One of the accepted truisms about American politics is that liberalism is dead. Labor unions are weak; the welfare state has collapsed; conservatives were beginning to dominate Congress even before the Republicans formally took control in 1995; and Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 only by running on Republican issues. Liberals are seen as a sad lot, still trying to figure out what happened.
But liberalism is not dead. Indeed, it's thriving. It has, however, changed its stripes. The old liberalism of FDR and LBJ, with its emphasis on economic equality, social welfare and labor union issues, has withered. A new liberalism, born of affluence, has arisen over the past three decades and has become remarkably powerful, especially on Capitol Hill. Unlike traditional liberalism, the new liberalism is not aimed at improving the material well-being of Americans. It is centered on quality-of-life issues such as environmentalism, consumer affairs, good government and group rights.
Citizen lobbying groups have been the driving force behind this modern liberalism. Their impact is difficult to discern because this disparate set of groups lacks the coherence and visibility of a political party. As a result, the new liberalism in America is often confused with the decaying liberalism of an earlier time. Nevertheless, these well-financed citizen groups have become a lobbying power second in influence only to corporate lobbyists, who once enjoyed unparalleled access to Congress.
Conservative citizen groups abound, too, and they have their own set of quality-of-life concerns, predominantly abortion and other family values issues. For all the attention they receive, however, research shows that the conservative groups are far less effective when it comes to enacting or blocking legislation. It is the liberal citizen groups that have most changed the way things are done in Washington and, especially, in Congress.
My conclusion is based on a detailed analysis of what Congress actually works on and what it passes into law. I examined all the major domestic social and domestic economic legislation that came before House and Senate committees in several different years, beginning with the 1963 session. In 1963, a typical bill was something like the Domestic Cotton Price Equalization Act, which required members of Congress to determine acreage allotments. Two-thirds of the bills before committees that year required legislators to reconsider how the economic pie was carved up, or to try to devise ways to expand that pie. Only a third of the bills dealt with quality-of-life issues such as consumer or environmental concerns.
By 1991, the pattern was reversed. Seventy-one percent of all congressional hearings that year took up legislation that had quality-of-life concerns at the center of the policies being debated, while just 29 percent of the domestic legislation involved exclusively economic issues.
Analysis of each bill revealed that groups such as the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Consumer Federation of America and the Ralph Nader organizations often pushed the legislation forward. The lobby that showed up most often in the 1991 session of Congress was not the Business Roundtable or the Chamber of Commerce, but the Natural Resources Defense Council. More often than not, the legislation pushed by liberal citizen lobbies put business groups on the defensive.
A key test of the liberal citizen groups' power came when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995. The liberal citizen lobbies lost much of their influence over what bills gain hearings in Congress. Conversely, conservative citizen lobbies now had their friends in charge. At the beginning of the 104th Congress, the Christian Coalition proposed its own agenda, the Contract With the American Family. The group's director at the time, Ralph Reed, asked the Republican leadership to act on it as soon as the GOP's Contract With America passed the House.
But the conservatives' electoral revolution did not translate into a legislative one, largely because the conservative citizen groups had nowhere near the clout of their liberal counterparts. For liberal groups, the most serious threat came from the alliance of business lobbies and sympathetic Republican House members who worked together to fashion far-reaching regulatory reform measures. The heart of this effort was the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act, part of the Contract With America. This sweeping legislation would have required the government to use cost-benefit analysis to justify policies and regulations. The Newt Gingrich-led House passed the bill, but the outcry from environmentalists forced Bob Dole, Senate majority leader at the time, to beat a hasty retreat. He never even brought the bill up for a vote.
Business lobbies were equally enthusiastic about a rewrite of the Clean Water Act, but when environmentalists started to call it the "dirty water bill," Dole ran from that, too. The environmental groups easily defeated efforts to rewrite the Superfund act and the endangered species laws.
Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition stumbled with its Contract With the American Family. House Majority Leader Dick Armey summarily dismissed the group's agenda, and only bits and pieces of it made their way into law. Few would have guessed at the outset of the 104th Congress that its biggest winners would be the environmental lobbies and its biggest loser would be the Christian Coalition.
When I began this research six years ago, I expected to find that both liberal and conservative citizen groups were gaining influence. Conservative citizen groups such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the Eagle Forum, and the Christian Coalition are well-known advocates of family values issues. Yet in 1991, conservative citizen groups actively lobbied on just 4.5 percent of the primary domestic legislation before Congress that year. Liberal citizen groups lobbied on 66 percent of the same set of bills. The conservative groups seem to be AWOL while the liberal groups lobby across almost the entire range of domestic legislation that Congress takes up.
