offer a number of avenues for political engagement by their core supporters, they also continue to drive voter registration and turn-out efforts on a scale that few other political actors can replicate. As presently constituted, moreover, organized parties plainly are more transparent than the shadow parties and other outside groups competing with them for resources.

Whether the wholesale lifting of party contribution limits would enhance these positive attributes is an open question but, in any event, there are other ways to strengthen traditional party organizations that do not raise comparable corruption and misalignment concerns. We advocate for targeted reforms to build up the institutional parties as meaningfully transparent organizations that function as engines of broad participation in politics. This approach eschews complete deregulation of party fundraising, instead embracing other, more targeted measures to strengthen organized parties, including:

  • Making public financing available to parties;
  • Raising or eliminating coordinated spending limits and other limits on party contributions to candidates;
  • Lessening federal regulation of state and local parties;
  • Relaxing certain disclosure requirements whose burdens outweigh their benefits while strengthening others; and
  • Relaxing certain restrictions on contributions to parties.

A thoughtful policy agenda combining one or more of these measures stands the best chance of producing a more inclusive, fair and transparent democracy. This is not intended as a single package of reforms, but rather as a set of discrete suggestions, and some combinations may not be desirable.

This paper is in no way intended to be the final word on party financing reform, to say nothing of the larger challenges parties face. However, our hope is that it will provide a framework to guide the discussion of policies that will make the parties better at what they do best: facilitating ordinary citizens’ engagement with the political process.

Stronger Parties,Stronger Democracy: Rethinking Reform