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What Is Wrong With Our Country: Special Interest Groups and Lobbyists

This the first article in my new category, “What is Wrong With Our Country?” I will continue to write articles in this format, until I run out of subject matter. Good luck with that one. I know one thing that there are a lot of issues in this country, however, special interest groups and lobyist are probably the most insidious of the lot.


The famous French writer on American government and society Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that America was a nation of joiners. This facet of American political life has not changed since de Tocqueville made his observation in the nineteenth century. Americans are much more likely to join political and social organizations than people in other countries. Although most political scientists agree that this unique trend has a positive impact on democracy, the political power wielded by these groups sometimes dominates the political process at the expense of individuals and society as a whole. For example, many Americans these days feel that politicians listen more to special interests than to average voters, and John McCain centered his 2000 presidential bid around attacks on the power of interest groups.

Interest groups come in all shapes and sizes. They range from very liberal to very conservative and everything in between. Lobbyists pursue nearly every imaginable goal, from tax credits to fundamental revisions of American political culture. The National Rifle Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Organization for Women, and the World Wildlife Fund are all examples of interest groups.

Types of Interest Groups

An Interest Group is an organization of people who share a common interest and work together to protect and promote that interest by influencing the government. Interest groups vary greatly in size, aims, and tactics. Political scientists generally divide interest groups into two categories: economic and noneconomic.

Economic Groups

Economic Groups, which seek some sort of economic advantage for their members, are the most common type of interest group. Money has significant influence in capitalist societies, so economic interest groups are numerous and powerful. These groups are usually well funded because members willingly contribute money in the hopes of reaping greater political influence and profit.

Economic groups work to win Private Goods, which are benefits that only the members of the group will enjoy. When a labor union agrees to a contract, for example, its members benefit from the contract, whereas nonunion members do not. If there is no private good incentive, people might choose not to join (especially if there is a membership fee or dues). There are four main types of economic groups: business groups, labor groups, agricultural groups, and professional associations.

Business Groups

Business groups are the most common type of interest group; more than half of all registered lobbyists work for business organizations. Some business lobbyists work for a single corporation, lobbying solely for that company. Businesses also form associations with companies from the same industry to promote all of their interests. For example, the American Petroleum Institute works on behalf of oil companies. Some groups act on behalf of business in general. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, seeks pro-business policies in general, not just policies that help one part of the economy.

Because they are usually well funded, business groups tend to be very influential. They work to promote the interests of private companies and corporations by seeking tax cuts, regulatory changes, and other pro-business benefits. Business groups do not always agree with one another, however. What benefits one industry may harm another, so advocates for those industries quite often work against one another.

Labor Groups

Labor groups represent unions, which work to increase wages and improve working conditions for both skilled and unskilled workers. Individual workers have very little power, but banded together, they can wield significant influence. Labor unions have been a significant part of American economic and political life since the late nineteenth century. At the peak of the unions’ influence, roughly one-third of American workers belonged to labor unions.

In recent decades, however, union membership has declined so that fewer than one-fourth of the nation’s workers belong to any union. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the United Food and Commercial Workers International; and Service Employees International are among the largest and most influential labor unions. The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations) is an umbrella organization of labor unions that cooperate in order to expand their influence. Labor unions spend much of their time and energy dealing with employers, but they also play a political role. Unions mobilize voters and donate money to help candidates who they feel will benefit workers.

Splits In The Labor Movement

The decline of labor unions has caused some people to question union leadership. In 2005, for example, a number of very prominent unions pulled out of the AFL-CIO because they could not agree on a political strategy. Leadership elections have also turned nasty. Although organized labor’s political influence remains, some pundits argue that these disputes further diminish the power of unions.

Agricultural Groups

Agricultural groups represent the interests of farmers. Farmers have been organized for centuries to protect themselves against price fluctuations and other issues. In the United States, farmers’ groups, such as the Grange movement, have played an important role in politics, which continues today: The federal government spends large amounts of money supporting farmers and influencing what crops are grown. Not all agricultural groups agree on the same policies. Some groups, such as the Farm Bureau, tend to work most closely with large agribusinesses, whereas others, such as the Farmers Union and the Grange, do more to protect family farms.

Professional Associations

Many professionals have formal organizations that set ground rules for the profession, regulate practices, and promote standards of conduct. Professional associations also lobby the government on issues related to their profession. The American Medical Association, for example, fights against laws it feels undercut physicians’ autonomy. Similarly, the National Education Association, a professional association for teachers, lobbies for policies it feels will benefit teachers and students.

Interest Groups And Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs are more important to health care than ever before. Interest groups have played a strong role in the rules governing prescription drugs, from influencing the process of drug approval by the Food and Drug Administration to regulating the price and distribution of pharmaceuticals. When Congress added prescription drug coverage to Medicare in 2004, many felt that pharmaceutical companies had influenced Congress to forbid negotiations over drug prices.

Noneconomic Groups

Noneconomic Groups (sometimes called Citizens’ Groups) are interest groups that fight for causes instead of working for material gain. Unlike economic groups, which work for private goods, noneconomic groups seek Public Goods (also called Collective Goods), which benefit everyone in society, not just members of the group. Instead of Material Incentives, these groups offer their members a variety of Selective Incentives, including the following benefits:

There are four main types of noneconomic groups: public interest groups, single-issue groups, ideological groups, and government groups.

Public Interest Groups

Public interest groups claim to work for the good of the whole society, not just one part of it. Not surprisingly, public interest groups often have very different ideas as to how to improve society. Many public interest groups tackle a number of related issues. Greenpeace, for example, works to protect ecosystems around the world and to educate the public about dangers to the environment. The nonpartisan public interest group Democracy 21 seeks to strengthen democracy by lobbying for election and campaign finance reforms.

Single-Issue Groups

Single-issue groups work solely on one specific issue. These groups tend to be very strongly driven, composed of members who are passionately committed to the particular cause. Over the last few decades, the number of single-issue groups has grown greatly; there are now groups covering a broad range of issues. Well-known single-issue groups include the National Rifle Association, which lobbies against gun control legislation, and Operation Rescue, which works to ban abortion.

Ideological Groups

Whereas single-issue groups have a very narrow focus, ideological groups have much broader aims rooted in a strongly held philosophy. Ideological groups often work to change cultural norms, values, and prevailing stereotypes. Conservative ideological groups include the Christian Coalition and the Traditional Values Coalition, whereas liberal ideological groups include the NOW and the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People.

Government Groups

Government groups represent the interests of other governments. Many cities and state governments, for example, have lobbyists in Washington to act in their interest. Most foreign governments also hire lobbyists to promote their interests in Congress and the White House.

Catchin’ A Ride

People who reap the benefits from public goods without actually contributing to the group that won those goods are known as Free Riders. The free rider phenomenon is particularly troublesome for noneconomic interest groups, especially ideological interests groups, which have trouble recruiting active members who are willing to contribute time, money, and energy to winning a public good that will benefit everyone.

Type Of GroupExample
BusinessNational Association of Manufacturers
EconomicLaborInternational Brotherhood of Teamsters
AgriculturalAmerican Farm Bureau Federation
Professional AssociationAmerican Bar Association
Public InterestLeague of Women Voters
NoneconomicSingle IssueThe Environmental Defense Fund
IdeologicalChristian Coalition
GovernmentNational League of Cities

Strategies Used by Interest Groups

Organized groups are more effective than unorganized ones. A well-organized group can wage a coordinated campaign that incorporates many different tactics. Organization can also make up for size: A well-organized small group often has a bigger impact than a large poorly organized one.

Lobbyists employ a number of tactics and offer lawmakers a number of benefits to achieve their goals, including persuasion, information, material incentives, economic leverage, disruption, and litigation.


The key to lobbying is access: To influence an official, one must be able to speak to that official. Given how busy members of Congress and other government officials often are, getting access poses a major challenge. Sometimes a lobbyist can only get two or three minutes of the official’s time, so the lobbyist must be prepared to make the pitch very quickly.

Some types of people have an easier time getting access than others. Some lobbying organizations use these types of people to help gain access. Actor Michael J. Fox, for example, has lobbied for increased funding for Parkinson’s disease research. Both Angelina Jolie and Bono have also successfully lobbied Congress for their causes.

A Profitable Profession

Former government officials, especially high-ranking ones, can often earn large salaries by working as lobbyists, which makes lobbying an attractive profession for retiring members. These officials are often in great demand as lobbyists because they know many people in government and can therefore get access easily. Bob Dole, for example—who used to be a senator from Kansas and was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1996—is one of the most famous former officials now working as a lobbyist in Washington, but there are many others.

Persuasion and Information

Lobbyists work to persuade governmental officials. Lobbyists offer arguments, evidence, and research to support their groups’ positions. Many government officials do not have the time to research issues themselves, so they rely on information from trusted interest groups and lobbyists to keep them informed and up to date. Publishing their findings also allows interest groups to influence public opinion, which, in turn, often influences the policy decisions of lawmakers.

Material Incentives

Although persuasion is a key part of lobbying, interest groups also provide some material incentives to government officials. Laws limit government officials from taking gifts, but they can still be wined and dined. Also, lobbyists can hold informational seminars for officials, flying them to places such as the Florida Keys or a golf resort to educate them about issues.

Economic Leverage

Interest groups can use economic power as a weapon to get what they want. In most cases, economic power means money: Rich interest groups can contribute to campaigns, run advertisements, pay for research, and build a strong presence in Washington. Interest groups can leverage their economic power in other ways too, though. Labor unions, for example, often seek change by striking or by threatening to strike. Boycotting, or refusing to buy a particular company’s goods, is another effective method groups use to accomplish their goals.


Interest groups sometimes stage protests in order to disrupt activities, generate publicity, and apply pressure on those they oppose. Disruptions can include strikes, pickets, riots, and sit-ins. In the 1960s, student civil rights groups used sit-ins to peacefully protest the Jim Crow laws and institutions in the South.


In the United States, interest groups often achieve their goals through litigation, by suing groups they oppose. In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, the NAACP brought numerous lawsuits against segregated school systems, culminating in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Many other groups have used the courts to achieve their goals.

The Inside Game: Lobbying

Interest groups influence government using variants on one of two strategies, the inside game and the outside game. The Inside Game refers to attempts to persuade government officials through direct inside contact. Another term for the inside game is Lobbying. Washington is filled with thousands of lobbyists, covering every imaginable issue and viewpoint. Lobbyists usually work for interest groups, corporations, or law firms that specialize in professional lobbying.

The Origin Of Lobbying

The term lobbying comes from the way interest groups played the inside game in the nineteenth century. Many members of Congress and other government officials would gather and eat together at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. People seeking to influence the government waited for the members in the lobby of the hotel, talking to them as they came in and out.

Successful Lobbying

To lobby successfully, interest groups need a great deal of money. Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive cities in America, so simply maintaining an office there can be very costly. Interest groups also pay for meals, trips, and other operational expenses, which can be significant. Money alone does not make an interest group influential, but a lack of money is usually crippling. Lobbyists also need to be reputable because a lobbyist who lies to a member of Congress, for instance, could be shunned or lose clients. Therefore, being honest is in the best interest of lobbyists.

Targets of Lobbying

Lobbyists try to influence officials working in all three branches and in the federal bureaucracy.

Lobbying the Legislative Branch

Interest groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to lobby members of Congress on a range of issues. These groups try to affect the legislation being generated in Congress. Sometimes lobbyist speak with congresspeople directly, but lobbyists also testify at congressional hearings. The Senate publishes ethics guidelines to explain the complex federal laws that govern the interaction among congresspeople and lobbyists. Many corporations and foreign countries donate money to interest groups and thus help sponsor lobbyists in Washington.

