The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview
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Chapter Nine
“MIRRORS OF DESIRES”

INTEREST GROUPS, ELECTIONS, AND THE TARGETED STYLE
IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICA

Brian Balogh

THE TEMPLATE USED by elected officials to discern the prefer- ences of their constituents is fundamental to democratic gover- nance. This template shifted in the first third of the twentieth cen- tury. The way in which elected officials conceptualized voters evolved from one that employed reliable partisan cues about voters’ wishes to one that relied upon far more specialized profiles of voters and that delivered policy-prone information to elected officials. The dynamic relationship between interest groups, rapidly changing conceptions of consumers, and electoral politics, combined with the declining ability of political parties to convey voter preferences, accounts for this fundamental shift. Concep- tualizing the electorate as a congeries of group preferences best discerned through the platforms and policy agendas of interest groups constituted a distinct period in the American political development that shaped the political system from roughly 1900 through 1970.

Interest groups played a key role in linking voters to public officials in the first half of the twentieth century. A pronounced feature of the politi- cal landscape since the founding, they began to replace political parties as the most reliable media for both ascertaining and responding to the views of segments of voters by the twentieth century. In that regard, they anticipated the daily tracking polls that emerged by the 1970s as the most reliable link between public officials and key constituencies. Indeed, the emergence of regularized and reliable public opinion polling signaled the end of a distinct period in American democracy that ranged roughly from 1900 through 1970 during which interest groups served as crucial con- duits of the democratic will.

During this period, political parties, the nineteenth-century mechanism used by public officials to take the pulse of the electorate, proved less adept at fulfilling this task. The reasons for this are varied. Voter participa-

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