Interest Groups in America

Political Organizations.
by James Q. Wilson.
Basic Books. 236 pp. $10.95.

As recently as a decade ago discussion of American government by political scientists was dominated (though never preempted) by a set of interlocking propositions then called pluralism. Although it resembled an updated version of utilitarianism in which self-interested groups replaced competing individuals, government served as a visible hand harmonizing the clash of interests, and political democracy was the resulting greatest good of the greatest number, the pluralist synthesis rested not on doctrine but on the investigations and interpretations of a number of first-rate political scientists: David Truman provided an influential statement of interest-group theory, Charles Lindblom explained how policy was made in a divided system, V. O. Key documented the heterogeneous, decentralized character of the American party system, the authors of The American Voter depicted the electorate as uninformed and un-involved but nonetheless capable of bestirring itself to vote parties in and out of the White House, Robert Dahl illustrated the pluralist character of decision-making in New Haven and, in addition, related the whole pattern to the designs of the Founding Fathers. The work of many other empirically oriented political scientists including Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson confirmed, complemented, and reinforced the view that the American political system was one in which government reflected and regulated the continuing competition for influence of interest groups, in which the influence on public policy of each self-interested group was limited by the countervailing power of others, in which political majorities were really unstable coalitions of minorities, and in which a relatively passive electorate exercised an important restraining influence on government by way of the politicians' fear of being turned out of office.

The practice of describing American politics in this fashion offended more than a few. The pluralist analysis led, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, to the conclusion that American government was in fact democratic, a view that was obnoxious to all those convinced that America was dominated by a unified “power elite.” The belief that there existed a plurality of interest was objectionable to Marxists and quasi-Marxists who saw only a two-sided class struggle. The view that the policy process and the power structure were even appropriate subjects for investigation was unacceptable to all who believed the existence of a ruling class to be self-evident. The absence of any overarching conception of the public good was repellent to a mixed constituency of conservatives, liberals, and radicals. Moreover, after the growing alienation of intellectuals set in, it was charged with increasing frequency and stridence that pluralism was functionally conservative and objectively counterrevolutionary.

To the politics of the late 60's pluralist theory seemed increasingly irrelevant. The rise of mass movements and ideological politics and the declining emphasis on economic issues called, or seemed to call, for new approaches and new explanations. Moods and movements temporarily eclipsed groups and “interests” with the result that in the last few years pluralist theory and its characteristic preoccupation—the organized interest group—has received little attention from students of politics.

It is for this reason that Harvard political scientist, James Q. Wilson, begins his new book, Political Organizations, with the comment that “some readers will find it strange that in the 1970's a book about American politics should have as its focus the behavior of organizations, especially those organizations that are sometimes called ‘lobbies’ and ‘pressure groups.’”


Reality rarely changes as rapidly as intellectual fashions, and organized groups did not wither away because political scientists turned their attention elsewhere. Wilson does not suggest that the role of interest groups in American politics is what it once was. He is as aware as any of us that there have been multiplying symptoms of fundamental change in the American system and that the impact on politics of economic and other interest groups has been modified by the growing importance of ideas, personality, style, and the role of the mass media. Ten years ago no one would have predicted, Wilson says, for example, that “one of the most powerful industrial groupings in the nation, producing a product sought and cherished by tens of millions of Americans and including within its ranks the second largest corporation in the world, would almost effortlessly have been made subject to highly restrictive regulation as to the kind of product it could produce, and all this without any mass expression of distaste for the products it was already producing. Yet the Highway Safety Act became law over the strenuous objections of General Motors, and Ralph Nader, the man who was primarily responsible for forcing this legislation, acted with no organization of any kind.”

Still, Wilson reminds us, organizations, especially voluntary ones, play an enormously important role in politics because so many of the persons active in politics are spokesmen for and representatives of organizations. Even movements and moods must be organized if they are to have more than a fleeting impact on events. Organization, Wilson believes, not only structures political action and enhances its effectiveness but its imperatives have an influence on political behavior and political outcomes. This is, he tells us, the central theme of the book: “That the behavior of persons who lead or speak for an organization can best be understood in terms of their efforts to maintain and enhance the organization and their position in it.”

