The Pressure Elite: Inside the Narrow World of Advocacy Group Politics

In the 1950s, in the midst of what C. Wright Mills called the "great American celebration," mainstream political scientists conceived of modern American democracy as a more or less equal contest among large-scale groups -- the most important being farmers, workers, and business. (Chapters Two through Five of V.O. Key's classic Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups were aptly entitled "Agrarianism," "Workers," "Business," and "Other Interest Groups.") Each social group had its own organizations -- from the American Farm Bureau to AFL-CIO to the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) -- and each enjoyed special power within one of the major political parties. Since almost every adult American was either a farmer, worker, or businessman, or married to one, almost everyone was represented within this pluralistic system. It was not the direct democracy of Athens, but it was as close to a representative democracy as a large modern nation could come.

This pluralist vision vastly overstated the extent to which America's pressure groups represented the general public or were equal in power to each other. Noting the narrow slice of the population who were active in these organizations and the preponderance of power wielded by business over labor, the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider commented in The Semi-Sovereign Republic, "The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent. Probably about 90 percent of the people cannot get into the pressure system."

Nonetheless, the pluralist vision reflected at least a shadow of reality. In the 1950s, no more than a dozen very large pressure groups dominated Washington politics. The labor movement represented about a third of the non-agricultural workforce and enjoyed enormous power in Congress and the Democratic Party just as the key business and farm groups enjoyed the same kind of power within the Republican Party.

What distinguishes Washington politics today is the sheer proliferation of citizen organizations, trade associations, think tanks, and policy research groups. In its Spring 1991 directory of the most prominent Washington organizations, the National Journal listed 328 interest groups, 98 think tanks, 288 trade and professional associations, and 682 corporate headquarters. Many of the new citizen organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), Greenpeace, and Common Cause boast memberships in the hundreds of thousands. Dwarfing even the AFL-CIO, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has 28 million members, a legislative staff of 125, and 20 registered lobbyists.

* * *

But while the new organizations together claim far more members than the old -- and therefore appear to be more representative of society as a whole -- they have a far more tenuous connection to those whom they claim to represent directly. Many of them are what sociologist John McCarthy has called "professional movement groups." They are run entirely by their staff and by a board of directors that is often dominated by the staff. In organizations like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAD and the Conservative Caucus, membership is primarily a fund-raising device to ensure continuous giving. Even in organizations that have local chapters and hold membership conventions, such as the National Audubon Society, the national staff and the board of directors control who is nominated for board positions and what information the members receive about the candidates. Moreover, in their funding, the new organizations represent almost as narrow an economic base as the old organizations of the 1950s. Many of them are supported by corporate and foundation contributions. Those that are supported by direct mail claim to represent a far broader public, but their donor profile tends to be overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and at least middle-aged. The best one can say about the bulk of these organizations is that they sing with an upper-middle-class accent. The old array of pressure groups fed false hopes of a new pluralistic democracy; the new -- perceived by Americans as occupying a world unto themselves -- fuel cynicism about special interests and about politics "inside the beltway."

The new organizations also have a very different relationship to the political parties than the old organizations did. The old organizations strengthened party representation by functioning as honest brokers within party conclaves. The new organizations contribute to political fragmentation and to the decline of the political parties. This reflects the circumstances of their birth: these groups arose independently largely because the old organizations and political party structures ignored or spurned them. The New Pressure Group

Beginning in late 1950s, new political movements emerged that did not fit into the structure of the old Washington pressure groups and political parties. They included on one side the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, the movements for gay rights, consumer rights, and abortion rights and on the other side the new conservative movement, the movements against racial desegregation and later against busing and affirmative action, the anti-abortion movement, and the right-wing evangelical movements. All these movements were initially outside the organized mainstream. Under the late George Meany, the AFL-CIO and the official Democratic Party were initially as hostile to the civil rights and antiwar movements as the established business groups and the Republican party were to Barry Goldwater's apocalyptic anticommunism and to Southern fundamentalism and segregationism.

Facing hostility from the Washington political establishment, these new movements created myriad organizations outside of Washington's established pressure groups. This was the origin of such groups as NOW, Friends of the Earth, SANE, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, NARAL, the American Conservative Union, the Conservative Caucus, the Heritage Foundation, and the Moral Majority. But why did they choose to focus their activities on Washington?

The growth of these movements over the past three decades coincided with a dramatic expansion in the social and economic role of national government. Earl Warren's Supreme Court took an active role in shaping social relations -- outlawing segregation and school prayer, granting the right to contraception and then abortion, expanding the rights of criminal suspects. John Kennedy used fiscal policy more consciously than any previous president to control the business cycle. Lyndon Johnson expanded the welfare state and convinced Congress to pass two major civil rights acts that outlawed racial and sexual discrimination. Richard Nixon sometimes promoted and sometimes acceded to an expansion of federal business regulation not seen since Woodrow Wilson's presidency, establishing new agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Agency, expanding old ones like the Office of the Special Trade Representative, and passing landmark regulatory legislation. Jimmy Carter created a new Department of Energy and carved a Department of Education out of the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, resulting, in both cases, in increased federal intervention. At the same time, Congress created its own regulatory apparatus through the expansion of its committees and staff.

