Many of the past 86 episodes of YDHTY have been dedicated to railing against America's two party duopoly as the main source of today's polarized political climate. After recording this episode, I may need to issue a few qualifiers to that statement.
Raymond La Raja, Professor of Politics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Associate Director of the UMass Poll, has done extensive research on the role political parties play in campaigns. His findings indicate:
- Parties have a moderating effect on elections by nominating more moderate candidates.
- Our current system of campaign finance puts them at a disadvantage to single-issue groups and wealthy individuals, both of whom typically support more extreme ones.
In 2001, the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (a.k.a. McCain Feingold) sought to curb the influence of money in politics by regulating the use of “soft money” - money funneled from the parties to campaigns to get around the caps set on contributions to individual candidates.
Subsequent lawsuits gutting the bill on the grounds of free speech kept the limits on what political parties could raise and spend, but left an open field for any organization outside of the party apparatus to raise and spend unlimited funds with virtually no disclosure requirements.
La Raja’s research shows that, where parties typically contribute to more moderate candidates, unions and single issue groups tend to favor more extreme candidates. It also shows that states with no limits on campaign contributions to political parties have less polarization between parties than those that don’t.
His recommendation - build canals, not dams. Rather than prohibit the flow of money to parties outright, build a system that removes the caps on contributions to parties, but adds transparency. This would put political parties at an advantage against single issue groups and wealthy donors, and put power back into the hands of the pragmatist wings of both parties.
La Raja’s research shows that, while the parties aren’t without their warts, having a larger group of partisans decide where the money goes is better than a smaller one.
If you're interested in digging into more of La Raja's research, I'd recommend the following resources:
- Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform
- Campaign Finance and Political Polarization
- Why Campaign Finance Reforms Weaken US Parties and Promote Extreme and Unresponsive Politics