The Big Idea

Interest-Group Conservatism

George Bush’s philosophy of government.

In the late 1960s, the great political scientist Theodore Lowi coined the phrase “interest-group liberalism” to describe an emerging system of government he viewed as untenable. In a classic book, Lowi argued that national policymaking had become the province of organized lobbies, which worked to the detriment of the overall public interest and spawned an uncontrollable, amoebalike federal bureaucracy.

Interest-group liberalism survived the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and even Ronald Reagan. When Republicans occupied the White House, liberal lobbying groups pursued their goals of creating new programs, adding regulations, and expanding legal rights through Democratic allies in Congress, pliant federal agencies, and the courts. Only the antagonistic combination of the Clinton presidency and the Gingrich Congress reversed interest-group liberalism’s momentum. Under eight years of Clinton, the size of the federal government actually shrank substantially in relation to the economy.

In this, the third year that Republicans have controlled everything, a variation on the old interest-group liberalism has emerged as the new governing philosophy. One might have expected that once in command, conservative politicians would work to further reduce Washington’s power and bury the model of special-interest-driven government expansion for good. But one would have been wrong. Instead, Republicans have gleefully taken possession of the old liberal spoils system and converted it to their own purposes. The result is the curious governing philosophy of interest-group conservatism: the expansion and exploitation of government by people who profess to dislike it.

When Democrats held power, liberal officials became beholden to the party’s biggest financial and political backers. These included unions (in particular public employees and teachers unions); women’s, civil rights, and gay lobbies; senior citizens; welfare advocates; the entertainment industry; and trial lawyers. One hallmark of Democratic governing became the disproportionate focus on policies that mattered far more to these groups than to the country as a whole—job protections for teachers and government workers, expanding affirmative action and abortion rights, opposition to malpractice reform, the continuous growth of benefits for the elderly, and so on.

Today the dominant conservative interests form a rival constellation: corporations, especially in the energy and military contracting sectors, evangelical Christians, wealthy investors, gun owners, and the conservative media. In the daily business of Washington, the old pattern remains in place, only with the substitution of these new supplicants and their new benefactors in the GOP. As in the old days, lobbyists work the halls of Congress and the regulatory agencies, functioning like carpenter ants to build a federal government ever bigger in size and more intrusive in scope.

True, the clients, patrons, and causes are different. Instead of the Children’s Defense Fund pushing to fully fund Head Start, we now have church-affiliated social service agencies lobbying to have faith-based drug treatment funded by HHS. Instead of Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts promoting a hate-crimes bill endorsed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, it’s Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado introducing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on behalf of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Instead of the Environmental Protection Agency proposing higher air-quality standards, it’s the Federal Communications Commission levying fines and threatening broadcast licenses on the basis of profanity and indecency.

The problem with special-interest conservatives is not that such agenda items violate their greater principles on any given point, any more than the policies promoted by Democratic interests violate liberal principles. Rather, it’s that the entire enterprise of running Washington as a special-interest spoils system breeds a bloated, ineffective government—which does very much go against conservative principle. Ten years ago, conservatives defined themselves in large measure by their belief in less government. Many still view themselves that way, but the self-conception no longer has anything to do with reality. A recent Cato Institute study points out that for the 101 biggest programs that the Contract With America Republicans proposed to eliminate as unnecessary in 1995, spending has now risen 27 percent under a continuously Republican Congress. Likewise, the conservative notion of deregulation has been supplanted by a demand for moralistic regulation, while the demand for judicial restraint has been replaced by pressure for right-wing judicial activism.

Over time, the kind of special-interest politics practiced by President Bush and the Republicans in Congress becomes not just hypocritical, but corrupt and ridiculous. The year has been rich in embarrassing episodes: the Department of Education, an agency that many true conservatives believe should not exist, paying right-wing para-journalist Armstrong Williams to promote an expanded federal role in education; former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, a moral opponent of legalized gambling, collecting $4 million via Jack Abramoff to help Indians with a casino fight off other Indians with casinos; the new chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, another institution antithetical to conservative principle, demanding more PBS slots for conservatives in the name of “balance.” Reagan and Gingrich wanted to cleanse the Augean stables. Bush, Frist, and DeLay merely demand that the patronage now go to their hacks.

Various factors fostered the decline of interest-group liberalism in the 1990s: the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council as an institutional counterweight to the liberal lobbying groups, Bill Clinton’s reformist instincts, and the unexpected overthrow of the Democratic barons in Congress. What might restrain the conservative special-interest blob in the coming years? The DLC’s closest equivalent on the right is the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, which aims to reduce the size of government to what the founders wanted. But Cato matters far less to the GOP than the DLC did in its heyday to the Democrats. A Republican corollary to Clinton could be John McCain, a reformer and powerful opponent of special interest politics in general. But McCain is virulently opposed by his party’s establishment in a way Clinton never was by his. As for a midterm election upset, congressional incumbency is even more entrenched by Republican gerrymandering and financial advantage. Interest-group conservatism may be with us for a good long while.