Campaign financing is a huge issue. Democrats blame dark money from billionaires for many of the country's problems. Republicans are jealous of how effective Democrats are at getting small donations. A recent study sheds some light on small donations, and it is less wonderful than some people would like. In 2006, there were just 5.2 million small (under $200) donations. In 2020 there were 195 million. In the same period, the average donation dropped from $292 to $60. However, it turns out that small donors are far more ideological than the average voter in either party. Small Democratic donors are far to the left of the average Democratic voter and small Republican donors are far to the right of the average Republican voter. By taking away one of the parties' main functions (financing campaigns), the small donors are polarizing the country far more than the parties themselves. They are also driving the parties away from the center rather than toward it.
Put in other terms, the distribution of donors is bimodal, with a big peak at very liberal, another big peak at very conservative, with not much in between. The distribution of all voters is the normal bell curve, with one peak in the middle and tailing off toward the edges.
In the past, the parties put together "big tents," trying to bind their most extreme and centrist voters together. With financing now done outside the parties' control, the parties are withering and extreme candidates can easily be nominated and sometimes win these days. The presidential election of 2016 is the poster child for this. The institutional Republican Party hated Donald Trump and preferred all of the other 16 candidates to him. But they got him anyway.
Prof. Nathan Persily of Stanford has observed that the trend in campaign finance has been to "move money from accountable actors, the political parties, to unaccountable groups." The parties used to bind their voters together. They can't do that if they don't control the money supply anymore. The top five members of Congress ranked by percentage of their money that came from small donors are Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (70%), Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) (68%), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (58%), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) (62%), and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) (58%). Is it surprising that they are among the most extreme members of each party? No, because the parties can't exert any pressure on them. They raise their own money so the parties can't bring them to heel by cutting off the party money. They don't need it.
It is true, of course, that another driver of extremism that is weakening the parties is the growth of super PACs funded by dark money. They often support candidates the parties oppose, typically candidates the parties consider too extreme. In 2006, spending by the parties was much more than by independent groups. By 2016, independent groups were spending twice what the parties were spending. This tends to drive partisanship and split the country. While in the past, dark-money funding independent groups was mostly on the Republican side, by 2018, the Democrats had caught up.
Another factor weakening the parties and driving polarization is social media, where you get much more attention for taking extreme positions than for taking centrist ones. All in all, these factors are causing the parties to lose control of the process and propel extreme candidates to nominations and elections, creating national polarization. Not many people like this, but no solutions are in sight. (V)