Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law at Stanford, is a proponent of strong, well-financed parties. Polarization, he wrote in an email to me, “is a cost of many of these good government reforms. It is almost an intended cost if you think about it.” Why? Persily argues that the purpose ofgood government reforms is often to make politics more about ideas and less about material or private gain. Well, we have ideological parties now, with clear distinctions and a broad gulf between them. There is nothing wrong with that in the abstract. However, a separation of powers system requires compromise between the parties. Transparency, open meetings, bans on earmarks, and weaker party machines make compromise more difficult.In “Strengthening Parties,” a chapter in the forthcoming volume “Solutions to Political Polarization in America,” Persily contends that in the case of campaign finance, “the good good-government reforms that have been tried have, if anything, made things worse.”
The claim that reforms have made things worse is based on the interaction between the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, which regulated campaign finance, and two 2010 court decisions, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision Speechnow.org v. F.E.C.
The McCain-Feingold Act prohibited political parties from accepting unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and rich people, which had come to be called “soft money.”
The federal court decisions, in contrast, explicitly allowed independent political groups – including both super PACs and politically active nonprofits – to accept all forms of soft money.
Pro-party advocates argue that McCain-Feingold in particular has undermined political parties, while court rulings have empowered donors and independent committees, many of whom have agendas more polarizing than those of the parties.