God, Guns, and Gays: Why Some Interest Groups Matter More

January 18, 2013

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about interest groups that have a lot of power in Congress.  In the gun discussion, commentators talk about the influence of the National Rifle Association; and Secretary of Defense-nominee Chuck Hagel got in trouble talking about the pro-Israel lobby.  So what makes certain groups more powerful in Congress than others?

The short answer is focus and passion.  The vast majority of voters don’t care too much about the vast majority of issues.  They have opinions, but don’t feel strongly enough to vote based on them – much less volunteer, talk to their neighbors, or make political contributions.  So groups of people who are willing to take those actions based on a single issue have outsized influence over the legislation they care about.

The NRA often wins fights in Congress on issues where their opponents are supported by a majority of the American people.  But it is unlikely that many people who are non-gun owners, or the victims of gun crimes, will be highly motivated by a congressman’s vote on limiting high-capacity magazines.  So voting against the wishes of the majority who don’t care that much is safer than opposing the passionate and well-organized NRA membership.

The same is true for organized interests who support Israel or gay rights or other issues that can be highly personal.  American Jews, and increasingly evangelical Christians, feel a strong personal attachment to Israel and the Holy Land.  If their senator votes in a way that they feel hurts the Jewish State, they are not likely to be forgiving.  Or consider how important equality under law is for gay people to them and their families. Your representative can be perfect on taxes and health care, but if he thinks you should be treated as a second class citizen, you are unlikely to vote for him.  For a long time, the gay community did not have success in Congress because of strong prejudices on the other side, but once lots of Americans – even those opposed to equality – started to care less, the motivated minority began to win more.

Of course, playing to a passionate minority is a risky political game.  On Israel and gay rights, it’s probably safe because a majority of Americans agree with the views of these motivated interest groups.  But on something like banning assault rifles, you can never tell when the majority will wake up and care. An event like Newtown may have been awful enough to make lots of people without a direct interest feel passionate about the issue. It is not hard to see parents deciding that a vote against the assault weapon ban is unacceptable. It might not be sustainable passion, but it could last long enough to kick some people out of Congress.

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