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Though we may elect our officials, America’s citizens have little control over the process of passing laws at the Federal level — that duty is left to the legislative branch. However, it would be too facile to say our congressmen are the only forces behind the creation of laws. In reality, many experts believe the true key actors are activists and special interest groups.
In September 2012, six influential political scientists published a paper titled “A Theory of Parties.” The paper asserts that today’s political parties are little more than coalitions of interest groups. These coalitions essentially develop agendas and then seek politicians who will push them forward.
The rise of special interest groups in American politics began during the social revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s. During these decades of change, organizations formed in response to polarizing events like the Vietnam War and civil rights movements. These circumstances gave rise to impassioned, well-organized advocacy groups with clear legislative goals.
Special interests’ subsequent ascent to political superpower is most easily understood by comparing their characteristics to those of the general electorate. The advantages of appealing to interest groups are plentiful.
Advocacy groups are willing and powerful tools for political gain. Because they are so narrow and impassioned in their views, candidates can gain an organization’s full-fledged support simply by endorsing their cause.
The views of the average voter are far less extreme, and their voting habits are less volatile. Even if a voter disagrees with the candidate’s position on one policy, they are not necessarily discouraged from supporting them all together. The average voter’s moderate disapproval is far less damaging than drawing the ire of a powerful lobby.
Take for example the issue of gun control, which involves one of the most influential lobbies in America: the National Rifle Association. Members of the NRA believe that any restriction on the right to bear arms is a fundamental affront on their rights as a citizen.
Even if a majority of the public disagrees with the NRA, they do so on varying levels. Some people might generally support the right to bear arms, but favor strict background checks. Others may disagree with concealed carry laws, or favor a ban on specific rifles. Some might favor stricter laws in theory, but don’t even bother to research a candidate’s stance on it. While all of these people agree on their desires for stricter gun control, they aren’t unified or extreme in their cause. They won’t refuse to consider a candidate just because they endorse the NRA, and they can’t even be guaranteed to vote. Because their views are moderate and their causes disjunct, they are a less appealing source of support despite their majority status.
Special interests provide far more than the promise to put their own members in the voting booth. These powerful groups also possess the single most important resource: money. The cost of winning a campaign is steadily increasing. OpenSecrets.org reports that the average winning senatorial candidate spent 10.2 million dollars on their campaign in 2012.
Organized minorities are happy to fund the expensive means of election, because once they’ve helped a congressman into a seat, they are guaranteed repeated support in policy votes. When the time comes for re-election, the legislator will need the support of those interest groups to keep their position of power. Thus, the congressman has incentive to stay the course. This, in part, explains the absurd incumbent re-election rate in Congress, which is upwards of 90 percent.
The laws meant to keep money from dominating politics grow weaker by the year. Contribution limit laws, which were already filled with loopholes, are continually defeated and weakened. Why? Because the congressmen voting on them benefit from the funding those weak laws allow.
If your head is spinning, it’s because you’re witnessing a vicious cycle.
The result of this cycle is a disconnect between the needs of the voters and the actions of their representatives. Because congressmen are busy pleasing a vocal minority of the population, political discourse centers on issues that most voters don’t even value.
Accomplished political scientist Morris Fiorina wrote an entire book on this gap between voters’ interests and the focus of politicians. In Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics, Dr. Fiorina argues that many “hot button issues” hardly register as important in the mind of average voters.
Citing Pew Research Center, Fiorina says that in polls asking Americans to identify their main policy concerns, “abortion barely registered, and gay marriage did not register at all; gun control and stem cells, (…) were similarly low or missing from the list.” Rather than these controversial social issues, average Americans ranked foreign policy, the economy, and welfare as most important.
Why, then, does the American electorate allow its focus to be drawn to the polarizing cultural issues that interest groups so ardently promote? Because most Americans know frighteningly little about politics.
This group can be referred to as “low information voters,” and it encompasses a majority of our population. LIVs are not necessarily lazy or ignorant. Many people simply do not have the time or resources to wade through political sludge. Particularly for lower-income individuals, the opportunity cost of making informed political decisions is high.
These citizens either choose not to vote, or rely on the most readily available information to make their decisions at the last minute. This information inevitably comes from a candidate’s platform, or the literature of an interest group itself, giving the LIV the impression that these issues are the ones to focus on.
The media reinforces this image by focusing on controversial, eye-catching issues. The result is the increasing polarization of American politics — a government focused on the divisive and extreme, “representing” their overwhelmingly moderate constituents.
Special interest groups are not necessarily evil organizations, out to ruin the integrity of American politics; they are groups of passionate individuals who want to see change and know how to create it. However, our politicians’ intense focus on these minorities has distorted our political focus and created a separation between the needs of our electorate and policy priority in Washington.
Matthew Meyer prefers the mundane to the eye-catching … always.