Interest groups include organizations like the AFL-CIO which represent labor unions; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which represents business interests; the National Rifle Association (NRA) which represents the rights of gun owners; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lobbys for civil rights legislation. All of these groups are formal organizations which seek to influence policy through certain prescribed channels and methods which I will discuss shortly. The U.S. has so many interest groups that the true number of groups is unknown. The most well-known groups like the ones mentioned above are highly organized. The question of political organization is a crucial one that may have somehow been overlooked when the country was founded.
Theories of democratic government had argued that the will of the majority had to be limited to prevent it from oppressing minority groups (e.g. Madison Federalist #10; Tocqueville, Democracy in America). Modern theories argue that minority interests often win out over the majority. The reason for this is the ability to organize.
In the early 20th century, Robert Michels developed what is known as the "iron law of oligarchy" (oligarchy being a Greek word meaning rule by the few). The "law" states simply that as any organization grows in size and become more complex this will lead to control of the organization being placed in the hands of those who have superior technical and organizational skills.
In the 1960s, economist Mancur Olson Jr. developed what he called the "logic of collective action," collective action referring to the combined efforts of people pursuing certain goals, obviously most if not all political actions, are collective actions as well. Olson argues that you can separate "diffuse interests," the will of the majority, from "concentrated interests," minority interests. Take for example how trade policy is made in the country: a certain sector of the economy, whether it be industry, agriculture, or services, might lobby the government for tariffs on certain products from foreign countries. This would result in higher prices being placed on these items. A majority of people might be opposed to this but since the interests of the minority are much more concentrated in that their income, and even their jobs might be on the line, so they will literally work harder to lobby the government then the majority of people whose interests are more diffuse, meaning the increase in price will not hit them as hard as say someone who risks being laid off. This notion of different interests turns on its head the conventional notion of politics and constitutional government which developed the notion of checks and balances and separation of powers precisely to reduce the influence of the majority. Is it possible then that the U.S. Constitution is overly guarded against the will of the majority? If it is true that minority interests often are better organized than the majority and are able to translate that into political policy, then it is very likely to be true.
Related to the idea of diffuse v. concentrated interests is what Olson calls the "free-rider problem." A free rider is basically someone who benefits from something but contributes nothing to maintaining this benefit. What made Olson's account of collective action so influential was that he argued that it was rational to be a free-rider, meaning if you think of reasoning as the ability to figure out what is in your best interest, then Olson argues it is rational to free-ride. This leads to a paradox however, where if everyone free rides than no one will do the work needed to maintain the benefit, for example a clean public park or demonstrating for a labor union. How then can you solve the free-rider problem? Olson argues four solutions:1) you can either keep the size of the group small enough so that people get some benefit from being in the group itself, a feeling of friendship or solidarity, that you do not get in a large organization, this however, will limit the effectiveness of the group; 2) create "selective benefits" that are only given if you participate in the group; 3) use coercion to force people to participate; 4) someone takes it upon themselves to provide the cost of the benefit. Olson offers this as an explanation for the often hierarchical structure of many interest groups, which are hardly run in democratic fashion, whether they are business associations or unions. However some critics argues that Olson and Michels are too pessimistic and too narrowly focused on individual groups. While it might be true that all organizations degenerate over time even as they grow larger, if you take a step back and look at the larger society there are always more groups forming to replace older organizations. Of course this is not an easy process and often there is intense struggle and conflict for newer groups to replace older ones. Still it offers one possible solution for the "iron law of oligarchy." Understanding this larger process however would take us out of looking at only interest groups and looking at the larger dynamic between interest groups and social movements, however a few more things about interest groups before moving on.
I already mentioned briefly the different types of interest groups, you also have to consider the different tactics used by groups to influence policy.
- Most common is lobbying which refers to meeting directly with legislators and trying to influence their decisions on voting for laws. Lobbyists are not missionaries, however, and are not trying to convert people but usually are looking for people who already think the same way on most issues. This is why political parties are important because they provide a sense of political identity that interest groups can use to determine who to approach, and help establish connections between interest groups and candidates. Lobbying assumes that you have direct access to key policy-makers in government and is usually reserved for the most influential groups.
