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

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 Political science research also supports the finding that community-based engagement in civic organizations has been replaced by national self-interested organized mobilization.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 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.

4 Responses to Civic Engagement is a Cause of Special Interests, Not a Solution

  1. RGL April 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    Two points:

    First, you may be too quick to dismiss the broader implications of Lessig’s argument, which suggest that material inequalities between interest groups allow a minority of elites to out-argue (this is very important), outmaneuver, and eventually overcome movements based on popular mobilization. Industry groups and corporate leaders don’t just give contributions and buy lobbyists; they also fund think tanks, PACs and/or Super PACs to create mass media campaigns, and thus apply pressure to every node of the political and policymaking processes across a range of complex issues, all at the same time.

    Groups like the SEIU may have millions of members, and thousands of dedicated members, but SEIU supporters have a limited amount of time to devote to petitions, phone calls, or letters; when it comes to street protests, they have to literally put their bodies on the front lines. It’s true that “motivation” can, at some point overcome overcome material disadvantages, but it may be premature to dismiss the ways in which money allows organizations (hell, a few billionaires even) to maintain a huge, and disproportionate presence in policy debates.

    Second, it seems that material and non-material inequalities are mutually reinforcing, rather than contradictory. You have more in common with Lessig and folks like Hacker/Pierson than you think. Here, I’m thinking of issues like oil subsidies, credit card use fees, agricultural subsidies, or IP protection, where the costs of rent-seeking legislation are dispersed across a large consumer class and the benefits concentrated in certain businesses. Your point about motivation is important–obviously Exxon has far more at stake in a subsidies bill than your average taxpayer. But Exxon’s advantages are heightened by the fact that it can leverage its vast material resources to gain round-the-clock access to legislators, to create an entire information ecosystem (think tanks, studies, etc.) to lend respectability to their worldview, and to mobilize its own public constituencies, which could include oil workers as well as people swayed by astroturf operations. Well-endowed groups can increase the thresholds for “motivation” and popular mobilization that their opponents have to meet, to such an extent that many interest groups (e.g. environmental folks) simply cannot compete.

  2. Fan April 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    I just wanted to say this was a great set of posts.

    (While perhaps a bit straining the bounds of propriety or at least politeness, I can’t help but resist noting what a superior treatment you have provided compared to Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Israel Lobby,” and hope they would take note; and while I am a stranger to your subfield, your treatment fares favorably compared to others besides them as well, I strongly suspect.)

    Congrats on what appears like really great work, and thanks for some exemplary blogging.

  3. Doug Hess April 6, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    Now that my dissertation is final done, I can get back to important things like reading this blog. (Nice new look, btw, but John Sides does not have a Jay Lenno chin as portrayed in the cartoon.)

    First, a question. What do you mean by “trade off with” in this sentence “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.”?

    I haven’t had time to look at the posts that may be related to the posting above, but just a few quick responses:

    1. “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).” Your parenthetical point seems too important to leave as a parenthetical. It seems you are saying that more equal participation leads to more equal advocacy. This seems a truism. Isn’t the question: does/will more equal participation lead to more equal outcomes? People may not be participating because of structural arrangements that make their participation less effective or, in some nations now and at some times in the US, even dangerous. To take the extreme case: people may participate, elect a new government, and then face repression from the supporters of the previous government. In the world of DC interest groups that isn’t happening, but the point is people may not vote if there is nobody to vote for, may not lobby if nobody is going to listen, and there is the dynamic of the “other side” increasing their efforts if you increase yours.

    2. I’m not sure how you marshal evidence for your conclusions, and it sounds like yet another book I need to add to my post-dissertation pile, but I hope you don’t ignore the fact that many policies that help the poor or vulnerable groups were passed by advocacy groups that did only a little mobilization. E.g., on social policy research centers like CBPP, FRAC, etc., have a good reputation on the Hill and with some Administrations, as well as with the press. They have been around a while, have very experienced staff who both know the issues and are savvy with strategy, are viewed as responsible with the facts, etc. This gives them more power than some give them credit. More funding of them would like result in outcomes that some analysts would see as more equitable (although beauty is in the eye of the beholder’s point of view).

    3. I agree with some of RGL’s points. I would also add that issue conflict is also shaped by–and the outcomes shaped by–the nature of the underlying policy issue. For instance, what politician is going to put their neck on the line to get rid of ATM fees, when so few voters who would benefit would notice and really thank them for it? Granted I’m assuming here that this would be good policy (that it won’t cause many ATMs to be removed, etc.)…but the point is that many industry regulation and tax policies are, from the point of view of organizers, “hard to get a handle on” because of public understanding of the issue and how it matters to them.

  4. Matt Grossmann April 6, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    The comments are well taken and I am in agreement with most of them. I just have a few responses. First, I agree that differences in mobilization reflect differences in capacity at least as much as motivation. The difficulty is that these differences are not easily overcome. The advocacy system is like a voting system where people can vote many times. Calling for a general increase in voting, in that kind of system, does not help restore balance. What you need is more mobilization by your side, without stimulating equivalent counter mobilization. That is difficult, especially when the current level of mobilization by each side reflects relative group capacity and motivation. Second, a movement for political reform faces the same problems as other public interest mobilizations. Whatever new organization Lessig might create, in other words, faces many of the same difficulties as environmental groups and has the added disadvantage of being new. Third, the distribution of organized participation in all branches of government is highly skewed, with a small number of groups accounting for the bulk of opportunities. These organizations tend to be the largest, oldest, and broadest. There are examples of successful organizations that don’t have any of these features, but they are rare.