Back in the mid‐1970s, the two parties and the three big networks were riding high. ABC, CBS, and NBC commanded 91 percent of the primetime viewing audience in 1976. The Democrats and Republicans did even better: they received 98.3 percent of the vote in the 1976 elections for the House of Representatives.
But those towering market‐share figures concealed a lot of dissatisfaction. Popular unrest over Vietnam, Watergate, and a stagnant economy had driven both parties’ approval ratings down, and many people were calling for the creation of a new party.
Simultaneously, increasing affluence and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s fractured the television audience. Many people wondered why Americans were largely restricted to three networks, all seeking the lowest common denominator of viewing interest.
Both the parties and the networks worried that their comfortable oligopolies might soon be eroded by such popular discontent. Of course, the politicians had better tools available to deal with the challenge than did the network honchos.
The politicians declared that what people were upset about was the fundraising excesses of the 1972 Nixon campaign, so they passed strict new regulations on campaign finance. The 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act limited contributions to any candidate for federal office to $1,000 per person per election (primary and general elections counted as separate elections). They also limited political action committees — which pool the donations of many individuals — to $5,000 per candidate. Many members of Congress were clear about their aim: to strengthen the two‐party system in the face of popular outrage.
Several other provisions were later struck down by the Supreme Court: a limit of $25,000 in personal spending by a candidate, a limit on what independent committees could spend, and a ceiling of $70,000 in spending by House candidates.
But the contribution limits served their purpose. Despite all the dissatisfaction with the two major parties, no viable independent or third‐party challenge emerged. The two‐party share of the House vote remained at virtually 100 percent — rising a bit to 98.8 percent in 1988, dropping to a nail‐biting 97.4 percent in 1996. Deprived of the chance to raise seed money from wealthy and strongly committed individuals, no new party could get off the ground.