King: Political Parties Overwhelmed by Interest Groups

May 28, 2015

by Stephen M. King, Ph.D.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT) and its supporters are looking with anticipation to the Supreme Court’s expected favorable ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage sometime in late June. Previous court rulings have danced around the issue of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. The upcoming ruling is expected to address it directly.

U.S. society and culture are more favorably disposed toward acceptance of same-sex marriage and the gay lifestyle in general. A 2013 Pew survey found nearly 61 percent of Americans are in agreement with the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, compared with only 27 percent 20 years ago. Thirty-six states plus D.C. have legalized same-sex marriage, with many states passing legislation or referenda, and not solely relying on court decrees to institutionalize same-sex marriage. A full 70 percent of the U.S. population lives in areas where same-sex couples are permitted to marry.

Why is this happening? Why is there such a dramatic reversal, even push, for acceptance of same-sex marriage and the homosexual lifestyle in general? The typical responses are: 1) culture drives politics; 2) 21st-century Americans, as opposed to previous generations, are more tolerant, empathetic and progressive in their thought process, translating into acceptance of non-traditional values and lifestyles; and 3) institutions such as the church and traditional families have less influence in shaping traditional values.

Marco Rubio, Republican presidential candidate, contends that if these cultural trends continue unabated, orthodox Christian teaching will soon be labeled hate speech, and de facto, religious freedom will be stymied. He may be correct. However, I contend there is another reason why we see the sudden rise in support for same-sex marriage and homosexuality: It is because of a breakdown in the political party system and a disproportionate increase in the political power of interest groups.

James Madison and a majority of the Founders were correct in warning against the avarice and divisions of disparate political “factions,” including political parties and interest groups. Modern political scientists such as E. E. Schattschneider, author of the classic The Semi-Sovereign People, differ with Madison and contend that the best opportunity for citizen input in the political system is through a well-structured political party as opposed to competing interest groups.

Schattschneider argued that “the outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved . . .” The wider the scope of the argument — what Schattschneider calls the “socialization of conflict” — the greater the interest of the general public. And since political parties are large-scale organizations, and interest groups are small-scale organizations, Schattschneider concludes that political outcomes that favor the public interest would come through parties, not interest groups.

So, what has happened to Schattschneider’s claim? Like so many social scientists of the 1940s to 1960s “golden era” of political parties, Schattschneider did not anticipate the rapid decline and de-emphasis of political parties, particularly as a political mobilization mechanism. Parties were designed to aggregate interests; interest groups work in the opposite directions — they defuse, devolve and disaggregate political interest, shaping policy to meet specialized factions, as Madison labeled them. Groups are pitted against each other, fighting for scarce resources and even scarcer political support.

Schattschneider knew this, and thus his famous dictum: “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” was a warning that interest-group politics, unlike political parties, have a narrow scope of influence and, de facto, should be resisted.

Pro-homosexual, pro same-sex marriage advocacy groups, of which there are hundreds in the U.S. alone, are well-heeled organizations, wielding sufficient political influence at both the national and state levels. Organizations such as GLAAD and others have substantial financial resources at their disposal. For example, the 2012 National LGBT Movement Report reports $158.4 million in giving to LGBT causes; this is an 11 percent increase from 2011.

Some wealthy LGBT-movement donors such as Paul Singer (a hedge-fund CEO who has donated more than $10 million over the last several years, created the Paul E. Singer Foundation promoting LGBT initiatives and contributed nearly $2 million to the American Unity PAC) are successfully pushing a radicalized agenda of same-sex marriage and LGBT civil rights.

The goal of the pluralist political game is “win at all costs,” regardless of traditional-issue positions. All policy positions are subject to public opinion, with many public officials more interested in maintaining political power than achieving goals that benefit the whole of society and community.

Political parties today are antiquated political organizations that do not have the financial, organizational and goal-oriented wherewithal to compete with the hundreds of thousands of interest groups that form coalitions and networks, that team with public-opinion polls to meet self-seeking private interests as opposed to community-seeking public interests.

So, who was correct: Madison or Schattschneider? My vote is for the Founding Fathers.

Stephen M. King, Ph.D., is a political scientist and adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

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