The Declaration of Independence asserts that everyone is created equal, a principle further advanced in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection of the law. Core to our understanding of democracy is that whatever our talents, social position, or wealth, in the political realm everyone’s opinion should count the same. Unfortunately our world is far from ideal. Political scientist Larry Bartels set out to try to measure whether economic inequality translated to political inequality. He polled Americans of all income levels on a range of economic, civil rights, and cultural policy issues and compared them to the votes and positions taken by United States senators. Senators’ votes most closely matched the opinions of high-income Americans and suggested almost no representation for those in lower income brackets. Bartels’s findings match other evidence demonstrating the disproportionate influence of economic elites on American politics. Policy advocates must take differential levels of influence into account when setting strategy, even as they work to overcome unfair advantages, and ultimately pursue a more egalitarian political system.
This post is the third part in a series about how advocacy organizations can navigate “issue landscapes.” The concept of an issue landscape encompasses who is impacted by a policy, the intensity of their support or opposition to various solutions, their ability to organize, and their level of influence with policymakers. Understanding the issue landscape is critical to determining which tactics and strategies are more or less likely to help you advance your policy goals. This post will focus on how the relative influence of people impacted by an issue matters.
I write from the perspective of an advocate or organizer working on a particular issue and looking for near-term tactics appropriate to the landscape. I’m going to go lighter on the tactical suggestions in this one, recognizing some of the limitations inherent in the topic. When navigating disproportionate political influence, if you happen to have it, then great! Use your clout. But if, like many advocates, you’re fighting entrenched, powerful interests, it will often take concerted longer-term strategy to build a more powerful political coalition.
Outsized influence can take many different forms. Among the most common, which helps explain the Bartels’ research findings above, are structural cultural factors. A favorite example of mine comes from familiar territory for me in higher education. Each year in the spring, the influential media publications like the New York Times cover stories about the college application and acceptance process that focus disproportionately on Harvard University and a few other Ivy League schools. Less than 1 percent of all college students attend Ivy league schools, while the vast majority attend public institutions that accept more than half of their applicants. Editorial board members and journalists at major media outlets, however, have often attended elite private schools themselves and maintain social circles full of people with similar experiences, and thus place outsized importance on the admissions processes at selective universities. The families of Congressional members and their staff fit a similar description, leading them to assumptions about the average college student that are far from reality.
Unlike some of the more challenging structural factors noted below, I’ve actually seen advocates make progress in this area by educating journalists. The article I linked to above, entitled “Shut Up About Harvard,” evinces the success of that advocacy. Another option targeted at policymakers to demonstrate that their experience isn’t emblematic of their constituents’ experience or expectations is to cite public opinion polling. A recent New York Times opinion piece argues that “The Real Divide in America Is Between Political Junkies and Everyone Else.” Political partisans, including policymakers, their staff, and the people running advocacy organizations, tend to care much more about certain issues than most Americans. The authors note that “Democrats and Republicans who don’t follow politics closely believe that low hourly wages are one of the most important problems facing the country. But for hard partisans, the issue barely registers.” If you are an advocate working on raising the minimum wage, pointing out how much the typical voter cares—and even more compellingly, that minimum wage initiatives are undefeated 22-0 on the ballot so far this century—makes a stark political point to a policymaker.
Evidence suggests political power from outsized cultural influence pales in comparison to the ability of wealthy interests to influence the political process by donating to political campaigns or supporting favored organizations. Many others have written on this topic, so I won’t take up much space in this post, other than to note it’s a critical aspect of the issue landscape and something most advocates are likely acutely aware of already. In the latest example, Uber, Lyft, and other gig companies recently spent more than $200 million to carve themselves out of regulations in California that would require them to treat drivers as employees. It’s difficult not to look at that example—or others such as the existence of the federal carried interest tax loophole, which largely benefits hedge funds—and not conclude that economic power translates directly into more political power at least some of the time.
In addition to cultural influence and economic inequality, the political system itself can also produce disproportionate political advantages for certain interest groups. A widely studied example of this dynamic is known in academic literature as an “iron triangle.” The concept refers to a political alliance between three players: an interest group or industry, a bureaucratic agency, and the Congressional committee overseeing the agency. The original intent of a federal law sponsored by the committee may have been to regulate the industry on behalf of taxpayers, but the “iron triangle” dynamics shift to favor the interest group over time. The military industrial complex is a classic example. In theory, the Department of Defense (DOD) is tasked with providing security to American taxpayers and has an interest in doing so cost-effectively. Defense contractors, on the other hand, have an interest in making a lot of money selling weapons systems to the armed forces. Defense contractors can ally with members of Congress who represent districts with weapons factories, and donate to the campaigns of members serving on the Appropriations and Armed Service Committees. Contractors can also influence agencies’ budget requests, promising to ally with the DOD to ask Congress for the newest, most expensive systems in exchange for support on Capitol Hill. The political incentives among these actors can align so powerfully that what you would presume would be a chief concern—whether the weapon system works or not—is sometimes left by the wayside.
Money isn’t the only thing that matters, however, and well organized constituencies capable of marshalling people and resources for or against a policy can make a big difference to policy outcomes. The scale and efficacy of organized interests can vary widely based on the resources available, the dynamics surrounding the issue (discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series), its history, and leadership. Cecile Richards’s actions to strengthen Planned Parenthood’s infrastructure, coordination, and resources turned Planned Parenthood into a political powerhouse, reshaping the political dynamics and landscape around women’s reproductive rights. Following decades of staunch support for the Hyde amendment, which prohibits the use of public funds for abortion services, President-elect Biden’s decision as a candidate to disavow the amendment is just one example of how Planned Parenthood has increased its clout over the years. (Indeed, that article quotes Biden speaking at a Planned Parenthood candidate forum!) Of course, achieving this kind of success is easier said than done, and is about more than organization and leadership: Not everyone works in an organization that has been around for decades, and has direct service providers all across the country, multiple resource streams, and name recognition. For your own issue, it’s important to understand which groups are most politically organized, which aren’t—and how that shapes policy outcomes.
Some individuals and constituencies carry outsized influence even if they are not particularly well resourced or well organized. Policymakers, whether members of Congress or the local city council, will often accord extra weight to the views of specific individuals or groups. Organizing and advocacy organizations can use a process called “power mapping” to identify the networks and relationships that influence a decision-maker, illuminating strategies to pursue advocacy goals. For example, if your city council member has a close relationship with and often follows the recommendation of a certain neighborhood association—and you need that council member’s vote on your bill—building a relationship with that neighborhood association is probably a good idea. Often the power map will reflect structural factors discussed above, but it will also reveal idiosyncratic opportunities to advance your agenda.
While it’s important to keep in mind how disproportionate influence impacts policy outcomes on your issue, I write this post noting that most advocates are already acutely aware of where the outsized influence lies on their issue and see their day-to-day job as working to overcome or leverage it. There are a few areas of lower-hanging fruit where educating out-of-touch policymakers or media figures about the priorities of the average voter can help your advocacy efforts. Tools like power mapping can help you hone in on a specific strategy for leveragin support. Most of the strategic takeaway is that getting big players in your issue area on your side— whether those are businesses, unions, Planned Parenthood, or a trusted neighborhood association leader—is important. And if you’re trying to overcome an entrenched interest like an iron triangle, you may need to organize or form new coalitions with a different set of political players. For the final post in this series, I’ll move on from the dynamics of who is impacted or involved in the issue, and tackle agenda setting and what advocates can do to increase attention for their cause.