Local and State Interest Group Organizations
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the literature on local and state interest groups. The author argues that much of the interest group literature has focused on the national level even though there are large gaps in what we know about local and state groups and sub-national collective action. The bulk of the chapter outlines just how much we have learned about interest group organizations and concludes with a discussion of directions for future research.
Interest groups are older than the republic itself. As James Yoho (1999: 1) points out, “the movement for American independence from Great Britain significantly stimulated organizational activity,” as the Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce, local Sons of Liberty groups, Anti-Tea Leagues, and hundreds of other groups formed to agitate against various trade policies. Interest groups have virtually always been a part of our politics, and their numbers have grown steadily since the founding.
Not surprisingly given their prominence in American politics, interest groups have received a great deal of scholarly attention. Indeed, some of the most important and influential works in all of political science, including Bentley’s (1908) The Process of Government, Truman’s (1951) The Governmental Process, and Olson’s (1965) The Logic of Collective Action, are about interest groups. Scholarly attention to interest groups peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s, as groups were “at the center of political science” (Baumgartner and Leech, 1998: 46). The study of groups declined in the late 1960s and 1970s, as “the group approach to politics” was discredited and political scientists turned their attention to other subjects (especially voting). The scholarly study of interest groups roared back, however, in the 1980s, and groups have received a steady dose of research attention ever since. But something important happened when interest groups made their comeback—scholarly focus tilted decidedly toward national politics and away from state and local politics. Prominent among the studies published during the “golden age” of interest group research were several studies of sub-national politics, including Hunter’s (1953) Community Power Structure, Zeller’s American State Legislatures (American Political Science Association and Zeller, 1954), and Dahl’s (1961) Who Governs? Studies like these are conspicuous by their absence in the more recent interest group research canon. The study of group politics has become decidedly Washington-centric. Indeed, almost all of the most influential and prominent interest group studies of the last 30 years are studies of Washington politics—Hansen’s (1991) (p. 138) Gaining Access, Walker’s (1991) Mobilizing Interest Groups in America, Heinz et al.’s (1993) The Hollow Core, and Baumgartner et al.’s (2009) Lobbying and Policy Change come to mind.
This is not to say that the new wave of studies has ignored state and local politics altogether. Some editions of the Cigler and Loomis edited volumes (Cigler and Loomis, 1983, 1986, 1991, 1995, 1998, 2002, 2007) contain (limited) coverage of interest groups in state politics, and two pairs of scholars—Ronald Hrebenar and Clive Thomas, and Virginia Gray and David Lowery (each of which I will discuss in some detail later in the chapter)—have worked tirelessly over the last three decades to enhance our understanding of interest group politics in the United States. In addition, many scholars of local politics posit a large role for private interests in local government decision making (see, for example, Stone, 1989; Logan and Rabrenovic, 1990; Ferman, 1996; Austin and McCaffrey, 2002; Smith and Harris, 2005; Adams, 2007). All of these efforts notwithstanding, with few exceptions the most prominent studies of interest group politics conducted in the past 30 years are studies of Washington interest group politics.
In the end, this means that there are huge gaps in our understanding of local and state interest group politics. One of my primary goals in this chapter is to identify these gaps. But my focus is not entirely negative. I will also identify areas in which our knowledge of local and state interest groups is extensive. In fact, this is where I will start. I will ask: What have we learned about state and local interest group politics? From here, I will examine where we have failed. That is, I will explore what we do not know. In the course of this discussion I will offer a number of suggestions about what we should be doing to improve our understanding of state and local interest group politics.
What Have we Learned?
While the Washington-centric nature of interest group research has inhibited our knowledge of many aspects of interest group politics in America, there are some topics about which scholars of sub-national interest groups have learned a great deal. We have learned a great deal about the following aspects of state and local interest group politics: (1) the composition of the state interest group universe; (2) the determinants of state interest group community density and diversity; (3) the activities of state-level interest groups and their lobbyists; (4) the behavior of state-level interest groups in state initiative campaigns and the effects of direct democracy on interest group communities; and (5) how participation in local interest groups affects individual participants.
The State Interest Group Universe
What types of interest groups are active in the United States, and in what numbers? Is the group universe relatively representative of the views of the American people? Are some (p. 139) interests better represented than others? These are important questions because they speak to the very nature of American democracy. Starting in the 1970s, interest group scholars began to address these questions in earnest. Their findings were remarkably uniform. First, they found that the number of interest groups active in America rose substantially after World War II, especially after 1960 (Walker, 1983, 1991; Schlozman and Tierney, 1986; but see Tichenor and Harris, 2005). Second, they found that the variety of interest groups active in America is quite broad, as individual business firms (Vogel, 1978; Wilson, 1981; Ryan et al., 1987), charities and churches (Liebman et al., 1983; Berry and Arons, 2003; Djupe et al., 2005), citizen groups (McFarland, 1976; Berry, 1977, 1999; Walker, 1983; Bosso, 2005), colleges and universities (Cook, 1998), think tanks (Ricci, 1993; Rich, 2004; Stone and Denham, 2004; McGann, 2007), and other types of groups compete for power alongside traditional interest group stalwarts such as labor unions, professional associations, and trade associations. Finally, the group universe shows an unmistakable bias—one toward institutions (i.e. non-membership organizations). The most prominent types of institutions active in American politics are individual business firms (Baumgartner and Leech, 2001; see also, Salisbury, 1984; Schlozman and Tierney, 1986).
