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An essay on the history of interest groups in america

A special-interest group is, by Reaganoid definition, any collective historical subject that dares to resist the stripped-down atomism of Star Wars, hypermarket, postmodern, media-simulated citizenship. Gordon Humphrey R-NH 2 The term "special interest" is one of those terms that makes politics what it is: The trouble is, in trying to locate this phrase in the social-discursive landscape, it is very hard to pin down the extension of the term i.

This combination of pejorative force and unclear extension makes it a powerful and highly contested keyword. Those who control the "special interests" label, who are able to make it stick, can use it to delegitimize other groups, be it the nuclear power industry or the NAACP. The struggle for control of the "special interest" label is a fascinating part of the history of 20th-century political discourse.

Part of my aim here is to sketch a story of how the anti-trust battle cry of the Progressive Era became the smear phrase that the Republicans used against Walter Mondale. In many current discussions of special interest groups, however, another theme emerges. Many of the political commentators who warn of the dangers of "special interest groups" apply the "special interest" label to any organization aside from political parties that seeks to affect political decision-making.

They then go on to argue for a wholesale rejection of any such groups, as "special interests" undermining "the common good.

My claim will be that they are misguided. In the first stage, during the Progressive Era, it was directed primarily against big business. In the second stage, talk of "interests" lost much of its critical edge, as political scientists argued that, since all groups were interest groups, no groups were "special" interest groups.

In the third and current stage, the "special interest" label reemerged as a hybrid of the previous two usages, i. On this view, any non-party organization seeking to affect political decision-making is rendered a "special interest group," and thereby suspect.

Despite the long history of both "special" and "interest," it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the two were combined into the "special interest" label. Today, a "special interest" can be defined quite generally, for example, as "a body of persons, corporation, or industry that seeks or receives benefits or privileged treatment, esp.

This narrower application of the term exclusively to big business made "special interests" a child of the times. The usage of the "special interest" label reflected a new understanding of the corrupting influences of commercial organizations. McCormick has argued, 4 the Progressives were galvanized by the systemic nature of big-business corruption. The problem was not the problem of a few greedy, conniving fat-cats. What the Progressives realized was that the interests of big business were not always the interests of the nation as a whole.

In short, the "special interests" were to be contrasted with the "common good" or "the public interest. An essay on the history of interest groups in america as the Progressives' assault on the Interests particularized evils, however, it intensified in the same breath the reality of a common good. Even after it became clear that successful reform politics was coalition politics, that a reform program could not be sustained without recognition of the special grievances of labor, farmers, small businessmen, urban dwellers, women, and on through a score of competing claimants, the rhetoric of the moral whole endured.

A new doctrine of anti-metaphysical "realism" gained dominance: This is the view that became known as "interest group pluralism," and it created a new discursive space, one in which there is no way of criticizing the groups that the Progressives attacked as "special interests. For pluralists, interest groups were the political version of homo oeconomicus: Although it dominated discussions in the two decades after the Second World War, interest group pluralism did not go unchallenged.

Critics have emphasized the way in which "filtering mechanisms" in government controlled access to the political process and served to exclude some groups and privilege others. Differences in the resources of interest groups have also received a great deal of attention, resources that include money, personal contacts, and -- perhaps most important -- reliable, up-to-the-moment, well-presented information. The criticism lay in showing that the conditions of competition among groups were not fair.

The idea of a common good played no role. The legacy of interest group pluralism is two-fold. First, by opening up the range of groups that could be labeled "interest groups," it paved the way for the contemporary application of the "special interest" label to both liberal and conservative groups. Second, the central claim of interest group pluralism -- that politics is a matter of competition among self-interested groups -- has become the focus of current wholesale critiques of interest group politics.

I shall concentrate on the second set of issues, but before going on to that, let me briefly address the former set. Despite the origins of the "special interest" label as term for criticizing the undue influence of big business, the phrase "pandering to special interests" is now regularly tacked on the Democratic Party.