This dramatic enlargement of official Washington's authority meant that many issues that had been predominately local or state concerns -- from smog to abortion -- became national concerns whose final resolution depended upon what the Supreme Court, Congress, and the President decided. As a result, both the old and the new movements became particularly concerned with influencing what happened in Washington.

From 1961 to 1982, the number of corporate headquarters in Washington increased tenfold, and there was a massive growth in trade associations and in lobbying firms. The number of lawyers in Washington tripled between 1973 and 1983. In addition, corporations began to fund new kinds of organizations -- from think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to congenial environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. In the 1980s, as trade disputes with Japan intensified, money from Japanese corporations -- as much as a billion dollars over the decade -- fueled a further growth in think tanks and lobbies concerned with defending free trade.

* * *

At the same time, the new social and political movements that had been spawned in the 1960s and 1970s increasingly concentrated their efforts on swaying Washington. Older environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation began monitoring federal legislation, while new groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace and the Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Wastes based themselves in Washington. Common Cause and the Nader organizations were founded to fight corporate and government misconduct. The abortion rights and anti-abortion organizations focused on pressuring the Supreme Court. In the 1980s, People for the American Way and the Moral Majority joined the battle over court nominees and congressional legislation on school prayer. The National Rifle Association and Handgun Control locked horns over the new federal gun laws. The civil rights organizations devoted themselves to fighting for the renewal of the Voting Rights Acts and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

The focus on Washington shaped the kind of organizations that emerged over these decades. Many of the new organizations located their headquarters in Washington, and some of those that had not chosen Washington initially, for example Friends of the Earth and the Cato Institute, later moved to the capital. Most of the groups eventually adopted a professionalized structure so that they were dominated by their Washington staff. This was partly a result of the groups' focus on influencing Congress and the White House and of the ebbing of grassroots political activity after the 1960s. But it also stemmed from the new kinds of funding that these groups enjoyed. The old organizations -- from the AFL-CIO to NAM to the veterans' organizations or the American Medical Association -- were financed primarily by membership dues. The new organizations were financed by grants from foundations, corporations, and unions, and by direct mail and neighborhood canvassing. This new form of funding laid the basis for the professional advocacy organization. The Role of Foundations
The major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller, which are independent of direct corporate control and which claim to be nonpartisan in their grants, were instrumental in the formation of the new organizations. Foundation support was essential to the civil rights movement's voting drives and to the founding of such diverse organizations as the National Council of La Raza, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the National Resources Defense Council. Foundations that have been more strictly identified with the left or right -- from Rubin and Stewart Mott on the left to Scaife and Bradley on the right -- played important roles later in funding such groups as the Institute for Policy Studies and the Heritage Foundation.

By their nature, grants from foundations make an organization's staff less dependent upon members or constituents for organizational decisions, but as sociologist J. Craig Jenkins has argued, foundations also have encouraged profession-alization. In studying foundation grants of social movements from 1953 to 1980, Jenkins found that only 17 percent of these grants went to "grassroots" organizations involved in protests and demonstrations. The rest went to the professionalized groups. Jenkins attributes the foundations' preference to their vaunted caution:

Grass-roots organizations often lack a clear track record and are more likely to become involved in protests or other activities that might stir criticism. They are also more informal and decentralized, lacking the fiscal and management devices that foundations expect from their recipients. Professionalized organizations are centrally managed by a single executive or professional staff. Their hierarchical structure is more intelligible to foundation boards, who typically come from business and academia, and affords greater assurance that the money will be used prudently as specified in the grant proposal.

Since the 1969 Tax Reform Act, foundations have also been limited to funding organizations that are not primarily "political" -- meaning that they do not directly engage in lobbying or supporting candidates. Only nonpolitical organizations can receive tax-deductible gifts. This restriction has led the foundations to shy away from activist membership organizations. In 1968 the Ford Foundation provided the initial funding for the Southwest Unity Council for Social Action -- an organization intended to become a Mexican-American NAACP. But after the tax reform act, the Ford Foundation discouraged the new organization from taking part in local protests. Prodded by the Ford Foundation, the group renamed itself the National Council of La Raza and shifted its headquarters to Washington, where it became, in Jenkins's words, "a professional organization with relatively weak ties to a constituency."

