Abstract and Keywords
While lobbyists are colloquially thought of as parasites on US democracy, this article offers the perspective that lobbyists are part of vital connective tissue that facilitates interaction between principal players and institutions of policymaking. After a brief review of the history of lobbying in the United States, the article outlines four paradigmatic lenses through which lobbying has been understood—pluralist, realist, behavioral, and relational. It then makes the case that the relational lens is the most productive means of studying and understanding the role of lobbying in the United States. The article concludes with noting the considerable challenges to this field of study.
Lobbyists have unjustly earned a reputation of being the used car salesmen of Washington, DC, often derisively accused of being corruptive players in policymaking because they represent the interests of those in the pursuit of personal profit. As representatives of particularized and resource-rich interests, lobbyists are often viewed as agents that create imbalance in a representative democracy, such that the resourceful can use lobbyists to get more than their fair share of attention by policymakers. While this viewpoint is not entirely false, in this chapter I review the existing literature on lobbying and offer an alternative perspective about the role that lobbyists play in representative democracies. In short, I show that lobbyists are key parts of the connective tissue that create vital linkages between institutional forces in government and policymaking. I develop this perspective by using a social network lens through which to understand politics. The relational paradigm is the appropriate paradigm from which to understand lobbying and advocacy in policymaking because lobbyists are primarily motivated by the establishment and maintenance of relationships.
This chapter will develop the argument that lobbyists play a vital role in US democracy by creating a network of connections between principals who depend on the resources and information that travel on that network. The chapter will proceed in three sections. The first section will describe a brief history of lobbying as a professional industry in Washington. In the second section, I outline four lenses through which scholars have studied lobbying: pluralism, rational, behavior, and relational. This review leads to my recommendation about the fruitfulness of studying lobbying through a relational lens. The third section lays out the primary challenges to advancing our understanding of the role advocacy plays in democracy.
The History of Lobbying
Lobbying can be broken into five general periods in US history, each marked with a distinct set of characteristics (Scott 2014). These include the antebellum period, the (p. 755) reconstruction period, the progressive era, the War era, and the Civil Rights era. A brief examination of the development of lobbying, and the study of lobbying, over the course of US history reveals its relationship to policymaking and our understanding of it as a relational enterprise.
As Scott (2014, 24) notes, “Almost immediately with the opening of the first Congress in 1789, lobbyists were present.” The centralized federal government combined with separation of powers provided an attractive institutional arrangement for lobbying. There were enough points of access to policymakers and the policymaking process that lobbying was an inviting and logical activity for those seeking to influence policy. The adoption of the constitution meant policymaking was concentrated at the national level rather than in localities. This meant advocates could express themselves without much publicity, which they found advantageous. Early lobbyists were hired to help war veterans with pension benefits. Market forces drove these early relationships as pensioners sought private benefits, and seeking the help of an advocate turned out to be fruitful, so others followed suit. The professionalization of lobbying happened quickly in response to institutional incentives and market demands for expertise and skill in moving policy. Much of the early lobbying was for private or individual benefit, rather than for public goods. Those who attempted to mobilize social movements or to arrange advocacy for public goods were largely unsuccessful in this era. Scott notes the example of the Quaker abolitionists, who were highly organized in their advocacy but ultimately unsuccessful (25).
Whether we consider organized public advocacy efforts like those of the Quaker abolitionists to be lobbying or not is a matter of semantics. One might argue that such groups were not lobbyists but social movements aimed at moving public opinion rather than elite behavior. But ultimately, of course, their aim was moving public policy so it seems fair to categorize them as lobbyists. Scott (2014, 25) notes that their (failed) experience helps to emphasize that lobbying was successful when it employed direct, interpersonal contact between advocates and policymakers. This remains largely true today.
The general public became increasingly aware of lobbying as a regular political activity during the Reconstruction period and began to associate it with corruption and favoritism. Lobbying became more prevalent in that time period, and historians even trace the origin of the word to it. The practice of making a case to a policymaker, and calling it lobbying, dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration. According to the historical anecdote, First Lady Julia Grant disapproved of President Grant’s drinking habits, so he began to take his cocktails in the bar at the Willard Hotel, near the White House. Those seeking to press the president for his attention to particular matters would assemble themselves in the lobby of the hotel, hoping to catch the president on his way to and from the bar. President Grant began to derisively refer to these loiterers as “lobbyists” (Scott 2014, 39fn15).