Lobbying the Executive Branch

Although some lobbyists have direct access to the president, most have access only to the lower levels of the executive branch. Interest groups particularly target regulatory agencies, which have the ability to set policy affecting commerce and trade throughout the country. Some scholars have claimed that lobbying of regulatory agencies has resulted in agency capture, effectively handing control of the agency over to the industries it was intended to regulate.

Lobbying the Judicial Branch

Interest groups work to influence the courts in a number of ways. Interest groups often file Amicus Curiae(friend of the court) Briefs, presenting an argument in favor of a particular issue. Sometimes interest groups file lawsuits against the government or other parties. For example, the NAACP worked for years to bring civil rights cases to the Supreme Court. The American Civil Liberties Union also makes extensive use of the courts.

The Outside Game: Public Pressure and Electoral Influence

Besides lobbying, interest groups also play the Outside Game by trying to convince ordinary citizens to apply pressure on their government representatives. Interest groups playing the outside game often rely on grassroots activism and electoral strategies to achieve their goals.

Grassroots Activism

Grassroots Activism consists of mobilizing large numbers of people to achieve the interest group’s goal. By mobilizing thousands (or millions) of voters, an interest group can demonstrate to government officials that the public strongly supports its particular cause. Some grassroots efforts are general, trying to motivate as many people as possible, whereas others are more targeted. An interest group, for example, might target a member of Congress by holding rallies in his or her district and encouraging his or her constituents to write letters. A member of Congress who receives tens of thousands of letters endorsing health care reform, for example, is likely to pay attention to the group that sponsored the letter-writing campaign. In fact, most grassroots activists rely on a number of tactics to achieve their goals, such as the following:

Example: In late spring 2006, a number of groups staged a rally for Darfur (a war-torn region of the Sudan) on the national mall in Washington, D.C. The groups demanded that the American government take a more active role in stopping the violence in Darfur.

The Importance Of Rallies

Staging a mass rally in Washington is often taken as a sign that a group wields important influence. Such rallies act as bonding experiences for those attending and can be landmark events in the nation’s history. The March on Washington in 1963, for example, was a watershed in the civil rights movement. Nearly every American has heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the march.

Electoral Strategies

Most elected officials want to be reelected, so they listen to people who can help or hinder that reelection. Interest groups take advantage of this situation by rallying voters to their cause and contributing money to reelection campaigns.

Rallying Voters

Most interest groups cannot legally encourage their members to vote for or against a particular candidate, but they can achieve the same effect by informing their members of candidates’ stances on issues. For example, for years the Christian Coalition has issued “voter guides,” which describe the candidates’ positions on issues that are particularly important to group members, such as abortion. Other groups (including the American Conservative Union and the Americans for Democratic Action) play the Ratings Game by publishing the positions of all members of Congress on key issues with the hope of swaying voters.

PACs and Campaign Contributions

Politicians also listen to people and groups who can donate lots of money. Interest groups are not allowed to donate money to campaigns directly, but they can contribute money through their Political Action Committee (PAC). Theoretically independent of interest groups, PACs can solicit donations from group members and then give that money to candidates they support. A PAC can only give $10,000 ($5,000 in the primary campaign, $5,000 in the general election campaign) to each candidate during an election, but they can give money to as many candidates as they wish.

Most money that PACs donate goes to support particular candidates, but PACs sometimes fund opposing candidates to punish the politicians they normally support who have not been paying attention to the PAC’s interest group. The vast majority of incumbents win reelection, but in a close race, a PAC’s money can be very important.

Soft Money

From the 1970s until 2002, interest groups could both give and use Soft Money, which is unregulated money. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, however, banned the use of soft money. Interest groups are still looking for loopholes in the new regulations, and it is not clear yet what the long-term impact of the law will be.

The Pros and Cons of Interest Groups

Interest groups generate a great deal of controversy. Some critics even blame interest groups for many of the problems in America. Other people, however, see interest groups as a vital component of the American democratic system.


Pluralism is the idea that democratic politics consists of various interest groups working against each other, balancing one another out so that the common good is achieved. President James Madison first put forth this idea in an essay called Federalist Paper No. 10 (1787), which urged New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. According to Madison, competing interest groups are necessary to good government because they not only give people a means of contributing to the democratic process but also prevent any one minority from imposing its will on the majority. Interest groups therefore are a vital party of a healthy democracy.

Flaws in Pluralism

Critics of pluralism contend that there is no such thing as the common good because there are so many conflicting interests in society: What is good for one person is often bad for others. They argue that the interest groups interfere with democracy because they seek benefits for a minority of people rather than the greater good of the majority. The National Rifle Association, for example, has repeatedly blocked new gun control legislation despite the fact that a majority of Americans actually want stricter gun laws. Other critics argue that the interest group system is really effective only to economic interest groups, which have greater financial resources at their disposal. Nearly two-thirds of lobbyists in Washington represent economic groups. Critics also argue that interest groups tend to ignore the interests of the poor in favor of middle- and upper-class Americans, who have more time and money to contribute.


Other scholars have argued that interest groups have been too successful and use the term Hyperpluralism to describe political systems that cater to interest groups and not the people. These critics argue that too many interest groups lead to Demosclerosis, the inability of government to accomplish anything substantial. These critics contend that the U.S. government cannot make serious changes, even if those changes are needed, because competing interest groups stymie the government from governing the country effectively.

I was a lobbyist for more than 6 years. I quit. My conscience couldn’t take it anymore.

“The hypocrisy from both sides is staggering.”

I was sitting on Nantucket with a glass of wine in hand when I realized I couldn’t stomach the job any longer.

I was a lobbyist between 2003 and 2010 in Washington, DC. I quit in disgust. Years of legalized bribery had exposed me to the worst elements of our country’s political workings. Not even my half-million-a-year salary could outweigh my conscience.

In my years as a lobbyist, I worked for the alcohol industry, for the racing car industry, and for a billionaire named Carl Icahn. I met with hundreds of Congress members advocating for the political interests of my employers and clients. Now I make my living as a journalist and host of the Decode DC podcast, where I help listeners understand the inner workings of Washington.

When I tell people I used to be a lobbyist, their ears perk up. To me, people are intrigued because it feels like a hidden world. Most Americans don’t think they’ve ever met a lobbyist or actually understand what the hell a lobbyist does. Their only association is Jack Abramoff, who served time in a federal penitentiary for, among other things, bribing members of Congress. He was a bad guy, and his actions left a bitter taste in the mouths of the body politic.

But the truth is most lobbyists are not at all like Abramoff or his cronies were back in their glory days. They were the exception to the rule. Today, most lobbyists are engaged in a system of bribery but it’s the legal kind, the kind that runs rampant in the corridors of Washington. It’s a system of sycophantic elected leaders expecting a campaign cash flow, and in return, industry, interest groups, and big labor are rewarded with what they want: legislation and rules that favor their constituencies.

It’s a system that only responds to money, and after years playing and paying the game, I wanted out, fast.

Lobbying is perfectly legal — but it’s a right that gets abused

Now, before everyone gets their panties in a wad, let me be pointedly clear about something: I support lobbying and believe it’s an essential part of our constitutional right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Everyone in this country, from the left to the right, deserves a voice, and they should be heard loud and clear. If that means hiring a lobbyist to represent your point of view before Congress, awesomesauce. If that means you take to the streets, demand meetings and town halls with cowardly members of the House and Senate, or, better yet, run against them, I’m your biggest advocate.

But what I don’t support are Supreme Court rulings that have repeatedly told us money is an absolutely protected form of speech. A string of cases like Citizens United and others has opened the barn door to unlimited “dark money” campaign spending. Cases like Citizens gross me and most everyone else out because the result is the money in your politics becomes the voice in your politics. Americans’ right “to redress” comes at a cost, and if you don’t have the cash, chances are you’ll be ignored.

Bottom line: Those with the most money have the largest voices. Those with the least are rarely part of the process. That makes the legality of the practice of lobbying less relevant because it’s an uneven playing field.

My career in lobbying started with civil service

One doesn’t just become a lobbyist. There’s no college major or curriculum for it like studying law or medicine. Instead, you have to get a job in government. You have to become a cog in the wheel, and you have to learn the tricks of the trade, so to speak.

My career path was frankly the perfect road map to becoming a lobbyist. I started as an unpaid intern in the Senate and rose up through the ranks. Then I became the staff director for a Senate banking subcommittee and worked on important pieces of legislation like Sarbanes Oxley, put in place as an answer to Enron and its greed.

But the most important thing I did every day was to sit my ass on the floor of the Senate. I learned everything there is to know about how to make the Senate function smoothly, and, of course, the opposite: how to gum up the place so it came to a grinding halt. Both are equally effective when you’re in the business of dealmaking and getting legislation across the finish line or not.

But then something changed. The Senate became more of a place where you’d hear, “I object!” than it was a place where you’d hear, “The bill is passed.” And that’s why I got the hell out. Deals weren’t the norm. They became the exception.

So after six-plus years in the Senate, I “sold out” in 2003. I took everything I knew, every contact I’d made, every deal I’d struck in my political career and cashed in to become a good ol’ lobbyist.

I had fun at first. Unlimited expense accounts, nights out on the town, expensive bottles of wine, elaborate meals with sitting senators and Congress members — that was my life.

I attended fundraising breakfasts that led to committee hearings with the same Congress members or senators — a meeting that cost me or my political action committee a hefty $2,500 voting on the very legislation we’d talked about over bacon and eggs that morning.

Then there’d be a lunch fundraiser with a different Congress member, paid for by another $2,500 check to discuss the issues my clients cared about. Then they’d go and vote on those issues. It was an endless cycle of money trading hands for votes.

It’s a wonder members of the House and Senate actually have time to legislate when they spend so much of their damn time raising money.

Here’s how a legal “bribe” goes down in Congress

There’s always a subtleness that comes with campaign checks and public policy. But sometimes the subtlety goes away. When I was representing the wine and spirits distributors, I had scheduled a meeting with a member of the Nevada delegation. I had two of my Nevada clients with me, and we sat waiting patiently in the member’s reception area before I was summoned into his office.

I was asked to leave my clients in the lobby for the time being. When I entered his office, he stood up and shook my hand, and then asked me point blank: “Jimmy, we’ve called your PAC fundraiser on numerous occasions, and she hasn’t returned our calls. So why exactly are you here for a meeting?”

He held in front of me a call sheet with the times and dates both he and his fundraiser had called us for donations. They were highlighted in yellow. And my only response was, “I don’t know, Congressman, but I’ll take care of it.” He told me he hoped so and then said I could bring my clients into his office. They walked in, we sat down as if nothing had happened, he said he supported every one of our pertinent legislative issues, and then we all shook hands and walked out. Now this guy is no longer a member of Congress, but he supported my clients’ interest — and the legislation my clients wanted eventually passed the House and Senate and was signed into law.

How easy could an all-but-basic bribe have been, really? In a cab back to the office, I thought, “Oh, my God, did that just happen to me?” Thank God nothing quite as explicit ever happened again after that — but the winking and the nodding, that kept going and going and going.

Over the years, the work began to weigh on me. Every fundraiser was yet another legal bribe. Every committee hearing I’d look up and think, “I just bought his vote.” And every time I got a bill passed or, better yet, killed, I’d think to myself, “That wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t bought the outcome.”

This is what I was doing Monday through Friday for basically 52 weeks of the year, excluding congressional recesses and holidays. Put yourself in my shoes. Think you could handle it? Think your bank account could handle it? Better yet, think your conscience, your morals could handle it?

Mine couldn’t. I couldn’t bear the thought of playing the game. Maybe it would’ve been better if Congress actually gave a damn about your issues, what your clients had to say. But they often don’t. All too often, they just care about the money.