* * *

The limits on tax-deductible gifts have in turn influenced the way in which organizations have defined their mission. Before the 1970s, a considerable gulf existed between the quasi-academic think tank such as the Brookings Institution that sought to influence the long-range views of government officials but did not have a specific legislative agenda, and the lobby or activist group that pressured Congress or the White House to pass or block certain legislation. In the 1970s, however, new organizations arose that were intended to circumvent the law -- to maintain eligibility for tax-deductible grants from individuals and foundations while still seeking to influence official Washington. Policy research organizations and think tanks such the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, the Institute for Policy Studies, and later the Economic Policy Institute were not simply scholarly groups concerned with public policy; they had specific agendas and took positions on legislation, but they neither lobbied nor backed candidates. Some of these groups, the Heritage Foundation, for example, offered their donors memberships, but all of them, by their very nature, were professionalized organizations controlled by their staffs and by a board of directors representing their largest donors.

Some groups have tried to elude restrictions on tax-deductible gifts by creating nonprofit research or educational groups alongside lobbying organizations and political action committees. The educational group then becomes responsible for the organization's research and pays many of its salaries. Organizations that have adopted this structure include the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL, Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America, Eagle Forum, Conservative Caucus, and the Sierra Club. By its very nature this kind of cumbersome structure -- requiring interminable bookkeeping and attention to grant-writing and fund-raising -- reinforces centralized staff control of organizations.

By their grants, the large foundations have also affected the kind of issues organizations have pursued as well as the way they have pursued them. In 1962 Kennedy administration officials used the promise of foundation support to lure the Southern civil rights movement away from militant demonstrations toward voter registration. In the environmental movement, the large foundations have favored the legal strategies and policy research of the Environmental Defense Fund over the less tempered methods of Greenpeace. Foundations often prefer studies of action to action itself; and they prefer studies with uncontroversial conclusions that will not call into question their own impartiality. As Robert Mclntyre, the director of Citizens for Tax Justice, puts it, "They usually don't like anything controversial. If we changed our name to Citizens for Tax Thinking, we'd get more money." Similarly, directors of organizations concerned with trade issues have also complained that the foundations were reluctant to fund proposals that were not endorsed by established free-trade economists.

But this does not mean that the large independent foundations have partisan agendas, only that they rigorously follow the path of respectable opinion. When the controversial becomes widely accepted, they fund it. Their major impact is structural rather than partisan or narrowly political. They encourage professionaliza-tion and discourage militant protest strategies. They project their own caution and timidity onto the organizations that they fund. And they contribute to the decline of politics and parties by stimulating the growth of a new realm of organizational activity -- issue-oriented, but nonpartisan -- that is cut off from the compromise and deliberation that are essential to building majority political parties.

The more ideologically oriented foundations have tended to have a symbiotic relationship with their recipients. The Youth Project, now called the Partnership for Democracy, was founded in 1970 to act as a middleman between foundations and liberal and left-wing social movements and groups. The project's board has been made up of representatives from many of the organizations that receive funds from it. Scaife, Bradley, Olin, and the other foundations that fund conservative organizations are advised by leading conservatives such as William Simon and Irving Kristol. (Kristol earned his nickname of "the Godfather" partly from his role in arranging funding for conservative groups and individuals.) Whom these foundations fund reflects the priorities of leading conservatives rather than the distinct concerns of the foundation executives.

Even the exceptions prove the rule. Last December, the Washington Times reported what appeared to be an attempt by the $200-million Scaife Foundation in Pittsburgh to influence the agenda of the Heritage Foundation, the most important conservative institution in Washington. According to the newspaper account, foundation president Richard Larry forced the organization to adopt a program concerned with cultural policy. Heritage concurred by hiring former Secretary of Education William Bennett as the head of a new cultural program, funded by Scaife. Bennett was also a member of the Scaife board of directors. It seemed like a coup for Scaife, but in fact represented Heritage's willing acquiescence in a long-standing trend in the conservative movement. Heritage already had a staff member assigned to cultural issues. By Scaife's funding of Bennett, Heritage gained a high-profile celebrity who will now help it exert influence over Scaife rather than vice versa. Corporate Funding and K Street
Corporations and their private foundations contributed even more to the rise of new Washington-based organizations in the 1970s. Under attack from labor and the new consumer and environmental movements, and seeing their profit margins threatened by foreign competitors, businesses took the offensive. They vastly increased their lobbying budget in Washington. From 1971 to 1982, the number of registered business lobbyists increased from 175 to 2,445.

Corporations also flocked to set up political action committees -- their ranks grew from 139 corporate PACs in 1974 to 1,204 in 1980. They revived the moribund U.S. Chamber of Commerce and funded new, powerful business organizations that were able to employ the media and grassroots lobbying techniques developed by the consumer and environmental movements. The Business Roundtable, composed of 192 large corporations, was credited with the defeat in Congress of Nader's proposal for a Consumer Protection Agency and the AFL-CIO's push for labor law reform. The American Council for Capital Formation successfully led the fight for reduction of corporate income and capital gains taxes. Business also funded think tanks that promoted deregulation of business, contributing to the rise of both the American Enterprise Institute -- which before the mid-1970s was an insignificant backwater -- and the Heritage Foundation.