Some scholars have argued that one of the reasons lobbying proliferated in this period is due to “a flaw within the constitutional system of representation” (Scott 2014, 26). The constitution assumes a more or less one-to-one relationship between representatives and constituents and did not adequately account for the multidimensionality of representation. When constituents are homogenous or unidimensional, representation is uncomplicated. However, when conditions generate constituencies that are more (p. 756) heterogeneous in their membership, and where individuals hold multiple identities, the one-to-one representation model is inadequate. The nineteenth century saw a number of changes to demographics and economics that complicated this basic model: immigration boomed, the Industrial Revolution expanded the economy, westward expansion changed the geography of the country, the size of government swelled, the population of voting eligible citizens grew as requirements for land ownership were rescinded, and clientelism developed. The representation system outlined in the constitution, which punted on the problem of slavery and was conspicuously silent about the development of political parties, was inadequate to serve the various interests and groups seeking government attention in the nineteenth century. The expansion of lobbying can be seen as a new form of representation that rose to fill the void left by the Framer’s negligence (Thompson 1986).
Importantly, lobbying was nearly exclusively a face-to-face exchange. The men (and they were all men) lobbying President Grant were able to do so because of the investments they made in developing personal relationships with one another, with Grant, and with his inner circle. The practice of developing relationships and engaging in in-person interactions to pursue lobbying objectives is as old as the practice itself and remains largely true about modern lobbying. In the post-Civil War era the United States saw the birth of some social movements that may have lent themselves to direct advocacy or lobbying (e.g., women’s suffrage, temperance, the Grange); however, these were largely populist or social movements that did not engage in organized direct lobbying. Even though advocacy of many forms was expanding, it was not particularly systematic or organized. Most of the lobbying was individualistic and particularized, where agents tended not to act in concert with one another. Lobbying was so dependent on personal relationships between agents and principals that some firms and associations wound up hiring scores of lobbyists, because each lobbyists had only so many relationships with policymakers and the only way to access a broad population of policymakers was to employ many lobbyists (Rothman 2014). This emphasizes that from its inception, lobbying has primarily relied on the development of personal relationships.
In the twentieth century, lobbying became more organized, group-oriented, and regulated. The number of business associations based in Washington, DC, grew in the 1900s, as the federal government expanded its operations toward regulation rather than the distributional function it largely held in its first hundred years. Advocacy further professionalized as industries formed associations whose primary purpose was to advance the interests of its member firms and employees. As a result, lobbying became more group-oriented and interpersonal connections between individual agents and policymakers became less important. The rise of significant social movements, like women’s suffrage and temperance, is not accidental during this time period, as politicians became increasingly responsive to public pressure rather than solely individual pleas (McConnaughy 2015). Of course, this corresponds with the mass publication, and even nationalization, of newspapers, which increased the flow of politically relevant information to the general public.
(p. 757) During the Great Depression and World War era in the middle part of the twentieth century lobbying took hold, largely in response to the sizable expansion of the federal government. The New Deal sprouted new federal agencies and encouraged the establishment of state and local programs and services. Government at all levels professionalized and expanded. As the number of responsibilities that government took on grew, the interest in affecting its policymakers and enactors also grew. This era also saw the first attempts to regulate lobbying. Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938 and the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act in 1946; however, vagaries in the latter law’s language made it difficult to enforce and largely ineffectual.
In the mid-twentieth century and through the present, lobbying continued to expand and the number of trade associations, corporate lobbyists, individual contractors, and other advocates has seen steady growth. There are several explanations for this that go beyond the expansion of the federal government and congressional staff. First, the ratio of federal spending to federal employment rises starkly through the period, with government spending more without expanding its workforce (Heclo 1978). The populations of trade associations and organized groups helped to fill the gap of information, expertise, and labor that government needed to fulfill its functions.