In sum, as interest group studies proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s, we learned a great deal about the composition of the interest group universe. Most of the research on this subject, however, spoke only about the nature of the Washington interest group universe. Fortunately, the nature of the contemporary interest group universe was a topic to which some scholars of state politics also paid attention. Specifically, multi-state and multi-year studies conducted by Virginia Gray and David Lowery, and Ronald Hrebenar and Clive Thomas have told us a great deal about what the 50 state interest group communities look like. First, the painstaking substantive research of Gray and Lowery has shown us that the American states, like Washington, have experienced an advocacy explosion of sorts since the 1970s. In the vast majority of states Gray and Lowery report there were many more interest groups active in the late 1990s than there were in the late 1970s (Gray and Lowery, 2001a, 2001b; for a summary, see Lowery and Brasher, 2004: 76–7). Second, Gray and Lowery show that state interest group communities are, like the Washington interest group community, quite diverse (Gray and Lowery, 2001b), with large numbers of charities, citizen groups, government entities, religious organizations, and other types of groups lobbying alongside business firms, labor unions, professional associations, and trade associations. The empirically rich case studies found in the Hrebenar and Thomas (1987, 1992, 1993a, 1993b) volumes confirm that state interest group communities are quite diverse, though some are more diverse than others. Third, Gray and Lowery demonstrate that the well-known bias toward institutional representation exists in states just as it does in Washington (Lowery and Gray, 1998; Gray and Lowery, 2001b). Further, they show that prominent among institutions are individual businesses.
In sum, the literature shows that in their broad contours interest group communities in the states bear some resemblance to each other (though there are, of course, differences, which I will discuss later), as well as to the community of interest groups in Washington. The 50 case studies published in the Hrebenar and Thomas volumes, (p. 140) together with the work of Gray and Lowery, have given us a solid idea of what types of interest groups are active in the American states and in what numbers.
What Explains Differences in Density and Diversity Across States
Seizing upon the research opportunities presented by the existence of 50 unique and discrete bounded areas (the states), Virginia Gray and David Lowery (various, but see especially Gray and Lowery, 1993, 1995, 1996a, 1996b, 1996c, 1998a, 1998b; Lowery and Gray, 1993, 1994, 1995) worked throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and continue to work) to improve our understanding of interest group communities. Not content simply to describe interest group communities in the states, Gray and Lowery compared state interest group communities and then attempted to explain the differences between them.
Gray and Lowery began their theory-building exercise by arguing that the dominant scholarly focus on internal group processes (see especially Olson, 1965; Salisbury, 1969; Walker, 1983) could not help us explain differences in interest group politics across states. To explain these differences, they argued, we must step back and examine the characteristics of interest group populations. Gray and Lowery pay particular attention to two attributes of interest group populations—density and diversity. At the most basic level, density refers simply to the size of an interest group population. As for diversity, it refers to the “extent to which a variety of economic and noneconomic interests are articulated by organized groups” (Gray and Lowery, 1993: 83). Density is important for several reasons, the most important of which is that it affects formation and survival processes. Specifically, there is evidence that at relatively high levels of density—that is, in crowded interest group communities—group death is more likely and group mobilization is relatively difficult (Gray and Lowery 2001a). There is also evidence that density affects lobbying behavior. For example, it appears that interest groups are more likely to engage in “alliance activity” with other interest groups in crowded interest group communities (Gray and Lowery, 1998b). As for diversity, it too is important. Most important, it speaks to the very nature of interest group representation. Most scholars agree that more diversity is better than less, as it suggests a more inclusive and representative interest group community.
In short, density and diversity are important attributes of interest group communities. Both, according to Gray and Lowery, vary widely across states. But what explains differences in density across states? And what explains differences in diversity? Let us turn first to density. Gray and Lowery, borrowing from organizational ecology models, explain variations in density across states using an ESA, or energy–stability–area, model. Energy and area, they maintain, are the crucial determinants of density. Gray and Lowery find that energy and density are positively associated. For interest groups, there are two primary sources of energy. First, there are issues. Simply, more issues mean more interest groups. Issues, Gray and Lowery argue, are what interest groups “exploit in securing members” (Lowery and Brasher, 2004: 84).Thus, “as new issues arise or old (p. 141) issues are aggravated, the environment should provide a more congenial, richer setting for founding interest organizations” (Lowery and Brasher, 2004: 84). Second, there is party competition. Party competition is important because it is indicative of the likelihood of policy change. Issues are important, but “(n)o matter how salient an issue is to potential members or sponsors, few will support an interest organization if there is no chance that the political system will address it” (Lowery and Brasher, 2004: 84). “If the out-party has a good chance of becoming the in-party at the next election, then old policies may be overturned and new policies actively considered” (Lowery and Brasher, 2004: 86). In short, more party competition means more interest groups. As for the area term in the ESA model, it is essentially the number of members and other supporters available to interest groups for mobilization. For example, a state with no farmers is unlikely to have many farm groups, while a state with hundreds of thousands of farmers is likely to have many farm groups and many types of farm groups. In sum, more members and supporters means more interest groups. The relationship between area and density, however, is not linear. Even in states with lots of members and supporters—that is, in states with large area terms—there is a limit on density. In other words, at some point growth rates level off.
Gray and Lowery also attempt to explain variations in levels of diversity across states. Again, they begin with the simple premise, supported by their empirical research, that some states have more diverse interest group communities than others. From here, Gray and Lowery make several arguments about the determinants of diversity. First, state interest group community diversity is positively associated with state economic size. Second, state interest group community diversity is positively related to state economic diversity. Third, state interest group diversity is negatively related to state interest group community density. Gray and Lowery go much further than this, arguing that diversity varies across states in complex ways because “interest guilds respond differently to the availability of potential members depending on their unique economies of scale of organization and the homogeneity of their members’ interests” (Lowery and Brasher, 2004: 98). Suffice to say that Gray and Lowery have developed a sophisticated and elegant theory to explain interest group diversity.