For social scientists to understate both their goals and their achievements is conventional. Wilson exemplifies this ritual modesty with carefully circumscribed statements of intention and conclusions. His purpose, he tells us, is not to explore the future of American politics or to assess the relative importance of organizations and other factors in determining policy. Neither is it to offer a theory of politics or even of organizations, but only to provide “a perspective” on one important element of politics. Yet in fact, this new book is far more than a study of organizational incentives, leadership, and strategies, and more than an essay on the impact of organization on politics. It also illuminates many other aspects of politics, public policy, and the history of our times. In it Wilson demonstrates not only a sweeping mastery of the literature on organizations, but also of the public-policy process and various more or less related topics, including the behavior of American intellectuals. In fact the book treats so many subjects and makes so many illuminating points that it is impossible in a review to do justice either to its scope or erudition. I shall therefore comment on only a few themes which have broad implications for the future of American politics.


Two of these have been dealt with by Wilson in earlier works and are further developed here. One concerns the declining prestige and importance of material incentives in politics (and society) and the increased importance of purposive incentives. The second concerns the social correlates of political participation. Each of these subjects has important implications for organizational behavior and, though Wilson does not say so, in combination they constitute the foundation of a promising theory of American politics.

That those who staffed the political machines were motivated above all by the hope of personal material rewards was established by Wilson and Banfield in their study City Politics and confirmed by the work of several other political scientists. All agreed that the persons attracted by these rewards were of relatively low socioeconomic status, that they were relatively unconcerned about policy and candidates, and that both they and the “bosses” who hired them belonged to a vanishing species. In The Amateur Democrat, a book on political clubs in three American cities, Wilson described a new political breed attracted to politics not by the hope of material gain, or by the search for companionship and solidarity, but because of enthusiasm for particular policies or a point of view which they sought to have adopted by government. Others also commented on this new middle-class style of politics, which was to be observed most typically in the political clubs of the Northeast and Far West, in the Democratic parties of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and in certain affluent suburbs. This particular style of volunteer politics was usually practiced by the college-educated who had (or said they had) more concern with moral than with economic questions, more interest in policy than in party, more dedication to general principles than to winning specific elections.

Since there is a strong tendency in enlightened circles to regard any impersonal goal as morally superior to any self-interested motive, it should perhaps be mentioned that Wilson does not regard purposive incentives to political action as “higher” or “better” than other motives for such participation. Here as in earlier works he emphasizes that moral motives do not necessarily lead to moral results, in part because the motives of an individual's action do not determine the social function of that action. What they do determine is the character of organizations based on one or another set of motives. Thus, a party comprising mainly persons who seek material rewards through political action will try hard to win elections for the obvious reason that to the victors go the spoils. It will emphasize issues and adopt policies attractive to the largest number of voters and will choose the candidate most likely to win. On the other hand, a party based largely on purposive incentives would rather be right than victorious and would prefer to lose with a candidate holding the correct ideology than to win with someone else.

Wilson makes little reference in this book to the recent history of the Democratic party, though it is painfully clear that at least since 1968 that party has been the arena of a major struggle between Democrats with different conceptions of what a party should be and do and how it should be organized. He does note that recent party reforms have had the effect of strengthening the position of persons and groups with purposive goals and weakening that of traditional organizations based on traditional material and solidary incentives. Presumably the reformed reforms adopted by the Democratic National Committee for the 1976 convention and supported by that fascinating coalition of purposive types—the Wallaceites and the blacks—will further strengthen policy-oriented, ideological, and redemptive groups and continue the transformation of the Democratic party into an instrument of upper-middle-class professionals.

Political participation is not equally interesting to persons of all socioeconomic classes. There is a large body of research proving that persons with relatively high-status occupations, high incomes and educations are far more likely than members of the working class, the lower class, or even the lower-middle class to join organizations, especially organizations that do not promise concrete material rewards. Wilson reviews this literature and reminds us that upper socioeconomic groups not only have the time, money, and skills needed to be effective in organizations but also the necessary inclinations: the sense of collective identity and duty, the ego strength, and the long-range perspectives necessary to make joining organizations attractive. Lower-class persons are less likely to have either the economic, the social, or the psychological resources. Revolutionary rhetoric to the contrary, the lower classes—at least in the modern period—do not rise up. Not only does the leadership for lower-class movements typically come from the middle class, but lower-class persons are extremely difficult to mobilize except where there is a realistic chance of quick tangible rewards or where an attractive redemptive creed is reinforced by strong solidary appeals. Needless to say, reform politics offers neither personal gain nor salvation.


