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Civic Engagement is a Cause of Special Interests, Not a Solution

- April 5, 2012

The American public disdains interest groups. They complain that money corrupts Washington, with special interests securing policy at the expense of the public interest. As previously discussed here, Larry Lessig has a new book in a long line of popular complaints, arguing that campaign contributions buy policy influence. He ends with a familiar call for unengaged Americans to form a movement for political reform. Political science research also supports the finding that community-based engagement in civic organizations has been replaced by national self-interested organized mobilization. Even lobbyist and convicted conspirator Jack Abramoff has been reborn as a would-be reformer, arguing for more restrictive regulation and public pressure.

The idea that “the special interests” are the enemy and “the people” need to fight back is a common trope. Usually, this vague dichotomy includes two distinctions. First, the moneyed interests who can trade cash for votes face off against the citizens’ groups that take power back for the people. Second, public interest groups that mobilize on behalf of ideas compete against the array of groups motivated only by economic self-interest. During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton was chastised for disputing this dichotomy: some lobbyists represent “real Americans,” she said.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I find that Washington now features more than 1,600 organizations that claim to speak on behalf of public interests and ideas. These groups do not gain prominence or policymaking access by making campaign contributions or by hiring lobbyists from firms. Instead, they succeed by building reputations for representing public constituencies and becoming informed participants in policy debates. These national advocacy groups also do not trade off with local organizing; the same types of public constituencies are involved in local civic groups and national advocacy organizations.

There is no clear distinction between public groups who mobilize around ideas and those motivated by interests. First, most groups are a product of both shared ideas and interests. Second, public interest groups are just viewed as representatives of the supporters of their issue positions. Environmentalists and African-Americans are both constituencies with organized leaders, and environmental groups do not get any extra advantage for claiming to speak on behalf of the public as a whole. Third, successful mobilization around ideas is subject to the same dynamics as social group mobilization. Like social groups, some political perspectives gain more organized representation because constituencies with more political capacity hold these views.

The difficulty for democracy is that increased civic engagement would not get us out of unequal influence. Calls for more popular participation and further group organizing will reinforce the inequalities in the advocacy system (unless the least involved groups disproportionately heed the message). The differential engagement of some groups over others is the reason why interest groups represent some constituencies much better than others.

What most people want (but usually do not say) is more mobilization by the groups they support and less by the groups they oppose. That is a strategy that can work, but is difficult to achieve. Commentators like Lessig see evidence that some groups spend a lot more money to influence politics than others and they reason that divorcing money from politics will alleviate the disadvantage. Even if such a divorce were practical, however, the money may be a signal that some groups are more motivated and equipped to participate. Take away the money and you often still have one side that cares more about an issue and organizes more to do something about it.


Note: Thanks to John for hosting me as a guest blogger this week. If any readers have further comments or ideas, feel free to contact me at matt at mattg.org. My current research broadly covers American policy history since 1945 and the determinants of policy change. If anyone wants to read more, I always have papers in need of feedback.