Participation and Polarization

Penn. J. of Constitutional Law, 2020

NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-34

69 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2020 Last revised: 24 Jul 2020

Date Written: May 26, 2020


Campaign-finance reformers have turned in recent years to a novel form of publicly-financed elections—small-donor matching programs—as the way to reduce the perceived corruption that arises from the current role of money in American elections. The rise of the Internet and social media have transformed the way campaigns are funded and turned small donors into a major force in American campaigns. The 2018 elections dramatically demonstrated the new power of small donors. Building on this transformation, the focus of reform efforts are now programs that match small donations ($200 or less) with public funds, which typically provide $6 in public funds for every $1 in small donations. Indeed, the first bill introduced in the new Democratically controlled House proposes to create a 6:1 small-dollar matching program for national elections. In addition, the Democratic Party required candidates for the 2020 presidential election to demonstrate a certain level of success with small donors as one of only two factors that determined eligibility to be on the “main debate” stage for the first several debates.

Small-donor based public financing is touted as enhancing participation in democracy; improving the equality of campaign financing; and providing a countervailing force against the role of large donors or special-interest money. But little attention has been paid so far, particularly in the legal literature, to the effect of small donors on what is one of the most troubling aspects of American democracy today: the intense polarization of the political parties. In fact, an extensive empirical literature demonstrates that small donors tend to prefer candidates from the ideological extremes of the major parties. Thus, while small-donor matching programs serve certain democratic values, they might also contribute to making American democracy more polarized and more dysfunctional.

The issue of small-donor financing represents a larger point about the problematic direction of much political reform over the last several decades. This “reform populism” seeks to address problems in democracy through changes that encourage more direct, unmediated participation by citizens in the political process. But the more engaged citizens are in politics, the more polarized they are. Paradoxically, participation fuels polarization. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon of reforms celebrated in the name of enhanced participation, equality, and anti-corruption, we should be careful to avoid designing political processes in ways that only further fuel the hyperpolarization of American democracy.

Keywords: Campaign Finance, Democracy, Political Equality, Polarization

Suggested Citation

Pildes, Richard H., Participation and Polarization (May 26, 2020). Penn. J. of Constitutional Law, 2020, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-34, Available at SSRN:

Richard H. Pildes (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
(212) 998-6377 (Phone)
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