The work of Gray and Lowery has taught us a great deal about what state interest group communities look like, how they differ, and why. Their ESA model of interest group density, together with their related model of interest group diversity, has given us powerful tools to understand how and why interest group communities look different over time and across space. In short, one of the things we have learned is what explains differences in density and diversity across states.
What State-level Interest Groups and Their Lobbyists Do
Another area where we have learned a great deal about sub-national interest group politics is what state-level interest groups and their lobbyists do. Following the lead of Zeller (American Political Science Association and Zeller, 1954) and Morehouse (1981), who (p. 142) showed us that states were hotbeds of interest group activity, a number of scholars have demonstrated empirically precisely what state-level interest groups do (see, for example, Hrebenar and Thomas, 1987, 1992, 1993a, 1993b; King and Robin, 1994, 1995; Nownes and Freeman, 1998a, 1998b; Gerber, 1999; Rosenthal, 2001; Alexander, 2002; Nownes and DeAlejandro, 2009). This research suggests several general conclusions about what state interest groups and their lobbyists do, including the following: (1) state lobbyists are active across all three branches of state government; (2) state lobbyists utilize some tactics (e.g. testifying before legislative committees, meeting personally with state legislators, meeting personally with state legislative aides) more than others (e.g. filing suit or otherwise litigating, engaging in protests and demonstrations); (3) while direct lobbying (that is, lobbying aimed at government officials) remains predominant, state lobbyists are big users of grassroots techniques (e.g. inspiring letter-writing or email campaigns to state legislators, issuing press releases, running advertisements in media), and direct democratic techniques (e.g. campaigning for or against a ballot initiative, seeking to put a measure on the state ballot as an initiative); (4) despite the ongoing professionalization of state politics in general and lobbying in particular, more state lobbyists than not utilize informal lobbying techniques (e.g. engaging in informal contacts with legislators, doing favors for officials who need assistance); (5) many state-level interest groups engage in electoral lobbying (e.g. forming PACs [where this is necessary] and contributing money to candidates, endorsing candidates); (6) state lobbyists regularly enter into coalitions; and (7) many state lobbyists spend a large portion of their time on non-lobbying activities (including monitoring government and monitoring other interest groups).
In all, empirical research conducted over the past 20 years has provided us with a rather thorough understanding of the activities of state-level interest groups and their lobbyists. This research demonstrates that lobbying in the states is now very much like lobbying in Washington.
Interest Groups and Direct Democracy in the States
There is no direct democracy at the national level. The states, however, are a different story, as many present interest groups a variety of opportunities to take part directly in proposing and making policy. Scholars of state politics have learned a great deal about the role of interest groups in direct democracy. First, they have learned that large numbers of interest groups participate in direct democratic processes. For example, one recent survey showed that more than half of all responding state lobbyists reported “campaigning for or against a state initiative or referendum” (Nownes and DeAlejandro, 2009). Numerous other studies confirm the centrality of interest groups in many direct democratic campaigns (Cronin, 1984; Gerber, 1999; Alexander, 2002). Second, we have learned a great deal about what types of interests win in direct democratic campaigns. Early studies argued that well-financed business interests (i.e. business firms and trade groups, as opposed to citizen groups and labor unions) dominated direct democratic campaigns (Cronin, 1984; Magleby, 1984). Gerber (1998, 1999), however, has shown that (p. 143) the relationship between spending on direct democracy and winning is not straightforward. She shows, in fact, that there is a negative relationship between how much “dominant” economic interest groups—business firms, trade groups, and professional groups—spend in support of an initiative and the probability that the initiative will succeed. This said, these groups tend to have more success when they are playing defense—that is, when they are spending to defeat an initiative supported by citizen or labor groups (Gerber, 1998). In short, it appears that spending by business firms, professional associations, and trade groups, which generally outstrips spending by citizen groups and labor unions, is capable of defeating initiatives, but not necessarily passing them.
We have also learned that the mere presence of direct democracy affects interest group communities. Specifically, Boehmke (2005) has shown that states with the initiative have more diverse interest group communities than states without the initiative. This suggests that the mere opportunity directly to propose legislation enhances opportunities for all sorts of groups to mobilize.
How Participation in Local Organizations Affects Individuals
How does participation in interest groups affect individuals? Scholars of national and state interest groups have paid surprisingly little attention to this question (and should pay more). Scholars of local groups, however, have addressed this question extensively, and their findings have contributed to the ongoing scholarly debate about the determinants and benefits of social capital. Overall, studies show that participation in local organizations can enhance individual civic skills. Berry et al. (1993), for example, find that participation in neighborhood associations can enhance individuals’ sense of community, and can increase trust in government and political efficacy. All of this is good for democratic governance. Other studies find a variety of positive effects of group participation (Adams, 2007, Ch. 10; Hays and Kogl, 2007; Ohmer, 2007) including increased knowledge of public affairs, enhanced leadership and organizational skills, and an increased sense of empowerment. In short, there is a small but important body of research which shows that participation in local organizations is good for individuals and good for social capital.
