Could More Money Fix the Republican Party?

Jonathan Bernstein has been making a strong case that the major problem in American politics right now isn’t polarization; it’s that the Republican Party is broken. That is, our political system can function just fine when the parties are strongly opposed to each other, but when a major party has lost interest in policymaking or even winning, that’s troublesome, especially when that party controls enough levers of power to grind the government to a halt or damage the economy.

So what might fix a broken party? Ray La Raja has a very interesting essay inThe Forum (ungated version here) speculating on the role that campaign finance might play. As he notes, our system of financing campaigns has evolved over time to be oriented around candidates and groups, rather than parties. Perhaps our laws could be designed to channel more funding through the formal parties:

In theory, a party-centered system that attracts a broad base of donors should attenuate ideological and policy bias. Donors to the party are plausibly motivated by broad partisan goals rather than ideological objectives (although the two are tightly linked). Future research should focus on the differences between those who contribute to interest groups primarily vs. those who give to political parties. It appears that major donors perceive the parties as being more moderate than interest groups, and that this affects where they choose to give money (La Raja and Schaffner 2012).

If one goal of campaign reform is to attenuate the influence of extremist elements in both parties, then creating incentives for donors to give to political parties may, in fact, reduce polarizing forces. Donors who give for partisan goals will be elevated relative to those who contribute primarily to interest groups to pursue ideological goals.

I remain somewhat skeptical that this would have an extraordinary effect on polarization (a skepticism that La Raja seems to share). After all, money is fluid, and the borderline between an interest group, an activist, and a party is a fuzzy one at best. Ideologues and hacks are quite capable at figuring out rules and incentives and getting the money to flow to the people they like. That said, a more party-oriented campaign finance system could yield some of the benefits La Raja suggests, including greater transparency and accountability, and maybe just a bit more responsibility.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.