Welcome back to The Monkey Cage’s weekly presentation of Founding Principles, a series of short videos designed to explain American government and how it works — in theory and in practice. We started by looking at the structure of the government (Congress, the presidency, and the courts) and then at public opinion, the media, and elections — both the structure of our electoral system and voter behavior.
While voting is the way that the most people participate in the political process, it’s hardly the only way. Voting, after all, is a blunt act —a simple signal that doesn’t convey a specific set of instructions. It doesn’t prove you really liked that candidate at all; perhaps you just disliked his opponent even more.
So other means of political participation are important as well, as a way of communicating more directly with political actors and telling them what you want and how much you want it. This might start with the campaign — by working for a candidate or donating money — but it doesn’t end there. Anyone can be in contact with their elected officials, and those count, too. Letters, phone calls, turning out at district meetings or showing up on Capitol Hill – all these points of contact influence politics.
Each form of participation has costs: time, or money, or skills like writing, speaking or organizing a group or a meeting. But in the U.S., the rates of political participation – that is, taking part in public life in ways other than voting – tend to be far higher than in other countries.
As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. … Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” Over time, the number of associations has skyrocketed. There are at least four times as many interest groups in Washington today as there were in the 1950s – from perhaps 6,500 then to 25,000 or more now.
Are all these interest groups a problem? Certainly we talk a lot about “special interests” undermining the public good. That concern goes back to the framing. James Madison described the “mischiefs of faction” and how he thought the new American republic would solve them, in one of his most famous essays, Federalist #10.
Madison was optimistic, but as this episode details, changes in technology and political behavior may have changed the calculus. Defeating the mischiefs of faction takes not just a republic, but also a citizenry committed to preserving its virtues.