The problem of special interests or lobbies was one of the foremost concerns of the Founding Fathers of the United States. In their day they were called factions. James Madison, who is considered the architect of the U.S. Constitution, devoted the entire tenth Federalist Paper (1787) to the problem. He defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority … actuated by some common … interest, adverse to … the aggregate interests of the community,” and believed that within the context of liberal republicanism, they could never be eliminated. However, he did feel they could be controlled. To this end he sought to create representative bodies with high numbers of delegates and a wide diversity of interests in the hope that they would counterbalance each other.
When George Washington delivered his famous Farewell Address in 1796, he too noted the problem. Washington warned of “combinations and associations” which attempt to “direct, control, counteract and awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities” and thereby substitute their own desires for the “delegated will of the nation.” As Washington’s continued concern implied, James Madison’s approach to controlling special interests or factions never proved adequate.
Today, the problem is still with us and is worse than ever. That is why in April 2011 I coined the word “lobbification” to describe the corruptive process that bends politicians to the will of special interests – that is, to the will of lobbies. The vehicle that makes this process possible is, of course, money, usually in the form of campaign contributions to a politician. If the politician defies the lobby making the offer (a rare event but not unheard of), that special interest will throw its support to the defiant politician’s electoral opponent. The result is that most politicians are in lockstep with the demands of multiple powerful special interests.
James Madison believed that this corruptive process is a consequence of human nature – self-interest in action. Perhaps that is so, but the results are no less debilitating. So Pavlovian are the responses created by lobbification that, today, politicians in this state of mind cannot tell the difference between the parochial interests of those powerful factions to which they are indebted and the actual national or local interests of their country or community.
Here are two recent examples of the power of lobbification. On 18 July 2014, acting in response to the urgings of the Zionist lobby, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to support Israel’s ongoing attack on the Gaza Strip. This from a Congress known for its inability to agree on just about any legislation important to their own country! The senators voted their support even though the Israeli action was of the same character as the German attacks on London during the Blitz and the Allied destruction of the German city of Dresden toward the end of World War II. In other words, the Israelis were engaged in a large-scale operation targeting a civilian population. That is a war crime and cannot be justified as an act of self-defense. Yet the U.S. Senate, to a person, publicly supported this criminal behavior.
It might be noted here that there were serious divisions of opinion about Israeli behavior among the American public – that is, the Senate’s constituency. But the senators seemed immune from the popular debate and responded as if represented the Zionist lobby and not the American public.
On the domestic front, meaningful regulatory gun legislation, be it national or local, appears to be politically impossible because of the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA). This is so despite a proliferation of gun-related deaths and injuries in our homes, on our streets, and in our schools. The arguments of NRA supporters usually imply that regulation of firearms would be the death knell of hunting, of target shooting, and of gun collecting, and even the ability to act in self-defense. Yet rational and reasonable gun regulation is not the same as prohibition, and to act as if they are the same is, in my opinion, a paranoid point of view. Then there is the Second Amendment argument that allows many supporters of the NRA to fantasize that they are enrolled in a “well regulated militia” without which the U.S. can not remain a free society. Free from what? From the authoritarian potential of the state with its immensely better armed police and military branches? This is just naive. If the government wants to act in a dictatorial fashion, armed members of the NRA will not be able to stop it.
In truth, rational control of firearms does not threaten our freedom. It makes us freer by enhancing our safety from the growing plague of gun violence that NRA lobbying presently forces most of our politicians to ignore or deny.
Here it is important to note that the National Rifle Association leadership often fails to accurately represent its own membership, much less that of the general public. A 2013 Pew survey found that 74% of NRA members supported universal background checks for private gun sales (as did 94% of the general American public). Nonetheless, at the urging of the NRA the Senate voted against this requirement in the same year. As with the Zionist lobby and public concern over its particularistic foreign policy, many senators are immune from the popular debate on gun control and respond as if they represent the NRA lobby and not the American public.
The Need for Regulation
Madison was right in one regard: regulation of the power of factions/special interests/lobbies to influence politicians and policies is an absolute necessity. However, here we run up against a real Catch 22 dilemma. That regulatory legislation, and other related efforts such as campaign finance reform, must come from the same politicians who are financially bound to special interests. Like those with a strong addiction, they seem unable to free themselves from the monkey on their back.
If there is a way out of this dilemma it must come from the general public. The long-standing dissatisfaction with politicians, especially on the national level, must be channeled into a popular campaign to free the legislators and policy makers from the influence of narrow interests. Think of this as an effort to clear away an historical obstacle to good governance. If this does not happen, the foreign policies that have promoted so much anti-American hostility worldwide, and the domestic policy that has allowed the indiscriminate murder of so many innocent citizens, will continue and indeed grow worse.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.