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A science-backed New Year's resolution to help fix American politics

Attendees hold signs and cheer during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, January 21, 2015.
Attendees hold signs and cheer during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, January 21, 2015.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Political polarization and the ills of the contemporary campaign finance system are two of the most vexing political conundrums of our time. Even on a recent New York Times editorial page, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) bemoaned the constant necessity of raising money — so much so that's he's leaving Congress.

A recently published book by political scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst posits that these vexing phenomena are not unrelated. Authors Raymond La Raja and Brian Schaffner cleverly leverage the widely differing set of campaign finance laws in the 50 American states to show that our current set of restrictive campaign finance laws exacerbates political polarization.

They think of the campaign finance world as being divided into two groups: "pragmatists" and "purists." The pragmatists primarily want to win elections. Period. The purists are ideologically motivated. They seek to make an impact on policy, sometimes with respect to specific issues.

Both the modern parties are made up these two types, especially when we think of parties as "extended networks" that include activists and issue-oriented groups. The Democratic Party, for example, has pragmatists like DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose chief job is to help get Democrats elected.

But the party also includes purists, like NARAL Pro-Choice America, which would like to see Democrats elected but only because Democrats are likely to advance their abortion rights policy agenda. Ultimately, the purists care more about their policy than about winning elections.  The Republicans have the same setup — think Reince Priebus and the National Rifle Association.

Since the pragmatists care more about winning elections than about enacting policy they have a moderating effect on politics. A pragmatist is more likely to enter coalitions, make compromises, and negotiate to settlements. Purists, on the other hand, are willing to lose elections in the name of their causes. They're less likely to engage in cooperative behavior and to seek to negotiate with the other side to resolve conflicts. In other words, the purists polarize.

Party Symbols

A sculpture of a donkey (R), symbol of the Democratic Party, and a sculpture of an elephant, symbol of the Republican Party, are placed February 20, 2002, at a studio location in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Campaign finance laws directly affect the relative balance between pragmatists and purists in the parties. While there is considerable variance across the states, most campaign finance laws restrict the behavior of, and contributions to, the formal party organizations.

Ultimately, then, we've created systems of campaign finance that constrain the moderates — those who have incentives to compromise — while we've left the purists completely unregulated. Candidates, then, have incentives to court these purists because that's where the money is. This creates incentives for increasingly ideologically extreme candidates to pursue, and win, office.

It might be difficult to convince America that parties are good, but that's exactly the case. To all those Americans out there screaming for some mechanism that will help them to gain political power, represent their interests, and take government head on, we already have such organizations — they're called parties. Parties, as the research shows, are a moderating force in politics, when the formal parts of them are strong and empowered.

If America and political parties had a Facebook relationship status, it would be, "It's complicated." Parties serve an important and useful role in our politics, but they can be beguilingly frustrating and are prone to corruption. Compromise is good when you want decisions to get made, but it's terrible when it means that your side gave up something that you wanted. A century ago, in many major American cities the political parties and local governments were so enmeshed they were indistinguishable from one another. These machines left citizens with no real political choices.

The Progressives of the early 20th century fixed this problem by promoting government reforms that weakened these overly strong and centralized parties. We got a professional civil service (to strip party bosses of their unilateral power to appoint), primary elections in lieu of smoke-filled rooms deciding who goes on a ballot, and ballots with actual choices on them. These reforms worked €”to reduce corruption. Central parties weakened, and institutions were much less prone to corruption after these reforms were put in place.

In a way, we doubled down on similar laws in the 1970s and early 2000s, with campaign finance reforms that restricted formal parties. The trade-off we've accepted, perhaps unwittingly, in favor of our relative corruption-proof government is polarization. When formal parties are hampered, candidates seek funding from organizations and individuals who have no incentive to compromise. The pragmatists are all locked in their cages while the purists are running around the city like feral cats.

Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold

Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold discuss campaign finance in December 2006. (Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke/Getty Images)

The evidence is compelling: Donors are polarized. Candidates attract more money by holding more extreme views. Parties tend to support ideologically moderate candidates. Campaign finance laws (like McCain-Feingold, which was signed into law in 2002) contribute to polarization because it advantages the purists and ties up the pragmatists. Candidates rely on non-party money. Parties prefer to support moderates, but their efforts are now dwarfed by the purists. (See the above referenced book for the graphs and tables that display this evidence.)

Congratulations, America. You've done an excellent job of creating a relative non-corrupt system. Really. It's true. Stories about quid pro quos, vote buying, or direct conflicts of interests between the governed and the governing are fewer now than they ever have been. The price we've paid for this non-corruption is the gridlock, stubborn, my-way-or-the-highway politics we've all come to detest.

We probably can't (de)regulate ourselves out of the current dysfunction that is our polarized politics, but we could alleviate some of it. Campaign finance laws that strengthen the formal parties would take some of the money out of the hands of extremists by attracting away donors who may prefer to give to a party rather than a candidate or cause. Parties seek to win office, and they make compromises to get there. This moderates our politics.

Since you and I aren't in control of regulations, is there anything we can do to alleviate this problem? Indeed. Giving money directly to candidates exacerbates polarization by encouraging candidates to hold extreme views. The donor pool is polarized, and candidates will go where the money is. However, when parties are flush with funds, candidates have incentives to moderate to get access to their vast chests.

If you want to make a meaningful New Year's resolution that will help the country and not just you, then vow only to donate to the formal parties and not give a single dime this election season to individual candidates. At the national level for Democrats that would be these: DNC, DCCC, DSCC, and for Republicans, these: RNC, RNCC, NRSC.

Corruption and polarization exist on a continuum. To achieve less of one, we get more of the other. There's a trade-off between corruption and polarization, and our regulatory pendulum has swung much too far one direction. Might we have to accept increasing corruption in the face of less polarization? Perhaps. At least then we would have a system that might allow us to work at the problem.

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