Thursday, November 20, 2008

Politics Corrupts Interest Groups

(cross-posted at Upturned Earth, where comments are open)

Freddie DeBoer has an outstanding post up that discusses the way in which achieving legal and social equality, when it finally happens, will be the death knell for unified gay support of the coalition of the left. In essence he argues that success on these fronts would remove the raison d’etre for near-universal gay membership in the coalition of the Left. While many/most individual gays would remain in the Left’s fold, they would no longer be a solid bloc because the issue that made them a solid bloc will have been removed. As Freddie writes:

Sometimes certain groups of people actually have special interests, and as democracy is a system of individuals and groups competing for their own best interests, it’s natural to have affinity groups dedicated to pursuing those interests. So the cure for minority politics is to remove the complaints of the minority groups in the first place.

In all, there is little with which I disagree in Freddie’s post. But there are some important implications to Freddie’s points, which apply equally to nearly all interest groups.

Specifically, he helps demonstrate one of the fundamental reasons why interest group politics often wind up with the interest group being influenced far more heavily than the subject politician/political party. So long as a group presents a relatively stable voting bloc for a political party, that party will have little incentive to remove the causes that create that bloc’s stability. Thus, what often happens with interest group politics - and you can see this in Andrew Sullivan’s complaints about the Human Rights Campaign and in gun-rights supporters’ complaints about the NRA - is that the interest group’s policy preferences become increasingly identical to the policy preferences of the party behind which they throw their support. Indeed, this happens so often that I consider it a fundamental rule of interest group politics. The group’s goal become, in essence, electing more politicians from Party X because Party X is more friendly to the group than Party Y.

To retain the support of the interest groups, the parties will pay much lip service to the interests of those groups. They may even push legislation that marginally advances the groups’ agendas (think hate-crimes laws, for example), or fight against legislation that will severely hurt the interest group (and thereby undermine the cohesiveness of the interest group or reduce the group’s membership). What they will rarely do, however, is push for legislation that can be characterized as achieving the group’s ultimate goal.

Meanwhile, the coalition’s comparative friendliness to the interest group will lead to the interest group working extremely hard to nominate candidates that are part of that coalition. It will also, inevitably, lead the group to push issues that have nothing to do with the interest group but which advance the coalition’s overall positions. For instance, think of a labor union with a relatively pro-life membership fighting confirmation of judges on pro-choice grounds…believe me when I say that this happens.

In the specific case of gay rights groups, it is in the Democratic Party’s best interest not to throw its weight behind things like gay marriage; if it is successful in its efforts, then it will have removed one of the very issues that makes gays a fairly reliable vote for the Democratic Party. This is not to say that there are no Dem politicians willing to legislatively push gay rights; rather, it is to say that there is little incentive for most Dem politicians to do so. It is also not to say that the Dem Party makes a conscious effort to disregard fundamental gay rights issues; although that is certainly possible, it is at least as likely that the Dem Party simply takes the gay vote for granted, which moves fundamental gay rights issues far down the priority list.

Update - The debate between Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan over the role of evangelicals in the Republican Party seems pretty relevant to the points in this post as well. I think Larison gets the better of the exchange, mostly because his points implicate precisely my points above - evangelicals have been terribly unsuccessful at pushing through their legislative agenda despite one-party rule in Washington for much of the last eight years, yet they continue to support the GOP like no other group. As Larison says, “one reason they are so easy to blame [for the GOP's problems] is the same reliability of support that allows them and their issues to be taken for granted by the party.” That about sums it up. It also explains why change - no matter which side you take on a given issue - can be so hard to create on a political level; simply electing nominally friendly candidates does nothing to advance a meaningful agenda if the candidates’ party takes your group for granted.