* * *

During the 1980s, as trade battles heated up, foreign companies and foundations, particularly from Japan, poured more money into funding lobbies, public relations firms, trade associations, and think tanks in Washington. From 1986 to 1990, the Japanese contributed $1,015,000 to the Institute for International Economics, $1,812,408 to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, $1,610,684 to the Brookings Institution, and $846,000 to the American Enterprise Institute. The Heritage Foundation enjoyed substantial contributions from South Korean and Taiwanese companies and trade groups. The foreign contributions to think tanks were intended to reinforce congenial positions on trade and investment.

By the decade's end, foreign influence buying, combined with a sagging American trade balance, led to a backlash. A group of American corporations led by Chrysler, TRW, Corning Glass, USX, and Milliken began funding policy groups that favored using trade laws to protect American industries. These included the Economic Strategy Institute, founded by former Commerce Department official Clyde Prestowitz.

Corporations also funded coalitions to oppose changes in the laws of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) favored by foreign countries. By the end of the 1980s, some of the fiercest lobbying battles in Washington were taking place between one business-funded lobby or policy group and another.

The influx of corporate money over the past two decades has created a burgeoning complex of law firms, public relations houses, lobbying firms, and policy research groups named after Washington's K Street, where many of them are located. This complex increasingly dominates politics in the city. National Republican politics has largely been run by the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly from which Charles Black and the late Lee Atwater came, while Democratic politics has been controlled by the powerful K Street law firms that house former Democratic officials and that have contributed Democratic national chairs Robert Strauss, Charles Manatt, and Ron Brown. The Democratic Leadership Council, chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, and its policy group, the Progressive Policy Institute, were largely funded by former Democratic congressional aides turned K Street lobbyists. And many of these same lawyers and lobbyists now serve as trustees or members of the board of directors of the main Washington policy groups, from AEI to Brookings.

American and foreign corporations have also contributed to many organizations spawned or sustained by new social movements. These include NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Children's Defense Fund, many of the largest environmental organizations, including the Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Environmental Law Institute, the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, .and the Center for Community Change. The corporations had widely different motives for funding these organizations.

Corporate contributions to civil rights organizations largely stem from social conscience and from a commitment to social harmony and an educated work force. Many of the same corporations that contribute to conservative policy research groups also give to civil rights organizations that have denounced the kinds of policies that these research groups have favored. For instance, half of the corporations that fund the black policy group, the Joint Center for Policy Studies, also fund the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation, an organization founded by supply-sider and former Reagan Treasury official Norman Ture.

* * *

Some corporate gifts are intended to improve companies' images. Exxon and Weyerhauser hoped to improve their reputations among environmentalists through their contributions to the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and Resources for the Future. Other corporations, faced with the prospect of change, have tried to throw their weight behind organizations that advocate the more palatable alternatives. In 1989, corporations gave $703,840 to the milquetoast Nature Conservancy and $3,175 to the Sierra Club. According to the Corporate Philanthropy Report, insurance companies, facing the likelihood of health insurance reform, now back research and programs that will preserve the private insurance industry's role and "head off unpalatable proposals such as shifting to a Canadian-style government health program."

The mixture of motives is epitomized by Waste Management, Inc., the $19-billion garbage collection giant and notorious polluter. Waste Management has given large contributions to almost every environmental organization to the right of Greenpeace, including the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation (on whose board of directors Waste Management CEO Dean Buntrock sits), the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Law Institute, Ducks Unlimited, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Izaak Walton League, and the World Resources Institute. Waste Management intended its good works to deflect critics concerned about the $50 million in fines that the corporation has already incurred for illegal waste practices and for price fixing. The company accompanied its contributions with an aggressive advertising campaign in environmental magazines. For instance, it ran a full-page advertisement in the Wilderness Society's magazine that, under a photo of a butterfly, declared, "We profit by protecting the environment."

Waste Management also wanted to buy influence in the battle over environmental legislation and enforcement. In 1989, a year after Buntrock was named to the National Wildlife Federation's board of directors, he succeeded in getting Wildlife Federation president Jay Hair to set up a meeting between him and EPA administrator William Reilly. After the meeting, Reilly announced that he would challenge Southern states' attempts to restrict hazardous waste disposal. When the Wildlife Federation later signed a letter protesting the decision, Reilly told a reporter that he was surprised because Hair had "hosted the breakfast at which I was lobbied to do the very thing we are doing."

Finally, Waste Management has had a vested interest in passing stringent and complicated hazardous waste regulations that smaller companies would find too expensive to follow. According to an Audubon Society official, Waste Management is now underwriting that organization's attempt to strengthen the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Like the larger meat packing companies that pressed for food and drug regulation at the beginning of the century, Waste Management wants to use regulation to drive its competitors out of business.

