The Role of Interest Groups

More than citizens in other democracies, Americans tend to be willing to accept inequalities of economic outcomes so long as there is equality of opportunity at the starting line. However, they are less forgiving of political inequalities, believing that, on the level playing field of democracy, policymakers should be equally responsive to everyone’s preferences.

Martin Gilens’s data about the relationship between public policies and the views Americans express in polls raise serious questions about democratic equality. Public officials seem to be disproportionately responsive to the preferences of the affluent and to turn a deaf ear to those who are lower on the economic ladder.

In accounting for this state of affairs, Gilens dismisses interest groups as a source of the influence wielded by affluent Americans. He points out that a number of Washington heavy hitters—such as the Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, AARP, and the AFL-CIO—represent varying interests, not just the interests of the well off.

But Gilens overlooks important aspects of representation by organizations in national politics. For one, a majority of the organizations represented in Washington politics are not groups at all. They are what political scientist Robert Salisbury calls “institutions”—for example, universities, hospitals, museums, and, especially, corporations. For another, of the thousands of organizations that get involved in national politics—nearly 14,000 in 2006, which is the last time anybody counted—only a few are widely regarded as influential. The overwhelming share—the National RV Dealers Association, National Association of Federal Veterinarians, American Peanut Council, etc.—operate out of the limelight on narrow issues that are of intense concern to a few but will never appear in public opinion surveys.

The organizations that seek influence in Washington politics represent an astonishing array of interests. Taken together, however, they tilt strongly in the direction of the haves. Organizations representing those with ample political resources and deep pockets vastly outnumber advocates for the economic interests of the middle class and the poor. More than half of the organizations active in national politics represent business.

Don’t overlook interest groups: not one of the politically active occupational associations represents unskilled workers.

There are thousands of politically active membership associations representing people according to their occupations. Just under half are professional associations of architects, audiologists, plant biologists, African-American lawyers, Hispanic dentists, and so on. About 10 percent bring together people in other skilled occupations, for example, realtors, appraisers, medical technicians, and . . . lobbyists. Roughly one in eight is a union whose members comprise just over a third of public-sector workers and less than one-twelfth of those in the private sector. Unless they are union members, office receptionists, Walmart employees, bellhops, telemarketers, laundry workers, van drivers, bartenders, etc. have no occupational associations to represent their interests in Washington. Not a single occupational organization represents the shared concerns of non-unionized unskilled workers.

Among the tens of thousands of organizations that are politically active in Washington are a small number that advocate for the poor. However, there is no organization that brings together recipients of means-tested government benefits such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). Similarly, there are no organizations representing parents of children in Head Start programs, women at home, criminal defendants awaiting trial, or workers whose company pensions are in jeopardy.

And, of course, not every organization is created equal. The volume of the political voice devoted to a given issue is not necessarily proportional to the number of organizations concerned with it. An organization with a large budget will hire the expertise it needs—lobbyists, tax attorneys, public relations experts, and the like. Of the billions of dollars devoted annually to lobbying in Washington, 72 percent is spent by organizations representing business interests; in contrast, 2 percent is spent by public interest groups (a category that includes both liberal and conservative advocates), 1 percent is spent by unions, and less than 1 percent is spent by organizations advocating on behalf of social welfare programs or the poor.

I am a great fan of Martin Gilens’s work, past and present. But I urge him not to overlook the place of organized interests in the puzzle of democratic inequality in America.