After eight years of paying for meetings with politicians, I had to get out. I sat on Nantucket with the guy I was dating at the time, and we talked about how gross it all was. At that point, MSNBC had offered me a decent contract as a “talking head,” and while it was way less than what I was making as a lobbyist, I just did it.

I got out and never looked back.

This isn’t a right or left issue. It affects everyone in Washington.

Know this: Lobbyists are not bad people. They’re simply doing their jobs, and those jobs are not only legal but protected by the First Amendment. The political left loves to shit all over lobbyists, but they dial for dollars just like their Republican brethren. And as for the political right? Well, at least they make no bones about paying to play. It’s “free speech by God. The Supreme Court makes it so!”

Blah blah blah. The hypocrisy from both sides is staggering.

President after president, including Trump, has decried the influence of money and lobbyists. And they’re right on the money. But that’s their biggest problem: They all decry the money yet beg for it like they’re in some Dickens novel: “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

The problem in this country isn’t our politicians left or right. It’s the money they can’t live without. If you really want Washington to change, then you should push to get rid of money in politics. It will take a constitutional amendment or a radical shift in the makeup of the Supreme Court, but hey, we’ve done both before.

And stop bitching about lobbyists, for Pete’s sake. Stop crapping all over them for representing you, the American people, after they leave government service.

Oh, and by the way, if you really care, do something about it. After all, you’re the people, and that’s whom politicians fear the most.

Our constitutional crisis is already here

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.”

— James Madison

The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.

The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial. But about these things there should be no doubt:

First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.

Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.

Meanwhile, the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. An Arizona bill flatly states that the legislature may “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election” by a simple majority vote. Some state legislatures seek to impose criminal penalties on local election officials alleged to have committed “technical infractions,” including obstructing the view of poll watchers.

The stage is thus being set for chaos. Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020. Would governors call out the National Guard? Would President Biden nationalize the Guard and place it under his control, invoke the Insurrection Act, and send troops into Pennsylvania or Texas or Wisconsin to quell violent protests? Deploying federal power in the states would be decried as tyranny. Biden would find himself where other presidents have been — where Andrew Jackson was during the nullification crisis, or where Abraham Lincoln was after the South seceded — navigating without rules or precedents, making his own judgments about what constitutional powers he does and doesn’t have.

Today’s arguments over the filibuster will seem quaint in three years if the American political system enters a crisis for which the Constitution offers no remedy.

Most Americans — and all but a handful of politicians — have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian. They have followed the standard model of appeasement, which always begins with underestimation. The political and intellectual establishments in both parties have been underestimating Trump since he emerged on the scene in 2015. They underestimated the extent of his popularity and the strength of his hold on his followers; they underestimated his ability to take control of the Republican Party; and then they underestimated how far he was willing to go to retain power. The fact that he failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way — if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if Trump had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.

These were not the checks and balances the Framers had in mind when they designed the Constitution, of course, but Trump has exposed the inadequacy of those protections. The Founders did not foresee the Trump phenomenon, in part because they did not foresee national parties. They anticipated the threat of a demagogue, but not of a national cult of personality. They assumed that the new republic’s vast expanse and the historic divisions among the 13 fiercely independent states would pose insuperable barriers to national movements based on party or personality. “Petty” demagogues might sway their own states, where they were known and had influence, but not the whole nation with its diverse populations and divergent interests.

Such checks and balances as the Framers put in place, therefore, depended on the separation of the three branches of government, each of which, they believed, would zealously guard its own power and prerogatives. The Framers did not establish safeguards against the possibility that national-party solidarity would transcend state boundaries because they did not imagine such a thing was possible. Nor did they foresee that members of Congress, and perhaps members of the judicial branch, too, would refuse to check the power of a president from their own party.

In recent decades, however, party loyalty has superseded branch loyalty, and never more so than in the Trump era. As the two Trump impeachments showed, if members of Congress are willing to defend or ignore the president’s actions simply because he is their party leader, then conviction and removal become all but impossible. In such circumstances, the Framers left no other check against usurpation by the executive — except (small-r) republican virtue.

Critics and supporters alike have consistently failed to recognize what a unique figure Trump is in American history. Because his followers share fundamentally conservative views, many see Trump as merely the continuation, and perhaps the logical culmination, of the Reagan Revolution. This is a mistake: Although most Trump supporters are or have become Republicans, they hold a set of beliefs that were not necessarily shared by all Republicans. Some Trump supporters are former Democrats and independents. In fact, the passions that animate the Trump movement are as old as the republic and have found a home in both parties at one time or another.

Suspicion of and hostility toward the federal government; racial hatred and fear; a concern that modern, secular society undermines religion and traditional morality; economic anxiety in an age of rapid technological change; class tensions, with subtle condescension on one side and resentment on the other; distrust of the broader world, especially Europe, and its insidious influence in subverting American freedom — such views and attitudes have been part of the fabric of U.S. politics since the anti-Federalists, the Whiskey Rebellion and Thomas Jefferson. The Democratic Party was the home of white supremacists until they jumped to George Wallace in 1968 and later to the Republicans. Liberals and Democrats in particular need to distinguish between their ongoing battle with Republican policies and the challenge posed by Trump and his followers. One can be fought through the processes of the constitutional system; the other is an assault on the Constitution itself.

What makes the Trump movement historically unique is not its passions and paranoias. It is the fact that for millions of Americans, Trump himself is the response to their fears and resentments. This is a stronger bond between leader and followers than anything seen before in U.S. political movements. Although the Founders feared the rise of a king or a Caesar, for two centuries Americans proved relatively immune to unwavering hero-worship of politicians. Their men on horseback — Theodore Roosevelt, Grant, even Washington — were not regarded as infallible. This was true of great populist leaders as well. William Jennings Bryan a century ago was venerated because he advanced certain ideas and policies, but he did not enjoy unquestioning loyalty from his followers. Even Reagan was criticized by conservatives for selling out conservative principles, for deficit spending, for his equivocal stance on abortion, for being “soft” on the Soviet Union.

Trump is different, which is one reason the political system has struggled to understand, much less contain, him. The American liberal worldview tends to search for material and economic explanations for everything, and no doubt a good number of Trump supporters have grounds to complain about their lot in life. But their bond with Trump has little to do with economics or other material concerns. They believe the U.S. government and society have been captured by socialists, minority groups and sexual deviants. They see the Republican Party establishment as corrupt and weak — “losers,” to use Trump’s word, unable to challenge the reigning liberal hegemony. They view Trump as strong and defiant, willing to take on the establishment, Democrats, RINOs, liberal media, antifa, the Squad, Big Tech and the “Mitch McConnell Republicans.” His charismatic leadership has given millions of Americans a feeling of purpose and empowerment, a new sense of identity. While Trump’s critics see him as too narcissistic to be any kind of leader, his supporters admire his unapologetic, militant selfishness. Unlike establishment Republicans, Trump speaks without embarrassment on behalf of an aggrieved segment of Americans, not exclusively White, who feel they have been taking it on the chin for too long. And that is all he needs to do.

There was a time when political analysts wondered what would happen when Trump failed to “deliver” for his constituents. But the most important thing Trump delivers is himself. His egomania is part of his appeal. In his professed victimization by the media and the “elites,” his followers see their own victimization. That is why attacks on Trump by the elites only strengthen his bond with his followers. That is why millions of Trump supporters have even been willing to risk death as part of their show of solidarity: When Trump’s enemies cited his mishandling of the pandemic to discredit him, their answer was to reject the pandemic. One Trump supporter didn’t go to the hospital after developing covid-19 symptoms because he didn’t want to contribute to the liberal case against Trump. “I’m not going to add to the numbers,” he told a reporter.

Because the Trump movement is less about policies than about Trump himself, it has undermined the normal role of American political parties, which is to absorb new political and ideological movements into the mainstream. Bryan never became president, but some of his populist policies were adopted by both political parties. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters might not have wanted Biden for president, but having lost the nomination battle they could work on getting Biden to pursue their agenda. Liberal democracy requires acceptance of adverse electoral results, a willingness to countenance the temporary rule of those with whom we disagree. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, it requires that people “endure error in the interest of social peace.” Part of that willingness stems from the belief that the democratic system makes it possible to work, even in opposition, to correct the ruling party’s errors and overreach. Movements based on ideas and policies can also quickly shift their allegiances. Today, the progressives’ flag-bearer might be Sanders, but tomorrow it could be Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or someone else.

For a movement built around a cult of personality, these adjustments are not possible. For Trump supporters, the “error” is that Trump was cheated out of reelection by what he has told them is an oppressive, communist, Democrat regime. While the defeat of a sitting president normally leads to a struggle to claim the party’s mantle, so far no Republican has been able to challenge Trump’s grip on Republican voters: not Sen. Josh Hawley, not Sen. Tom Cotton, not Tucker Carlson, not Gov. Ron DeSantis. It is still all about Trump. The fact that he is not in office means that the United States is “a territory controlled by enemy tribes,” writes one conservative intellectual. The government, as one Trump supporter put it, “is monopolized by a Regime that believes [Trump voters] are beneath representation, and will observe no limits to keep them [from] getting it.” If so, the intellectual posits, what choice do they have but to view the government as the enemy and to become “united and armed to take care of themselves as they think best”?

The Trump movement might not have begun as an insurrection, but it became one after its leader claimed he had been cheated out of reelection. For Trump supporters, the events of Jan. 6 were not an embarrassing debacle but a patriotic effort to save the nation, by violent action if necessary. As one 56-year-old Michigan woman explained: “We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overthrow the government.”

The banal normalcy of the great majority of Trump’s supporters, including those who went to the Capitol on Jan. 6, has befuddled many observers. Although private militia groups and white supremacists played a part in the attack, 90 percent of those arrested or charged had no ties to such groups. The majority were middle-class and middle-aged; 40 percent were business owners or white-collar workers. They came mostly from purple, not red, counties.

Most Trump supporters are good parents, good neighbors and solid members of their communities. Their bigotry, for the most part, is typical white American bigotry, perhaps with an added measure of resentment and a less filtered mode of expression since Trump arrived on the scene. But these are normal people in the sense that they think and act as people have for centuries. They put their trust in family, tribe, religion and race. Although zealous in defense of their own rights and freedoms, they are less concerned about the rights and freedoms of those who are not like them. That, too, is not unusual. What is unnatural is to value the rights of others who are unlike you as much as you value your own.

As it happens, however, that is what the American experiment in republican democracy requires. It is what the Framers meant by “republican virtue,” a love of freedom not only for oneself but also as an abstract, universal good; a love of self-government as an ideal; a commitment to abide by the laws passed by legitimate democratic processes; and a healthy fear of and vigilance against tyranny of any kind. Even James Madison, who framed the Constitution on the assumption that people would always pursue their selfish interests, nevertheless argued that it was “chimerical” to believe that any form of government could “secure liberty and happiness without any virtue in the people.” Al Gore and his supporters displayed republican virtue when they abided by the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2000 despite the partisan nature of the justices’ decision. (Whether the court itself displayed republican virtue is another question.)

The events of Jan. 6, on the other hand, proved that Trump and his most die-hard supporters are prepared to defy constitutional and democratic norms, just as revolutionary movements have in the past. While it might be shocking to learn that normal, decent Americans can support a violent assault on the Capitol, it shows that Americans as a people are not as exceptional as their founding principles and institutions. Europeans who joined fascist movements in the 1920s and 1930s were also from the middle classes. No doubt many of them were good parents and neighbors, too. People do things as part of a mass movement that they would not do as individuals, especially if they are convinced that others are out to destroy their way of life.