Sometimes, corporate funding has seemed to induce organizations to steer clear of certain issues that might offend their donors, but usually only when a corporate representative already has considerable power within the organization itself. In the late 1970s, the NAACP refused to oppose the decontrol of natural gas prices. Most of the organization's leadership opposed decontrol, but Margaret Bush Wilson, who chaired the NAACPs board and served on the board of Monsanto, did not. Monsanto was also a big contributor to the NAACP.

In 1980 the Heritage Foundation called for the abolition of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. But Heritage began equivocating when President Reagan appointed as head of the corporation Edward Noble, who was active in Heritage and served as a trustee of the Noble Foundation, a major contributor to Heritage. In 1985, when Congress was on the verge of abolishing the agency, Heritage produced a briefing paper on "Salvaging the Synthetic Fuels Corporation." "We saw Noble's hand in it," said one Capitol Hill aide who had previously enjoyed Heritage's support in trying to abolish the agency.

Corporations have sought influence primarily by throwing their weight behind organizations and groups that espouse alternatives they either enthusiastically back or prefer in the face of something they deem to be much worse. Through their contributions, corporations have established a decided superiority over their rivals and critics in every area that is of vital concern to them.

When Congress takes up tax issues, business can call on the American Council for Capital Formation, the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, selected scholars from Brookings, the American Enterprise Institute, Ture's Research Institute, NAM, and the Chamber of Commerce. Labor can call on Robert Mclntyre's tiny Citizens for Tax Justice. In defining the party's economic agenda, business cannot only command the loyalty of conservative and Republican organizations, but also of Democratic groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council that have been funded by lobbyists and their corporations. By contrast, liberal and labor Democrats can look to Heather Booth's Coalition for Democratic Values, housed in the top floor of a warehouse off a side street in suburban Maryland.

Much of the environmental movement is funded through direct mail, but as the recession has dried up direct-mail contributions, those environmental organizations that can gain large-scale corporate funding have continued to prosper while the more radical groups such as Greenpeace have had to cut back drastically in their staff and activities. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only organizations that "seek market-oriented solutions don't feel the pinch." This means that their voice is now more likely to be heard, and, in Washington, the power to get your opinion heard wins battles.

Taken together, the corporate PACs and lobbyists, corporate officials manning new Washington offices, the Chamber of Commerce and NAM, the new organizations like the Business Roundtable, and the corporate contributions to like-minded organizations such as AEI have completely tilted the balance of power in Washington. Business has gotten its way for the last fifteen years in every major legislative battle that directly threatens it, from labor law reform to tax reduction and deregulation. Labor's Diminishing Returns
The AFL-CIO watched the initial explosion of social movements with a mixture of confusion and disdain. During Martin Luther King's 1963 march on Washington, AFL-CIO head George Meany closed the federation's headquarters for fear that the march would rum into a riot. During the 1972 election, Meany implicitly aligned the federation with Richard Nixon's attacks against the "acid, amnesty, and abortion" of the new left and the McGovern campaign. But the United Auto Workers, which left the AFL-CIO in 1968 and did not rejoin it until 1981, and the industrial and public employee unions within the federation backed the civil rights movement, helping to found the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Over the next two decades, as corporate lobbying expanded, these same unions also funded several coalition efforts, including the Full Employment Action Council and the Progressive Alliance, intended to counter corporate influence. In the late 1970s, after Meany had been succeeded by Lane Kirkland and after labor had been repeatedly drubbed on Capitol Hill, the AFL-CIO itself began reluctantly and haltingly funding organizations that it did not directly control. But the bulk of union funding still comes from individual unions rather than the federation.

* * *

During the 1980s, unions helped bankroll feminist, environmental, consumer, foreign policy, and citizens organizations, becoming the mainstay of such efforts as the Citizen-Labor Energy Coalition, now part of Citizen Action. Unions have contributed the bulk of the funds for two policy research groups, the Citizens for Tax Justice and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and have joined business in backing Clyde Presto-witz's Economic Strategy Institute.

The unions' role in founding EPI bears out the plight of labor. The AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department (IUD) had regularly been doing studies of the decline of manufacturing, but the mainstream press ignored its efforts because they were seen as colored by labor's special interest. After lengthy and sometimes difficult discussions with the policy intellectuals that were putting EPI together, union officials decided they would be better off following the corporations' example and funding a group that was committed to the same principles and ideas but not tainted directly by their label. In 1986 labor unions provided the money to start EPI, and the IUD's star economist Larry Mishel transferred to EPI, doing virtually the same studies, but gaining some attention from the press corps. Yet EPI remained haunted by labor's role. The press refers to the organization as "labor-backed," while never describing AEI and other business-funded groups as "business-backed." To secure its independence, EPI has successfully won some support from foundations and business.