A Few Loose Ends
Before moving on to what I consider our most glaring gaps, I want to make mention of a few other things that we have learned. First, we have learned that interest groups are much more powerful in some states than others (Thomas and Hrebenar, 1996, 1999, 2004). In general, groups are more powerful in states with weak party systems, and in states with “traditionalistic” political cultures. Second and similarly, we have learned that interest groups are more powerful in some localities than others (Schumaker, 1991). Unfortunately, we do not know enough about what explains the differences across localities. Third, studies of local politics show that neighborhood associations are singularly important group actors in some cities, and they are capable of profoundly (p. 144) affecting local government decisions (Thomas, 1986; Berry et al. 1993). I will have more to say about neighborhood associations later. Fourth, we have learned that Alinsky-type direct action organizations are not uncommon in American cities. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and its local affiliates, as well as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have received some research attention. This work shows that groups like these are anything but powerless in local politics (Berry et al., 1993; Warren, 2001; Wood, 2002). Fifth, we have learned a great deal about the role of interest groups in state elections, especially about the strategies of state political action committees (Thompson and Cassie, 1992; Thompson et al., 1994; Malbin and Gais, 1998; for a summary, see Ramsden, 2002). This work is especially notable because it has largely confirmed notions gleaned from studies of Washington interest groups, and thus represents a triumph of theory testing.
In sum, we have learned a considerable amount about state and local interest groups in the past 50 years. We know a great deal, for example, about the contours of state interest group communities, and what explains the differences between these communities. We also know a lot about what state lobbyists do. We know a little bit about several other topics, including how participation in local organizations affects citizens, and how direct democracy affects interest groups in the states and interest groups in the states affect direct democracy. Yet in the end, anyone who studies local or state politics knows that there is a great deal about sub-national interest group politics in America that we do not know. In short, there are many gaps in our understanding of state and local interest group politics. It is to these gaps I now turn.
What We need to Learn More About
Although there are gaps in our understanding of both state and local interest group politics, I believe that we are especially deficient in our understanding of local interest group politics. I say this because despite the existence of a vibrant literature on neighborhood associations and a flexible theoretical framework (regime theory) for understanding public–private relations in cities, there are several aspects of local interest group politics about which we know virtually nothing. In my opinion, we are particularly deficient in our knowledge of the following: (1) the makeup of county and special district interest group communities; (2) the activities of local lobbyists; and (3) the electioneering activities of interest groups in local elections. I will begin my discussion of research gaps with these three topics. From here, I will examine a few other aspects of sub-national interest group politics about which we need to learn more, including the role of interest groups in land-use politics and procurement politics, intergovernmental lobbying that does not (p. 145) involve Washington, and interest group electioneering in state elections. Finally, I will highlight a major fault with the literature on sub-national interest groups—its failure to engage dominant theories of interest group politics.
What do Local Interest Group Communities Look Like?
One topic about which we know surprisingly little is the composition of the local interest group universe. What types of interest groups lobby local governments and in what numbers? We do not know the answer to this question. Some of what we do know comes from case studies of specific cities. For example, from case studies of Atlanta (Stone, 1989), Boston (O’Connor, 1993), New York (Sites, 1997), and Philadelphia (McGovern, 2009), we know that business firms (and their leaders)—both individually and through participation in formal (see Austin and McCaffrey, 2002) and informal coalitions (Stone, 1989)—are power players in many municipalities. Other studies confirm the power and activity of business (Abney and Lauth, 1985; Logan and Molotch, 1987). We have also learned about what types of businesses are most active in local politics. Specifically, studies show that because a great deal of local politics is about land use, “the most active of all business interests in city and county politics are those related to land and development...,” including architectural firms, builders, developers, and real estate companies (Logan and Molotch, 1987; Christensen and Hogen-Esch, 2006: 239; Nownes, 2006). From other sources, we learn that neighborhood organizations also are active in many municipalities (Dilger, 1992; Berry et al., 1993; Elkins, 1995; Cooper et al., 2005; Berry et al., 2006; Adams, 2007), as are faith-based organizations and churches (Button et al., 1997; Sharp, 1999; Smith and Harris, 2005), “public interest” groups (Sharp, 1999), labor unions (Regalado, 1991; DeLeon, 1992), and ethnic and racial minority groups (Browning et al., 1997).
In short, we have a reasonably good idea of what types of interest groups are active in local politics. Nonetheless, there are a number of conspicuous gaps in our knowledge of local interest group communities. First, we know little or nothing about county interest group communities. What types of interest groups are active in American counties and in what numbers? We do not have even the most rudimentary answers to these questions, as studies of county interest group politics are virtually non-existent. Second, we know very little about interest group communities in small cities, towns, and villages. Most studies of local politics that concern themselves at all with interest groups are studies of cities (and large ones at that). Third, we know very little about (what I call) special district interest group communities—that is, about the types of groups that lobby special districts. There are tens of thousands of special districts in the United States, and as Mullin (2009) shows, special district officials are rational political actors just like other public officials and are thus open to persuasion. Studies of special district lobbying (that is, lobbying aimed at special districts, not conducted by special districts) are non-existent. In short, we need to learn much more about what local interest group communities look like.
