During the recent controversy over the Obama administration’s rules on contraception coverage in health insurance plans, representatives of American Catholics played a large role. This was a rare moment in the sun for the most prominent Catholic interest group in the U.S., the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic hospitals were also involved but there was no prominent organization of lay Catholics to voice their perspective.
This year also brought a new flare up in the perennial controversy over the power of Jewish organizations that heavily influence American foreign policy toward Israel. Political scientists have played a prominent role in critiquing these organizations, arguing that they have outsized influence and do not represent the views of Jewish Americans.
The large difference in the organized representation of these two religious groups makes for a useful comparison: why have Jews mobilized such an extensive and prominent organized leadership to speak on their behalf while Catholics are represented only by their usually-invisible official institutions? There are substantially more Jewish than Catholic interest groups in Washington. Their groups have more political staff and lobbyists. They appear in news coverage several times more often and they are much more involved in every policymaking venue with measurable participation.
In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I find that Jews look like a lot of other groups in the American public with high levels of organized representation, such as scientists, lawyers, and gun owners. Catholics, meanwhile, look a lot like groups with low levels of organized representation, like college students and manufacturing workers. The most obvious difference is the socio-economic status of the average member of each group, but there are other consequential distinctions. On average, Jews pay much more attention to the news, are involved in more community groups, and vote at a rate almost 17% higher than Catholics. My argument is that some groups have much more civic and political capacity than others, and it shows up in the kind of organized leadership that they build.
The alternative, mainstream view is that foreign policy opinions on Israel drive Jews to high levels of participation, but this ignores several issues. First, it is not just the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J-Street that are prominent Jewish organizations; the list would include the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations, B’nai B’rith, and women’s groups. Second, there is a sociological literature that explains why American Jews are disproportionately involved in all kinds of high-status occupations and forms of social organization, many of which have little to do with politics. Third, the patterns of disproportionate Jewish participation in social and political life in the U.S. long pre-date the state of Israel.
Scholars have not come to consensus on why Jews are much more socially and politically engaged than other groups, but the explanation may not have much to do with policy. Likewise, studies of American Catholics reveal that they rely on Church institutions for political engagement and are less likely to see their faith as a basis for independent social and political organization.
The history of Jewish and Catholic organizations may help explain their relative mobilization, but we should not miss the forest for the trees: some social groups are much better represented than others. The well-represented groups tend to share similar traits that promote mobilization. The debate over whether these leaderships faithfully represent the views of their constituents is worth having. In most cases, they do not. Catholics are more moderate on contraception than their organized leaders and Jews are more moderate on foreign policy than their leaders. The organized leadership of each group, however, still draws from the strength of its constituency. The differential representation of Jews over Catholics is part of a broader story of democratic organizing: interest groups represent some types of people much better than others.