It would be foolish to imagine that the violence of Jan. 6 was an aberration that will not be repeated. Because Trump supporters see those events as a patriotic defense of the nation, there is every reason to expect more such episodes. Trump has returned to the explosive rhetoric of that day, insisting that he won in a “landslide,” that the “radical left Democrat communist party” stole the presidency in the “most corrupt, dishonest, and unfair election in the history of our country” and that they have to give it back. He has targeted for defeat those Republicans who voted for his impeachment — or criticized him for his role in the riot. Already, there have been threats to bomb polling sites, kidnap officials and attack state capitols. “You and your family will be killed very slowly,” the wife of Georgia’s top election official was texted earlier this year. Nor can one assume that the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers would again play a subordinate role when the next riot unfolds. Veterans who assaulted the Capitol told police officers that they had fought for their country before and were fighting for it again. Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, Trump insists “there is no way they win elections without cheating. There’s no way.” So, if the results come in showing another Democratic victory, Trump’s supporters will know what to do. Just as “generations of patriots” gave “their sweat, their blood and even their very lives” to build America, Trump tells them, so today “we have no choice. We have to fight” to restore “our American birthright.”

How the Capitol attack unfolded, from inside Trump’s rally to the riot on Jan. 6, The Post’s Kate Woodsome saw signs of violence hours before thousands of President Trump’s loyalists besieged the Capitol. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

Where does the Republican Party stand in all this? The party gave birth to and nurtured this movement; it bears full responsibility for establishing the conditions in which Trump could capture the loyalty of 90 percent of Republican voters. Republican leaders were more than happy to ride Trump’s coattails if it meant getting paid off with hundreds of conservative court appointments, including three Supreme Court justices; tax cuts; immigration restrictions; and deep reductions in regulations on business. Yet Trump’s triumph also had elements of a hostile takeover. The movement’s passion was for Trump, not the party. GOP primary voters chose Trump over the various flavors of establishment Republicanism (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio), and after Trump’s election they continued to regard establishment Republicans as enemies. Longtime party heroes like Paul Ryan were cast into oblivion for disparaging Trump. Even staunch supporters such as Jeff Sessions eventually became villains when they would not do as Trump demanded. Those who survived had a difficult balancing act: to use Trump’s appeal to pass the Republican agenda while also controlling Trump’s excesses, which they worried could ultimately threaten the party’s interests.

That plan seemed plausible in 2017. Unlike other insurgent leaders, Trump had not spent time in the political wilderness building a party and surrounding himself with loyalists. He had to choose from an existing pool of Republican officials, who varied in their willingness to do his bidding. The GOP establishment hoped that the presence of “adults” would restrain him, protecting their traditional agenda and, in their view, the country’s interests, from his worst instincts.

This was a miscalculation. Trump’s grip on his supporters left no room for an alternative power center in the party. One by one, the “adults” resigned or were run off. The dissent and contrary opinions that exist in every party — the Northeast moderate Republicans in Reagan’s day; the progressives in today’s Democratic Party — disappeared from Trump’s Republican Party. The only real issue was Trump himself, and on that there could be no dissent. Those who disapproved of Trump could either keep silent or leave.

The takeover extended beyond the level of political leadership. Modern political parties are an ecosystem of interest groups, lobby organizations, job seekers, campaign donors and intellectuals. All have a stake in the party’s viability; all ultimately depend on being roughly aligned with wherever the party is at a given moment; and so all had to make their peace with Trump, too. Conservative publications that once opposed him as unfit for the presidency had to reverse course or lose readership and funding. Pundits had to adjust to the demands of their pro-Trump audiences — and were rewarded handsomely when they did. Donors who had opposed Trump during the primaries fell into line, if only to preserve some influence on the issues that mattered to them. Advocacy organizations that had previously seen their role as holding the Republican Party to certain principles, and thus often dissented from the party leadership, either became advocates for Trump or lost clout.

It was no surprise that elected officials feared taking on the Trump movement and that Republican job seekers either kept silent about their views or made show-trial-like apologies for past criticism. Ambition is a powerful antidote to moral qualms. More revealing was the behavior of Republican elder statesmen, former secretaries of state in their 80s or 90s who had no further ambitions for high office and seemingly nothing to lose by speaking out. Despite their known abhorrence of everything Trump stood for, these old lions refused to criticize him. They were unwilling to come out against a Republican Party to which they had devoted their professional lives, even when the party was led by someone they detested. Whatever they thought about Trump, moreover, Republican elders disliked Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democrats more. Again, this is not so unusual. German conservatives accommodated Adolf Hitler in large part because they opposed the socialists more than they opposed the Nazis, who, after all, shared many of their basic prejudices. As for conservative intellectuals, even those who had spent years arguing that Woodrow Wilson was a tyrant because he created the Federal Reserve and supported child labor laws seemed to have no concerns about whether Trump was a would-be despot. They not only came to Trump’s defense but fashioned political doctrines to justify his rule, filling in the wide gaps of his nonexistent ideology with an appeal to “conservative nationalism” and conservative populism.Perhaps American conservatism was never comfortable with the American experiment in liberal democracy, but certainly since Trump took over their party, many conservatives have revealed a hostility to core American beliefs.

All this has left few dissenting voices within the Republican ecosystem. The Republican Party today is a zombie party. Its leaders go through the motions of governing in pursuit of traditional Republican goals, wrestling over infrastructure spending and foreign policy, even as real power in the party has leached away to Trump. From the uneasy and sometimes contentious partnership during Trump’s four years in office, the party’s main if not sole purpose today is as the willing enabler of Trump’s efforts to game the electoral system to ensure his return to power.

With the party firmly under his thumb, Trump is now fighting the Biden administration on separate fronts. One is normal, legitimate political competition, where Republicans criticize Biden’s policies, feed and fight the culture wars, and in general behave like a typical hostile opposition.

The other front is outside the bounds of constitutional and democratic competition and into the realm of illegal or extralegal efforts to undermine the electoral process. The two are intimately related, because the Republican Party has used its institutional power in the political sphere to shield Trump and his followers from the consequences of their illegal and extralegal activities in the lead-up to Jan. 6. Thus, Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, in their roles as party leaders, run interference for the Trump movement in the sphere of legitimate politics, while Republicans in lesser positions cheer on the Jan. 6 perpetrators, turning them into martyrs and heroes, and encouraging illegal acts in the future.

This pincer assault has several advantages. Republican politicians and would-be policymakers can play the role of the legitimate opposition. They can rediscover their hawkish internationalist foreign policy (suspended during the Trump years) and their deficit-minded economics (also suspended during the Trump years). They can go on the mainstream Sunday shows and critique the Biden administration on issues such as Afghanistan. They can pretend that Trump is no longer part of the equation. Biden is the president, after all, and his administration is not exactly without faults.

Yet whatever the legitimacy of Republican critiques of Biden, there is a fundamental disingenuousness to it all. It is a dodge. Republicans focus on China and critical race theory and avoid any mention of Trump, even as the party works to fix the next election in his favor. The left hand professes to know nothing of what the right hand is doing.

Even Trump opponents play along. Republicans such as Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have condemned the events of Jan. 6, criticized Trump and even voted for his impeachment, but in other respects they continue to act as good Republicans and conservatives. On issues such as the filibuster, Romney and others insist on preserving “regular order” and conducting political and legislative business as usual, even though they know that Trump’s lieutenants in their party are working to subvert the next presidential election.

The result is that even these anti-Trump Republicans are enabling the insurrection. Revolutionary movements usually operate outside a society’s power structures. But the Trump movement also enjoys unprecedented influence within those structures. It dominates the coverage on several cable news networks, numerous conservative magazines, hundreds of talk radio stations and all kinds of online platforms. It has access to financing from rich individuals and the Republican National Committee’s donor pool. And, not least, it controls one of the country’s two national parties. All that is reason enough to expect another challenge, for what movement would fail to take advantage of such favorable circumstances to make a play for power?

Today, we are in a time of hope and illusion. The same people who said that Trump wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one. Republicans have been playing this game for five years, first pooh-poohing concerns about Trump’s intentions, or about the likelihood of their being realized, and then going silent, or worse, when what they insisted was improbable came to pass. These days, even the anti-Trump media constantly looks for signs that Trump’s influence might be fading and that drastic measures might not be necessary.

The world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House. At that point, with the political winds clearly blowing in his favor, Trump is all but certain to announce his candidacy, and social media constraints on his speech are likely to be lifted, since Facebook and Twitter would have a hard time justifying censoring his campaign. With his megaphone back, Trump would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock if only for financial reasons.

But this time, Trump would have advantages that he lacked in 2016 and 2020, including more loyal officials in state and local governments; the Republicans in Congress; and the backing of GOP donors, think tanks and journals of opinion. And he will have the Trump movement, including many who are armed and ready to be activated, again. Who is going to stop him then? On its current trajectory, the 2024 Republican Party will make the 2020 Republican Party seem positively defiant.

Those who criticize Biden and the Democrats for not doing enough to prevent this disaster are not being fair. There is not much they can do without Republican cooperation, especially if they lose control of either chamber in 2022. It has become fashionable to write off any possibility that a handful of Republicans might rise up to save the day. This preemptive capitulation has certainly served well those Republicans who might otherwise be held to account for their cowardice. How nice for them that everyone has decided to focus fire on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Yet it is largely upon these Republicans that the fate of the republic rests.

Seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump for inciting an insurrection and attempting to overturn a free and fair election: Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Romney, Sasse and Patrick J. Toomey. It was a brave vote, a display of republican virtue, especially for the five who are not retiring in 2022. All have faced angry backlashes — Romney was booed and called a traitor at the Utah Republican convention; Burr and Cassidy were unanimously censured by their state parties. Yet as much credit as they deserve for taking this stand, it was almost entirely symbolic. When it comes to concrete action that might prevent a debacle in 2024, they have balked.

Specifically, they have refused to work with Democrats to pass legislation limiting state legislatures’ ability to overturn the results of future elections, to ensure that the federal government continues to have some say when states try to limit voting rights, to provide federal protection to state and local election workers who face threats, and in general to make clear to the nation that a bipartisan majority in the Senate opposes the subversion of the popular will. Why?

It can’t be because they think they have a future in a Trump-dominated party. Even if they manage to get reelected, what kind of government would they be serving in? They can’t be under any illusion about what a second Trump term would mean. Trump’s disdain for the rule of law is clear. His exoneration from the charges leveled in his impeachment trials — the only official, legal response to his actions — practically ensures that he would wield power even more aggressively. His experience with unreliable subordinates in his first term is likely to guide personnel decisions in a second. Only total loyalists would serve at the head of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs will not be someone likely to place his or her own judgment above that of their civilian commander in chief. Nor would a Republican Senate fail to confirm Trump loyalists. In such a world, with Trump and his lieutenants in charge of all the levers of state power, including its growing capacity for surveillance, opposing Trump would become increasingly risky for Republicans and Democrats alike. A Trump victory is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it.

We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-Trump Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose Trump. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.

It is not impossible for politicians to make such a leap. The Republican Party itself was formed in the 1850s by politicians who abandoned their previous party — former Whigs, former Democrats and former members of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. While Whig and Democratic party stalwarts such as Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas juggled and compromised, doing their best to ensure that the issue of slavery did not destroy their great parties, others decided that the parties had become an obstacle to justice and a threat to the nation’s continued viability.

Romney & Co. don’t have to abandon their party. They can fashion themselves as Constitutional Republicans who, in the present emergency, are willing to form a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic. Their cooperation with Democrats could be strictly limited to matters relating to the Constitution and elections. Or they might strive for a temporary governing consensus on a host of critical issues: government spending, defense, immigration and even the persistent covid-19 pandemic, effectively setting aside the usual battles to focus on the more vital and immediate need to preserve the United States.