- Another tactic is the influence of campaign contributions to finance election campaigns, something which every politician is always looking for.
- Economically well-connected groups can use the threat of moving as a way to influence policy, by effectively leaving or exiting from the political arena. Many sports teams have used this tactic to influence local governments to vote for tax breaks or other concessions.
- Outside lobbying refers to large groups who write or phone legislators in order to influence their vote. This is seen as more of a "grass-roots" approach to lobbying.
- This tactic is most effective when you have a large group of people, as is the threat of voting against a candidate. Many groups opposing tax increases on the rich have used this tactic against Republicans in the House of Representatives in order to make sure they do not vote for tax increases. Those who do not comply are voted out of office, or even in the primary, during the next election.
- Demonstrations and boycotts can be another way of influencing policy. This tactic is probably most famous for being used during the early civil movements like the Montgomery Bus Boycott organized by Martin Luther King Jr.
- Litigation is another tactic used by the civil rights movement as in Brown v. Board of Ed. To litigate means to bring your issue to court in the form of a lawsuit. An important political battle is being fought over the limits in damages corporations have to pay in lawsuits.
- Often times to maximize the number of supporters in a campaign, interest groups will form coalitions or alliances with other groups.
- Control over information is another important tactic used by interest groups. Many of the areas law makers have to make laws for are highly technical (e.g. science and medicine) and are forced to depend upon interest groups for supplying the relevant information, which obviously gives groups an advantage.
- Public information campaigns are directed towards voters and tries to motivate them to lobby legislators. Since the flow of information is from interest groups to the broader public, often these campaigns can be very one-sided and even manipulative.
- Sometimes violence is used even by formally organized groups, (e.g. employers have been known to use violent means to disperse striking workers) but usually this tactic is associated with social movements which are more informal.
Finally, before moving on to the discussion of social movements, there are two main ways to classify interest group politics: pluralist or corporatist
Pluralism is the system we have in the U.S. Pluralism refers to the large number of independent groups which act independently of each other and try to pursue their own interests, as opposed to a corporatist system which usually has a smaller number of groups. In a pluralist system groups like business and labor act as separate, and often antagonistic interests, while in a corporatist system business and labor are brought together in an institutional environment which seeks to create cooperation between these groups and is characterized by large trade associations with close ties to the government that is lacking in a pluralist system. Economists Peter Hall and David Soskice argue there are six crucial areas that distinguishes a pluralist system (or in their terms a liberal-market economy LME) from a corporatist system (coordinated market economy CME). [Note their analysis is mostly concerned with economic structure].
- Finance: pluralist systems usually finance their activities through capital markets (banks) and are publicly traded on stock exchanges relative to their "market value." Corporatist systems are usually self-financed in cooperation with other business firms, or rely on financing from the state.
- Industrial relations: pluralist systems create more adversarial relations between business and labor. Wage contracts are negotiated between business and labor representatives. In a corporatist system wages are decided by institutions which represent both business and labor, union officials even serve on corporate board of directors
- Skill formation: In a pluralist system workers invest in their own skills. Employers have little incentive to invest in worker training since workers leave often and find new jobs. Corporatist systems usually have better job training programs which are funded by unions and employers, and where employment at firms is usually much longer
- Product markets: In a pluralist system businesses have to compete against each other for a share or a piece of a certain market. Marketing and advertising campaigns are common ways of increasing market share. A corporatist system divides up markets between firms which negotiate between each other for a share of the market
- Inter-firm relations: In a pluralist system, technology is shared by firms through licensing. A corporatist system allows for technology sharing in a more cooperative setting
- Firm-employee relations: In a pluralist system corporate managers have much more freedom and power than they do in a corporatist system.
Hall and Soskice argue that in a liberal-market economy like the U.S. these six areas will all complement each other and be the same, while a country like Germany that is more corporatist has the same corporatist features in all six areas. In other words, you do not really find mixtures of the two types, these institutions all complement and reinforce each other. Although they focus on economic groups, this structure be it pluralist or corporatist basically sets the rules for which every kind of interest group has to work by.