Perhaps out of charity Wilson withholds comment on the persistent, suspiciously self-serving blindness of middle-class reformers to the relations between social structure and political organization. But he provides all the facts and the insights needed to explain the apparent paradox: that reforms which purge the political process in the effort to increase participatory democracy result only in extending the political power of people like the reformers themselves. The disinclination of lower-class, working-class, lower-middle-class persons, and, indeed, of everyone except college-educated purposive types to participate in organizations with long-range, relatively abstract goals and cosmopolitan perspectives means that any reform which aims at increasing participation by removing the influence of material and solidary rewards will achieve only the increased participation of more middle-class professionals and the further decline of the already low participation of other classes—unless those reforms are reinforced with quotas and similarly coercive devices. In fact, it is possible that even quotas cannot overcome these class characteristics. The 1972 Democratic experience which produced unprecedented numbers of black professionals, female professionals, young soon-to-be professionals, and very few members of the working classes, suggests that, at best, class characteristics are unaffected by reforms aimed at representing hitherto “disadvantaged” and “under-represented” groups.

With his customary dryness Wilson comments on the difficulties confronting efforts to change entrenched patterns of participation:

The extent to which altering either the structure of politics or the rewards of politicians will result in the organization of previously unorganized groups is problematic. . . . Whether governmentally stimulated organization, such as a community action agency or a model cities board, can outlast the governmental support and become either a regular part of a city's decision-making system or an independent voluntary association is not yet known. In particular, whether changes in political access can overcome the impediments to organizational formation created by class characteristics remains to be seen.


The quiet tone and rather flat style of Political Organizations belie the controversial character of many of the author's views and interpretations. Like his former teacher, Edward Banfield, to whom this book is dedicated, Wilson is a man who “thinks otherwise.” This book attacks many of the accepted truths of the moment, but the attacks are conducted so quietly that only the careful reader will be aware of the deadly precision of the author's aim. Prominent among his targets are Marxism, scholarly pretensions, and oversimplifications of all kinds—his approach is unusually serious and doggedly non-ideological. No cliché, no currently prestigious explanation is allowed to pass unexamined. There is, for example, a discussion of violence as an organizational strategy in which Wilson, in a few carefully constructed paragraphs, obliterates many of today's most influential explanations of political violence. He reminds readers, first, that collective violence is “periodic, localized, and limited,” then adds: “There is violence at some periods but not at others, and thus, explanations based on enduring social conditions (such as class stratification, the economic system, poverty, or ethnic competition) are not especially helpful—if these conditions were the determinative ones, violence would be more or less continuous.”

Even organizations do not escape Wilson's determined effort to whittle social phenomena down to size. Although their continued importance is the assumption on which the book is based, he insists that their powers are, after all, quite limited: by the political ethos, by the opinions of members and non-members, by the chronic problems of organizational survival, all of which are exacerbated in a period when institutionalization (called bureaucratization by its critics) seems suspect to so many.

Tacit warnings occur throughout the book: warnings about careless reformers, mistaken doctrines, fraudulent rhetoric, about the rapid expansion of government policy and the proliferation of client groups which make it “difficult to change, and impossible to abandon policies once they are adopted.” With a final swipe at one group of critics of pluralism, he asserts that the competition of interest groups “does not, in the long run, make it difficult for the government to start doing things, it only makes it difficult for the government to stop.”


Clearly, Wilson is not among those who feel that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, but the problems arid pitfalls which concern him are not those which have been most publicized in our times. He is as worried about remedies as about ills. All methods of aggregating interests and expressing them in the policy process seem to him imperfect. The “mobilization of small constituencies” underrepresents the unorganized, the “politics of mass mobilization” provides an unusual opportunity for demagogues.

It was just such a sense of imperfect alternatives, fallible policymakers, and unanticipated and uncontrollable consequences that made dispersed power, “disjoint incrementalism,” and the pluralist solution seem attractive in the first place. Perhaps we are coming full circle and are nearly ready to turn our attention back from the search for purity to the concrete possibilities and limitations of the political process. Such a transition is facilitated by Wilson's new book which constitutes a valuable addition to our knowledge of the real world.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link