(p. 146) What Local Lobbyists Do
Over the years several large-scale surveys of lobbyists have been conducted (see, for example, Milbrath, 1963; Berry, 1977; Walker, 1983; Schlozman and Tierney, 1983, 1986; Knoke, 1990; Heinz et al., 1993; Kollman, 1998; Nownes and Freeman, 1998a, 1998b; Nownes and DeAlejandro, 2009). Moreover, there are excellent empirical studies of lobbying based on actual observation of lobbyists at work (Rosenthal, 2001; Kersh, 2002, 2007). As Baumgartner and Leech (1998, 162) point out, these studies have done an excellent job of “enumerating various tactics of lobbying” used at the national and state level. Unfortunately, no comparable surveys of local lobbyists have been conducted, and thus no one has enumerated the various tactics of local lobbying. Though some studies of local politics give us vague ideas about what local interest groups do to influence policy (see, for example, Stone, 1989; Berry et al., 1993; Austin and McCaffrey, 2002; Krebs, 2005a, 2005b), there are simply no large scale studies of local lobbying (like those conducted in the states) that enumerate the range of tactics that local lobbyists use. As such, we do not have much of an understanding of the tactics that local lobbyists use.
What Land-use and Procurement Lobbying Look Like
In my opinion, we need to do much more to understand two types of lobbying that have received very little attention from state and local interest group scholars (or national interest group scholars for that matter)—procurement lobbying, and land-use lobbying. In my own research (Nownes, 2006), I have found that many state and local lobbyists (and Washington lobbyists) care very little about public policy if by this we mean government decisions (i.e. laws, rules, regulations, or court decisions) about important societal issues such as abortion, education, gay rights, health care, immigration, and the like.
So what do state and local lobbyists care about if not public policy? First, they care about government decisions concerning purchasing and contracting. Data show that state and local governments spend even more money on goods and services each year than does the federal government (Cooper, 2003). And while several studies note that interest groups play some role in state and local contracting and purchasing decisions (see, for example, DeHoog, 1984; O’Looney, 1998; Lavery, 1999; LeRoux and Harney, 2007; Curry, 2009), we have very little knowledge about what this role is. To what extent do local and state interest groups want to influence these sorts of decisions? What proportion of local and state lobbying is aimed at receiving private goods such as contracts rather than public goods? What do interest groups and their lobbyists do to affect contracting and purchasing decisions? How much influence do interest groups wield over these decisions? We do not have answers to these questions, and we will not fully understand state and local interest group politics until we address them. Second, many state and local lobbyists (especially local) care about government decisions concerning land use; unfortunately, we know very little about the role of interest (p. 147) groups in land-use politics. Land use, of course, is of paramount interest to local government (see Feiock, 2004; Christensen and Hogen-Esch, 2006; Bowman and Kearney, 2008). In my own work, I have found that a great deal of (if not most) local lobbying concerns land use rather than public policy as we usually define it. A summary perusal of city lobbyist registration lists indicates that the majority of registered lobbyists in cities represent development interests such as contractors, home builders, and real estate developers. How do interest groups attempt to influence land-use decisions? How do the activities of land-use lobbyists differ from those of other types of lobbyists? How successful are land-use lobbyists at getting what they want from local government? To be sure, these questions have received some attention. Fleischmann and Pierannunzi (1990), for example, examine how the presence of lobbyists affects land-use decisions, while in my own work I have examined the activities of land-use lobbyists (Nownes, 2006). Moreover, neighborhood groups, which are often powerful players in land-use battles, have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, as dozens of studies have analyzed what they do and to what effect (see, for example, Thomas, 1986; Hutcheson and Prather, 1988; Logan and Rabrenovic, 1990; Green and Schreuder, 1991; Swindell, 2000). So-called “NIMBY” groups have also received scholarly attention (see, for example, Kraft and Clary, 1991; Munton, 1996; McAvoy, 1999; Matejczyk, 2001). Much of this literature finds that neighborhood associations and other organized groups of citizens are indeed capable to stopping unpopular development projects, especially if they are active and voluble.
Nonetheless, our knowledge of interest group and lobbyist activity surrounding land-use issues remains limited. Surprisingly, we probably know less about the land-use lobbying behavior of purported dominant political interests—that is, partners in the “growth machines” that many scholars say dominate local politics—than we do about neighborhood organizations and other citizen groups. Regime theory (which I will say more about later) and growth machine theories of local politics posit a central role for business interests in local (that is, land use) politics, but tell us very little about the specific actions they take to affect government decisions.
In sum, we have a great deal to learn about one type of lobbying that takes place virtually exclusively at the local level, land-use lobbying, and another that takes place at all three levels of government but is unquestionably very important at the state and local level, procurement lobbying.
Intergovernmental Lobbying in the States
The study of intergovernmental lobbying is decidedly Washington-centric and focuses primarily upon how and why sub-national governmental institutions lobby the national government (see, for example, Haider, 1974; Hays, 1991; Berch, 1992; Cammisa, 1995; Marbach and Leckrone, 2002). Fortunately, there is a small literature that has taught us a few things about sub-national intergovernmental lobbying. For example, we learn from Thomas and Hrebenar (1996, 1999, 2004) that “general local government organizations” (p. 148) are consistently among the top 10 most powerful types of interest groups in state politics, while specific cities and towns consistently make the top 40. From Cigler (1994) we learn that state associations of counties bring their concerns to state governments quite regularly, and from De Soto (1995) we learn that municipal officials spend considerable time communicating their concerns to state policy makers. Finally, from Abney (1988), we have learned that state agency lobbyists have unusually high levels of access to state decision makers, and from the Thomas and Hrebenar studies we learn that state agencies are consistently ranked among the top 25 most powerful types of interest groups in the states.
