The People’s Lobby
From The Mason Historiographiki
Elisabeth S. Clemens. The People's Lobby: Organizational Innovation and the Rise of Interest Group Politics in the United States, 1890-1925. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. ISBN 0-226-10993-3 (paper).
In this book, Clemens explains some of the changes in the U.S. around the turn of the twentieth century that led to a transformation in the ways that people thought about and participated in party politics as we now know them. One of the most significant changes that occurred at this time was the shift among most citizens from traditional partisan politics to participation with the goal of achieving specific ends or supporting specific interests; popular political participation began to involve direct involvement in legislative activity. She argues that "the political accomplishments of the Progressive Era involved not merely a change of attitudes or preferences, but the institutionalization of new means by which organized groups might influence the policy process" (1-2). Clemens documents this change by using Washington, Wisconsin, and California as case studies to demonstrate how political rules and processes changed and groups of citizens emerged who believed themselves to be both able and entitled to promoting explicitly self-interested claims in political organizations and action.
During this time, in the pursuit of ‘special interests,’ people organized themselves into voluntary organizations through which they learned how articulate demands for specific interests, participate in the influencing legislation that effected these interests, and monitor the responses of elected officials to their work. Clemens focuses on the organization and efforts of three main interest groups: agriculture, organized labor, and women. In this way, individuals assumed the roles of lobbies, which had long been present in American politics, but had never before involved so much popular participation.
According to Clemens, the transformation to interest politics at the turn of the twentieth century involved three main steps, or distinct processes: First, the traditional system of national organizations dedicated to the mass mobilization of people in support of the main political parties began to decay as a result of changes in conditions that inspired popular disappointment with the parties. Second, Americans developed new models for political organization that involved alternatives to traditional political participation. Third, these new models changed, and were changed by, existing political institutions, with legislatures, administrative agencies, and public opinion beginning to characterize politics. The introduction of alternatives to standard party politics was the catalyst for these changes.
Alex Bradshaw, Fall 2012
Clemens claims that there were three main forms of organization led to the transformation in popular political participation by helping people to learn how to organize themselves and that they should organize themselves in pursuit of class interests. The tradition of organized labor had begun in the final years of the nineteenth century and had very little success, which taught workers that they could ask for improved conditions, and made them more dissatisfied when conditions failed to improve, and willing to fight for that improvement. Agricultural groups were in even less advantageous positions than industrial laborers, and had experience in organization, an established precedent of turning to government agencies for assistance through the American Farm Bureau Federation, and experience in influencing legislative action. The women’s movement had experience in organizing for suffrage and reform movements, experience with government intervention through social policy efforts, and the desire to further improve conditions. Each of these groups learned the potential power that organizing held, had learned to expect support from government and legislation, and had been taught to believe that they had a right to improvement in their lives. This was mirrored by changes in legislative practices that moved away from the tradition of strict partisan loyalty and toward action in favor of specific interests or causes. These changes prepared individuals to engage in interest activism and created a political environment in which such activism could be a productive and viable way to make gains.
Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013
Clemens, as a sociologist, is concerned with the institutionalisms of organization and the structural changes that facilitated the shift from party-oriented politics to new organizational models for political participation. She spends a great deal of time explicating her methods, particularly the political theories and sociological theories she responds to and uses. She uses the idea of repertoires of action--possible choices and avenues for political participation and action--throughout to allude to the unsettled political culture around the turn of the century.
Clemens is good at breaking down processes and aspects of the political transformation into points. For example, she describes the five main points to the transformation of American political participation to be: the increased state capacity and rationalization of the state; the alienation of traditional elites from party politics, due largely to immigration and urbanization; the increased regionalism and regulation of political parties; new forms of participation, like the initiative, referendum, and recall; and the organization of group interests outside the recognized parties (27-28). She also highlights the comparative politics that occurred within the US: "The first step in redressing a problem was to find out what had been done elsewhere" (68). These discussions connected nicely with Daniel Rodgers' attention to the transatlantic flow of ideas and policies between nations in Atlantic Crossings, showing a smaller-scale version of the similar approaches to resolving political issues.
Several aspects of the study are less than successful. The methodological setup takes up several chapters, and it is difficult to keep theories, ideas, and models straight in her unclear prose. Clemens' reasons to compare California, Washington, and Wisconsin are quite thin and superficial. For example, she barely alludes to the demographic differences, devoting only four sentences to the ethnic makeup of the states that deal most with European immigrants (96-97). She also tends to focus on the elite organizations and constituencies within each interest group: emergent agribusiness farmers, the state federations of labor, and the largest organizations for women's suffrage. This leads to the question of how does individual action and agency play into popular politics, when the shift seems to be from large formalized groups (parties) to smaller formalized organizations? Her treatment of gender is underdeveloped, as exemplified by this statement in which she connects gender to women alone: "...the explicitly gendered symbols and practices of nineteenth-century politics faded, and gender became a semicovert category of public order, something to be rediscovered by later generations of feminist scholars" (186). Teddy Roosevelt is ample proof that explicitly gendered symbols did not die out at the turn of the century. The People's Lobby also lacks a strong sense of temporality, as Clemens moves back and forth across decades--the result is a description of what changed, but now how things shifted over time.
Nevertheless, Clemens' study invites questions and further research into the notions of race, class, gender, regionalism, modes of organization, and popular political culture that are at the edges of The People's Lobby.