America's Lobby Democracy and the Need for Citizen Lobbies

Herbert J. Gans, Columbia University

In a representative democracy, elected officials are supposed to represent all the citizens in their constituency, but most electoral districts are large and the citizens needing representation are many as well as diverse in their interests. Moreover, some are considerably more eager and more able to be represented, notably organized interest groups, their lobbies and the lobbyists they hire.

Despite the Obama administration’s attempts to ban lobbies and lobbyists from the White House, they have long been and remain part and parcel of government, and as President Obama knows better than anyone, the lobbies speaking for the major Wall Street, corporate and other business interests are as powerful as ever. They cotinue to be particularly powerful in the Congress, thanks to their campaign contributions to so many members of both Houses as well as their informational and other supports to elected officials while they are in office.

In fact, America has long been a lobby democracy, but a one-sided one, in which unorganized America and its rank-and-file citizens have been poorly represented. They badly need more of their own lobbies to speak for them. Otherwise, America has no chance of becoming a truly representative democracy.

A modest number of citizen lobbies already exist; AARP, which lobbies for retired and other older people, is currently the biggest. Other citizen lobbies also look out for seniors, including war veterans. Unions still do a great deal of lobbying, even though they now enroll barely 10 percent of all workers. A number of citizen lobbies have grown out of the social movements of the last half century, for civil rights and gender equality, for example. Yet others speak for non-voters, especially environmental ones that represent a green planet and the future generations that will benefit from them. It organizes citizen mobilization from the top down, but true representative democracy requires bottoms-up mobilization as well.

Single issue organizations – think of all those named for the major diseases – representĀ  citizens along with others concerned about their issues. Perhaps the most visible citizen representatives are the pollsters, but they only report popular opinions and do not lobby for them.

In comparison to business lobbies, most citizen lobbies are small in staff size and budget. AARP was the only citizen lobby to make the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of 20 top spending Washington lobby clients in 2008. (The other 19 were major corporations, trade associations and other business or professional organizations.)

Admittedly, the line between organizational and citizen lobbies is sometimes fuzzy. The executives of giant corporations are also citizens, corporate and trade association lobbies occasionally speak for their workers, and customers and professional association lobbies sometimes represent clients and patients. But they do so irregularly. The ordinary people for whom they may lobby have no say, and the lobbyists are not accountable to them.

When all is said and done, lobbies that speak for the routine and everyday concerns of ordinary citizens are few and far between. Although well funded lobbies work in behalf of doctors, hospitals and HMOs, none represent patients per se. The “military-industrial complex” takes care of its corporate members, but there are few lobbies for soldiers other than veterans. School officials from superintendents on down can call on supporting organizations; parents of students and students themselves have almost no one. The automobile companies could always get to the politicians even before they got into financial troubles, the car buyers who wind up with “lemons” or all those who buy used cars cannot.

If the needed citizen lobbies existed right now, those of the jobless, foreclosed homeowners and maxed out credit card holders would be defending their clients. Employee lobbies would be trying to protect the jobs of non-union workers.

Some relief may be in sight now that citizens can become “members” of political web based organizations like MoveOn. Whether the names in these organizations will represent themselves or will be spoken for by the data base’s political managers remains to be seen. Most likely, they will become important citizens’ lobbies, representing large numbers of their members when, like AARP today, these have reasonably common interests. As such, they could also be potent allies when smaller citizen lobbies need them. Still, many other citizen lobbies will be required to compete with and counter the business lobbies that speak for the myriad of interests that want money, less regulation or lower taxes from the government.

Bringing citizen lobbies into being and making enough citizens participate in them is a long term project; it will require organizational energy and political change, as well as monies that are not now available. In some respects, lobby democracy is also a second best solution, but the best one, the elimination of all lobbies, will never happen.

Even if hundreds of citizen lobbies should bloom, they are never likely to obtain the power of the corporate and other well funded ones. Most will be unlikely to make significant campaign contributions, and nor should they. Their main purpose is to represent their members, to provide information about them and the issues that concern them to elected officials, and when necessary to offer other ideas and advice in behalf of their members.

If election campaign funding ever becomes totally public, citizen lobbies will of course become more influential, but even then they will not be able to compete with corporate lobbies in sending campaign-related media and other messages to the electorate. Financial power almost always trumps citizen power.

Lobby democracy is certainly not pretty and it will not fulfill the romance of town meeting democracy even when many more citizen lobbies have been organized. (Perhaps for that reason, lobbies have never been perceived as part of civil society.) Like all other lobbies, citizen lobbies will need to be run by tough minded professionals. They will also need charismatic leaders and skilful organizers, capable of mobilizing enough members and supporters when their lobbies need to show their political muscle. Like the mutual benefit associations of the past, citizen lobbies will also have to provide services so that they can enroll, mobilize and hold on to their members.

A democracy in which many people are at one or another timeĀ  represented by a citizen lobby requires new political rules. Adding many more lobbies to the already sizeable number would complicate the political process, significantly increasing the number of alternative policies and viewpoints that have to be considered. Congressional and White House decision-making would grow more difficult and compromises will be harder to fashion and reach. Congressional staffs would have to expand, and eventually at least the Congress might have to be enlarged.

But isn’t America supposed to be a democracy that aims to represent everybody?

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