On Campaign Finance, Party Finance, Constitutional Amendments and Political Party Reform

The American electorate has spoken and we are rejecting politicians funded by — and representing — the large donors and party insiders. Is either party listening?

If “We the People” Want to Run It, We Have to Fund It

During the past election cycle, the American electorate demonstrated to both political parties that they no longer find tolerable the large donor campaign financing models. On the Republican side, reflecting the views of the donor base was an anathema to the voters to such extent that an “outsider” viewed as a “self-funder” was given the nod largely because he was not controlled by the Republican Party. On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was not even a Democrat the year before, came close to upsetting a candidate much preferred by the Democratic establishment by running a campaign financed “$27 at a time.”

Will the political parties observe and react to this obvious trend? It is an open question that both parties continue to ignore to their extreme peril. The Republican Party is currently in an uneasy coalition with President Trump and his base, who identify far more with him than with the Republican Party and its donors’ interests. The Democrats are in a reactive mode, and have not reconciled with the fact that the optics of their candidate fundraising with Goldman Sachs, Beyoncé and George Clooney at elite dinners could have contributed to the Republican sweep in 2016. They are certainly not in a leadership position with the dramatically growing grassroots resistance that resembles increasingly a “coffee party” that will threaten the Democratic leadership, just as the Tea Party did with the Republican establishment.

Will more candidates emerge that fundraise using a Sanders style, small-donor model, eschewing large donors and super-PACs? Neither party’s leadership is addressing the root cause of the voters concern: a dysfunctional political system that represents the special interests that fund it, not the voter. The voter is considered an enabling mechanism to further party goals, rather than the recipient of the political system’s benefits. Neither party is moving away from this model — a model that voters on both sides have clearly rejected.

There are several avenues by which large sums are spent to influence the political system to capture its benefits. Large sums are spent by wealthy individuals, large groups and organizations, corporate and other commercial entities, and lobbyists. But there is another actor the voter recognizes as distorting the system. As staggering as the sums that these groups spend to attain their desired legislative and policy goals, they pale when compared to the fundraising of the political parties. During the last election cycle, the two political parties raised and spent over $2.1 billion. This is more than outside spending from all other groups and direct contributions from lobbying combined. It is also more than was raised and spent by the candidates themselves.

There can be no argument that the political parties fundraise off of divisiveness and fear. They spend profusely to influence and enforce party line doctrine and voting. Both parties exploit the concerns of their base over particular issues to fundraise and purposely create a deep division and distinction between their position and the opposing party. Issues like gun control, abortion rights and even “ending Citizens United” are used by both sides as cash cows.

The amount that individuals can contribute directly to the party has increased dramatically and with the McCutcheon decision — a wealthy individual can donate in excess of $334,000 or per year or more to the political parties. Donation equals political representation, so the representation of “We the People” shrinks when the donation amounts increase.

There is a powerful solution in Renew Democracy’s “Voter Bill Of Rights” constitutional amendment proposal. It calls for limiting donations to both campaigns and political parties to individual citizens, and then limiting the donation amount to one that is readily affordable by the average American. This would put both campaigns and the parties on equal footing, competing for the same small-donor funding base, and would ensure both political parties and campaigns are responsive to the interests of average Americans, not the special interests and the wealthy.

Substantially limiting the maximum amount of direct party contributions would substantially limit the economic power of the political parties over our representatives, reversing the trend toward increasing party line decision-making. We know this is true because partisans of both sides hate this idea equally! This positive function can only take place if the parties represent not only a small base of large dollar donors, but all citizens who are their constituents, and must become their only funders.