Elections Are Only The Tip Of The Iceberg: When Interest Groups And Direct Action Groups Are More Effective Than Political Parties

In every democratic country, languishing behind every proud parliament, there are groups who feel ignored by their national governments. They claim that an important issue (immigration, environmentalism, civil rights, self-determination) is being ignored by mainstream politicians, and they grow disaffected as a result. Some of these groups are targets of systematic oppression, whereas others – despite their relative privilege – simply find that politicians are not talking about their issue. But whilst the contexts and the issues may differ, these under-represented groups share at least one problem: they all find their concerns being ignored.

Some groups have solved this problem, others have not. What explains the difference? How are some under-represented groups able to break through barriers of indifference, whilst others remain trapped by them? Previous research has pointed the finger at political institutions, at levels of public support, or at the actions of political heavyweights. In a book “Organizing For Policy Influence: Comparing Parties, Interest Groups, and Direct Action” published in August 2017 by Routledge, I argue that the answer lies in a different place: organizational choice.

I argue that all under-represented groups choose to form whichever type of political organization will win them the most policy influence. In some countries like Germany and Finland, under-represented groups have formed small but important political parties. In other countries, like the UK, these groups channel their political resources instead into the formation of interest groups. In still other countries, direct action has been the order of the day, with groups taking the issue into their own hands. I show that although interest groups are often less costly to form, certain types of national institutions can insulate mainstream politicians from interest groups. When institutions combine to deny access for interest groups, activists are forced to send the stronger signal of party entry. When both of those choices are off the table, direct action – not inaction – will be the result.

Why Do Organizational Choices Matter? Policy Impacts, Electoral Impacts, and Participation Impacts

These organizational choices are important: if the optimal organization is formed, then the group can go on to change policy decisions, change election outcomes, and change how activists participate in politics. It should come as no surprise that organizational choices are deeply contentious within activist circles. For example, in France in the 1980s, Antoine Waechter led the French Green Party, and Brice Lalonde had founded the interest group ‘Amis de la Terre’. The two men were both environmentalists, but had starkly different views on which was the optimal organizational choice:

“Here began a bitter and damaging rivalry that would last more than a decade, well into the 1990s – effectively locking the environmentalists out of the French parliament, as well as wasting their energies in bickering and mutual recriminations” – (Bess 2003, p.105).

Similarly, in the UK in the early 2000s, well-known environmentalist George Monbiot applauded interest groups like Greenpeace but had harsh criticism for Jonathan Porritt of the UK Green Party. This critique of organizational choice struck a raw nerve, and Porritt responded with a defence of electoral politics, and with a personal critique of his own: “I haven’t noticed you refusing to work for The Guardian unless they stop carrying adverts for the companies you so despise.” (Monbiot and Porritt 2000, p3). Other examples can be found in almost every industrialised democracy. Nothing seems to tear under-represented groups apart quite like the issue of organizational choice.

The Argument

So, when Brice Lalonde and Antoine Waechter disagreed over how to organize the environmentalist movement in France, was one of them right, and one of them wrong? When George Monbiot and Jonathan Porritt clashed over organizational choice, did one of them have a stronger argument?

The book argues that there is no single organization that is universally optimal. But whilst there may not be one ‘best’ organizational form, we can still predict, for any given country, what the optimal organizational choice will be. The key is to use national institutions to predict how to get the most access that you can, given your resources. Interest groups are the least costly choice, and it is only when institutions (particularly corporatism) make them more costly that parties become the optimal organizational choice.

For example, the data in the book show that Green Party vote share, and Greenpeace membership per capita, are both positively correlated with government spending on the environment. But under some institutions, Green Party vote share has the stronger correlation, whereas under other institutions, it is Greenpeace membership. Thus in countries like France, where institutions make parties the optimal organizational choice, environmentalists will win more influence by forming a Green Party. The opposite is true in the UK. The size of the difference is meaningful: in a hypothetical scenario where institutions make interest groups the optimal choice, every extra Green Party vote is worth $929 more of government spending on environmental protection, but every extra Greenpeace member is worth $61,496.

Institutions are often argued to have a strong effect on government spending (Persson and Tabellini 2003). I find that institutions do not automatically have these effects. Their effects only kick in when the right political organization takes advantage of those institutions. There is also a broader implication here: institutions are not Tolkien’s ‘one ring’. They do not have one master. Whatever under-represented groups face in terms of institutional opportunities, there is always an optimal path to be taken in terms of how to organize for influence.[1]

Other Implications

Prior work on niche parties has modeled their entry into electoral politics as a binary choice: to enter, or not to enter. But that is not the question. I claim instead that niche parties are actually just one choice from a broader menu that includes interest groups and direct action groups. This new modeling perspective modifies a key finding in the field – Duverger’s (1954) law. As I explain, if the mainstream parties agree to be responsive to interest groups, then activists in under-represented groups will be content to use interest groups, and will forego party entry. It is only when other institutions, specifically corporatism, make this agreement impossible that we will see Duverger’s (1954) law being enforced to its fullest extent.

Conclusion: Organizational Choice Reflects Institutional Context

My research explains how under-represented groups can best influence the policies that they care about. I argue that the answer lies in a surprising place: organizational choice. The type of organization that activists choose to form will determine the level of policy influence that they will achieve. Even small groups of activists can punch above their weight, if they make the optimal organizational choice. My research shows how political institutions explain which type of organization is the optimal choice.

I have focused on environmentalists as an example of an under-represented group in democratic societies, but ethnic minorities and sexual identity minorities advocating for social justice, as well as the populist radical right, are other examples of where this theory could be applied. It is important to see these groups as strategic actors in search of policy influence. They may be outside the political mainstream, but they are not oblivious to it, nor are they powerless to change it.

Differences of opinion are what make democracy necessary, but they are also what make it difficult. And particularly difficult for the holders of minority opinions. If you are always outnumbered in a system that relies on numbers, then you are not in a strong position to get what you want. Scholars of democracy might see this as fair. They might be tempted to accept that the holders of minority opinions will always fare badly in democracies. But those minorities cannot be expected to accept it. By continuing to organize, they continue to make a difference. It is this story that lies at the heart of the book.

[1] The evidence also shows that activists’ behavior lines up with these predictions. When corporatism is low, environmental activists are more likely to join environmental interest groups. When it is high, they are more likely to support Green parties.


About Ben Farrer

Ben is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. He received his PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2014. Ben was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and previously held a research position in the Department of Political Science at Fordham University. His research and teaching interests are centered around parties and interest groups, particularly those from under-represented constituencies. A great deal of his work deals with the political organizations of the environmental movement. He studies both American and Comparative politics.

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