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The Hewlett Foundation Blog

Guest Post: Political Reform Possibilities After McCutcheon 

April 16, 2014 — By Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman is a Senior Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation.

In the wake of the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision, two types of responses have emerged. One response is that this is a very bad decision because it makes the wealthiest donors even more important (see, e.g., me). The other response is that the decision strengthens parties, and this is a good thing because strong national parties are moderating, while outside groups push towards extremism (see, e.g., David Brooks and Nathaniel Persily).

As Daniel Stid noted in a recent post, this debate highlights a fundamental strategic tension: should those who care about political reform view stronger parties as the best vehicle for a more rationalized politics? Or do we need to double down on campaign finance reform, on the premise that the unequal influence in our current system will distort politics regardless of the strength of parties (or anything else)? Or is there another approach?

Let’s start with the Brooks/Persily view. Curiously, it assumes that political parties are currently weak. This seems odd to me. For one, the five biggest spending superPACs in the 2012 (Restore Our Future, American Crossroads, Priorities USA, Majority PAC, and House Majority PAC) were all basically party committees by other names. And the top dark money group, Crossroads GPS ($70.5 million), was also a party committee by another name. In 2012, both Democratic party committees and Republican party committees separately raised over $1 billion. Meanwhile, congressional voting patterns are as polarized as they’ve ever been. It’s hard to imagine parties being stronger in Congress.

Certainly, there are good arguments to be made for strong parties: they organize conflict, they channel political energy, they aggregate interests. But if one accepts strong parties, one must also accept a certain amount of polarization and partisanship. In a two-party system with strong and competitive parties, intense and frequently nasty conflict is inevitable. If we were the U.K., strong parties would make more sense. But our legislative and executive branches are elected separately, and therefore must work together, which usually involves compromise. Historically, our government has been most productive when parties have been weak (see, e.g. 1960-1974).

The political reform community starts from the premise that if you want to know why we get the outcomes we do, well… follow the money. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s the parties or the super PACS running the show. The men (and they are almost all men) behind the curtain are the same.

But too often, political reformers then go on to assume that if only we could get money out of politics, if only we could put an end to corporate lobbying: Then politics would be fixed. No doubt, money distorts outcomes. But the empirical evidence is clear on this point: politics is not a vending machine. It turns out to be far more interesting, and far more unpredictable. Moreover, these if only premises are both unrealistic and unconstitutional. They ignore the fact that politics is fundamentally a struggle over resources and values, and that interests and individuals with something at stake will continue to press upon government no matter what fences are put up. The appeal of political parties, then, is that they offer a way to channel those interests, to help faction counteract faction. But the problem still remains: which factions? Only those with money?

There are important unanswered questions on the relationship between money and polarization. My research suggests that big money is more polarizing on the political right than on the left. But this is very preliminary work. There are far more questions to ask.

But here is another thought. Perhaps we are spending too much time thinking about the electoral side of politics, and too little time on the actual policy process. Remember, companies spend almost 13 times more on lobbying than they do on campaign finance. Much of lobbying is information and argument. The problem is that this information and argument is not balanced. The big challenge is how to put structures in place that guarantee a genuine marketplace of ideas, of faction actually counteracting faction in a meaningful way on a wide range of issues. These structures don't emerge automatically. We also need to be putting the best people in government, and giving them the tools and resources so that they are not reliant on industry lobbyists for information and policy assistance.