Second, the second-half of the twentieth century saw a massive shift in the economic circumstances of many Americans. The middle class expanded, the federal government built an interstate highway system, suburbs boomed, many Americans went to college, and social safety nets helped more people improve their economic positions. This period of modernization and progress led many people to shift their attention and interests to post-material concerns like civil rights, environmentalism, women’s rights, international peace, and so forth (Berry 2010). Most of these issues were related to social movements and citizen groups, rather than direct lobbying or the use of professional lobbyists, but it is clear that the number of people engaged in policy advocacy grew during this period.
Third, as corporations benefited from policy advocacy that helped their businesses, more corporations followed the strategy and corporate lobbying became a self-perpetuating industry (Drutman 2015). Corporate lobbying now dwarfs other forms. In 2012, business and trade associations spent $728 million on lobbying, but corporations spent $1.84 billion (Drutman 2015, 11). Comparing corporate lobbying to diffuse interest groups and labor unions shows an even starker difference. In 2001, for every dollar unions and diffuse interest groups spent on lobbying, corporations spent $22. By 2012, each dollar spent on lobbying by the former groups was met with $34 on average by corporations (Drutman 2015, 13–4).
As Drutman points out, most modern lobbying is corporate lobbying. And lobbying is by far the dominant strategy for seeking to influence policy and policymakers, as opposed to electoral strategies. Elections are fickle partners of democracy (Achen and Bartels 2016). Companies and groups that seek to affect policymaking are more likely to do so by directly affecting the substance of policy than by trying to influence who are the elected. Drutman shows that over the last twenty years, corporations have spent, on average, thirteen times as much on lobbying as on Political Action Committee (PAC) (p. 758) expenditures (2015, 16). Importantly, these activities are regulated differently—there is a limit as to how much money PACs can raise and donate, but no such limit exists on lobbying.
Lobbying has been a constant part of the policymaking process in the United States. It tends to be demonized and misunderstood because it appears to benefit particularized interests. However, the information, expertise, and work provided by lobbyists is essential for policy creation. Charges that lobbyists are unrepresentative are fair because lobbyists do not engage in general representation, only representation of the interests that hired them. Lobbying has proliferated and will likely continue to do so. It is important that we understand the role that lobbying and lobbyists play in government and policy. Networks are a key part of this process.
Four Lenses for Studying Lobbying
Lobbying has generally been studied from four primary perspectives: pluralism, rational, behavioral, and relational. The lenses are not mutually exclusive of one another, and they have overlapped in time. However, these paradigms have dominated the way scholars have understood the phenomenon of lobbying.
The pluralistic view is rooted in ideas that the Founding Fathers adopted to rationalize the constitution. The rational lens views lobbying and its exchanges through the discipline of economics. The behavioral lens views lobbying from a psychological perspective. The relational lens sees lobbying as a networked or interdependent activity that is best understood using network science, which includes sociology, mathematical graph theory, and social network theory and analysis. The rational and behavioral approaches have dominated the literature but are now being overwhelmed by the more updated network perspective. The former two approaches tend to use a unitary unit of analysis, while the relational perspective uses non-unitary units (e.g., dyads, triads, clusters, whole graphs, etc.). In the following sections I describe the contributions these perspectives have provided to our understanding of lobbying.
The origins of thinking about people acting in groups can be traced to the origins of the United States. James Madison famously decried the “violence of factions” in his Federalist essay number 10 (Hamilton et al. 2008). Madison and his colleagues were primarily concerned about tyranny, or the problems that arise when one person or group has power over another and ultimately abuses that power. His prescription for avoiding tyranny was to build institutions that forced groups to compete for power. He saw this conflict, or “the violence of factions,” as a natural byproduct of democracy that could be controlled by ensuring power would always be met with opposing power. This pluralistic ideal is therefore embedded into US institutions and culture, at least to some extent.
