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Don't worry about special interests

It is economic and social inequalities, not interest groups, that make politics elitist.

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Hippie commune member: "There is no hierarchy here, man."
Roger Sterling: "Believe me, there is always a hierarchy."
Mad Men, season 7, episode 4

Most of us here at Vox's Mischiefs of Faction political science blog, and many other political scientists as well, think political parties are primarily coalitions of interest groups. (We sometimes call them policy demanding groups.) Factions that control parties consist of people who are heavily involved in politics with strong political opinions. This is called the "UCLA school" of political parties because it was first put forward by professors and former graduates students from UCLA, some of them co-editors of this blog. (For more evidence for this view, see here, here, here, and here).

The danger of elite domination

Yet if parties are the main force in politics, and interest groups control parties, does that mean the political process is hopelessly elitist? Many people over the years have worried about this. One vivid illustration of this concern is the reaction Hans Noel (one of the original founders of the UCLA school) provoked last year when he wrote that even decision-making inside the American Political Science Association is dominated by factions with intense preferences, just like in national politics. One commenter, Todd, wrote in response:

I would argue that this is evidence of a non-democracy. It demonstrates that the APSA board is not accountable to the membership--which it can't be since there is such a gigantic numerical distance. The majority of the membership don't bother voting because that distance disconnects them and makes them realize that they don't really have any control. Our government is no different.

Later Todd added:

What can you do if you're unhappy about the timing of traffic lights in your neighborhood? What can you do if the schools are bad in your district? What can you do if the lake or river in your area has become polluted? Who can you talk to? Sure, if you're really, really, really motivated you can start a movement and get something done. But very few people are that motivated because there are so many issues. You're saying this is democracy??? Ha! I think you're simply defining democracy according to the status quo, which clearly isn't democracy. The definition of democracy is government that is of, by, and for the people. That individuals actually have a say.

It is tempting to view the UCLA school as similar to the work of other famous political thinkers who claimed that democracy is inevitably controlled by elites. For instance, in his 1943 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, economist Joseph Schumpeter said the mass public has little power in democracy and can only choose among different coalitions of politicians. People are at the mercy of the choices politicians present to them. Political scientist William Riker (no, not that one) makes a similar argument in his 1982 book Liberalism Against Populism. Riker argues that because group decision-making across multiple issues is prone to chaos, elites will always set the agenda in democracies. In Riker's words:

The popular will is defined only as long as the issue dimensions are restricted. Once issue dimensions multiple, the popular will is irresolute...(p. 241) The kind of democracy that thus survives is not, however, popular rule, but rather an intermittent, sometimes random, even perverse, popular veto. Social choice theory forces us to recognize that the people cannot rule as a corporate body in the way that populists suppose. Instead, officials rule, and they do not represent some indefinable popular will. Hence they can easily be tyrants, either in their own names or in the name of some putative imaginary majority. Liberal democracy is simply the veto by which it is sometimes possible to restrain official tyranny (p. 244).

Yet the UCLA school differs from these perspectives in important ways. The UCLA school says that it is not simply "elites" that dictate the party choices available to voters. Rather, it is organized interest groups that determine the choices. The coalitions they build determine the collection of policy positions parties adopt and thus the choices available to voters on Election Day.

Should we feel comfortable with interest groups determining the choices available to the electorate? The most prominent 20th-century scholar of American political parties, E.E. Schattschneider, was skeptical of interest groups. In response to the "pluralists" (political scientists who argued that politics was not elitist because diverse groups participated in decision-making), Schattschneider argued that parties were much better than interest groups at representing ordinary people. In his 1960 book A Semisovereign People, Schattschneider wrote:

The data raise a serious question about the validity of the proposition that special-interest groups are a universal form of political organization reflecting all interests...The pressure system only makes sense as the political instrument of a segment of the community. It gets results by being selective and biased; if everyone got into the act, the unique advantages of this form of organization would be destroyed... The vice of the groupist theory is that in conceals the most significant aspects of the system. The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper class accent. Probably 90 percent of the people cannot get into the pressure system... Pressure politics is a selective process ill designed to serve diffuse interests. The system is skewed, loaded, and unbalanced in favor of a fraction of a minority. (pp. 34-5)

What Schattschneider got wrong was in seeing party politics and interest group politics as opposed. We now know that interest groups and parties work together. Not every organized group is firmly affiliated with one party or another, but many are. And control over party issue stances and nominations is largely held by the major interest groups in each party's coalition. We now know that elitism in interest groups infects parties because parties are large, long-term interest group coalitions. Parties and interest groups both run the same risk of excluding most people's preferences from their decision-making.

Two biases in political participation: privilege and preference intensity

Gay Rights Prop 8 Protest

(Gerry Boughan/Shutterstock)

Since the early 20th century, political observers have been concerned that interest groups and political parties are not representative of the mass public or even their own members (see this for instance). There are primarily two types of people who have disproportionate influence in interest groups and political parties: those with more intense political opinions and those with more socioeconomic resources. The first bias is inevitable and may be a good thing. The second bias is a problem.