It takes two, of course, to form a national unity coalition, and Democrats can make it harder or easier for anti-Trump Republicans to join. Some profess to see no distinction between the threat posed by Trump and the threat posed by the GOP. They prefer to use Trump as a weapon in the ongoing political battle, and not only as a way of discrediting and defeating today’s Republican Party but to paint all GOP policies for the past 30 years as nothing more than precursors to Trumpism. Although today’s Trump-controlled Republican Party does need to be fought and defeated, this kind of opportunistic partisanship and conspiracy-mongering, in addition to being bad history, is no cure for what ails the nation.

Senate Democrats were wise to cut down their once-massive voting rights wish list and get behind the smaller compromise measure unveiled last week by Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But they have yet to attract any votes from their Republican colleagues for the measure. Heading into the next election, it is vital to protect election workers, same-day registration and early voting. It will also still be necessary to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which directly addresses the state legislatures’ electoral power grab. Other battles — such as making Election Day a federal holiday and banning partisan gerrymandering — might better be postponed. Efforts to prevent a debacle in 2024 cannot. Democrats need to give anti-Trump Republicans a chance to do the right thing.

One wonders whether modern American politicians, in either party, have it in them to make such bold moves, whether they have the insight to see where events are going and the courage to do whatever is necessary to save the democratic system. If that means political suicide for this handful of Republicans, wouldn’t it be better to go out fighting for democracy than to slink off quietly into the night?

Corporate money in politics threatens US democracy—or does it?

In a new book, social scientists argue that the influence of campaign financing is misunderstood by voters as well as by policymakers, the media, and political analysts.

When in 2010 the US Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that companies and labor unions enjoy the same right to political speech as individuals, many restrictions on money in American politics went out the window.

Subsequently, so-called super PACs—political action committees that are financed in part by large corporations, their multibillionaire shareholders, or powerful unions—can pour hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns, as long as their efforts are independent of candidates.

While most political observers would agree that super PACs are a dominant force in US politics, many would also argue they’re a nefarious influence. The influx of large sums of money into politics damages trust in government, suppresses voter turnout, puts corporate interests first, and results in corruption—so goes the common narrative. That’s why campaign finance reformers, politicians, and academics alike have been arguing for decades that US democracy is imperiled by a threat that permeates all of politics—money.

But is that narrative accurate? A Rochester/Missouri team of social scientists says it’s not.

Upending the conventional campaign finance narrative

David Primo, the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Professor and a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, and Jeffrey Milyo, a professor of economics and chair of the economics department at the University of Missouri, say the reality is very different.

In their new book, Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why it Matters (University of Chicago Press, 2020), the duo argues that campaign finance reform is not a “cure-all for what ails American democracy—at a time when it is viewed by many academics and practitioners as essential medicine.” Says Primo: “Americans believe, for instance, that super PAC spending dominates campaigns, which is false.”

Primo and Milyo surveyed a total of 4,000 Americans in 2015 and in 2016—and about 150 experts in 2017—about their views on money in US politics. They also collected survey data on trust and confidence in government spanning three decades to study the effects of changes in campaign finance laws on trust.

Having aggregated the results of decades of survey responses, the authors conclude that changes in state-level campaign finance laws—where most changes in the laws take place, making it an ideal testing ground for social scientists—have little to no effect on attitudes toward government, contrary to conventional wisdom. The finding, the authors argue, is perhaps the book’s most important conclusion, as it calls into question four decades of legal justifications for campaign finance reform.

The authors asked a representative sample of the American public before the 2016 election and then campaign finance experts in 2017 whether they agreed or disagreed with statements about campaign financing. More than half of the public agrees or strongly agrees with the five statements here. According to the authors, partisan differences in the opinions are minimal: “Democrats are in sync with Republicans, liberals with conservatives, Trump voters with Clinton voters: money is a malign force in American politics.” (University of Rochester illustration / Researchers and Stephen Dow)

‘The elites are wrong’ about money in politics

The researchers’ other key findings on campaign finance include the following:

In their book, the first after the Citizens United decision that contrasts public opinion and the scientific consensus on the role of money in American politics, Primo and Milyo set out to uncover what the public thinks about money in politics, what drives the perceptions, and why it matters.

They looked at whether public opinion regarding corruption and the undue influence of money in politics is connected to reality, and whether changes in campaign finance regulations are likely to affect public attitudes toward government.

“It’s not surprising that Americans believe the political system is rotten to the core—that is the incessant message they receive from the media, politicians, reform groups, and scholars,” the authors write. “These elites nurture the public’s cynicism with their rhetoric and in turn use this cynicism as evidence of the need for reform.”

They add, “Money in politics, these elites tell us, is to blame for a wide array of ills in American society that threaten democracy: moneyed interests buying elections, rampant corruption, and declining trust in government. The elites are wrong, yet the American public believes them.”

Q-and-A with authors Primo and Milyo

Rochester political scientist David Primo coauthored “Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters” (University of Chicago Press, 2020) with University of Missouri economist Jeffrey Milyo.

You write that the elites are wrong that moneyed interests can buy elections, that corruption is rampant, and that trust in government has been declining. Yet the American public believes those elites. What exactly is wrong with that widely held view?

Primo: We are taking on the belief that money is to blame for all that ails American politics. The reality is very different. Money does not buy elections—witness Michael Bloomberg’s failed attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for president. Corruption is not rampant—bribery scandals still garner attention precisely because they are unusual. And Americans’ mistrust of government is not driven by levels of campaign spending or the stringency of campaign finance laws.

Is public opinion regarding corruption and the undue influence of money in politics then largely off base?

Milyo: It’s not so much that Americans are off base; rather, they are simply fed up with politics writ large. Money is just a convenient bugaboo. Consider this: in our research, we show that Americans have become so disgusted with American politics that they view even conventional behavior, like trying to secure favorable media coverage, as corrupt. We looked at decades of survey data and failed to find any evidence that stricter campaign finance laws improve perceptions of government.

Primo: What’s more, American attitudes about whether a behavior is corrupt are in part determined by partisanship. An action taken by a Democratic politician will be viewed differently from the same action taken by a Republican politician, depending on the partisanship of the respondent. When it comes to voters, a liberal Democrat is much more inclined to protect corporate political speech when the brand doing the talking is Ben & Jerry’s as opposed to ExxonMobil, for example. This again raises concerns about public attitudes as the basis for justifying campaign finance restrictions.

Would you argue that Citizens United was not a poor decision, or just not as poor as most believe?

“Citizens United is a widely misunderstood decision that has a mythology around it.”

Primo: Citizens United is a widely misunderstood decision that has a mythology around it. It did not permit foreign involvement in elections. It did not alter disclosure rules. It did not allow corporations to make contributions to candidates for federal office. What it did do was expand the ways in which groups of individuals, such as unions and corporations, could be involved in the political process. Corporations are routinely called on by activists to take political positions on social issues, yet many of these activists, I suspect, oppose Citizens United.

The public doesn’t believe that campaign finance reform would really work, yet the experts you polled think reform makes sense. So—is it necessary or not?

Milyo: If the goal is to improve perceptions of government, the answer is no. The empirical evidence simply isn’t there. Put another way, if campaign finance reform were a potential cure for a disease in a clinical trial, it wouldn’t get approval. Campaign finance reform really can’t fix competitive partisan politics in a pluralist democracy that values free expression and diversity of opinion.

What part of campaign financing is harmful and what part of campaign financing looks harmful but proves to have no or little effect on a politician’s voting behavior?

Primo: I would turn this question on its head and talk about the benefits of campaign spending. There is ample social science evidence that campaign spending improves turnout and voter knowledge. We hear too little about these benefits. On the flip side, there is very little evidence that legislators are basing their votes on who gives them campaign contributions, though most political scientists agree that campaign contributions help maintain relationships with legislators.

What’s needed to restore the public’s faith in government? Or is that a utopian ideal?

Primo: That’s the million dollar question. Trust in American government began to decline in the 1960s and then plummeted in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. It’s fluctuated since but has never recovered. What we do know is that Americans who share the same party as the president trust the government more than members of the out party, suggesting that trust is infused with a partisan component. As long as that is the case, it will be hard to move the needle on trust. It’s also worth asking whether some skepticism of government is healthy in a democracy—as it helps keep elected officials accountable.

Milyo: Why should people trust government? Rather than trying to artificially gin up trust via some magic wand, like campaign finance reform, maybe government officials need to act in a way that merits trust? Absent that, it is very healthy that Americans have a deep distrust of those that wield the coercive power of the state; it is probably the most important check on abuses of civil liberties and the main reason our republic has survived this long.

Conflict of Interests

Does the wrangling of interest groups corrupt politics—or constitute it?

In a year saturated with political conversation, can there be any topic that has not yet been discussed? Well, here’s one: 2008 is the centenary of a curious and mesmerizing book that was long considered the most important study of politics and society ever produced by an American—“The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures,” by Arthur Fisher Bentley. The reason its big anniversary hasn’t been celebrated is that “The Process of Government” is an ex-classic, now sunk into obscurity. The reason it should be celebrated is not just that it deserved its former place in the canon but also that it is uncannily relevant to this Presidential election.

Arthur Bentley was the son of a Midwestern banker. He was born in 1870 in Freeport, Illinois, graduated from high school in Grand Island, Nebraska, and, after working briefly for his father, attended Johns Hopkins, which was then making itself into one of the first American research universities, on the German model. After graduation, he went to the University of Berlin and studied with Georg Simmel and other late-nineteenth-century giants of political theory. The work he did there became the basis for a Ph.D. from Hopkins.

Bentley took a lectureship at the University of Chicago, but, rather than pursuing the career for which he had formally prepared himself, he went to work as a newspaperman, mostly at the Chicago Times-Herald. Ten years or so into his newspaper days, Bentley began using his spare time to write “The Process of Government,” a long, erudite theoretical work, tacitly buttressed by a newspaperman’s intense familiarity with the day-to-day public life of a bumptious big city.

The University of Chicago Press brought out “The Process of Government” in 1908, to almost no notice. In 1911, Bentley quit Chicago and newspapering and moved to the small town of Paoli, Indiana, where he remained until his death, in 1957. He produced a series of increasingly abstruse books (sample title: “Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics”), and his renown grew steadily. His closest intellectual companion was John Dewey—a published collection of their correspondence runs to more than seven hundred pages—but Bentley’s papers, at Indiana University, also contain letters sent to him over the years by, among many others, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Sidney Hook, Estes Kefauver, and B. F. Skinner.

“The Process of Government” is a hedgehog of a book. Its point—relentlessly hammered home—can be stated quite simply: All politics and all government are the result of the activities of groups. Any other attempt to explain politics and government is doomed to failure. It was, in his day as in ours, a wildly contrarian position. Bentley was writing “The Process of Government” at the height of the Progressive Era, when educated, prosperous, high-minded people believed overwhelmingly in “reform” and “good government,” and took interest groups to be the enemy of these goals. The more populist Progressives liked having the people as a whole decide things by direct vote; the more élitist Progressives wanted to give authority to experts. But Bentley, who seems to have shared the Progressives’ goal of using government to curb the power of big business, rejected such procedural tenets. In Chicago terms, Bentley was the rare Progressive intellectual who believed, in effect, that the machine had a more accurate understanding of how politics worked—how it always and necessarily worked—than the lakefront liberals did.

