The Lesser of Two Evils? Public opinion of state-financed political parties

Ms. Danielle May

Political parties build essential democratic links with citizens, but they are also vulnerable to temptations pulling them away from citizens, such as financial rewards from wealthy donors with vested interests. This source of funds is considered by many scholars to be elitist and even corrupt, a view that is shared by most citizens. Yet, parties need money to fuel their operations and communicate with the public. The main alternative to private funding is party subsidisation, which is well regarded by many scholars for its ability to promote fair representation. However, the anticipated positive effects of public funding of parties upon citizen attitudes (i.e. corruption perceptions, trust and efficacy) have not been established. I argue that the main reason for this is likely that citizens are not informed about party subsidisation and its proven ability to reduce the political influence of big donors. Using survey experiments, I probe existing knowledge of, and attitudes towards, party funding in Western Europe. This data provides insights into the long-running cartel party debate, by testing its claim that citizens are dissatisfied with parties that are financially entrenched in the state. I further analyse how people respond when they are exposed to information about various subsidisation policies. One of these policies is based on a model emerging in the US (dubbed ‘Voter Vouchers’), whereby public money is distributed directly to citizens in the form of a voucher to donate to a candidate of their choice, thus encouraging citizen participation in the party funding process itself. I conduct survey and field experiments to test the likelihood of people actually participating in such a program. The research has important implications for efforts to tackle corruption perceptions and improve political party legitimacy.