(p. 759) Twentieth-century scholars built on these ideals as they theorized about the ways in which individuals formed groups for the purpose of advancing their pursuits with government. The modern theoretical foundations of pluralism are typically attributed to Robert Dahl (1967, 1961), who advanced ideas about formal and informal groups that would compete in a marketplace of ideas and policy. The more groups and voices that are included in this pluralist heaven, the better the outcomes. By this logic, citizens have strong incentives to be active in joining groups and taking various actions as self-advocacy. The pluralist ideal was a powerful and persuasive theoretical framework on which many scholars built. It provided the foundation of how to think about individuals banding together in groups to participate in democracy effectively; however, it came under significant criticism beginning in the middle of the twentieth century. Notably, Schattschneider (1975) argued that the pluralist heaven was imbalanced, reasoning that only individuals who have resources would have the ability to organize into groups and engage with policymaking or advocacy. In this way, argued Schattschneider, group politics would primarily benefit those who already have resources such as money and education.
Scholarship on advocacy and democracy advanced in the twentieth century but maintained a unitary focus. Scholars tended to focus on questions about how and why groups formed. Early scholarship in this area argued that people form groups in response to social and economic contexts. For example, Truman (1963) developed “disturbance theory” to show that groups emerge when society’s equilibrium is disrupted by an event or discovery. Later, Salisbury (1969) argued that individuals engage in trade of resources and position, such that we can explain group formation using an “exchange theory” of human behavior. These theories generated significant follow-on literature examining the various obstacles that advocates (both individuals and groups) face in achieving ends from government (Heinz et al. 1997; Walker 1983).
It is notable that even among those who focused on pluralism as an organizing theory for understanding group action and advocacy, individuals and groups were consistently thought of as whole units. Conceptualizing individuals and groups as unitary actors prevents one from discerning the effects of interactions between the units or from treating the interaction itself as a unit of analytical interest.
While pluralistic theorists and their critiques were awash in thinking about the costs and benefits of group action, others began to think about advocacy from a distinctly economical point of view. Mancur Olson’s work was particularly pivotal in changing the way people think about individual and group advocacy. Where the pluralists thought of group formation as humanly inevitable, Olson (1971) shows that individuals face incentive barriers to group formation. By applying rational choice theory to individuals’ decisions to join or contribute to groups, he demonstrated the barriers to collective action. Applying economic principles to the study of politics was fruitful and led to a series of important discoveries across many subfields of the discipline. Within this branch are a (p. 760) number of works that capitalize on the strategic nature of interactions between lobbyists and policymakers (Ainsworth 1993; Ainsworth and Sened 1993; Austen-Smith and Wright 1996; Hall 1992; Kollman 1997). Extensive form games are essentially networks where nodes are actors and actions define the connections between the nodes. Arguably, however, the strongly individualistic focus of economic analysis was an awkward fit for studying groups, lobbying, and advocacy. As argued previously, advocacy is a strongly relational activity, and its success is highly dependent on an actor’s (group or individual) relationship with others.
The other paradigm that emerged in the middle part of the twentieth century came from psychology. This thread of research used insights about the human brain to understand human behavior. Scholars studied the flow of information and relationships between lobbyists, advocates, and organized interests by drawing on foundations in related fields. Interestingly, these early studies focused on applications in the field of business but did not take the individualistic point of view of economics, but a more sociological point of view (Bauer, Pool, and Dexter 1963; Heclo 1978; Milbrath 1976). Other policy-focused scholars built on this early work and observed that individual lobbyists, organized group activists, sectors of industry, and policymakers operate in relation to one another (Heinz et al. 1997; Kingdon 2010; Polsby 1985; Salisbury et al. 1989). In addition, this strand of research pursued Schattschneider’s line of reasoning by showing the lobbying industry as a systematic mobilization of biased interests (Baumgartner et al. 2009; Hojnacki and Kimball 1998; Huckfeldt and Sprague 1987; Kingdon 1989; Kollman 1997; Schlozman and Tierney 1983).
The conflicts in this literature have largely been about the nature of strategic relationships, rather than about the relationships themselves or the structures they imply. For example, the question of whether lobbyists target legislative allies (Austen-Smith and Wright 1996; Hall 1996; Hall and Wayman 1990; Hojnacki 1997; Hojnacki and Kimball 1998) or seek to persuade their opponents (Hansen 1991; Kollman 1997, 1998; Wright 1996) is primarily about dyadic interactions. Only recently have scholars begun to apply network analysis to the relationships between lobbyists and legislators.