Yet while we have learned that sub-national intergovernmental lobbying takes place and that state agencies and local governments are powerful players in state politics, we have learned little else. Do state agency lobbyists have unusually high levels of access in all states (Abney’s 1988 study is limited to Georgia)? How successful are state agency lobbyists when they lobby the legislature? How do local officials and their associations attempt to influence state policy? How successful are they? And do state government lobbyists ever lobby local government officials? If so, how and why? These are just a few of the many questions about sub-national intergovernmental lobbying that we do not know the answers to. Given the large number of sub-national intergovernmental lobbyists and their purported power (at least in state politics), it is imperative that we pay them more attention.
The Electoral Activities of Local Interest Groups
The electoral activities of interest groups have received substantial research attention in the past 25 years. Most of this attention has been focused on Washington interest groups (see, for example, Sabato, 1985; Wright, 1985; Hall and Wayman, 1990; Gais, 1996; Wawro, 2001; Rozell and Wilcox, 2006), though some has focused on state groups (see, for example, Arceneaux and Kolodny, 2009). We know very little about interest group activity in local elections. One thing we do know is that interest groups are indeed active in local elections. In their influential empirical study of elections in Atlanta and St Louis, Fleischmann and Stein (1998) show that interest groups are large contributors to local candidates. Business firms are especially large contributors, though other types of groups also give. Other studies confirm that interest groups of all kinds contribute to candidates for local office (Hogan and Simpson, 2001; Krebs and Pelissero, 2001; Krebs, 2005a, 2005b; Adams, 2008). These studies are quite literally trailblazers, as they illuminate political phenomena that traditionally have received minimal research attention.
But these studies are only a beginning. There is still a great deal we do not know about interest group activity in local elections. We know little, for example, about non-contributory electoral behavior. How common are other forms of electoral activity such as endorsing candidates, making in-kind contributions to candidates, recruiting candidates, running issue advertisements, and spending independently? We do not know. (p. 149) And how and why does interest group electoral activity vary across localities? We do not know. Do business firms and other types of groups with primarily economic concerns engage in different types of activities than non-business interest groups such as labor unions? Again, we do not know. Finally, we have little or no idea of how interest group giving or helping affects either election outcomes or the behavior of elected officials who receive interest group help. In sum, we have a lot to learn about the electoral activities.
How Well Our Dominant Theories Explain State and Local Interest Group Politics
By now it should be clear that we lack even the most basic descriptive information on many aspects of sub-national (especially local) interest group politics. This is why my discussion in this section has so far focused primarily upon our empirical research needs. There is no question, however, that one of the most urgent research needs facing people who study sub-national interest groups is, as Gray and Lowery (2002: 405) recently put it, the “need to engage fully in the theoretical debates motivating the larger interest organization literature.” Gray and Lowery go on to note that at least at the state level, there is more data than theory. I am not sure I am willing to go that far, especially in light of Gray and Lowery’s own theoretical work, the body of work generally referred to as “regime theory” (I will say more about this in the next subsection), and the lack of even the most rudimentary substantive information on many aspects of local interest group politics. But Gray and Lowery’s basic point is well-taken. Clearly scholars of state and local interest group politics have done less than we should to engage theories of interest group politics developed by scholars of national politics.
Group influence in states and localities: Nowhere is the need to engage broader theoretical issues more clear than in the study of interest group influence. Scholars of state and local interest groups have been slow to test notions gleaned from studies of Washington-based interest group influence. Neither state nor local interest group scholars, for example, have tested Browne’s (1990) elegant and appealing “niche theory” of interest group influence to any serious degree. Moreover, scholars of sub-national interest groups have paid little attention to theoretical ideas derived from arguably the largest study of interest group influence ever conducted—Heinz et al.’s (1993) The Hollow Core, a neopluralist manifesto. The lack of engagement with neopluralist notions of group influence is particularly surprising given neopluralism’s emphasis on contextual factors affecting groups’ ability to exercise influence. States and localities are natural laboratories that provide us with seemingly endless opportunities to test notions gleaned from neopluralist theories of influence.
Testing neopluralist notions of influence in the state context should be relatively easy. I say this because there is no state-specific theoretical perspective on interest group influence. The literature on influence is there, to be sure, and it has taught us some things about the influence of interest groups in state politics. Wiggins et al. (1992), for (p. 150) example, show us that interest groups in the states do indeed wield influence, but that their influence can be blunted by elected officials. For her part, Gerber (1999) demonstrates the contingent nature of interest group influence, while Ambrosius and Welch (1988) reach a more conventional conclusion about the power of business. Bowling and Ferguson (2001) approach interest group power indirectly, assessing whether or not interest group density and diversity affect bill passage rates. But the fact is that there is no state-specific body of theory that seeks to explain the influence of interest groups in state politics. However, there is a body of theory on interest group (or at least extra-governmental) influence that could be termed local government specific. That large and diverse body of theory is generally called regime theory. This body of theory has been “a dominant paradigm in the field of urban politics and policy” since the 1980s (Mossberger and Stoker, 2001, 810). I cannot do justice to regime theory in such a short space, but a few summative words are in order. At the core of regime theory is the idea that cities are governed by public–private partnerships—partnerships between public officials and land interests (read: developers). “Public officials,” the argument goes, “feel obliged to consult land interests” when they make important decisions (Elkin, 1987, 46, in Elkins, 1995, 586). Indeed, landed interests are part and parcel of the governing coalitions that run cities, as they work with public officials to promote the growth that politicians and businesspeople alike believe is crucial to economic and political success. There is much more to regime theory than this, of course, but even my summary words should make it clear that regime theory holds that interest groups—especially individual business firms and coalitions of businesses—are enormously influential in local (especially city) policy making (Stone, 1989, 1993; Mossberger and Stoker, 2001; Austin and McCaffrey, 2002). Many scholars working in the basic regime theory tradition have argued that other types of interest groups including citizen and neighborhood groups (Stone, 1989; Ferman, 1996; Cooper et al., 2005; Berry et al., 2006) also are often part of urban regimes, and some urban scholars go so far as to say that an urban regime need not have much business participation at all (Imbroscio, 1997, 1998).