Both Citizens for Tax Justice and EPI are relatively low-budget operations compared to AEI or Heritage. And labor's overall contribution to organizations like these remains minuscule compared to the amount of money corporations spend on think tanks and policy groups -- perhaps less than one half of one percent. Labor also spends relatively little on lobbying. Since 1960, the AFL-CIO has devoted about 2.5 percent of its budget to lobbying Capitol Hill. By comparison, the National Rifle Association, a particularly effective force on Capitol Hill, spends more than 15 percent of its budget on lobbying. At one point, the American Petroleum Institute employed more lobbyists in Washington than the entire labor movement.

What clout labor has comes from its political action committee contributions to candidates and from its power as a genuine national membership organization that can summon its troops to punish and reward public officials. But as labor's percentage of the non-agricultural work force has dropped to 16 percent, its ability to counter corporate power has diminished still further. The Power of Direct Mail
Many of the organizations that grew out of the social movements of the last decade -- including NOW, NARAL, Common Cause, and the Conservative Caucus -- use direct mail to raise the bulk of their money. The advantage of direct mail is that it renders an advocacy organization independent of large donors, whether wealthy individuals, corporations, foundations, or unions. Some major issues -- like Common Cause's campaign finance reform, NARAL's defense of abortion rights, and the Conservative Caucus's campaign against the Panama Canal Treaty, for example -- could not have been financed otherwise. Most of the large vested interests opposed campaign reform, and most of the foundations and corporations have found abortion too controversial. There are myriad smaller single issues such as gun control or opposition to federal funding of the National Endowment for the Arts that can be financed through carefully targeted direct mail. "Direct mail allows organizations to raise money for things that you don't always read about in the newspapers and that foundations and big donors are not interested in," says Republican direct-mail specialist Ann Stone.

But direct mail also has had its disadvantages. It is extremely expensive to finance. Nader's Public Citizen required a foundation grant to begin direct mail. Greenpeace relied on a loan from its direct mailer. It cannot be used by smaller policy research groups such as EPI whose work cannot be capsulized in a gut-wrenching direct-mail letter. By encouraging political groups to define their own purposes narrowly and through single issues, reliance upon direct mail contributes to the fragmentation of American politics. And while its social universe is larger than that of corporations and very wealthy large donors, it is primarily upper- and upper-middle class and is therefore only appropriate for issues that appeal to that segment of America. While direct-mail solicitation allows groups to communicate part of what they are doing to the world outside Washington, it provides little real link between that world and Washington pressure groups.

Direct mail was first used in 1964 by fund-raiser Marvin Liebman for Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, which could not rely on traditional business souces. In 1970 Roger Craver, a former fund-raiser for George Washington University, used it to launch John Gardner's new good-government organization, Common Cause. Gardner, a former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, had become frustrated trying to create a consensus among the labor unions, foundations, and corporations that funded the National Urban Coalition, and wanted a way of raising money that would free him from large funders with conflicting priorities.

In the early 1970s Richard Viguerie, who had been Liebman's assistant, began using it to finance new conservative organizations, including the Conservative Caucus and the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). In 1976 Viguerie associate Stephen Winchell branched out on his own and begin raising money for the Heritage Foundation, which depended on direct mail for much of its expenses in its early years and still raises about 40 percent of its funds that way. Meanwhile, Craver set up his own firm in 1976 and began raising money not only for candidates, but also eventually for NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, Handgun Control, and the whole array of liberal social-movement organizations.

* * *

Direct mailers boast that direct mail is a democratic means of raising money, but it is democratic only in comparison with fund-raising from corporations and the very wealthy. From 1970 through the mid-1980s, the direct-mail universe was very similar for both liberal and conservative organizations. It was predominately white, male, fifty-five-years-old and over, and with an income over $50,000. Craver refers to the liberal side of this constituency as the "toiling masses of Westchester and the peasants of Beverly Hills."

Conservative organizations like Heritage or Free the Eagle still rely on this older, male, well-to-do donor. Their funding base has not expanded and has probably shrunk slightly over the last two decades. But according to a survey that pollster Peter Hart did for Craver Matthews Smith & Co., the liberal social movements are now drawing almost a quarter of their funds from women donors age thirty-five to forty-five who have a mean income of $55,000. (See Figure 1) While the class base of Craver's mailing list has not changed, its age and sex have. This trend has already given liberal social-issue groups a decided advantage over their conservative counterparts.

Most organizations that raise money through the mail ask their donors to become members. A few groups such as Common Cause and NOW have tried to maintain real memberships through the mail, with local chapters and membership election of officers, but for most of the organizations, including NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Handgun Control, the Heritage Foundation, and Conservative Caucus, offering membership has served merely as a fund-raising technique that has allowed an organization to come back annually for contributions. It has sustained professionalized advocacy organizations.