Lobbying and advocacy is perhaps the most intuitive subtopic in politics to study from a relational perspective. Lobbying is, at its heart, about relationships. Anyone who has spent any time in, around, or observing policymakers and policy advocates understands that who you know is what you know. The rank, quality, and quantity of one’s political connections can determine the outcome of a policy debate as advocates seek to advance, challenge, and amend policies. The establishment and maintenance of these connections (p. 761) is literally referred to as “networking” and is seen as a valuable political skill and resource. However, scholarship has only relatively recently begun to fully incorporate the logic and insights of a network perspective into our understanding of lobbyists and lobbying in policymaking. The traditional way of studying advocacy is from the perspective of individual groups or individual lobbyists, and studies of this type have contributed a wealth of knowledge and information about the role that lobbyists play in democratic policymaking.
As I and my colleagues have argued elsewhere, many topics in political science can be appropriately studied from a network or relational perspective (Victor, Montgomery, and Lubell 2016). A growing body of scholarship is advancing our understanding of lobbying and advocacy by applying network science tools and theories to understand how and why lobbying works. In this section, I seek to both describe some of the recent important contributions to our understanding of lobbying, advocacy, and persuasion that have been made using the relational perspective and discuss the challenges to and opportunities for doing more of this work in the future.
A relational lens has helped scholars to explore who engages in lobbying and how and why. Many studies have focused on lobbying coalitions and sought to understand how lobbying coalitions form. An early application of network theory to the study of lobbying explored the question of whether lobbyists use their connections to strengthen existing relationships or to establish new ones. The research shows that the answer is context dependent. Groups focus their contacts on strengthening existing relationships when they need new information and on extending their network of relationships when no new information is needed. The relationships between lobbyists in Washington, DC, is autocorrelated and cannot be understood in the absence of accounting for interdependencies between the actors (D. Carpenter, Esterling, and Lazer 2003; D. P. Carpenter, Esterling, and Lazer 1998, 2004).
For some time, scholars have understood that lobbying often occurs in coalitions; however, recent studies that examine these coalitions as networks have advanced our understanding of coalition lobbying. For example, network methods have advanced our understanding of advocacy coalitions in the US judicial system. It is well known that lobbyists and groups organize their advocacy toward judicial decision-making by joining amicus curiae briefs with one another. However, network analysis of these coalitions from 1930 to 2009 reveal significant transitivity among a few key actors (Box-Steffensmeier and Christenson 2014). This work speaks directly to the question as to whether advocates are better off building diverse coalitions or joining those that are more like-minded. The research finds that groups engage in strategic assortative mixing by characteristics, but build coalitions frequently with the same partners (Box-Steffensmeier and Christenson 2015).
Coalition lobbying occurs in other venues, of course, and network approaches have revealed insights about the efficacy of coalition lobbying in the legislative and executive branches as well. In general, policymakers are more responsive to lobbyists who work in groups, teams, or coalitions, compared to those who work alone (Mahoney and Baumgartner 2015; Nelson and Yackee 2012).
(p. 762) While a relational perspective has been useful on the question of who to lobby, or whom to lobby with, it has perhaps been more transformational on the question of how to lobby. Lobbying is about relationships. The development and maintenance of relationships and contacts is a lobbyist’s most valuable asset. Of course, a lobbyist must have something useful to share and information is paramount, but there is no shortage of knowledge or knowledgeable actors in policymaking. A well-connected lobbyist without anything useful to add will go nowhere. Assuming some baseline of useful information, the better connected a lobbyist, the more successful she will be.
Evidence shows that the primary asset valued in lobbyists is their relationships and contacts. A study of nearly 1,600 registered lobbyists shows that former congressional staffers are more likely to be successful lobbyists than those without significant congressional contacts accrued through work history (LaPira and Thomas 2014). The importance of relationships and networks to understanding policymaking is apparent in a study of legislative staff, showing that we can predict legislative effectiveness and voting by examining the network of relationships of staff, where relationships are gauged based on prior work history (Montgomery and Nyhan 2017). In addition, we know that networks generated by the movement of professional campaign staff from campaign to campaign helps us understand the diffusion of campaign strategy (Nyhan and Montgomery 2015). While campaign consulting is not the same as lobbying, the parallels in the development of these industries is striking: both proliferated and professionalized in the digital age; both are driven by expertise and relationships; both are regarded as forms of advocacy.
