The War Over Public Opinion: Part 2

The following is the second of a three part series, titled “The War Over Public Opinion: The Impact of Interest Groups on Anti-Abortion Policy in Kansas.” It was written for an undergraduate political science course at the University of Kansas taught by Dr. Alesha Doan.

Kansas anti-abortion interest groups take action

Two of the most prominent and influential anti-abortion interest groups in Kansas are Kansans for Life and Americans for Prosperity, which is a group funded by the Kansas-based Koch brothers that has departments in many states around the nation. Kansans for Life gives funding to politicians who support its mission. The group endorsed more than a hundred state and national politicians in 2012, from Mitt Romney and Susan Wagle (“Kansans for Life”). The organization encompasses a variety of controversial issues related to health. It and defines itself as “a grassroots pro-life educational organization committed to speaking up for the defenseless in Kansas on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and bioethics issues such as embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), human cloning, fetal experimentation and eugenics” (“Kansans for Life”). Americans for Prosperity aligns itself with the economic side of politics and advocates for limited government and free markets. Americans for Prosperity defines its mission as “champion[ing] the principles of entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint” (“Americans for Prosperity”). The chart below reflects how the voting record or each Kansas congressperson aligns to the values of Americans for Prosperity so far in 2014 (“Americans for Prosperity” 2014).

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Kansans for Life and Americans for Prosperity each impact legislation relating abortion access and restriction in different ways, which will be explored in detail below.

How do interest groups function anyway?

Evolving from small groups of passionately minded people, interest groups have risen from their quaint beginnings to powerful institutions that extend into all areas of policy. In reviewing a previously written article, Ettinger concludes that interest groups in Kansas have an impact on “the growth of government and in electoral campaigns, and lobbying tactics and regulations” (Ettinger 2011, 656). Furthermore, in his article, “Citizens, Interest Groups, and Local Ballot Initiatives,” Adams explores how interest groups impact the outcome of elections. He says that elections are often just “dueling interest groups…that crowd out the public” (Adams 2012, 43). Adams contrasts his first stance by asserting that interest groups are often able to block certain legislation, but ultimately make the final decision on local initiatives. Even if individuals are voting according to their own independent beliefs, the question remains: how are interest groups molding these beliefs in the first place?

To be sure, interest groups cause policy controversies to bubble to the surface. Nownes’ study “Interest Group Conflict, Alliances, and Opposition: Evidence from Three States” describes four elements surround interest groups (Nownes 2000). First, that conflict is rampant in the areas of state policy and second, that state interest groups work in conjunction with similarly minded groups to achieve success, even if compromises must occur. Nownes also explains that interest groups create confusion around policies and that many fights over state policy are directly caused by one interest group feuding with another (Nownes 2000).

To expand on this, interest groups frequently interact with each other. In the case of Americans for Prosperity and Kansans for Life, both groups combine on many issues to draw the maximum amount of attention toward a subject. These groups, however, often interact with political parties through contentious means. Nownes points out, “the narrowly defined ideological goals of interest groups may conflict with the broader coalitional strategy of political parties” (Nownes 2000, 232). Similar to the results found by Adams, Nownes holds that state political interest group activists are not overtaking parties, but that party members often came to be involved in their party for more than one singular interest. (Nownes 2000).

The coalitional conflict between groups dedicated to one ideological goal and political parties, which are focused on multiple agendas, is supported by Paddock in his study, “Interest Group Influence on the Ideological Orientations of Local Party Activists” (Paddock 2007). Interest groups are often comprised of people who hold more extremist ideas (both on the left and right sides of the aisle) than the political party in general.

“[T]he presence of group-oriented activists in the party organizations might make it more difficult for the parties to fashion the compromises necessary for electoral victory,” Paddock cautions state parties (Paddock 2007).

One such example is pro-choice activists, who might push the Democratic Party to take more extreme positions on reproductive policy than might reflect the broader electorate.

While interest groups provide funds, volunteers and political activists during political campaigns, they also cause the party to face the challenging prospect of finding solutions to policy problems when members are unwilling to compromise on certain issues. Despite the challenges, Paddock concludes, “political parties, through their influence on the policymaking process, provide interest groups with policies that respond to the demands of group members” (Paddock 2007). In Kansas, these interest groups have a broad impact on legislation. Lawmakers face the unique problem of finding ways to accurately represent publics where some voices are heard much louder than others.

6a0147e284dcb2970b01a5119cb1a2970c-800wiCertain circumstances are ripe for interest groups to thrive and it is during these times when groups have greatest opportunity to affect policy.  In off-cycle elections, members of organized interest groups traditionally turn out in high numbers and thus “make up a greater proportion of the total vote when that election is held off-cycle” (Anzia 2011, 412). Because the first priority of these groups is to further the ideological interest of their members and they often seek specific benefits from the legislators they elect, interest groups are more likely to achieve their mission from lawmakers who are elected in off-cycle elections (Anzia 2011). It is advantageous, then, for interest groups like Kansans for Life to gather great momentum for these elections where they have the potential to make the greatest impact.

This impact is precisely what Gilens and Page discuss in their new study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (Gilens & Page 2014). Who truly governs – they question – if the public and elected officials are being influenced on all sides by lobbyists and interest groups? Four sets of actors exist in American politics that control and drive public opinion: the average citizen, economic elites, mass-based interest groups and business-orientated industries (Gilens & Page 2014). Gilens and Page hold the rather pessimistic view that economic elites and organized interest groups control public policy and the general public has almost no pressure on enactors. The majority of interest groups in the U.S. represent businesses and corporations, while very few reflect the attitudes of the poor or “ordinary workers” (Gilens & Page, 9).

Furthermore, they assert that:

“The fly in the ointment is that none of this evidence allows for…the impact of such variables as the preferences of wealthy individuals, or the preferences and actions of organized interest groups, which may independently influence public policy while perhaps being positively associated with public opinion – thereby producing a spurious statistical relationship between opinion and policy” (Gilens & Page 2014, 5)

If economic elites and interest groups controlled by these elites dominate the political sphere, how is the average citizen’s viewpoint being shared? While Gilens and Page would conclude that it is not being shared at all, further research indicates that these elites spend the majority of their resources actually influencing public opinion, rather than going above it.

A bibliography for this paper is available here. The series will continue at the links below.

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