Citizens Groups: Advocacy and Participation
Public interest groups have come to play an important role in the American political process. Although most of these citizen advocacy groups are concerned with consumer and environmental affairs, others work in such diverse areas as corporate responsibility, defense spending, welfare reform, and civil liberties. Few issues in contemporary American politics are untouched by public interest lobbying.
There are few terms in the political lexicon that are more ambiguous than "public interest." Is there such a thing as a public interest group? Are there organizations that truly represent the common good? Political philosophers have never agreed as to whether or not a clear, definable, national public interest really exists. Pragmatists argue that on any given political issue, the public interest is represented by the compromise and synthesis of competing points of view.
Despite of the lack of agreement over the term "public interest," numerous organizations have become popularly known as public interest groups. What differentiates them from special or private interest groups? For our purposes here, a public interest group is one that seeks a collective good, the achievement of which will not selectively and materially benefit the membership or activities of the organization.
Private interest groups have an economic self-interest. The business corporation that lobbies against a stiff clean-air law is sure to have a monetary stake in the outcome. If equipment of a factory has to be added to reduce the emission of pollutants into the air, there may be less profit for individuals who work for or own shares in the company. For the public interest group on the other side of the issue, there is no "profit" other than clean air — air that is available to all, not just to individuals who are members of the organization.
Although it is maintained that there are organizations that can be called public interest groups, there should be no implication that the views of these groups are any more legitimate than those of farm, labor, business, or other "private" interest lobbies. Still, the selfless motivation of the members and sponsors of public interest groups organizations does give their advocacy efforts a special credence. Because they have no economic self-interest, their moral authority becomes a valuable resource.
Public interests groups vary in size and financial assets. Some have memberships of more than 100,000; others have only a few thousand. Some organizations are supported by philanthropic foundations and have no real memberships. Annual budgets range from $50,000 to more than $5 million. A few examples indicate the range and diversity of the public interest movement:
— The Environmental Defense Fund. This group relies on legal advocacy to achieve its policy objectives. Staffed largely by lawyers, it uses litigation in the courts, formal petitions before administrative agencies, and informal lobbying of bureaucrats as primary tactics of influence. The Environmental Defense Fund was started in 1967. It now has a staff of 30 and a budget of more than $1.5 million a year, roughly half derived from its 44,000 members and half from foundations. The Environmental Defense Fund is probably best known for spearheading the fight that led to the virtual banning in the United States of the pesticide DDT.
— Common Cause. Common Cause was founded in 1970 by John Gardner, who envisioned a citizens' lobby that would work to make government more responsive to the needs of the people. Common Cause is one of the largest public interest group, with 216,000 dues-paying members,
a budget exceeding $5 million a year, and a professional staff of more than 80. In addition to its activities in Washington, D.C., Common Cause has lobbying efforts in most of the 50 states. Most notable advocacy among Common Cause's advocacy efforts has been its campaign to reform the U.S. Congress.
— Ralph Nader Organization. America's best known public interest activist, Ralph Nader came to the public's attention more than ten years ago with publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, an attack on the American automobile industry. Since that time, Nader has built more than a dozen consumer organizations that are affiliated with him. Through direct mail and other means, Nader raised more than $1 million a year. Nader-sponsored organizations include the Aviation Consumer Action Project, the Health Research Group, the Corporate Accountability Research Group, Congress Watch, and the Public Citizen Litigation Group. Nader remains the preeminent spokesman for the American consumer.
Public interest lobbies present their viewpoints to all three branches of the federal government — the executive, legislative and judicial. They often attempt to influence government indirectly by trying to affect public opinion. Public interest groups have proved adept at obtaining media coverage.
Although public interest groups did not originate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there appears to have been a sizable increase in their numbers during those years. Many of the public interest groups now operating began between 1967 and 1972. There are numerous underlying reasons for this.
The public interest movement is an outgrowth of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. The era of civil rights and antiwar activism taught or reminded many Americans of the value and importance of citizen advocacy. Ideologically based citizen organizations led the long fights for equal rights for minorities and against American involvement in Indo-China. Most significantly, these citizen groups had a rather substantial influence on the conduct of public policy in these two areas. Civil rights and antiwar groups served as models for those who built or joined similar organizations in other policy fields.
Pubic interest groups had great appeal to foundations whose financial support helped the movements to flourish. These organizations were not only trying to influence particular policy issues; they also were trying to reform the institutions themselves. To liberals, socially concerned foundation officers, they represented an imaginative means of working on the system, but within the system. They were innovative and nontraditional, yet they were not radical.
The decline in confidence in American government has been a direct cause of a growing public interest movement. Over the past two decades there has been a precipitous increase in the number of people who believe that institutions of federal government are performing poorly.
The weakening of the American party system contributed in a similar fashion to the rise of the public interest groups. Dissatisfaction with government has carried over into people's feelings toward the party system. Americans began to vote more on the basis of issues and individual candidates, and less on the basis of their partisan identification.
Finally, the evolution of a strong public interest movement is also the result of an enduring sense of political efficacy on the part of Americans. Despite the negative attitudes toward government that developed in recent years, Americans retained their belief that government could be influenced.
The combination of disenchantment with government and underlying feelings of efficacy stimulated a political movement aimed at changing the way government makes public policy. People believed that in the end, government would listen and change. Americans' confidence in their ability to influence and reform government derives from a long history of political activism. It also stems from the political socialization Americans begin receiving at an early age. In their schools and families, young people are taught that active political participation, including but not restricted to voting, is a value.
The question inevitably arises as to what has been the impact of the public interest movement. What can be said of its influence and accomplishments?
On the broadest level it can be argued that public interest groups have been effective at the margins of public policy. In a large, democratic society where there are many different and conflicting interests, affecting policy decisions at the margins is the most any single group can hope to do. Although they certainly are not the preeminent influence on pubic policy, public interest groups have had a significant impact.
Public interest groups have helped to change the environment within which public policy is made. With so many public interest groups on operation, governmental policy makers must consider the reaction of these organizations when they are contemplating decisions to be made. In addition to influencing government directly through their legislative lobbying, court suits, administrative advocacy and the like, public interest groups have a more direct impact. By making people aware of long-standing problems, public interest groups influence the agenda of the political system.
Governmental reforms have not been restricted to Washington-based policy making. Congress has passed numerous laws that require citizen participation in federally funded programs at the state and local level.
What lies ahead for the public interest movement? Many suspect that the movement has reached its peak and is declining in influence. Critics argue that there now is more concern for jobs and economic development and less concern for preservation of the environment and for consumer protection. The recent defeat of a bill that would have established an Agency for Consumer Protection is often cited as evidence of a declining public interest movement.
The more general relationship between the public interest movement and the Democratic Party is rather ambiguous. Although most of the groups are decidedly liberal, they are strictly nonpartisan. It is not in the interest of organizations within the movement to be identified with either the Democratic or Republican Party. Their strength and popularity derive partly from their independence, their image of being outside the arena of party politics. The public interest movement must now seek a difficult balance — on the one hand, having their people on the inside of government, and on the other hand, trying to remain unrelenting, uncompromising critics of policies with which they disagree.