We also see considerable evidence in the comparative politics literature that studying lobbying through a relational lens reveals insights about politics and policy. Network methods have been applied to understanding legislative lobbying networks in Brazil (Cesário and Cesário 2016) and policy networks in Germany (König and Bräuninger 1998). In addition, we know that lobbying relationships are critical to the policymaking process because of their persistence. Evidence shows that lobbying networks are robust. There is considerable stability in the actors involved in lobbying the various policy domains in the United States (LaPira, Herschel, and Baumgartner 2009).
A relational perspective can also help us understand the conditions under which lobbying activity is meaningful or successful. Where traditional frequentist or individualistic approaches have focused on advocates’ characteristics and policy contexts to explain successful activities, the relational perspective gives new insights into what makes a successful lobbyist. For example, with a relational perspective we can understand a lobbyist’s position in an advocacy network relative to all the other advocates active on a policy. Research has shown that we can explain a group’s reputation and influence by understanding its position in the lobbying and advocacy network (Heaney 2014). It’s important to note that such insights are not possible in the absence of relational data.
This lens also helps us understand the population of lobbyists themselves and how they fit into the larger political context in a way that non-relational approaches miss. A network perspective on lobbying helped scholars see that lobbyists tend to be partisan loyalists (Koger and Victor 2009) and that lobbyists use campaign donations to help them develop and maintain relationships with legislative targets (Victor and Koger 2016).
(p. 763) In sum, research on lobbying using a relational lens has advanced our understanding of advocates and the role they play in policymaking. Many of the insights offered by this perspective would be unknowable in the absence of the network paradigm.
Challenges to the Relational Study of Lobbying
As any scholar knows, the tools one applies to a research question should be driven by the nature of the question. Ideally, we let the question drive our analytical approach, not the other way around. Once a scholar ascertains that a given research question requires a network or relational approach, the next most important step is to identify the nodes and edges of the network(s) in question. A node is an actor or unit that may be connected to other nodes through some activity, characteristic, shared behavior, or interaction. An edge is the activity, characteristic, or interaction that connects the nodes. Arguably, the most critical research-design choice a network scholar makes is defining the nodes and edges in a research question. For example, suppose a researcher seeks to understand the role of lobbying in the passage or failure of a climate change policy in Congress. One might conceptualize lobbyists as nodes and their common contact with legislators as the edges between those nodes. This would allow the scholar to draw inference about the centrality of lobbyists relative to other lobbyists. Or, one might conceptualize legislators as nodes and legislators’ common action on legislation (e.g., co-sponsorship or Dear Colleague Letter) as the edges between nodes. This network might allow one to identify key legislators or key legislative vehicles in the policy process. To further understand advocacy in that network, one might add lobbyist (node) contacts (edge) with legislators (node), which might help reveal how the advocacy efforts affected the policy outcomes. Network data can be conceptualized in myriad ways. There is no single correct way to build a network data set. But like any research design, the choices one makes about how to conceptualize and organize one’s data can be determinative of what you can learn from the data. This is apparent in the previous section that summarizes insights about lobbying brought about by scholars taking a relational or network approach to studying the topic.
One of the key benefits to studying lobbying, or any topic, from a network perspective rather than a more traditional individualistic perspective, is the ability to discern network properties. For example, a recent study of interest group lobbying in the Netherlands focuses on identifying groups’ positions within the lobbying network (Beyers and Braun 2014). The scholars predict group success by identifying group positions within lobbying coalitions and group ties outside of coalitions. Notably, two key elements are necessary for research insights of this type. First, one must use the network lens and focus on the relationships between organizations as the unit of interest, rather than the organizations themselves. Second, one must collect network data that shows the relationships (p. 764) between all the groups that take action on a policy. If some groups are omitted, inference would be compromised because the omitted groups might affect the relative position of groups in the network. In this way, when scholars seek to know the structural position of actors in a network and how these positions affect actors’ behaviors, random sampling is not possible. One must have whole network data in order to draw conclusions about network structure. This is a significant barrier and benefit to network approaches.
