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Inequality is Much Greater in Interest Groups than Elections

- April 3, 2012

During election season, some groups of potential voters get more attention than others. Iowa farmers, New Hampshire veterans, and Florida space enthusiasts, for example, all received special treatment from Newt Gingrich in the 2012 Republican primaries. Beyond the state-by-state pandering, there is legitimate concern that policymakers may listen much more closely to constituencies that participate heavily in elections, such as the elderly and the rich.

In yesterday’s post, I argued that the types of groups that tend to vote at higher rates also generate more interest groups to speak on their behalf. At the individual level, we have known about unequal participation for some time. Individuals that participate more in elections also participate more in all forms of civic life. The subset of Americans that is involved in politics tends to be unrepresentative of the nation as a whole and skewed toward those of higher socio-economic status.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I draw a critical distinction between inequality in electoral participation versus interest group organizing. Despite unequal voter turnout across groups, elections are still a powerful tool for large groups over small groups. In the interest group system, there is no such advantage for large groups. Farmers and doctors are too small to matter in most elections, even if they voted at a 100% rate. In the advocacy system, doctors are better represented than much larger groups like other health workers and patients. Members of Congress see their constituents as members of these stakeholder groups; they respond to the organized constituents that contact them.

The U.S. does not achieve equal representation of individuals or of stakeholder groups, but elections are much closer to equality of citizens and the interest group system more closely matches equality of stakeholders. My research shows that neither larger nor smaller public groups generate more representation, just groups where the average member is civically and politically engaged. Members of Congress and the White House then hear from a surprisingly representative cast of participants in their committee hearings and deliberations. The trouble is that it is representative of the groups that have mobilized most in Washington, rather than the broader public.

In 2008, Obama described his plan for health policymaking as bringing “doctors and patients” and “workers and businesses” to the table with the drug and insurance industry. These industries would “get a seat at the table” but they would not “get to buy every chair.” We often describe inequality this way, as some groups getting more chairs at the policymaking table. Although this is a worthy concern, there are two more severe problems with the analogy. First, groups of vastly different sizes (doctors and patients) are equated as stakeholders. Most of the departure from equal representation comes in the definition of the stakeholders, not their relative weight at the table. Second, we assume that institutional groups in Washington can represent large constituencies. When Obama says “workers and businesses,” the practical meaning is that the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce will be invited to the relevant meetings.

The same types of groups tend to be advantaged in electoral and interest group participation, but the resulting bias in representation is much more significant for interest groups. We are much closer to “one person, one vote” than “one person, one lobbyist.” If government produces unequal policy results, it seems at least as likely to be driven by different levels of interest group influence than by different participation patterns in elections.