"Special" interest groups aren't
An essay in which I argue that everyone in the Illinois commonwealth is a special interest group and that indifference toward place-based self-government owes to the fact that fewer and fewer people define themselves in terms of place. I have no idea whether it persuaded anyone, but at Illinois issues we used to persuade ourselves that our role was merely to stimulate thought—even if the thought was, “What a load of rubbish!”
Special interest groups have always been the flies on the potato salad at Illinois's Fourth of July picnic. It is easy to imagine Illinois democracy being simpler without them.
But would it be better? After all, interest groups pay for campaigns. They serve as de facto issues staff for lawmakers who always seem to be a few days behind in their reading. Their propagandists not only "shape debate" about important issues, they manufacture the issues that get debated by whipping up hysteria among their members, whose foot-stomping and chest-beating reverberate in the opinion polls, which they can then report as public furor in support of their positions.
Indeed, by functioning collectively as an ad hoc, extra-constitutional system of government, interest groups have made themselves essential to Illinois politics and government. From CUB to ComEd, collectively they are the medium of expression of popular will. It is a rare Illinoisan whose interests—as old people, consumers, workers, property owners—are not represented in the halls of government by one or more such groups. Good or bad, they are becoming to democratic discourse in the 21st century what parties were in much of the 20th.
The lawmaker's constituency—the collective entity defined by the ward, the legislative district, the congressional district, the state and the nation—is the only interest group that our political system makes official provision for. Of course, citizens also gather as the party, the pollster's sample, the trade association, the labor union. A lynch mob is an interest group, and so is the Catholic Church, but whatever their scope or respectability, each such group aggregates individuals into a politically potent mass.
Voting used to be the way that an Illinoisan expressed himself as a citizen. Now it is a way to define oneself as a citizen, since casting a vote is the only occasion when many people feel a member of the larger polity. The rest of the time people tend to see themselves as members of like-minded groups organized around shared interests, be they of class, race, sex, profession, or ideology. There are few Illinoisans in Illinois, having been replaced by bow-hunting anti-abortionists, unionized abuse victims, Christian prairie restorationists, overweight Afro-centrists, and recovering Cubs fans.
The many causes of this transformation can only be noted here: the rise of the therapeutic culture; the further elaboration of niche marketing to politics; the demise of the parties as broad-based consensus organizations, which is furthered by the tendency of voters to react as customers rather than citizens. Then, too, there is that pervasive sense of entitlement that leaves people feeling represented only when their political system responds to their wishes, not when the system considers those wishes fairly in brokering like demands of other groups.
The personal has always been political to some extent. To take one of a hundred examples: Most Germans in Illinois in the mid-1800s considered themselves Democrats because that party for a time had defended the immigrants' cause against the bigoted resentments of nativist demagogues, arguing for the equality of native-born and naturalized Americans. Nor is the new generation of interest groups necessarily organized more narrowly than of old—in which organizations is interest construed as narrowly as a janitors' union? Nor do they claim a new range of goods from government. The parks of Chicago are littered with statues that attest to the success of past groups to win symbolic rewards from the political system. That generation's statue is this generation's special liaison to the governor's office.
Nor is Americans' peculiar impulse to organize themselves around essentially private identities new; de Tocqueville anticipated Common Cause. We may not go bowling with the guys like we used to, but we send Greenpeace mugs to friends at Christmas. Whatever the ostensible purpose for which it was organized, every such group has an instant political agenda in a time when government is assumed to be either the cause of misery or the agent of relief, even in the private realm.
Here, then, is a real reform dilemma. We are becoming a society in which organizations—Sierra Club, AARP, NRA, NPR—are the means by which the politically articulate private citizen expresses her most deeply held views and seeks to impose them on power. Yet that society is run by a political system in which such organizations have no formal role. This is fine with a lot of people.
Reformers would ban interest groups from campaigns, for example, and thus (they plainly hope) from the halls of power. Is this wise? The interest group persists because it fills legitimate needs that the groups are obliged to pursue illegitimately because they have no formal place in the process. Better perhaps to make the relationship of interest groups to the process more visible and to subject it to checks and balances. Not a new idea. The former is the aim, if seldom the outcome, of sunshine laws. As for checks and balances, this is now attempted politically as—summarizing perhaps too bluntly—balancing the voters bought by the doctors against the voters bought by the lawyers. But neither approach has quite worked.
What might work? What about subjecting interest groups to formal, institutional checks and balances within the system? Why not eliminate the problem of organizations attempting to corrupt the process by trying to buy influence by giving it to them? Why not formalize their participation in the political process—bringing them out of the closet so to speak, or rather the cloakroom. Instead of upper houses of our legislative bodies filled with (redundant) representatives of (irrelevant) geographic districts, how about a senate of associations? Not only would a senate of associations more efficiently convey the whims of the citizenry—certainly represent more people than the 25 percent who cast votes directly for senators—it would come closer to meeting the original ideals of the nation's founders, who wished for an upper house that was informed, interested and elitist.
It's not that loony a notion. Interest groups increasingly function like parties. (Indeed, the Democratic and Republican parties can be reasonably described as general-interest groups.) Oregon voters in 1994 voted to limit all state campaign contributors to $100; frozen out from running campaigns indirectly, interest groups stepped up and functioned explicitly like parties, endorsing candidates and producing ad campaigns on their behalf.
Under a European-style system of proportional representation—or even a cumulative voting scheme as Illinois once enjoyed—groups like the Illinois Environmental Council or CUB would easily evolve into splinter parties a la Germany's Greens.
Illinois's doctors and teachers in particular already function as coalition partners to the Republicans and Democrats. The Illinois State Medical Society's membership is reported to be at its highest level in the last decade, with 60 percent of the state's physicians signed up. This bucks a national trend, and society officials have credited the fact to their extremely strong assertion of doctors' interests in the state legislature, among other factors.
Alas, the wise must also be practicable, which explains reform's fate in Illinois. Making interest groups the formal basis of representation in Illinois would leave the state facing the same dilemma faced in many another country: splintered electorate, endless factionalization, unstable coalitions in power. Communities of interests make less stable bases for governance than do the traditional communities of class. There are more of them, for one thing. Worse, they tend to be exclusionary—that is their point, after all.
Special interest groups are becoming more specialized all the time. Just as the general-purpose, one-size-fits-all party is losing ground to special inter est organizations, the interest organizations themselves are splintered as people conceive of their interests in ever-narrower terms. As the Chicago Tribune reported recently, traditional broad-based medical societies across the country are losing members to specialty societies such as the American College of Surgeons. ("You wouldn't understand. It's a thoracic thing.")
The individual is the ultimate special interest. Someday we will eliminate the middleman, and people will be able to cast their yeas and nays directly via computerized referenda. In such a perfect Illinois not even the special interest organization will be needed to mediate between the personal and the political realms of its people.
Until then, we may reflect that it is not private corruption that is explained by the trend toward interest group politics but public diffidence. Public cynicism about politics is typically linked to the public's vague "concern" over campaign finance. According to this thesis, declining voter turnout owes to the voters' demoralization. Their votes, they believe, no longer have much influence in a system dominated by the cash of the special interests.
Maybe. Maybe indifference toward self-government owes to the fact that place has less and less to do with how people see themselves. Maybe Americans participate less in traditional civic associations not because of a decline in Americans' public-spiritedness, but because such associations define "public" in terms of the small town, the parish, or the neighborhood that is not as relevant to people's lives.
Maybe the problem with special interests is not, as the reformer tends to see it, that they are too special, but that voters find them not special enough. ●