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Sidebar -- "Running Scared", January 1997

Jonathan Rauch Responds

The Atlantic's Ryan Nally recently asked Rauch to discuss the role of special- interest groups in American politics.





Anthony King agrees with the argument in your book Demosclerosis that the American system suffers greatly from the excessive power of special-interest groups. What, if anything, can the government do to break -- or even just weaken -- the vice-grip of these groups?


You can't break the grip but you can weaken it somewhat. For one, you can use trade to expose domestic groups to foreign competition. Second, you can create a big package of changes that will sweep away deeply entrenched groups. There has to be national leadership coming from the President in order for this to happen. We did this successfully in the 1986 Tax Reform under Reagan. It seems to be getting harder to do, but the idea is that if you push a bunch of special-interest groups over the cliff at once and produce enough of a reward for the taxpayers, citizens may be willing to let you do it. But it takes great ambition. The basic answer is that you treat this problem but don't cure it.


What explains the recent growth of the special interests' power and influence?


Remember that these things are as old as democracy. James Madison wrote about special-interest groups in The Federalist Papers. He called it the "power of faction." There's nothing new about this. What is new is that in the last thirty to thirty-five years there has been an astounding proliferation and sophistication of these groups. What was initially just informal groups of people coming to Washington to ask for things is now a huge and rapidly growing professional sector.

A lot of things have caused this. One is technology, of course, which makes communication and organization much easier. Another is Washington itself, which has become much bigger and has therefore attracted entrepreneurial interests. A third is the maturation process of a democracy in which economic theory gives us good reason to expect the strengthening of special-interest groups. Lastly, the reforms of the 1970s opened up Congress so that instead of a few powerful people receiving lobbyists we had lots of independent entrepreneurs doing business. We suddenly had a huge bidding war, with 535 people vying for campaign money from special-interest groups.


King mentions that the Vietnam War and Watergate were crucial in increasing the strength of political-action groups. Would you agree?


There's something to that, but I think it is a fairly minor factor. What Vietnam and Watergate did was help destroy the public's confidence in government itself. But I think the institutional forces that I mentioned are more central.



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