A social movement is different from an interest group mainly by its level of organization, although most social movements have some kind of organization structure, it is usually not as formalized as an interest group. This has various advantages and disadvantages. Lack of formal organization gives social movements greater flexibility than interest groups, however they often lack the resources of organized interests. At the same time interest groups might have closer ties to government but often lacks the numerical support that large social movements often have. Social movements are not necessarily good while interest groups are bad. Social movements can range from anything from the civil rights movement to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Many social movements use the tactics of interest groups, like bus boycotts for example, but often social movements can use violence as well. In the two films we watched, Cocalero, and An Election in Africa, both feature social movements which eventually grew into political parties, distinguishing them from political parties in the U.S. which are much closer to organized interest groups, of course this is partly explained by the relative lack of organized interest groups in Bolivia and Ghana respectively.
Theorists of social movements like Doug McAdam have argued that there is a structure for how social movements operate which must take into account three factors:
- The political opportunity structure: meaning what are the options for political action given by the political system. An authoritarian government will usually have a more restricted opportunity structure than a democratic government. However you must also consider political opportunities created outside of national boundaries by global social movements and international organizations
- Mobilization structure: refers to how the movement itself is able to generate collective action by mobilizing its supporters. The growth of communication technology and social media has greatly increased the ability to mobilize people
- Framing: refers to how the goals of the movement are articulated. Ideology is important as well because a belief system which ties supporters together and gives them a way of framing or interpreting the goals of the movement.
There is a logic to social movements, which brings up the same problems of collective action, namely the free-rider problem. People have an incentive to free-ride as well, if civil rights legislation is passed it will benefit all minority groups affected, but there is still a tendency not to contribute assistance and to allow someone else to do the work of providing this benefit.
Another approach to the logic of collective actions is given by Albert Hirschman, who argues there are three primary responses from a group or individual to a declining institution: exit, voice, or loyalty. Hirschman developed his analysis originally by looking at the responses of consumers to businesses but then argues this model can be used for politics as well. The most common response of a consumer to a product they do not like anymore, is to exit, meaning to take their business elsewhere, but in a political sense this can be done as well, for example sports teams which threaten to leave a city, or even people threatening to leave a country (e.g. various celebrities vowing to move out of the country is George Bush or Barack Obama is elected President—of course no one ever really leaves). However, the idea of threatening to leave, or exit leads to the second response, voice, to express your discontent with the institution and desire to change or reform it. So when confronted by a situation one does not like, one can either try to leave the situation, or express their discontent and try to change the situation. What then determines the influence of voice? There are many factors involved like resources and connections, but also the threat of exit has to be considered as well. Simply put, if I am threatening to leave you but you do not take this threat seriously then you are less likely to give in to my threat, however if you do believe I might actually leave you might be more willing to make concessions. Finally, there is loyalty, which means you do nothing and wait for things to change. The level of loyalty influences the threat of exit. If I am loyal I am less likely to leave. Hirschman's goal was then to specify in real situations the values of exit, voice, and loyalty and to predict the likelihood groups would use these responses in situations. Hirschman's logic like Olson's can be used for both interest groups and social movements. Social movements are groups that utilize voice more than exit, since they do not seek to leave the country, but obviously the difference between voice and loyalty would be what separates a person in a social movement from an average person.
To sum up then the goals of interest groups and social movements can be very similar, as are the problems that limit their effectiveness, most importantly the free-rider problem. The major difference between interest groups and social movements is the level of organization, and in that regard many social movements as they become more formalized over time become more like interest groups (or in some case change into political parties). In many ways then the more successful a social movement is, the more it risks losing the essential parts of it that make it effective in the first place. The tactics chosen by interest groups and social movements are related to their level of organization and ability to mobilize people, and these tactics can be thought of in terms of exit, voice, and loyalty as possible responses.
Assignment Due 5/14: Choose a passage from the reading by Olson. Write it out, explain what it means and why you chose this passage.
Assignment Due 5/14: Choose a passage from the reading by Olson. Write it out, explain what it means and why you chose this passage.