From Ghosts to Shadows: Parties, Interest Groups and the Rise of Political Action

Charnock, Emily, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Milkis, Sidney, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

The development of the party system from one characterized by weak, “ghostlike” national parties existing in tension with interest groups, to one marked by prominent, centralized organizations surrounded by interest group allies – a “shadow” party – is one of the most striking changes in American politics over the past century. Indeed, interest groups were once viewed as nonpartisan actors for whom a close relationship with a particular party would be strategically dangerous. Yet explanations for the changing party orientation of groups, and even recognition of the significance of this change itself, have been absent from existing scholarship.

In this dissertation, I explain the larger shift in party-interest group relationships in terms of the rise of “political action” – a new mode of interest group involvement in elections, first fully realized in the 1940s, and foundationally associated with a partisan strategy. From a tendency to operate as bipartisan “lobbies” in the legislative sphere, the changing political context wrought by the New Deal encouraged some interest groups to embrace electioneering, and altered the incentives involved in working with only one side. Emerging first within the labor movement, the new ideas, organizational forms, and partisan tactics of political action would be adopted over the next two decades by newly-formed liberal and conservative ideological groups, and ultimately by major business associations – forging organizational alliances with the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, and seeking to reshape those parties into disciplined vehicles for realizing group policy goals. In so doing, interest groups helped to forge more cohesive parties at the national level, while contributing to a gradual polarization of the political world over time.

In sum, I argue that the rise of political action was associated with a characteristic form of organization – the political action committee or “PAC” – a specific strategy of political action focused on a single party, and a set of arguments justifying that partisan strategy, which would have profound effects upon the nature of election campaigning, on party-interest group relations, and on the broader contours of the party system. Political action would be the tool through which a new vision of party politics was forged.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American Politics, Parties, Interest Groups, PACs, Campaign Finance, Political Polarization, Party System, American Political Development
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