Republicans have gained enormous control over the "special interest" label, and have been able to construct the Democratic Party as "the party of special interests. The image of Mondale as "catering" or "pandering" to "special interests" emerged early in 1984, and he was never able to shake the characterization of his bid for office as "the quintessential special-interest campaign. Organized labor, women, minorities, peace activists, the elderly, to mention a few. As John Kenneth Galbraith rather sardonically put it: The conclusion seems inescapable.

An interest group is any association of citizens that is numerous, most likely of low income and has aspirations that are unfulfilled.

If the participants are affluent, small or manageable in number the fundamentalists and the right-to-lifers are here an exception and have already made it in Washington or elsewhere, they are not an interest group.

Rather, they are a politically innocent expression of the American dream. In the course of these elections, Jackson was constructed as special-interestedness incarnate, a symbol of the Democrats' special interest liability. And, to a significant degree, it was the ability of the Republicans to control the "special interest" label that rendered the Democrats unable to convince voters that they represented the concerns of the majority of Americans.

This thought provides the basis for several general critiques of interest groups. Most specific critiques of interest-group politics are uncontroversial. Lobbyists often overstep their bounds. Politicians become addicted to the favors and services of some interest groups. Campaign finance laws are inadequate to deal with the pressures that are forcing candidates to turn to political action committees "PACs" to pay the skyrocketing costs of running their campaigns.

These specific critiques provide support for those who argue that interest-group politics is destroying "democracy" in the U. They are in agreement that, in politics as in economics, the anarchic tendencies of a laissez-faire approach need to be regulated with an eye to the "public interest. These people are presented as the backbone of the nation, as model citizens who neither make trouble nor place heavy demands on the government. They are modest, self-reliant, and responsible, in explicit contrast to "special interest groups," who are self-promoting, parasitic, and profligate.

Particularly since the early-seventies, many of the people who think of themselves as average taxpayers began to feel that their modesty was a serious liability, that highly vocal and organized special interest groups were walking all over an essay on the history of interest groups in america.

  1. Politicians can become so wary of controversial issues that they are capable of nothing but a politics of postponement. Communitarians envision a politics of engagement and commitment that is the natural outgrowth of citizens' involvement and education in their particular community, but at the same time avoids being parochial or self-interested.
  2. The problem was not the problem of a few greedy, conniving fat-cats. They received this name because they originated as journalist who would stand in the lobby of the House of Commons to speak with the legislators.
  3. Traditionally, both textbooks and scholarly studies have used a definition like this one. This led to the establishment of so-called "public-interest groups" dedicated to consumer rights, clean and efficient government, and low taxes.
  4. At one end, we can speak of interest groups as mechanisms for aggregating interests. Craig Calhoun, Cambridge, MA.
  5. Interest groups decide for themselves how cooperative or uncooperative they will be, but they make those decisions under conditions that are not of their own choosing.

This led to the establishment of so-called "public-interest groups" dedicated to consumer rights, clean and efficient government, and low taxes. Their aim was to fight the special interests on their turf, using lobbyists, direct mailings, and other techniques, but at the same time to remain on the high moral ground of disinterested concern for the common good.

Yet even though some public interest groups may be significantly motivated by altruistic concerns, it is usually not hard to see many of them as defending particular middle-class interests. In light of the abject poverty in which so many Americans live, the claim that "ordinary citizens" want to "get government off their backs" depends on a dubious distinction between "ordinary citizens" and "the poor.

The "new class" provides a convenient target of criticism. Neo-populists tend to portray the leaders of "special interest groups" as members of a powerful and corrupt "new class," one whose class interest lies in perpetuating a system of bureaucratic welfarism. First, the purported connections between "special interest groups" and the "new class" keeps the spotlight on those interest groups that are concerned with defending welfare measures.

  1. Real Differences What unites all three of these approaches in their rejection of interest-based politics is their conviction that politics must instead be based on some conception of the common good.
  2. This model involves a high level of participation and bottom-up policy-making. The trouble is, in trying to locate this phrase in the social-discursive landscape, it is very hard to pin down the extension of the term i.
  3. Bennett and Thomas J. The idea of a common good played no role.
  4. Situations like the killing of rainforest, and national gun control, or even abortion.

