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State parties can reduce polarization and improve the political system

Jonathan Rauch

Amid dizzying chaos in presidential politics (at least on the Republican side) and seemingly intractable dysfunction in Washington, it’s tempting to conclude that stabilizing influences are nowhere to be found. But that wouldn’t be true. Hidden in plain view, state parties continue to play a critical and distinctive role in politics, and strengthening them is an achievable way to improve the functioning of the political system.

That is what Raymond J. La Raja (a political scientist with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and I conclude in a new Brookings report. In “The State of State Parties,” the two of us, along with U-Mass (Amherst) researcher Samuel VanSant Stoddard, looked up-close and in detail at the condition of state party committees, surveying all 100 of them (56 responded) and interviewing 15 of their leaders. We also compared our findings with earlier surveys, gathered national data, and interviewed national-level party officials. Our main conclusions:

  • To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the death of state parties are greatly exaggerated. Embattled as never before, state parties are struggling to remain relevant amid growing political competition. Yet they are putting up a spirited defense and adapting intelligently by focusing on areas such as grassroots mobilization and voter data.
  • The state parties’ problem is less a decline in absolute resources and standing than a decline in relative resources and standing. Keeping pace with the rapid inflow of money and messaging from outside groups and other non-traditional actors is a severe challenge.
  • State parties provide important benefits to the political system as a whole, and they retain untapped potential to reduce long-term polarization and extremism by balancing the influence of purist groups.
  • Restrictions intended to constrain state parties’ activities and fundraising do exactly that—with the perverse effect of weakening the parties and strengthening unaccountable outside groups. Our findings suggest that outside groups have less influence in states where the party committees have more freedom to raise money.
  • Much can be done to bolster the state parties by removing rules that unnecessarily and counterproductively tilt the playing field against them. We recommend raising or eliminating limits on contributions to state parties, eliminating restrictions on state parties’ ability to coordinate activities with candidates, narrowing overbroad federal regulation, and pruning other rules. Making contributions to state parties tax-deductible also deserves consideration. 

Beyond its conclusions, our report provides a rich account of what state parties are doing and how well they’re doing it in the real world. The report’s findings are data driven and complemented with rich quotations and stories.

The disorganization of American politics is a generational problem that will take years to sort out. Being political realists, La Raja and I believe reforms need to be gradualist and doable, and they need to cut with, rather than against, the grain of everyday political incentives. State parties have been overlooked for too long, and they offer fertile ground for practical and attainable solutions for the growing dysfunction in American politics.

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