Bentley’s reputation soared in the years after the Second World War, and there’s a reason. His presentation of politics as a never-ending, small-bore struggle for advantage among constantly shifting coalitions of interest groups, which appalled the Progressives, was appealing in the wake of Hitler and Stalin. Big ideas about the collective good had come to seem scary—the prelude to mass murder. Bentley spent the last years of his life being honored. Students of American politics read “The Process of Government” alongside Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers.

But pluralism—the name for Bentley’s theory of politics—has always been good for starting an argument. The standard objections are that pluralism gives too little weight to the power of ideas and of social and economic forces, and that it leaves no room for morality. (Pluralism’s equivalent in foreign relations is realism, which strikes people who don’t like it as having the same flaws.) What if there actually is such a thing as a policy that’s right on the merits? Shouldn’t we find a way to make sure that it’s enacted, instead of having to trust in the messy workings of the political marketplace? If politics worked the way Bentley thought it did, wouldn’t the richer interest groups buy themselves disproportionate political power? To a lot of people, pluralism sounded like pessimism. It was during the nineteen-sixties, when reform was again in the air and impatience with traditional forms of politics was on the rise, that “The Process of Government” began to fall out of favor.

Bentley’s insights are almost entirely missing from political discussion these days. Only in the realm of foreign policy is it permissible even to use the word “interests” in a positive way, and then they must be vital national interests. In domestic policy, interest groups (and particularly those in that ill-defined but malign category known as special-interest groups) are always the bad guys. So are their representatives in Washington, the lobbyists. We’re inclined to think that the wheedling of interest groups—tree-hugging anti-free-traders, the Sugar Association, aipac—distorts politics. (For Bentley, the workings of interest groups—in interaction with one another—constitute politics.) When a politician speaks at an interest group’s convention, we want to hear that he has somehow challenged or confronted the group, rather than “pandered” to it. Partisanship is bad, and “partisan bickering,” which by Bentley’s lights would count as a basic description of politics, is even worse. To an unusual extent, our Presidential candidates this year got where they are by presenting themselves as reformers, as champions of the transcendent public interest—as the enemies of Washington dealmaking-as-usual. For Bentley, there was no such thing as a transcendent public interest, and no politics that didn’t involve dealmaking, disguised or not.

Closer attention to Bentley would help us understand why, as politicians succeed, they become more obviously attentive to interest groups, more obviously engaged in bargain and compromise. Hillary Clinton was this year’s version of the pandering, old-politics candidate, a role that proved more appealing the longer the primary season went on. But when she was a new face in Washington, back in 1993, her identity was pretty much the opposite. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have disappointed some of their early, ardent supporters by modifying many of their positions to accommodate the established and organized interests of their parties. Much of the conversation about the Presidential election over the summer has been about how censorious we should be about their “flip-flops.”

Indeed, these days we’re inclined to think of interest groups as political interlopers, whose importance we hope to minimize, rather than as the entirety of politics. Party machines are supposedly moribund, and the organizational fabric of American society severely deteriorated. Politicians are forced to reach out to us as atomized individuals, via messages beamed into our heads through the media of mass communication, aren’t they? Well, maybe not. Maybe Obama’s and McCain’s mutating behavior is evidence that Bentley was on to something.

The heart of “The Process of Government” is a series of dyspeptic rejections of other explanations of how politics works. If Bentley’s strictures were applied today, just about everybody who makes a living explaining American politics (practitioners of what Bentley called “that particular form of activity which consists in the moving of the larynx or the pushing of a pencil”) would be out of business. Under Bentley’s rules, you can’t talk about public opinion, because there is no such thing as “the public” (there are only groups) and opinions don’t matter, only actions do. Abstractions like “the people” and “popular will” have no real content, either. “The public interest” is a useless concept, he says, because “there is nothing which is best literally for the whole people.” You can’t talk about a society as a whole having a collective soul, or about events being moved by the “spirit of the age” or the “Zeitgeist” or by feelings, individual or collective. You can’t talk about race or other biological factors (Bentley was almost alone among Progressive Era intellectuals in dismissing eugenics as silly) or about national character: it doesn’t matter what people are, it only matters what they do. You can talk about Presidents, parties, and other major political actors, but only if you understand them chiefly as mediums through which interest groups operate. Bentley took that pretty far: he wrote that the name of Theodore Roosevelt, who was President when “The Process of Government” was published, “does not mean to us, when we hear it, so much bone and blood, but a certain number of millions of American citizens tending in certain directions.” You can’t talk about morality as a force in politics, because such talk is almost always a cover for somebody’s interest. You can’t talk about progress, only about the waxing and waning of the power of different groups. You can’t talk about ideals—especially the ideals of the Founders of the United States, who represented just another collection of interest groups—as affecting the course of events. Here’s a typically sarcastic passage on that subject:

Let the stump speaker appear at the old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration. What does he tell us? Our forefathers who created this nation were led by a great ideal of liberty. It was their highest good. Without it they would never have made this land what it is. Also they sought independence. Had they not suffered and labored many long hard years to breathe the air of freedom, they never would have been “free.” . . . After which, speaker and hearers alike go back to the same old round of buying and selling, laboring and advantage-seeking. Did the speech change their methods of dealing with their fellows, privately or publicly? Did it move the country forward toward anything? Did the renewed assent of all its hearers to its principles have any such results?

For Bentley, every political force that matters is an interest group, regardless of whether it cops to the charge. States and cities are “locality groups,” the legal system is a collection of “law groups,” income categories are “wealth groups,” devoted followers of a popular politician are “personality groups”; interest groups lie at the heart of monarchies and dictatorships as well as of democracies. “When the groups are adequately stated, everything is stated,” Bentley declares. “When I say everything I mean everything.”

Bentley generally divides interest groups into two categories: organization groups (contemporary instances would include the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Council of La Raza) and discussion, or “talk,” groups. Discussion groups encompass all those who claim to represent the public interest or a good cause— journalists, reformers, activists, humanitarians, policy analysts—and, in Bentley’s view, they matter far less than we think. He saw “an enormous overvaluation of the forms of activity which appear in words.” Besides, anyone who comes into public life claiming not to have an interest is either deluded or deceitful.

At first, this all sounds shockingly cynical and depressing. We deeply want politics to have good guys and bad guys, good policies and bad policies. We want inviolable principles, like human rights, democracy, the rule of law, or carbon neutrality. Yet Bentley, who helped organize Robert La Follette’s 1924 Progressive Party Presidential campaign in Indiana, didn’t consider pluralism to be the stuff of defeatism; if anything, it was a call to action. People get involved in politics to get things that they want, which may or may not entail economic advantage. People matter politically only as members of groups, and groups matter only when they act, but political life is complicated: nobody is a member of only one interest group, and no interest group stands apart from other groups and behaves in a single, consistent way. Alliances are constantly shifting. No realm of government is immune to interest-group pressures, including the judiciary. (Liberals who, in the sixties and seventies, thought they could counteract the power of big business with institutions beholden only to the “public interest”—whether regulatory agencies or the courts—discovered that conservatives were capable of capturing any such apparatus.) The net result, according to Bentley, is this: “Intelligent actions, emotional actions, linked actions, trains of action, planned actions, plotted actions, scheming, experimenting, persisting, exhorting, compelling, mastering, struggling, co-operating—such activities by the thousand we find going on around us in populations among which we are placed.”

If you spend any time in Washington, Bentley’s account helps explain the nagging sense that the official conversation about American politics doesn’t match the reality. Just about everything in politics that is too mundane to be part of that conversation operates, quite obviously, by the logic of pluralism—groups struggle against other groups and finally make deals, through politicians and agencies and courts—and, in the end, the higher-profile parts of politics inevitably fall prey to the tug of pluralism, too. That’s why McCain and Obama have to keep explaining away their connections to lobbyists and why they have to keep recalibrating their positions on the big issues. Like Theodore Roosevelt, they may be reformers, but they stand at the head of armies of interest groups that they must tend to. A politician who says that he wants to run for high office so that he can clean up the mess in Washington and change the old way of doing things is, in Bentley’s book, really saying that he’d like to adjust the correlation of forces among interest groups, bringing some into greater positions of power, and relegating others to lesser positions. To assert this is not necessarily to be despairing about politics. It merely means that if, for example, you want to understand Obama’s remarkable rise, you will want to know less about his passion to get beyond partisanship and more about whom his campaign mobilized to come to all those state caucuses and to make all those Internet donations, and what those groups’ political aspirations are. If that’s being cynical, then it’s cynical to try to understand the civil-rights era as having been propelled by a movement that African-Americans organized to make life better for themselves, rather than by a miraculous increase in the appeal of racial equality to the nation as a whole.

“The Process of Government” can be annoying—in its obsessive repetition of its main theme, in its lack of interest in empirical evidence—and yet it’s one of those rare books which change the way you look at the world. Like a tune that you can’t get out of your head, it’s always playing in the background. Most of what is said and written about American politics, which stipulates that, although the politics we have may be awful, a radiant, transcendently good politics is a genuine possibility, becomes hard to take altogether seriously.

A case in point is “The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule,” by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan; $25), the successor to “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” which he published four years ago, to wide acclaim from liberals. In both books, Frank starts from the premise that if conservatives are in the saddle in Washington it must be the result of trickery or connivance, since people who aren’t rich have no rational reason to vote Republican. “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” presented red-state voters as having been gulled into voting against their real economic interests by means of dubious cultural appeals. When Obama had to spend a couple of weeks last spring backing away from his explanation of why small-town Pennsylvanians weren’t voting for him (“Bittergate”), it looked as if he’d got into trouble for channelling Thomas Frank.

“The Wrecking Crew” offers another account of conservatives’ political power: they have built a mighty lobbying apparatus that has taken over Washington and disabled the normal workings of the federal government. Although Frank’s timing could be better—his book dwells psychically in the heyday of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, but they’ve fallen, the Democrats control both houses of Congress, and Washington is expecting a big liberal sweep in November—he has hold of something real. As Reaganism became the dominant strain in the Republican Party, a new group of politicians and operatives, many of them products of the legendarily rough-playing College Republicans (Abramoff, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist), adopted as their grand strategy the task of systematically disabling the Democratic Party’s structures of support, so as to achieve a lasting Republican political order. This was no secret: they loved talking about it to anyone who would listen. Frank himself has spent time with Norquist, getting briefed on the plan over lunch at the Palm. The idea was that the Republicans would relentlessly peck away at unions and tort lawyers until the Democrats’ ability to sustain themselves was irreparably harmed.

Frank regards this project as having been strikingly successful. Wherever he looks, he finds evidence of this, especially in the downtown corridors of Washington where lobbyists have their offices and in the Virginia suburbs where prosperous Republicans live. Frank is a little like an anti-pornography crusader in his intense fascination with the thing that horrifies him—his Washington is full of mansions, fine wines, expensive suits, cigars, and wood panelling. Evoking the lobbyist as a type, he writes, “You can spot him in the field by his perfectly fitted thousand-dollar suits, usually blue; his strangely dainty shoes; his shirts, which often come in pink or blue with white collars and cuffs, the latter of which display cufflinks of the large and shiny variety; his vivid, shimmering ties, these days preferably in orange or lavender; his perfect haircut; his perfect tan; the tiny flag attesting to his perfect patriotism on his perfect lapel.”

These are, in Frank’s account, the objective correlatives of the underlying problem: because conservatives, for economic and ideological reasons, don’t want government to work, they have arranged for it not to be able to work. A crippled government removes the best reason for people to vote for liberals, so the conservatives become ever stronger. As he puts it, conservatism “seems actively to want an inferior product.” Frank’s theory isn’t undermined when Democrats win, because, in his view, they consort with many of the same conservative interest groups that Republicans do. Bill Clinton is a favorite negative example of Frank’s, and no one should be surprised if Barack Obama soon becomes another.