What explains the liberal groups' strength? One advantage they have over the conservative groups is that their issues are increasingly perceived as more mainstream. When the Audubon Society talks about the environment, or the Center for Science in the Public Interest talks about carcinogens in food, or the Center for Auto Safety talks about design flaws in minivans, they don't seem like radicals promoting left-wing causes. Such concerns contrast sharply with the agenda of conservative citizen groups, whose hot-button issues such as abortion and school prayer strike many Americans as ideologically right of center.
Surprisingly, many of the liberal lobbies active on Capitol Hill are larger and richer in resources than conservative citizen groups. A number of environmental groups have more than half a million members and annual budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. The liberal groups have large staffs characterized by lawyers, PhDs and assorted policy wonks. The expertise of these staffers pays handsome dividends because it gives their organizations more credibility. Information still equals power, at least on Capitol Hill and for much of the media.
Over the years, the leaders of the liberal groups have been willing to make costly commitments to the long-term lobbying that is necessary to push issues on to the agenda of Congress. It is mundane work, which begins with publicizing research and working with committee staffers, but it eventually can culminate in legislators taking up the issues. Mother was right: Hard work pays off. The numbers indicate that conservative citizen groups don't put nearly as much energy or money into lobbying the Hill or hiring policy experts.
Liberals speak in terror of the resources available to the groups on the right. Yet my measurements of the three most precious resources for interest groups--visibility, credibility and funding--indicate that the liberal lobbies are far better off than the conservative groups.
The greater visibility and credibility of the liberal groups can be explained by the large bureaucracies they have built, the policy experts they employ, the research they fund and the long-term stability of their organizations. Their superior funding over conservative groups is largely explained by the underlying class difference among donors. The liberal groups appeal to an upper-middle-class suburban constituency, while the Christian right groups appeal primarily to a population of more modest means.
Most conservative groups rely heavily on direct mail, which means that a $25 donation might cost them $24. They consistently overfish their fund-raising waters, and sometimes find that they are spending $27 to raise that $25 donation. This is why once-prominent groups with substantial memberships, such as the Moral Majority and the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), can end up bankrupt and out of business.
Liberal citizen groups use direct mail, too, but get a higher return on their investment because their contributors can afford to give more. They also receive more of their funds from other sources, such as large individual gifts, foundation grants and government support. Business remains the best-funded and most powerful interest group sector. But citizen groups, with their expanding resources, are becoming increasingly effective when they compete directly against business lobbies in the Congress.
The growing prosperity of citizen groups representing the new liberalism contrasts sharply with the decline of labor unions, the heart and soul of traditional liberalism. Unions still have access to very large sums of money, but their most precious resource--their membership--has declined sharply. As a percentage of the work force, union membership has dropped to about half of what it was in 1950, from about one in three workers to about one in six. Interest group influence has never been strictly a function of the number of members or constituents, but the diminishing size of labor unions has been too visible and too dramatic not to alter the way that politicians view them.
As liberal citizen groups mobilized their followers in the 1960s and '70s, Ralph Nader liberalism began to eclipse Hubert Humphrey liberalism. Not surprisingly, the liberal citizen lobbies represent those who were already well represented in American politics: wealthy, well-educated suburbanites. Yet these people have been organized in new ways, and their lobbies in Washington have done an impressive job of raising new issues. At the same time, the success of those groups has pushed traditional liberal concerns for the poor and disadvantaged further to the margins of American politics.
The same trend is evident in Democratic Party politics. Often accused of not having any firm principles, President Clinton has turned out to be steadfast in his support of women's rights, environmental protection, education and consumer protection--all central concerns of the new liberalism. At the same time, Clinton turned away from the traditional liberal constituencies with his support of welfare reform and NAFTA. The previous Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, never would have signed the welfare bill. He also felt indebted to labor for the help some unions gave him in his race for the Democratic nomination in 1976. It was Clinton who saw the fork in the road. Embarking on his campaign for president, Vice President Gore's signature issue is environmental protection. As the Democrats enter the 21st century, the new liberals seem firmly in control of the party once ruled by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
Jeffrey Berry is a professor of political science at Tufts University. This article is based on his new book "The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups" (Brookings Institution).
Membership in these major environmental groups has increased significantly since 1970:
Defenders of Wildlife 13,000/250,000
Environmental Action 10,000/16,000 *
Environmental Defense Fund 11,000/300,000
Friends of the Earth 6,000/50,000 *
Sierra Club 113,000/588,000
National Audubon Society 105,000/550,000)
National Wildlife Federation 540,000/4 million
Nature Conservancy 22,000/900,000
Wilderness Society 54,000/200,000
* 1992 figures
Sources: American Journal of Political Science, Washington Post research