In her 1918 book The New State, the social theorist Mary Parker Follett leveled the signature progressive charge against political corruption in the United States. “Individuals have not been to blame,” she wrote, “but our whole system. It is the system which must be changed.” In this spirit, Lawrence Lessig directs attention away from individual voters, contributors, candidates, and officials, and toward institutional corruption.
What institutions matter for democracy? Certainly political parties do. Surprisingly, Lessig omits them from his discussion. The omission is significant: parties are a necessary and proper element of the “economy of influence” and should have a place in any comprehensive account of the ethics and politics of democratic representation. They are crucial for elections, representation, and governing at every level. They should not be dismissed as just another interest group, as many advocates on both sides of the campaign-finance debate have done. Indeed Citizens United put parties at a disadvantage relative to corporations and interest and advocacy groups, which can now spend more freely than the parties. To see why this is wrong, consider the distinctive business of parties:
• organizing government and enhancing political accountability
• providing an agenda and a comparatively principled and comprehensive account of public issues
• drawing comparatively coherent lines of political division
• keeping democracy competitive by nominating candidates, supporting them in close races, and recruiting and assisting challengers in elections at every level of government
• encouraging participation by registering and mobilizing voters.
When pushed, even critics of parties concede that no other institution has the responsibility or capacity to serve these essential democratic purposes that can counter corruption. Parties stand in sharp contrast to interest and advocacy groups (self-styled public-interest groups as well as venal ones), which do not have to coordinate myriad interests and opinions, and lack institutional permanence and accountability. Parties stand in clear contrast to “soulless” corporations, whose single-minded aim is profit and whose treasury-funded political speech may be unrelated to the views of those who pay for it, much less to public support.
Yet the Supreme Court claims parties are little different from corporations and interest groups for the purposes of anti-corruption regulation. As a result parties are prohibited from spending in coordination with their candidates beyond a very low threshold, as if candidates should be or appear to be independent. And parties alone are prohibited from raising and spending unrestricted “soft money” for non-campaign activities such as political education and voter registration.
What is the rationale for policies that crimp parties’ institutional effectiveness and underscore public mistrust? What should be done now that the law gives greater latitude to corporations and interest groups while maintaining unique burdens on parties?
Citizens United put parties at a disadvantage relative to corporations and interest groups.
One justification of constraints is that parties are thought to corrupt the democratic process by channeling money from corporations and interest groups, abetting in the evasion of contribution limits and creating the ties of dependency reformers would sever. On this view it makes little difference whether parties are agents or principals, instruments of special interests or extortionists trafficking in policies and peddling access. In either case officials have strong motivation to yield unduly to outside forces.
But the anxiety of influence is complex, and a separate rationale casts parties as autonomous, self-interested actors pursuing their distinctive private interest in occupying seats of power and gaining and preserving control of government. On this view, every form of spending by parties, including uncoordinated expenditures, creates reliance on party leadership and binding obligations on the part of candidates and officials. According to one striking formulation of the supposed danger, provided by Justice Byron White, “effective use of party resources in support of party candidates may encourage candidate loyalty and responsiveness to the party.” The overwrought suggestion that “loyalty and responsiveness” are self-evident evils is an example of failure to acknowledge what should be the self-evident role of party unity in representative democracy. In principle as well as practice, democracy requires a reasonable degree of partisan loyalty and unity of interest. Indeed, effective party unity provides resistance to contributions, lobbying, and improper dependencies; the institution can do what independent “good souls” cannot.
Given that contribution limits simultaneously curtail corruption and hobble parties, what should be done? One solution is the Campaign Finance Institute’s proposal to permit unlimited coordinated expenditures between parties and candidates if contributions are made in small amounts. This encourages party influence (and yes, candidate indebtedness), expanding the capacity to coordinate messages and policy, better informing citizens, and enhancing political accountability. The opportunity to coordinate also provides incentive for parties to solicit small donations and expand participation.
Public financing is another policy touted by anti-corruption reformers. But federal and state programs only support candidates, and bypass parties. The design of public funding in the United States diverges from that in most democracies, where party leadership distributes funds. A mix of schemes is desirable here.
When it comes to soft-money donations that national and state parties use for registering voters, get-out-the-vote efforts, organization, and communications, we should establish not only appropriate caps but also incentives to stimulate these contributions. True, the dynamic of gratitude and access would remain even with firewalls. But investments in long-term political organization and education are good for democracy. For example, expanded, dedicated soft money can spur local and state parties to resume their historical roles of politically incorporating immigrants and mitigating the number of persistently passive citizens. More broadly, non-campaign party organization creates a horizon of political time that extends beyond the frenetic news and election cycles.
These suggestions go against the American anti-party grain, which is etched particularly deeply today by polarization and arrant uncompromisingness. Recall, however, that until recently the opposite aversion dominated, and parties were disparaged as indistinguishable and overly centrist. Our assessments shift with the vicissitudes of politics and events, but reform should embrace the enduring institutional purposes that distinguish parties and justify partisanship. There are principled as well as pragmatic reasons why political participation, competition, representation, deliberation, and governing require strong parties. The anxiety of influence is justified as long as it alerts us not only to parties’ roles in institutional corruption but also to their value and to what democracy stands to lose if parties are politically weakened and morally diminished.
Nancy L. Rosenblum, Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University, is author of On the Side of Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship.
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