Washington, as Frank sees it, plays host to a simple clash of interests: money and business on one side, the people on the other. “The Wrecking Crew” is written in a voice of high derision—much more so than the sincere, bewildered “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”—and it can be good, spirited fun. Frank captures a quality of exuberant bullying in those of his conservative subjects he knows well enough to identify individually, rather than categorically. He registers their self-justifying certainty that the other side is playing as rough as they are, and the soaring rhetoric about evil and freedom that they use to discuss even trivial matters.

“The Wrecking Crew” is what Arthur Bentley would call a discussion-group activity, meant to fire up the troops. It is reportorially and intellectually imprecise. How many lobbyists are there in Washington, exactly? By what yardstick did Frank conclude that we are undergoing “the greatest wave of political corruption in living memory”? What would be the sign that conservatives no longer rule, if Democrats’ controlling the political apparatus doesn’t count? Frank rarely mentions Democratic lobbyists or interest groups and glosses over the complexity in the coalitions that form the two parties: “corporations” and “conservatives” seem always to operate in perfect concert, on the Republican side. “Lobbying brings a constant pressure in a single direction,” he writes. An illustrative example is one that he offers in passing: “There was the two-day get-together between House Republicans and media company CEOs, after which the various broadcasters and publishers were asked to replace their Democratic lobbyists with Republicans; the Telecommunications Act of 1996, almost certainly written by industry lobbyists, followed soon afterward, deregulating the airwaves and trailing clouds of glorious profits for the media companies.” You’d never guess from this that the Telecom Act pitted one group of telephone companies and their lobbyists against another group of telephone companies and their lobbyists—or that business-versus-business battles of this kind go on constantly in Washington.

Arthur Bentley, a man untroubled by insecurity, treated Karl Marx as a promising fellow in the few pages devoted to him in “The Process of Government”—at least Marx saw politics in terms of groups struggling against each other—but one whose work did not, in the end, live up to its potential. Marx insisted on excessively large, unitary groups, like the proletariat, and then, even worse, claimed that under an ideal form of government they would disappear. Frank, viewed from a pluralist point of view, has the same problem. He tends to characterize the Republicans and the Democrats as representing business and workers, period, rather than as ever-mutating coalitions of groups with differing motives—business mainly but not entirely on the Republican side, unions mainly but not entirely on the Democratic side, and many groups whose interests are not primarily economic divided between the two. Political issues, for him, usually boil down to labor-management disputes; government failures are the consequences of market ideology and the profit motive. The troubles of the American venture in Iraq, for example, are the result of “extreme privatization” and the attempt to create a “libertarian utopia.” The horrifyingly slow pace of rescue and recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina can also be ascribed to the Bush Administration’s devotion to cronyism and privatization. Nor does Frank’s analysis adequately explore the possibility that Republicans pay a political price when they fail to govern competently, even though that seems to explain the way elections have been going since 2006.

It’s tempting to see Frank as a neo-Marxist, because he rarely misses an opportunity to bash capitalism. He writes, “Left unconstrained by other forces, the free-market system is one of the most restless, destructive arrangements ever contrived—tearing down and building up, obsoleting last year’s fashions and praising this year’s, driving up prices and bidding down wages, moving populations willy-nilly about the map, and scheming always to reduce the arts and sciences to sycophancy.” Really, though, Frank is closer to being an old-fashioned mugwump-style Progressive. He believes that liberals, once in power, will not merely transfer economic resources from business to working people but will tend to the public interest, to good government. Underneath all the fun Frank has with lobbyists and their dainty shoes, the heart of his book is the idea that, just as conservatives actually want government to be corrupt and incompetent, liberals have an equally strong interest in making government work properly. By his lights, if you want bad government you should vote Republican, and if you want good government you should vote Democratic.

Yet even in a world without conservatives there would be no general agreement about how government should handle anything truly important. The Clinton Administration pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement amid gusts of public-interest rhetoric—but Frank no doubt located the public interest on the other side. What about the much hated “earmarks” and “pork-barrel projects” that voters seem to want legislators to get for their districts—are they bad government, from the point of view of the folks back home? As Arthur Bentley pointed out, no political actor ever fails to argue that his interest is the public interest. Frank, who, at the end of “The Wrecking Crew,” seems nostalgic for the great liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, would do well to reread Hofstadter’s “The Age of Reform.” Hofstadter persuasively portrays the anti-special-interest reformers of the Progressive Era as an interest group themselves, an educated and refined élite disadvantaged by the rise of industrial capitalism in the late nineteenth century. Frank, given to wistful and self-mocking riffs on how little he matters in Washington compared with the conservative operatives he meets at parties, can sound that way himself.

Just before the table of contents in “The Process of Government,” on a page all alone, is the avowal “This book is an attempt to fashion a tool.” A century later, the tool that Arthur Bentley was attempting to fashion retains its utility, and not merely for understanding the American political system. (Those who believed in 2003 that Iraqi politics was best understood as a struggle between democracy and dictatorship, rather than as a struggle among groups, could have learned from him.) Bentley may have pressed his arguments too far, but, given our tendency to dismiss interest groups as the serpents in the political Eden that the Founders created, “The Process of Government” serves as an indispensable corrective.

When the reputation of Bentley’s masterpiece was at its peak, it was not just because he had fashioned a useful tool, of course; it was because many people saw pluralism as being not only accurate but attractive. To regain that perspective today requires an even greater undoing of deeply ingrained habits of thought. Pluralism, in the tradition of Bentley, requires that one see one’s own political passions, and those of such unimpeachable actors as winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and members of the Concord Coalition, as representing something other than the promptings of pure justice. That does not come naturally. One has to see that sincere talk of the public interest and the general good can be dangerous tools in the hands of people one disagrees with, if not in one’s own. (If you’re a liberal, reread President Bush’s second inaugural address, a grandiose exercise in public-interest rhetoric meant to lay the groundwork for waging the war on terror and privatizing Social Security.) One has to get over the habit of assuming that “interests,” and, worse, lobbying and corruption, are the province only of one’s political opponents, and not one’s allies. Pluralism means dialling down the moral stature that we attach to universalist arguments, and dialling up the moral stature of particularism.

Still, the pluralist vision does admit an element of justice. In any political system that gives people the freedom to organize and vote—and even, historically, in many systems that don’t—the logic of pluralism explains why those who do the hard, quotidian precinct work of politics will generally have more influence than those whose political participation is confined to writing, thinking, filing lawsuits, writing regulations, and spending money on media buys. In Bentley’s scheme, that’s all interest-group activity, but of the weaker “talk” (instead of the stronger “organization”) variety. Throughout American history, political organizing has been the means that outsiders—immigrants, farmers, African-Americans in the Reconstruction South, and, more recently, netroots activists on the left and evangelicals on the right—use to gain advantage against the more talk-oriented élites, who regard their political aims as corruption or special pleading. On the last page of “The Wrecking Crew,” Frank finally mentions what, from a pluralist perspective, would be the first order of business if you believe as passionately as he does that business-controlled conservative lobbyists are running Washington into the ground: organizing a political opposition. To be truly effective, though, such an opposition would have to muster its own army of Washington lobbyists. It’s tempting to think that just over the horizon lies a procedural reform that will lead to the lasting triumph of what looks to you like good government. But the truth is that the only way to defeat one set of interests is with another set of interests.

Liberalism Drops Its Mask

The past year’s devastation reveals elite special interest groups as liberalism’s master.

Since the turn of the 20th century, progressivism and liberalism have been pushed for an increasingly massive state and burdensome government restrictions on personal conduct (outside the bedroom, at least) on a simple premise: It’s for the good of the people. Listening to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) today, one hears the same claims, with the socialist Left arguing that government should run health care to serve those who cannot afford it, or that the Postal Service should provide banking to serve those whom commercial banks do not.

But the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the truth behind this mask: modern liberalism, progressivism, democratic socialism, whatever else one wishes to call it, does not serve the people. Instead, It serves a set of defined special interest groups that often bear little resemblance to “the people” Sen. Sanders, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, and their allies invoke.

Since March 2020, Americans have seen liberals shutter schools and run the ones they allow to open as prison camps to placate teachers’ unions; they’ve seen their right to travel held hostage to the comfortable idleness of federal civil servants; they’ve seen well-heeled champagne socialists push the election of prosecutors who explicitly fail to do their jobs, unleashing a crime wave unseen since the 1990s.

The level of suffering government school systems have inflicted on children since March 2020 was unwarranted by the danger. Across most of the northeast and Pacific coast, teachers’ union industrial action (or the threat of it) led to school closures that lasted for most of the 2020-2021 period as “Apple ballot”-endorsed school board members did the bidding of the teachers’ unions who funded their campaigns and let “educators” pretend to work from home. The consequences to students were devastating; the year of “remote learning” put students at a massive disadvantage to those whose schools were open.

As the political winds shifted, even Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, conceded that perhaps schools needed to reopen. But the teachers’ unions’ ideal of “open” is not the liberal ideal of a school operated at public expense to teach classrooms of students in reading, writing, and arithmetic that many parents remember from their youths. Instead, classrooms have three-foot isolation, drinks of water taken facing a wall in the schoolroom corner, mandatory muzzles, and “critical race theory” indoctrination. Meanwhile, in the largely conservative states that have resisted teachers’ unions’ demands, schoolrooms have been open five days a week since fall.

Unionized teachers aren’t the only “public servants” denying rights to citizens by their pandemic-excused idleness. Applying for or renewing a U.S. passport has become a Kafkaesque nightmare because passport agencies and processing centers have not reopened at full capacity despite employees being prioritized for vaccination. Citibank, the contractor that operates document lockboxes that prepare applications for processing, is also operating below capacity, ostensibly due to COVID reasons.

Does “for the people” liberalism care that its inability to operate a bureaucracy denies Americans’ right to travel? Nah, not really. A Biden administration State Department official told the press: “U.S. citizens who wish to travel overseas this summer and do not currently have a passport may need to make alternate travel plans.” The liberal State Department, like the liberalism in school systems, operates not for the benefit of the people, but for its own elite class.

But at least the passport fiasco is one of mere idleness, not deliberate intention. In big-city prosecutors’ offices from San Francisco to Philadelphia, abdicating the responsibilities of government is not idleness, but a party platform. A class of “progressive prosecutors” were backed for election by the scions of Big Philanthropy, including George Soros and his family, Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskowitz, and Cari Tuna. Their platforms? Don’t prosecute and don’t jail.

The results are entirely predictable. In San Francisco, progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin presides over a surge in violent crimes against Asian Americans and shoplifters stealing with impunity. Philadelphia’s progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner presides over a 33 percent year-on-year surge in homicide that drew attention from the city’s liberal mayor. Other cities have similar Big Philanthropy-chosen prosecutors and similar spikes in crime.

The path of decadent-phase Great Society liberalism is clear. Unless “the people” have a checkbook or thousands of votes to give to the left-wing political leadership, the people don’t matter. The mask has fallen.

The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government

From trying to stop plain packaging on cigarettes to pushing through HS2 and opening the countryside to fracking, big business employs lobbying companies to persuade government to meet their interests. But what are the tricks of their trade?

Cigarettes: tobacco companies have funded newsagents to argue against plain packaging. Photograph: Chris Ison

What does a tax-avoiding, polluting, privatizing corporation have to do to get its way with the British government? “We all know how it works,” said David Cameron of lobbying. But do we? Lobbyists are the paid persuaders whose job it is to influence the decisions of government. Typically, they operate behind closed doors, through quiet negotiation with politicians. And the influence they enjoy is constructed very consciously, using a whole array of tactics.

