Supreme Court Ruling May Boost Influence of Political Parties
Supreme Court Ruling May Boost Influence of Political Parties

by Jules Witcover

Like an optimist looking through a pile of manure in hope of finding a pony, if one examines the latest Supreme Court decision on campaign finance law, one positive outcome comes into view: It will give a helping hand to our struggling two-party system.

The McCutcheon decision lifted the limit on what the parties can raise and contribute to their candidates, a small step toward putting them back in the ball game, while regrettably further enhancing fat-cat donors' domination of the playing field.

Among the principal fears of the Founding Fathers in cobbling together this remarkable country was the development of what they called "factions." There is no reference to parties in the Constitution, but today that's what we call them, and like it or not they remain integral part of our political system.

The founders clung to the dream of America as one big happy family, drawn together primarily in the desire to be free of the British crown. John Adams, as the first vice president, observed: "There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader. ... This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."

Thomas Jefferson, the third president, similarly observed: "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." To which the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. subsequently noted: "The quadrennial presidential contest served, after Washington's retirement, both as an inescapable focus for national party competition and as a powerful incentive to national party organization. Even Jefferson soon decided that, with the right party, he would be willing to go, if not to heaven, at least to the White House."

Indeed, Jefferson spent much of his time as the second vice president organizing and mobilizing what was then referred to simply as the anti-federalist faction into what eventually became the Democratic Party. The Federalist faction in time evolved into the Whig and then, just prior to the Civil War, the Republican Party.

Ever since, the two-party system has dominated American politics, easily withstanding third-party intrusions and nurturing political philosophies and candidates at all levels of government, particularly the federal. But as money has become the controlling element, particularly in presidential elections, party influence has waned in the message delivered to the electorate, especially on television and the Internet.

Big money from rich donors has already destroyed the public campaign finance system designed to keep elections in the hands of average voters. Starting with Barack Obama in 2008, candidates have abandoned it in favor of soliciting deep-pocket donors, many of whom sell both strongly conservative and liberal agendas to receptive candidates.

In the process, moderation in both national parties, but especially in recent years in a Republican Party splintered by tea party and other right-wing constituencies, has been a major casualty. On Capitol Hill especially, the conspicuous result has been legislative stalemate, stagnation and obstructionism.

If the latest, generally destructive decision lifting campaign contribution limits throws a crumb or two to the parties, as Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus has enthused, it can be a modest resuscitative remedy for both of them. One can at least hope that party discipline will guard against some of the excessively negative ads that now pollute the airwaves.

One of the worst ramifications of the growth of outside-the-party campaign operations is the ability of free-lancing candidates and strategists to damage the party brand or a given candidate's message with contradictory or poisoning pitches to the voters, tarnishing the party's reputation and its candidate in the process.

The old fear of the founders that the development of parties would emphasize division was inevitable as basic approaches to governing emerged -- small vs. large government, laissez faire vs. the social safety net, even "class warfare" on both sides. But better there be healthy debate within the tents of a reasonably responsible party system than ever-greater intrusion by rich special pleaders buying so significantly into the critical national discussion.




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Supreme Court Ruling May Boost Influence of Political Parties