However, regime theorists seldom if ever use the term “interest groups” in their work. Neither do they normally use the words “lobbyist” or “lobbying.” Their work, in other words, is almost entirely disconnected from the work of interest group scholars in general and scholars of group influence specifically. Perhaps it is too much to ask, but I think it is time that interest group scholars begin to look closely at the work of regime theorists (and closely related “growth machine” perspectives). We need to attend more to their empirical observations about the role of non-governmental organizations and individuals in local politics, and we need to take their theoretical contributions more seriously. After all, regime theorists and urban affairs scholars have spent much more time studying non-governmental actors in local politics than interest group scholars have. Most important, we need to determine if local interest group politics truly is unique and thus worthy of an entirely different theoretical lens than state or national interest group politics. Only after we address this issue can we make theoretical progress. At the same time, perhaps scholars of local politics can take a closer look at some of the theoretical work conducted by scholars of national politics.
(p. 151) Group mobilization and maintenance in the states: In 1982, R. Douglas Arnold characterized the interest group field of study as “theory rich and data poor” (Arnold, 1982, 97). He reached this conclusion partially because during the 1960s and 1970s there was substantial theoretical activity concerning collective action and the formation and maintenance of interest groups (see especially Olson, 1965; Salisbury, 1969; Frohlich and Oppenheimer, 1970). In the 1970s and 1980s, this theoretical work was complimented by high quality empirical studies that spoke to theoretical questions (for example, Berry, 1977; Marwell and Ames, 1979, 1980; Moe, 1980; Godwin and Mitchell, 1982; Walker, 1983; Hansen, 1985). Theoretical progress continued in the 1980s and beyond (Hardin, 1982; Axelrod, 1984; Ostrom, 1990; Chong, 1991; Sandler, 1992; Lichbach, 1995; Medina Sierra, 2007), and empirical studies continue to address the collective action dilemma (Jordan and Maloney, 1997; Lowry, 1997, 1998; Shaiko, 1999; Ainsworth, 2000; Miller and Krosnick, 2004; Bosso, 2005; Lubell et al., 2006, 2007).
In short, the literature on collective action and interest group mobilization and survival is massive. Most of the literature, both theoretical and empirical, focuses on individual-level explanations for, and determinants of, group formation and maintenance. In other words, the bulk of the literature adopts Olson’s rational actor assumption and proceeds from there. Interestingly, most studies of state interest group mobilization and survival explicitly shun individual-level analysis and focus upon the group itself as the unit of analysis. The work of Gray and Lowery (cited above), for example, avoids individual-level questions almost completely, focusing instead on the contextual determinants of group activity. Other studies of state-level groups do the same (Lowry, 2005; Baumgartner et al., 2009). In the end, this means that the literature on state interest groups does not have much to say about precisely how state-level interest groups overcome the substantial barriers to formation and survival. In other words, the state-level literature fails to utilize the dominant theoretical lens through which interest group scholars examine group mobilization and maintenance. I think it should. Of course, focusing on the group instead of the individual as the unit of analysis has led Gray and Lowery to reach many important conclusions about interest group politics (for example, that interest group systems have carrying capacities, and that like groups are often engaged in competition for scarce resources and thus must adapt to survive), and their theories have been so influential that their group-level focus increasingly is being adopted by scholars of national politics (see, for example, Nownes, 2004; Nownes and Lipinski, 2005).
One of the reasons I believe that engaging the collective action literature is necessary is that many state interest groups—especially membership groups—are fundamentally different than national interest groups. They are different in that they are affiliates or chapters of larger national organizations. As such, it is quite possible that they face collective action dilemmas far different from the ones faced by national-level only organizations or the national “headquarters” organizations of federated groups (see, for example, Johnson, 2001). As Skocpol (2003) points out, sub-national group affiliates vary in the extent to which they receive formation and maintenance assistance and encouragement from national-level leaders. Many of the most active citizen groups, (p. 152) labor unions, professional associations, and trade associations in the states are parts of larger federated organizations, and we simply need to learn more about the way these groups overcome collective action dilemmas.
An additional point about our lack of knowledge of intra-group relations in federated organizations: first, our lack of research in this area means that we know very little about the way business firms (whom everyone believes are very important actors in state politics) that operate in numerous places make decisions about political action. Many business firms, of course, are active in many states. Some, in fact, are active in dozens of states. How much contact does Altria’s lobbying operation in California have with its lobbying operation in Washington, DC, or West Virginia? Is what Altria does in California dictated by Altria’s central office in Virginia? Or are state public affairs personnel left to their own devices to determine when, how, and to what extent they engage politically? These are not formation and maintenance questions per se, but they speak to the question of when and how established business firms choose to engage in political activity. We have learned a lot about corporate lobbying in the last decade, but we have learned very little about questions such as these.