Even in those organizations that have real members, the very size of the membership generated by direct mail has frayed the ties between the Washington headquarters and the organization's members. Typically, an organization such as Common Cause or NOW can be divided into four groups: the top staff and board of directors; an activist cadre of one to five percent who work in chapters and attend national conventions; the 25 percent of the membership that take the trouble to fill out membership ballots and opinion surveys; and the remaining passive members -- about 70 percent -- whose primary contribution is to send an annual donation.

The passive members influence the organization largely by increasing or decreasing their contribution and their numbers. In the last year, for instance, environmental organizations have suffered a sharp falling off in their direct-mail receipts not only because of the recession but also because the average donor no longer believes that the environment is threatened, while women's organizations, buoyed by anger from the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and the looming battle over Roe v. Wade, have experienced an upsurge in contributions. Similarly, many New Right organizations furiously expanded their contributions during the last Carter years, but then went broke after Reagan took office and removed the specter of a reigning liberalism.

In the direct-mail membership organization, the key group is the activist cadre, who, if they combine with a faction within the Washington staff, can effect real changes in the organization. In 1982, for instance, Common Cause's activists united with staff members to change the organization's focus from good-government issues to stopping the MX missile, even though the organization's polls showed that the group's membership was less concerned about the MX than about the organization's traditional issues. In 1989 NOW's activists forced the organization -- against the better judgment of many of its leaders -- to consider building a feminist third party.

However limited their representation, organizations such as NOW and Common Cause do represent an advance in democracy. But the majority of organizations are less like NOW and Common Cause and more like the Conservative Caucus, NARAL, Greenpeace, or People for the American Way. However noble their cause, they pursue it largely within a closed universe. They are accountable to a larger public only through the ultimate veto power that these donors hold. And these donors, far from being representative of the country at large, embody a small slice of upper-income America.

Organizations that are dependent on direct mail also are limited by the preoccupations of their own donor base. The donors to organizations like NARAL or the Sierra Club tend to fit the profile of the Baby Boomer -- liberal on social and environmental issues and on foreign policy, but fiscally conservative, often suspicious of unions, indifferent to poverty except in the most melodramatic forms. None of the major organizations that rely on direct mail emphasize the redistribution of income, the rebuilding of cities, the rights of workers to join unions, the need for national health insurance, or the kind of environmental issues that plague working-class neighborhoods. Canvassing the Middle Class
Some of those organizations that want to work on populist economic issues have discovered an alternative to direct mail and to contributions from business, labor, and foundations. In 1974 Chicago activist Marc Anderson, inspired by the example of door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen, began canvassing to raise money for Citizens for a Better Environment. Anderson introduced canvassing techniques to Ralph Nader's network of Public Interest Research Groups and to Citizen Action, a group of liberal state organizations that were emphasizing economic issues. Other national organizations, including Greenpeace, ACORN, Clean Water Action, and SANE-Freeze, now use canvassing to fund their operations.

Contributors to canvasses tend to be less well-to-do than direct-mail donors and more receptive to middle-class or even working class economic issues. Two years ago, Citizen Action did a profile of its donors (see Figure 2) and found that 58 percent have household incomes of less than $40,000.

Unlike the direct-mail donors, Citizen Action's donors identified jobs and unemployment as key issues. Yet Citizen Action's donor base was by no means working-class. One-third or more of those from thirty-five to fifty-four years old earned $50,000 and half of the donors identified themselves as either managers or professionals. Canvassing does widen the political universe in which groups operate -- making it possible to raise money for economic issues -- but it does not alter it dramatically.

When organizations began using canvasses for raising money, they also saw it as a way of educating citizens and gaining active members. Most canvassing groups continue to call their donors "members," and canvassers ask people not simply for donations, but to buy a membership. But over the last decade, canvassing has degenerated into a fund-raising technique for professional organizations that are run by their staff. Jo Patten, an official of a Chicago citizens group who has been active in several canvassing organizations, says, 'Technically, it is membership, but membership means nothing. You can have no impact on the organization. Internally, it is viewed as first and foremost a fund-raising method."

Adoption of a canvass has even led some organizations to abandon the group's grassroots tradition. In the early 1980s, the peace organization SAME adopted a canvass to raise money. When it proved highly successful, SANE's director changed the organization from a chapter-based, activist group into a professionalized, staff-driven Washington organization with paper members recruited by the canvass. By 1988, when it merged with the nuclear freeze movement, SANE had become a Washington-based fund-raising shell.

Harry Boyte, the author of Community is Possible and an early proponent of canvassing as a means of building democratic organizations, is now disillusioned with its results. "Organizations that are heavily canvass-based not only pose issues in black and white, but lose any possibility for a strong membership base, because the money doesn't come from the members," Boyte observes. "The members don't have a sense of ownership or the challenge of raising money. [Saul] Alinksy is right that people don't have any strong stake in an organization unless they own it."

