Expert Commentary

Extreme voices: Interest groups and the misrepresentation of issue publics

2013 study in Public Opinion Quarterly that suggests specific advocacy groups and lobbies often distort the will of supporters in the general public and lead to more extreme polarization.

Extreme voices (iStock)

The public’s ignorance on issues of policy and politics is frequently lamented — and little understood. On tests of civic knowledge, the results are often dismaying, although research suggests that asking about local and national issues can yield different results. Some of this ignorance may have a socio-economic basis. There are access to knowledge and media access issues that make the cost of understanding prohibitive for some. But one broader and more charitable way of interpreting this ignorance is as follows: Citizens are busy, and issues that are not salient or relevant in their daily lives are “costly” — in terms of time and effort — to comprehend.

A 2013 study in Political Communication, “Self-Interest and Attention to News Among Issue Publics,” confirms that “individuals are more likely to follow news that affects their self-interest” — what academics call “selective exposure.” Why learn the tax code when you only fill out a simple return each year? What real advantage is it to know the names of all nine Supreme Court justices? Why spend precious time on development issues in South Asia when there are experts to take care of that? That’s why we have representative government, the argument goes, and advocacy groups on every conceivable issue to help figure out the details and produce policy. The people who really care about a given issue will organize a response.

That’s one political theory. For this theory to work in practice, however, there must be a basic match between some larger segment of the people and the strong, narrowly focused groups who shape the agenda. Otherwise, highly motivated groups just distort democracy, pushing agendas far more extreme than others who care about the same issue would favor. For a half-century now, political scientists have studied the behavior of what are called “issue publics,” or the groups who care about discrete issues. Think of issue publics as concentric circles of increasing interest, with the innermost circle as the actual “pressure group.” Hovering in the background, there remains a long-running debate about whether certain “special interests” corrupt the system, or whether the contending of interests in the public arena actually constitutes the very essence of democracy.

A 2013 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “Extreme Groups: Interest Groups and the Misrepresentation of Issue Publics,” looks to empirical evidence to help settle some of these debates, testing whether members of motivated groups are “giving voice” to wider public communities or pushing their own unrepresentative agendas. The authors — political scientists Ryan L. Claassen of Kent State University and Stephen P. Nicholson of the University of California, Merced — state that the prior “literature on issue publics has optimistically concluded that widespread political ignorance is not a problem for democracy because those affected by specific issues are well informed, involved, and represented.”

To assess this, Claassen and Nicholson analyze results from the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES) — comprising a representative sample of 36,500 people — and look at the views of 10 groups and their issues: AARP and social security privatization; unions and minimum wage; the Sierra Club and global warming; NARAL and abortion; National Right to Life and abortion; the Christian Coalition and gay marriage; the VFW and the Iraq War; the American Legion and the Iraq War; the Parent Teacher Association/Organization and education; and the NRA and gun control. By sorting among the citizens surveyed who have a “characteristic that is relevant to the interest group’s policy area,” Claassen and Nicholson attempt to compare the relative strength of views between active group members and inactive members of specific issue publics.

The study’s findings include:

  • The data furnish “consistent evidence that group members hold policy attitudes that are distinct from their counterparts in a broader issue public.” Distortion is a very real problem. In fact, the evidence suggests that a “policymaker guided by interest group representation, rather than a more comprehensive survey of issue public opinion, might actually come down on the wrong side of an issue in most cases.”
  • “Taken together, the results suggest that the policy distortion produced by interest groups may ultimately stem from those who are different, and more extreme, in their opinions, self-selecting into groups.”
  • These dynamics likely tilt the wider direction of U.S. politics: “Opinion distortion wrought by interest group representation is likely to contribute to political polarization more generally. When policymakers rely on interest groups to communicate the positions of issue publics, they perceive greater polarization than they would if they had a more accurate measure of issue public opinion.”

“A uniformly active issue public would ensure that the voices of those for whom the issue matters most are heard,” Claassen and Nicholson conclude. “But issue publics are not uniformly active. More problematic, those active in interest groups hold positions that are more extreme than, and often at odds with, the positions of less active members within the issue public.”

Related research: The findings line up with studies on what scholars call the phenomenon of “group polarization,” whereby like-minded individuals who affiliate tend to become more extreme in their positions over time. Recent research on political polarization, which has dramatically increased in the United States in recent years, has focused on the deep roots of the phenomenon as well as potential solutions. Further, scholars are studying whether or not the Internet is magnifying these trends more broadly.


Keywords: polarization, motivated reasoning, issue publics, partisanship

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