It is not elitist for people who feel strongly about an issue — either for purely moral reasons or because it affects them personally — to be more likely to participate in politics. We have known since survey research in the 1950s that many people hold weak to nonexistent political opinions (sometimes called nonattitudes). Some of the variation in the intensity of opinions is driven by education levels, but not all of it. Some people are just more interested in politics than others, differences that are mostly stable over one's lifetime. On top of that, some people have strong opinions and involvement on a specific issue, even if they are not broadly politically involved (what political scientists call "issue publics"). Most people consider a democratic political system not just one in which the public votes, but one in which people can protest, organize, and agitate when their preferences are especially intense (i.e., "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"). It is hard to imagine a free political system is which those with more intense preferences didn't have some ability to at least attempt to have extra influence.

The problem arises when biases in power come not merely from intense preferences, but also from social and economic privilege. There is a lot of evidence collected over many years that those with more resources, such as money and education, have a much easier time participating in the political process, and have much greater control over elected officials. There is also evidence that in addition to economic disadvantages, women participate less than men, and that the preferences of women and ethnic minorities are less influential over politicians.

These big problems come from our society, not from the fact that interest groups are influential in politics. Any free political system gives extra influence to those who have intense preferences. The difficulty is making sure differences in influence are mostly due to preference intensity, not social and economic inequalities. Not an easy task.

Unfortunately, the US is mostly going in the wrong direction. Economic inequality has been increasing since the 1970s, especially at the very high end of the distribution. On top of that, the series of Supreme Court decisions rolling back campaign finance restrictions (most famously Citizens United) makes it much easier for extremely wealthy people to gain huge amounts of political influence. Unlike just a few years ago, it is now possible for one super-wealthy individual to keep a presidential candidate viable for months and finance a substantial proportion of a political party's general election needs.

An example: the slavery abolition movement

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
—attributed to Margaret Mead

This is all very troubling. But the problem is not that organized groups have disproportionate influence in politics. The problem is that American society is deeply unequal and has campaign finance rules making it very easy to translate private inequality into politics.

As the famous Margaret Mead quote reminds us, positive social change generally does not occur through a simple vote or poll of the people. Most efforts to improve society start out as marginal causes without majority popular support. The modern LGBT rights movement did not begin when marriage equality (or even decriminalization) had majority support. It began in the early 1970s, when LGBT people were still deeply marginalized and unpopular. It was the movement that changed public opinion on the road to changing the laws.

But my favorite example of an unpopular movement agitating for massive social change is the slavery abolition movement. Prior to the Civil War, the abolition movement was a marginal group in American society. Yale Civil War historian David Blight notes in his undergraduate course on the Civil War and Reconstruction:

Abolitionists were never---even at their peak of organizational action---were never more than probably at most 15% of the population of the northern states. Now in some communities, they might be larger: upstate New York, parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut or New Hampshire. Always a small group. But like most vociferous and eventually highly organized (operating by the printing press) reform groups, there significance is much greater than their numbers.

You can get a sense of how far abolitionist were from the mainstream of antebellum public opinion by looking at their views on the US Constitution itself. The consensus among historians is that the Constitution was revered by Northern whites in antebellum America. Yet abolitionist activists (accurately) saw the Constitution as deeply complicit in the evils of slavery. Here is Blight again, describing a protest event led by arguably the most prominent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison:

On the 4th of July, 1854, in an outdoor park in Framingham, MA... William Loyd Garrison and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society built a stage. They had a huge turnout. And Garrison and his group performed an act of abolitionist theater...[B]ehind Garrison was a very large United States flag upside down...Garrison first read from scripture---Old Testament, Deuteronomy---then he proceeded in three segments to burn documents. He first held up in his hand what he said was a copy of the Fugitive Slave Act, which he burned in his hand with a lighted match, threw the ashes on the floor, stomped on the ashes, and the crowd shouted, "Amen!" Then he held in his hand the document for the rendition... of Anthony Burns, returning Burns as a fugitive slave to Virginia. He burned that, threw the ashes on the floor, stomped on them, and the crowd shouted, "Amen!" Then he pulled out a copy of the United States Constitution, which he announced, as he had announced many times over in his newspaper, The Liberator, he called it "a covenant with death, an agreement with hell, so perish all compromisers with tyranny." He burned it...stomped on the ashes all over the stage. And the crowd shouted, "Amen!"

The abolition of slavery was the greatest single advance for social justice in American history. And by all available (admittedly imprecise) measures, a majority of Northerners never supported abolition prior to 1861, and likely still didn't prior to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1865 13th Amendment.

Some of the ways abolitionist prevailed were by being very organized and motivated, having resources, and connecting themselves to a Republican Party coalition based on "Free Soil" ideology, which eventually gained control of the presidency and Congress. Yet this coalition building, like all coalition building, was a messy business. It required the abolitionists to team up with those who wanted to colonize free blacks back to Africa, those who opposed extending slavery to the western territories because they simply didn't want blacks in the territories at all, and those who simply didn't want to have to compete with businesses that used slave labor. Yet through their zealous activism and membership in a partisan and ideological coalition, they achieved a goal (abolition) that, since it arguably contradicted the existing US Constitution, must have seemed almost impossible prior to the Civil War.

Social progress in a democracy will almost always come from agitation and protest. Often the cause will be very unpopular at the beginning. It is good that this is possible in a democracy. The challenge is making sure the deck isn't stacked in favor of rich and privileged organized factions. A realistic less-elitist political system would be one in which interest groups that control parties are built more on preference intensity than privilege.