Yet for national organizations that deal with gas prices, health care, toxic waste, and other working-class economic issues, canvassing remains far more viable than direct mail or soliciting financial help from foundations, corporations, and unions. Direct mail does not work with people worried about their jobs; foundations and corporations appear interested only when discrimination occurs or when the poor huddle in front of Park Avenue apartments; and unions have their own diminishing membership to worry about.

Sociologist Pamela Oliver believes that the degeneration of organizations using the canvass into professional advocacy groups is the result of the decline of public political activity over the last decade rather than an outgrowth of the canvass itself. "Canvassing is a poor way of raising money," says Oliver, "but what is the alternative?"

Oliver is probably right, but the point remains: Canvassing by itself does not currently contribute to genuine mass membership organizations any more than direct mail does. And in the absence of a popular upsurge outside Washington, the existence of several national organizations that rely on canvassing has done little to mitigate the overwhelming tie of most Washington organizations to upper- and upper-middle-class wealth and concerns. The New Power Centers
Political democracy has been breaking down in Washington. The breakdown began with the decline of the political parties. The parties have lost much of their power and coherence, the victims of misguided reform and the replacement of the precinct captain and street corner rally by the political consultant and television advertisement. Popular institutions that supported a civic political culture -- the labor union, the neighborhood bar, and the ward organization -- have withered or disappeared.

The new lobbies, research groups, and think tanks that have arisen over the last three decades have not provided an alternative link between citizens and their government. Instead, they have become centralized bureaucracies as remote from the average citizen as the government itself. Moreover, these new organizations -- through their focus on single issues or through studied avoidance of partisanship -- have contributed further to the decline of parties and of politics as a process of public deliberation and compromise toward common ends.

In the 1950s, pluralist theorists vastly overrated the power of the labor movement to act as a countervailing force to business, but labor in that era was a hulking Behemoth compared to what it has become. While labor's role in politics and pressure groups has steadily diminished, the power of business has vastly increased. Business and its organizations and lobbyists dominate the higher reaches of both political parties in Washington and set the agenda in the debate over the economic issues that directly concern it. About 8,500 of the 12,500 lobbyists, consultants, and lawyers listed in the current Washington Representatives work for American and foreign corporations.

As labor's role has diminished, business's lobbying has become narrower and more self-interested. It has had to concern itself less with challenging labor's right to speak for the entire society and more with securing its prerogatives and profit margins.

<

* * *

If there is another power center in Washington, it is the organs of social liberalism and environmentalism -- groups like NOW, NARAL, Common Cause, Handgun Control, the Children's Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund, and the ACLU. Together, they employ about 2,500 Washington lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations experts on their behalf. The power of these organizations now dwarfs that of the conservative social-issue organizations, lending credence to the charge that liberals rule Washington. But these organizations represent overlapping constituencies with many of the business groups. They do not reflect a competing, but often a complementary vision of society: one that combines fiscal conservatism with a firm opposition to environmental pollution and racial and sexual inequality. The liberalism of these organizations bears little resemblance to the economic liberalism of the New Deal and the labor movement. They represent the triumph of Hollywood, Cambridge, and New York's Upper West Side.

These two forces -- business/economic conservatism and well-to-do social liberalism -- have ruled American politics over the last fifteen years. During this time, Washington's politicians have fought off attempts to weaken environmental and social legislation -- even passing a strengthened Clean Air Act and a new Civil Rights Bill. But they have also acceded to a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor and lower-middle class to the upper-middle class and the wealthy, while acquiescing in the deregulation of corporations and banks. National Democrats have been particularly victimized by the erosion of parties and the growth of these new centers of power. Last spring, as the recession deepened, Robert Andrews, a freshman congressman from Bellmawr, New Jersey, recounted to me his utter bewilderment at how Washington works. While Andrews's constituents in his working-class Camden County district were becoming increasingly nervous about their jobs, Congress was preoccupied with the Brady gun control bill and a new version of the civil rights bill -- measures, however meritorious, that were of no interest in his district. Echoing Ronald Reagan, Andrews described an "iron triangle" of interest groups that were dominating the Democratic Party and preventing it from attending to its traditional working-class and middle-class base. As a newcomer, Andrews saw clearly what many veteran Washington Democrats have accepted with resignation.

The Democrats' traditional middle class constituency "Roosevelt's forgotten men and women"have also been losers in this transformation of Washington politics. Many of them know that they are better off because unions exist; they are far more concerned about jobs, taxes, and health insurance than about abortion, gun control, or exotic wildlife. As the pressure groups in Washington have proliferated, as billions of dollars have poured into the city to fund lobbies, PACs, and so-called public interest groups, these Americans have found themselves on the outside, watching with growing dismay as their own fate is decided by men and women they never elected, funded, or supported.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement