From Vanguard to Old Guard: The Changing Role of Interest Groups in American Politics

York, John, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ceaser, James, Politics, University of Virginia

Today, interest groups, Political Action Committees, and outside activists are a more visible and powerful force in party politics than ever before. With the weakening of traditional party organizations – which, since the 19th Century, have lost control of the nomination process, the ability to meet the financial demands of candidates for office, or to repay partisan volunteers with government jobs – interest groups gradually increased their own electioneering activities filling the void.

According to many political scientists, as interest groups and outside activists stepped into roles once filled by party bosses, civic satraps, and committee kingmakers, they steered the two major national parties to the ideological extremes. While the “party regulars” of the past were interested in winning elections, this new cadre of political elites is interested in winning policy victories even if that means pulling politicians away from the pivotal median voter.

This dissertation suggests that interest groups not only influence party politics, they are also influenced by it. In fact, only when parties are institutionally powerful can interest groups eschew the hard-minded, strategic, sometimes unprincipled, calculations party elites make.

The data presented in this dissertation demonstrate interest groups have adapted to their new roles and do behave much as traditional party organizations. They tend to endorse the same candidates for political office, pour money into the same general election races, and attend to partisan coalition-building at least as assiduously as party elites. This demonstrates that it is the functions a group fills rather than the form an organization takes – be it a trade association, a labor union, or a party committee – that determines its political activities.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
parties, interest groups, lobbying, Sierra Club, partisan networks
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