Author Archive | Matt Grossmann

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 Political science research also supports the finding that community-based engagement in civic organizations has been replaced by national self-interested organized mobilization.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

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How Interest Group Mobilization Explains Media Bias

In nearly every campaign and policy debate, at least one of the sides (and often both) make the claim that the news media is biased toward the other side. As previously discussed here, some political scientists measure media bias by comparing the citations of think tanks and advocacy groups in different media outlets with mentions of the same organizations in Congress. The idea is that reporters and legislators reveal their ideology by citing liberal or conservative groups.

In my new book, The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance, I find that the patterns of media citations of interest groups reflect the composition of the advocacy community in Washington. One side in a policy debate gets more of an airing for their views when there are more mobilized groups on that side. Both the Washington print media and the national television news tend to rely most on the largest, oldest, and broadest organizations, whether they are liberal or conservative.

How does this help explain claims of liberal media bias? There are simply many more public interest groups representing liberal issue perspectives in Washington than those speaking on behalf of conservative issue perspectives (by my count, four or five times as many). The liberal groups are also, on average, larger and older. On some issues, there is a liberal issue group but no equivalent conservative one (although some see the cacophony of specialized voices as a weakness for liberals).

The large ideological difference in the population is reflected in organizational citations in media coverage. Liberal issue groups (including environmental and consumer groups) account for one-quarter of all advocacy group mentions on the television news; the conservative equivalents account for only 3.5% of the mentions. (Groups that represent occupations, identity groups, or other issue perspectives account for the remainder).

My counts do not include corporations and their associations, which vastly outnumber public interest groups and often have conservative views. When corporate interests are included, they represent a large share of media citations in policy debates (although one comparison found advocacy groups more prominent).

To see how this works in practice, look back at a USA Today story previewing 2011. The story cites Third Way, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Environmental Working Group, and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The Groseclose/Milyo measure of media bias would compare its citations to those of members of Congress, perhaps finding it more likely to cite liberal groups.

Yet looking for differences across media and policymakers misses the larger picture: some organizations consistently gain more attention from both. I find that policymakers and reporters both amplify the voices of the same types of large, institutionalized organizations. A previous study of think tanks also found that organizational size and resources, rather than their ideology, determines their prominence.

The population of available groups is also consequential. Reporters call a cross-section of the types of groups that are accessible to them. If the organizations that they cite are indicators of media bias, the largest source of biases in coverage are differences in the relative mobilization of each constituency. Some social groups, economic interests, and issue perspectives generate more organized representation and they receive more media coverage.

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Inequality is Much Greater in Interest Groups than Elections

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.

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Why Jews are Better Represented than Catholics

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.

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