The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance

The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance

The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance

The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance

Synopsis

"Lobbyist" tends to be used as a dirty word in politics. Indeed, during the 2008 presidential primary campaign, Hillary Clinton was derided for even suggesting that some lobbyists represent "real Americans." But although many popular commentators position interest groups as representatives of special- not "public"- interests, much organized advocacy is designed to advance public interests and ideas.

Advocacy organizations- more than 1,600 of them- are now an important component of national political institutions. This book uses original data to explain why certain public groups, such as Jews, lawyers, and gun-owners, develop substantially more representation than others, and why certain organizations become the presumed spokespersons for these groups in government and media. In contrast to established theory and conventional wisdom, this book demonstrates that groups of all sizes and types generate advocates to speak on their behalf, though with varying levels of success. Matt Grossmann finds that the advantages of organized representation accrue to those public groups that are the most politically motivated and involved in their communities. Organizations that mobilize members and create a long-lasting presence in Washington become, in the minds of policymakers and reporters, the taken-for-granted surrogates for these public groups. In the face of perennial debates about the relative power of the people and the special interests, Grossmann offers an informed and nuanced view of the role of organizations in public representation and American governance.

Excerpt

Depending on one’s perspective, Washington, DC, either is overrun by special interest groups or features the world’s most active civil society. Today, more than 1,600 organizations in Washington claim to speak on behalf of public groups or issue perspectives in national politics. Some of these nongovernmental advocacy organizations are household names, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Sierra Club, but most represent small constituencies and are only peripheral participants in policymaking. Beyond the familiar faces at the NAACP and the Christian Coalition, for example, more than 150 organizations represent ethnic and religious groups in the nation’s capital. The advocacy community has been expanding dramatically for several decades (Berry 1989; Walker 1991).

The burgeoning of advocacy raises two fundamental questions of democratic politics that this book hopes to answer. First, what types of public groups generate extensive organized representation to speak on their behalf? Second, how and why do some advocacy organizations become the most prominent in public debate and the most involved in policymaking? In short, who is represented, and whose voice is heard?

Commentators frequently raise more sensationalized versions of these questions. For instance, the possibility that some Indian tribes bought their way to political influence through the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was a prominent concern of 2006. The alternative story, that Abramoff extorted millions of dollars without delivering the promised favors in return, seemed just . . .

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