Group mobilization and maintenance in localities: There has been much more attention given to collective action in general and group mobilization and maintenance in particular by scholars of local politics. This is the case primarily because many scholars of local politics have studied neighborhood organizations and other types of community groups. Many of these studies have adopted the individual-level focus utilized by scholars of national politics. This literature is large, and most of it comes from outside of political science. Community psychologists, for example, have even come up with their own theory—empowerment theory—to explain local group (and individual) participation (see, for example, Zimmerman and Rappaport 1988; Perkins et al. 1990; Prestby et al. 1990; Peterson and Reid 2003; Kirst-Ashman 2008). Work in this vein explores the determinants of individual participation in community-based organizations. Some of this work focuses on “psychological empowerment” (which is similar to the concept of efficacy), while some focuses on contextual factors (e.g. macro-economic changes, governmental interventions) that affect participation. Similarly, there is a large sociological literature on membership of neighborhood associations, much of which proceeds from an Olsonian perspective (see, for example, O’Brien, 1975; Nachmias and Palen, 1982; Rich, 1988; Olsen et al., 1989; Oropesa, 1996). There are even communications scholars who study local group participation (see, for example, Jeffres et al., 2002), focusing on how it is affected by patterns of media use and interpersonal communication. There is insufficient space here to go over the findings of these diverse studies. If we are to build a solid political science literature on local group mobilization and participation, it will be necessary for us to attend to this work.
As for non-membership groups, again, the regime theory literature assumes that business firms and other institutions with an interest in local economic development will mobilize and become politically active to pursue this interest. But studies of actual mobilization are scarce. It seems obvious that a company or a hospital or a university with a direct interest in a specific land-use decision will mobilize to affect that decision. (p. 153) Indeed, as I note in my book Total Lobbying (Nownes, 2006), an organization that wishes to utilize land it owns or purchases virtually must mobilize politically to get permission to act. But why and when do institutions get involved in policy (i.e. non land-use) battles? And who within institutions makes the decision to get involved? Why do some business firms lobby while others do not? And why do some business firms decide to sell to government while others do not? We do not have answers to any of these questions.
A Few Loose Ends
There are several other aspects of local and state interest group politics about which we need to learn more. First, we need to discover more about the role of interest groups in local direct democratic campaigns. While direct democracy in the states has been studied extensively, direct democracy in localities has received very little attention from political scientists in general and interest group scholars in particular. Second, we need to learn more about the internal operations of organizations. Work on the “iron law of oligarchy” notwithstanding, there is a lot we do not know about how state and local interest groups are governed and maintained. Third, we know next to nothing about the tactical and strategic choices that local and state interest groups make. What factors affect the kinds of arguments groups make and the kind of tactics they use? We do not know the answer to this question as it pertains to national interest groups, and we certainly do not know the answer as it pertains to state and local interest groups. Fourth, we know very little about variations in density and diversity across local interest group communities and what explains them. As far as I can tell, there are no comparative studies of local interest groups that explain or even describe differences in density and diversity. This is particularly unfortunate for two reasons. First, unbeknownst to many interest group scholars, many local governments make lobbyists and interest groups register with local government and then make lobbyist registration data available on-line. Second, as I note above, Gray and Lowery have given us the theoretical tools necessary to understand and explain differences in density and diversity. But until we describe and detail these differences we are certainly not in position to explain them. Sixth, we know very little about local lobbying regulations and their effects. Thomas (1998) wrote over a decade ago that local regulation of lobbying was not extensive. This is no longer the case. My own admittedly unscientific search of city, town, and county websites indicates that more local governments than ever regulate lobbying. What do these regulations look like? Why were they enacted? What effects do they have on the behavior of local lobbyists? We do not have the answers to any of these questions.
Interest groups are important players in American politics. They are just as important in state and local politics as they are in Washington politics. They may be more important. (p. 154) This point has not been lost on scholars of either interest groups or state and local politics. As this chapter suggests, we know a lot about state and local interest organizations. And there is no question that we know a lot more today than we knew 20 or 30 years ago. We have made huge strides in understanding several aspects of state and local interest group politics, including the makeup and dynamics of state interest group communities, what state-level interest groups and their lobbyists do, how participation in local groups affects individuals, and how interest groups engage direct democratic processes in the states. Nonetheless, we lack even the most rudimentary understanding of many aspects of state and local interest group politics. For example, we lack descriptive studies of local interest group communities, and thus not surprisingly we know little about what types of groups are active in localities across the country, what they want, and how they try to get what they want. In my opinion, this is where our need is the strongest. We must do more foundational work on local interest groups and their activities. We have a lot of other things to learn as well. We know little, for example, about intergovernmental lobbying aimed at states, and about the electoral activities of local interest groups. Finally, scholars of state and local interest groups have done a poor job of engaging dominant theories of interest group politics—theories devised primarily by scholars of Washington interest groups.
In closing, I will offer a few suggestions—suggestions that I think may help us begin to fill the gaps in our understanding of state and local interest group politics. First, I have a suggestion for graduate students—study state or local interest group politics. The field of interest groups is, in my opinion, still “undertilled.” While voting and a few other fields of study in American politics continue to get disproportionate attention, few graduate students study interest groups. This is a shame, as data are available now more than ever before. It is also a shame because studying interest groups makes a scholar versatile and capable of contributing to the literature of political science, public administration, sociology, and even psychology and urban affairs. Second, I suggest that scholars who study state or local interest groups spend more time trolling the Internet looking for data. A couple of years ago I discovered that many American cities and counties force lobbyists to register, and many make lobbyist registration reports available to the public. We have done a poor job thus far of tapping these data sources. Finally, I suggest that scholars who study state or local interest groups broaden their attention and read more work by psychologists, sociologists, and other scholars who study interest groups. In the course of writing this chapter I learned that scholars from other disciplines have done a great deal of work on questions related to state (and especially) local interest groups. We have a lot to learn from other disciplines.
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