It may be intuitive and logical to study lobbying from a relational perspective, but scholars seeking to do so face a series of data and research design challenges, none of which are necessarily specific to the study of lobbying. First, network analysis is particularly sensitive to missing data, much more so than traditional frequentist statistics. Scholars may seek to use network measures to operationalize important political concepts. For example, one might use measures of network centrality to study power. Or one might use measures of transitivity or reciprocity to study trust and cooperation. When scholars use network measures that are based on the whole network, missing data is a particularly vexing problem. When data are relational, it is highly unlikely that missingness will be randomly distributed. If a scholar draws an inference about the distribution of actors’ connections (e.g., degree distribution) or about the density of a network based on incomplete data, the inferences will be wrong. One cannot make statements about an actor’s centrality if the positions and connections of some actors are unknown. Network scholars have made statistical advances in appropriate treatment of missing network data, but it remains a problem to which scholar must pay particular attention (Koskinen et al. 2013). Data on lobbyists and their activities are difficult to collect in a whole network manner. Some data are available through sources such as opensecrets.org, but lobbying disclosure reports do not directly connect lobbyists to legislators. If a scholar seeks to identify the population of lobbyists who acted on a particular bill, for example, there would be some necessary guesswork involved.
When designing a research project on lobbying using a relational lens, I recommend scholars be thoughtful about converting their research questions into network terms. The identification of the nodes and edges of the network under study will define the limits of the conclusions that can be drawn. A researcher who wishes to draw inferences about actors will want to be sure to collect, store, and manage data such that the rows (e.g., observations) of the data are on the unit of the actor (node) of interest. A researcher who wishes to draw inferences about the relationships between actors will want to collect, store, and manage data such that the rows (e.g., observations) are on the unit of the relationship. This might be that the unit of analysis is a dyad, or that the data are collected as an edgelist, or that the data are collected in an adjacency matrix format.
Workflow management of network data is no joke, and scholars who work with lobbying, interest group, or campaign finance data already know that management of these data presents challenges. To mitigate some of the additional challenges associated with working with network data, and to provide maximum flexibility to scholars who may change their mind about their unit of analysis while midway through data collection, I recommend scholars begin by collecting their data using the principles of “tidy” data as outlined by Hadley Wickham (2014). There are three basic principles of organizing data collection that, when heeded, provide scholars with the most flexible dataset possible (p. 765) that can be easily munged for regression, network, or other analyses with a few simple transformations. Data that are not “tidy” require many more steps to manipulate into the format and shape appropriate for whichever type of data analysis the scholar wishes to peruse. In short, the principles are: 1. Variables go in columns; 2. Observations go in rows; 3. Each table has a unique observational unit. See the vast array of publications on the “tidyverse” for more (Wickham 2014; Wickham and Grolemund 2017; Wickham and RStudio 2017). What these principles emphasize for scholars seeking to apply a network lens to their project is that how we define a variable (or edge) and an observation (or node) is critical to our study. But if we change these definitions as our research develops, tidy data can be transformed to accommodate a researcher’s updated hypotheses.
Opportunities abound for curious scholars of lobbying, advocacy, and organized group politics. We are now in a golden age of social scientific progress that is awash in terabytes of data, critical theories that have advanced our thinking, and computational power that allows individual scholars to marry these together in productive ways. As our understanding of lobbying and its role in democracy matures, lobbyists may not win an improved public image, but scholars’ view of how they contribute to democratic processes and representation will continue to clarify. As agents of others’ interests, lobbyists are inherently representatives. This means they provide a meaningful link between the citizenry and its representatives in government. Understanding this through a relational lens means conceptualizing lobbyists and lobbying activity as the connective tissue between static democratic institutions. Whether lobbyists target the legislative, executive, or judicial branch, and whether they seek policy change, norms updating, or awareness of a topic, these advocates are part of a vast system of agents seeking to affect outcomes through democratic institutions. This connective tissue is vital to the functioning of a democratic system in the same way that a circulatory system is vital to a living mammal. The fact that our messy democracy relies on this function, which is not equitably distributed, is a downside of our system. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
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