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Everyone's Polarized. Why Blame Public Financing?

This post originally appeared on the Public Campaign blog.

George Washington University Professor John Sides has a piece on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog arguing that public financing of elections, those systems that encourage candidates to raise small contributions from a broad base of supporters, make legislatures more polarized (and, that such polarization is a bad thing).

Some thoughts:

First, America is increasingly polarized.

Sides writes that, “new research shows that public funding has an unexpected consequence: increased polarization.”

But the polarization of American politics is a national phenomenon, readily observable in places with or without public financing programs.

According to a July 2014 report from Pew, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.

The Washington Post reported in February 2013 that “the most recent data show that polarization in Congress reached a new record high in 2013.”

Sides cites data showing the polarization of small donors, but leaves out the polarization of another group—the wealthiest donors. In Sunlight Foundation’s analysis of the 1% of the 1% of campaign donors, they found that “Less than four percent of the most generous political donors spread their money close to evenly between the two parties (a 60-40 split or less). Four out of five 1% of the 1% donors were pure partisans, giving all of their money to one party or the other.”

Most states don’t have public financing systems for legislatures. Candidates for Congress don’t have access to a public financing system. And the role of big money has been increasing for decades. Is it really plausible that public financing is to blame for polarization?

Academics disagree on the issue of public financing and polarization.

Some opponents of the Clean Elections law in Arizona claimed that the policy had contributed to the passage of polarizing legislation in that state.  

Here’s Barnard College Professor Michael Miller, who literally wrote the book on public financing systems, in an interview with Vox:

Andrew Prokop: Arizona's legislature last made national news for adopting a tough anti-illegal immigration law in 2010. Would you say that the public financing system made that more likely to pass? Support for loosening immigration laws is more widespread among business interests, and under public financing, the support of business may be less important to candidates. 


Michael G. Miller: I think that theory's plausible, but I just don't see it in the data, and I always follow the data. So what I have found in my work is that there's no relationship between accepting public funding and taking more extreme positions. As I said, the narrative has always seemed plausible to me, and I actually was a little surprised when we found no relationship.  But I just don't see it in the data. You've got to bear in mind, Arizona's still a really unique place politically, they have a strong strain of libertarianism running through the right side of their politics. It's a very perceptible tinge of American conservatism. Barry Goldwater's alive and well in his home state.

Third, the principles of a good public financing system are focused on access and participation, not ideology or political parties.

We believe there are three basic principles of a good public financing program: they empower everyday Americans, they increase political participation, and they reduce the influence of big donors.

You don’t see anything about political parties or ideology in there.

The Sides piece cites "access-oriented" interest groups as a moderating force. But these groups are considered “moderate” only to the extent that they push an agenda tilted to favor the donor class—an agenda that sadly both parties have been tempted to embrace in large part due to our big-money campaign finance system. 

We need to question whether this “moderation” actually coincides with what the most Americans want to see from their government. Since the recession, the American people have seen their wages limp along while the very wealthiest people get wealthier. They’ve witnessed a Congress funded by Wall Street give the financial sector billions of dollars to fix the crisis the industry created. And every day there are new stories about politicians trading access for campaign cash.

Opening up the process to allow people from more diverse and less “connected” backgrounds to run for office—instead of those simply anointed by the deepest pocket lobbying interests—changes who lawmakers are accountable to. At a time when there are deep divides on our country’s direction, isn’t it better to have that debate in the hands of lawmakers more closely tied to their constituents, those who will bear the consequences of those decisions? That’s pretty fundamental to democracy.