This reinforces the current image of "special interest groups" as primarily liberal groups. Second, because the term "class" is so foreign to U. Neo-populists completely overlook the central problems of who decides what interests are shared and whether any interests that are not widely shared nonetheless deserve government benefits.

Special Interests and the Crisis of Authority What I am calling the "Burkean" critique represents a prominent strain of neo-conservatism. Thus, discerning what the "common good" is and deciding how best to see it realized are tasks that are best left to the experts.

On this view, defining the "public interest" is not a matter of democratic process, but of detached reflectionof ". In a recent variation on this Burkean theme, Stephen Miller has asserted that The best way to curb the power of special interests is to make the daily life of the congressman an essay on the history of interest groups in america of an ordeal than it is now, so that a career in politics will attract people of talent and ambition --people whose love of fame will give them the courage to say to their constituents, as Burke said to his, 'your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

In his Presidential farewell address, Jimmy Carter argued that a doubting attitude toward "Government" drew people to "single-issue groups and special interest organizations," and that this made the authority of the President a vital concern: What is not obvious is that the solution is to buttress the political authority of the President. It is important to note that Burkeans do raise a genuine concern about the complexity of contemporary societies and the virtual impossibility of reaching anything approximating a consensus on difficult decisions -- especially with regard to large-scale initiatives e.

This can seriously hamper the ability of governments to take the bold steps sometimes required. Politicians can become so wary of controversial issues that they are capable of nothing but a politics of postponement. As Burkeans see things, "special interest groups" are in large part responsible for what makes bold, innovative decision-making nearly impossible in the present political climate. Until there is some agreement on how these questions are to be answered -- or even asked -- it will remain difficult to see the difference between the Burkean proposal and despotism, however enlightened.

The Moral Rejection of Self-Interest The communitarian critique of interest group politics shares with the Burkean approach both a concern for a substantive conception of the common good and a belief that the unregulated play of self-interested forces is not likely to result in the common good being realized. Where it differs is in its focus on local, participatory political spheres rather than on powerful offices of political authority.

Communitarians envision a politics of engagement and commitment that is the natural outgrowth of citizens' involvement and education in their particular community, but at the same time avoids being parochial or self-interested. The social glue that is to hold together communitarian forms of collectivity is not self-interest but a shared conception of the common good and a deep-rooted commitment to "a moral culture of justice, dignity, and fellowship.

US Politics/ Interest Groups term paper 17202

They tend, nonetheless, to place one key restriction on the form that such political participation can take: In Habits of the Heart, one of the central communitarian texts, the authors claim that. Strategies of separatism or confrontation can give groups the space they need to develop their confidence, self-awareness, and clarity. The autonomy and empowerment of groups are crucial preconditions for full participation in the democratic process by which a sense of shared purpose can be articulated and negotiated.

By rejecting interest-based activism, communitarians run the risk of contradicting their stated commitment to open participation in the discovery of the "common good. But if the existence of a common good cannot be presumed in advance, then there is no warrant for putting any strictures on what sorts of topics, interest, and views are admissible in deliberation. As civic republicans point out, there may be real worries about the way in which interest-based politics may harden lines of confrontation, thereby undermining the possibility for real dialogue.

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But there is also the worry that communitarians tend to equate conflict with selfishness, and then conclude that transcending a discourse of interests involves moving from conflict to solidarity. The thing about solidarity, however, is that it is only ever as good as the process that leads to it. Interest Groups in the Public Sphere: Real Differences What unites all three of these approaches in their rejection of interest-based politics is their conviction that politics must instead be based on some conception of the common good.

This opposition between "special interests" and "the common good" recalls the contrast that reformers of the Progressive Era used in applying the "special interest" label. But there is a crucial difference. During the Progressive Era, the contrast between the two was clearer: The "robber barons" provided tangible targets for criticism, thereby relieving concepts of the common good of the task of grounding the distinction.

It was probably not entirely clear to Progressives what, exactly, "the common good" was, but whatever it was, the "special interests" of big business were clearly undermining it.