Lobbyists operate in the shadows – deliberately. As one lobbyist notes: “The influence of lobbyists increases when it goes largely unnoticed by the public.” But if the reasons why companies lobby are often obscured, it is always a tactical investment. Whether facing down a threat to profits from a corporate tax hike, or pushing for market opportunities – such as government privatisations – lobbying has become another way of making money.

Here are the 10 key steps that lobbying businesses will follow to bend government to their will.

1. Control the ground

Lobbyists succeed by owning the terms of debate, steering conversations away from those they can’t win and on to those they can. If a public discussion on a company’s environmental impact is unwelcome, lobbyists will push instead to have a debate with politicians and the media on the hypothetical economic benefits of their ambitions. Once this narrowly framed conversation becomes dominant, dissenting voices will appear marginal and irrelevant.

Everybody’s doing it, including lobbyists for fracking and nuclear power, public sector reform and bank regulation. It doesn’t matter if the new frame relies on fabrication. The referendum on an alternative voting system was not, as anticipated, so much a conversation about the merits of first past the post. No2AV was “very quick off the mark” to make it about cost to the public purse, explains Dylan Sharpe, of the No camp’s TaxPayers’ Alliance. They led with the claim that switching to AV would deny troops badly needed equipment and sick babies incubators. The Yes camp lost the vote two to one.

David Cameron and John Reid campaign against a proposed change to the UK voting system, April 2011. Photograph: Oli Scarff

2. Spin the media

The trick is in knowing when to use the press and when to avoid it. The more noise there is, the less control lobbyists have. As a way of talking to government, though, the media is crucial. Messages are carefully crafted. Even if the corporate goal is pure, self-interested profit-making, it will be dressed up to appear synonymous with the wider, national interest. At the moment, that means economic growth and jobs.

Get the messaging wrong and you get fiascos such as High Speed 2 (HS2). In early 2011, lobbyist James Bethell of Westbourne Communications was parachuted in to rescue the £43bn project, which had initially been sold by ministers on the marginal benefits to a few commuters. Westbourne reframed the debate to make it about jobs and economic growth. The new messaging focused on a narrative that pitted wealthy people in the Chilterns worried about their hunting rights against the economic benefits to the north. The strategy was “posh people standing in the way of working-class people getting jobs,” said Bethell. “Their lawns or our jobs,” shouted the ad campaign.

Private healthcare also regrouped after the wrong messages went public. As Andrew Lansley embarked on his radical reforms of the NHS, private hospitals and outsourcing firms were talking to investors about the “clear opportunities” to profit from the changes. After comments by Mark Britnell, the head of health at accountancy giants KPMG giants and a former adviser of David Cameron, hit the headlines in May 2011 – Britnell told an investors’ conference that “the NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years” – the industry got a grip. Lobby group The NHS Partners Network moved quickly to get everyone back on-message and singing from “common hymn sheets”, as its chief lobbyist David Worskett explained. The reforms were about the survival of the NHS in straitened times. Just nobody mention the bumper profits.

3. Engineer a following

It doesn’t help if a corporation is the only one making the case to government. That looks like special pleading. What is needed is a critical mass of voices singing to its tune. This can be engineered.

The forte of lobbying firm Westbourne is in mobilising voices behind its clients. Thirty economists, for example, signed a letter to the FT in 2011 in support of HS2; 100 businesses endorsed another published in the Daily Telegraph.

Westbourne was also hired in 2011 to lobby against the top rate of tax, although who was behind its “50p tax campaign” remains a mystery. Ahead of the chancellor’s annual Budget announcement in early 2012, letters appeared in the press demanding he scrap it. The FT’s was signed by 20 economists. The Telegraph’s by the bosses of 573 SMEs, described as the “bedrock” of British industry. A quick glance, though, revealed it included five managers from the Switzerland-based banking giant Credit Suisse. The paper’s commentary noted the alarm this new call from “ordinary British business” would cause inside government.

4. Buy in credibility

Corporations are one of the least credible sources of information for the public. What they need, therefore, are authentic, seemingly independent people to carry their message for them.

One nuclear lobbyist admitted it spread messages “via third-party opinion because the public would be suspicious if we started ramming pro-nuclear messages down their throats”. That’s it in a nutshell.

The tobacco companies are pioneers of this technique. Their recent campaign against plain packaging has seen them fund newsagents to push the economic case against the policy and encourage trading standards officers to lobby their MPs. British American Tobacco also currently funds the Common Sense Alliance, which is fronted by two ex-policemen and campaigns against “irrational” regulation. Philip Morris is similarly paying an ex-Met police officer, Will O’Reilly, to front a media campaign linking plain packaging to tobacco smuggling. It is worth noting that a decade ago the tobacco giant coughed up $1.25bn to the European Commission to settle a long-running dispute over its own complicity in the illicit trade.

5. Sponsor a thinktank

“The thinktank route is a very good one,” said ex-minister Patricia Hewitt to undercover reporters seeking lobbying advice. Some thinktanks will provide companies with a lobbying package: a media-friendly report, a Westminster event, ear-time with politicians. “The exact same services that a lobbying agency would provide,” says one lobbyist. “They’re just more expensive.”


In the mid-noughties, a lobbyist for Standard Life Healthcare, now part of PruHealth, worried about how they could get more people to buy private cover without being seen to undermine the NHS. The solution: “Get some of the thinktanks to say it, so it’s not just us calling for reform, it’s outside commentators … it does need others to help us take the debate forward.” The insurers did turn to thinktanks, including free-market advocates Reform. This has lobbied for more “insurance-based private funding” in the health service. Prudential, the insurance giant behind PruHealth, was Reform’s most generous sponsor in 2012, investing £67,500 in the thinktank.

The BBC has also come under repeated recent criticism for inviting commentators from the leading neo-liberal thinktank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), to talk about its opposition to the plain packaging of cigarettes, without disclosing the Institute’s tobacco funding. Although the IEA does not disclose who funds it, BAT concedes it has recently paid the IEA £30,000, with more to come this year. Leaked documents from Philip Morris also reveal the thinktank is one of its “media messengers” in its anti- plain-packaging campaign.

The Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct, part of the proposed route for the HS2 high speed rail scheme. Photograph: HS2

6. Consult your critics

Companies faced with a development that has drawn the ire of a local community will often engage lobbyists to run a public consultation exercise. Again, not as benign as it sounds. “Businesses have to be able to predict risk and gain intelligence on potential problems,” says ex-Tesco lobbyist Bernard Hughes. “The army used to call it reconnaissance; we call it consultation.”

For some in the business, community consultation – anything from running focus groups, exhibitions, planning exercises and public meetings – is a means of flushing out opposition and providing a managed channel through which would-be opponents can voice concerns. Opportunities to influence the outcome, whether it is preventing an out-of-town supermarket or protecting local health services, are almost always nil.

Residents in Barne Barton in Plymouth were asked in 2011 what they thought about a 95-metre, PFI-financed incinerator being sited in their neighbourhood, just 62 metres from the nearest house. Although more than 5,000 people objected, the waste company’s planning application was waved through. That’s community consultation.

7. Neutralise the opposition

Lobbyists see their battles with opposition activists as “guerilla warfare”. They want government to listen to their message, but ignore counter arguments coming from campaigners, such as environmentalists, who have long been the bane of commercial lobbyists. So, they need to deal with the “antis”.

Lobbyists have developed a sliding scale of tactics to neutralise such a threat. Monitoring of opposition groups is common: one lobbyist from agency Edelman talks of the need for “360-degree monitoring” of the internet, complete with online “listening posts … so they can pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity. “The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one, you’ve got to find the influential one,” he says. Rebuttal campaigns are frequently employed: “exhausting, but crucial,” says Westbourne.

Lobbyists have also long employed divide-and-rule tactics. One Shell strategy proposed to “differentiate interest groups into friends and foes”, building relationships with the former, while making it “more difficult for hardcore campaigners to sustain their campaigns”. Philip Morris’s covert 10-year strategy, codenamed Project Sunrise, intended to “drive a wedge between various anti groups” and “position antis as extremists”.

Then there are the more serious activities used primarily when big-money commercial interests are threatened, such as the infiltration of opposition groups, otherwise known as spying. Household names such as Shell, BAE Systems and Nestlé have all been exposed for spying on their critics. Wikileaks’ Global Intelligence Files revealed that groups such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and animal rights organisation Peta were all monitored by global intelligence company Stratfor, once described as a “shadow CIA”.

8. Control the web

Today’s world is a digital democracy, say lobbyists. Gone are the old certainties of how decisions were made “by having lunch with an MP, or taking a journalist out,” laments one. It presents a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

One key way to control information online is to flood the web with positive information, which is not as benign as it sounds. Lobbying agencies create phoney blogs for clients and press releases that no journalist will read – all positive content that fools search engines into pushing the dummy content above the negative, driving the output of critics down Google rankings. Relying on the fact that few of us regularly click beyond the first page of search results, lobbyists make negative content “disappear”.

Another means of restricting access to information is the doctoring of Wikipedia, “a ridiculous organisation,” in veteran lobbyist Tim Bell’s words. Accounts associated with his firm, Bell Pottinger, have been caught scrubbing Wikipedia profiles of arms manufacturers, financial firms, a Russian oligarch and the founder of libel specialists Carter-Ruck. “It’s important for Wikipedia to recognise we are a valuable source for accurate information,” says Bell, a master at killing stories. Other edits by lobbyists range from a computer in the offices of payday lender Wonga deleting references to “usury” from its entry, to a computer registered to the American multinational Dow Chemical repeatedly attempting to remove a large section from the company’s profile detailing “controversies”.

The lobbyists: Tim Bell and James Henderson of Bell Potinger. Photograph: Sarah Lee

9. Open the door

Without doubt, lobbyists need access to politicians. This doesn’t always equate to influence, but deals can only be cooked up once in the kitchen. And access to politicians can be bought. It is not a cash deal, rather an investment is made in the relationship. Lobbyists build trust, offer help and accept favour.

The best way to shortcut the process of relationship-building is to hire politicians’ friends, in the form of ex-employees or colleagues. Bill Morgan is a good example. In recent years, he’s been backwards and forwards twice between Andrew Lansley’s office and health-lobbying specialists MHP. Its clients had “obviously benefited” from Morgan’s inside knowledge of Conservative health policy, MHP wrote. They could “look forward to continuing to be at the heart of the major policy debates”.

Lobbyists are Westminster and Whitehall insiders, among them many former ministers. “You may remember me from my time as Minister of State for Transport,” wrote Stephen Ladyman as he lobbied a potential government client in his new role as a paid adviser to a transport company. “I do indeed and am delighted to hear from you,” replied the official. “We would be interested to hear your proposals.”He had just opened the door.

10. And finally …

There is the perception, at least, that decisions taken in government could be influenced by the reward of future employment. It’s a concern that has been expressed for the best part of a century. Today, however, the number of people moving through the revolving door is off the scale.

The top rung of the Department of Health has in recent years experienced huge traffic towards the private sector. The department that sees more movement than any other, though, is still the Ministry of Defence. Since 1996, officials and military officers have taken up more than 3,500 jobs in arms and defence related companies. Two hundred and thirty-one jobs were secured in 2011/12 alone.

Government is the arms industry’s biggest customer and the MoD’s closeness to its suppliers is widely known. It is also gaining a reputation for its disastrously expensive contracts that deliver poor value for taxpayers and often poor performance for the military. More than one commentator has asked whether the two are connected.

A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell is published by The Bodley Head at £18.99.

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Fighting Special Interest Lobbyist Power Over Public Policy

Solutions to Fight corruption of government from special interest lobbying.


I believe that I showed the reader not only what problems special interest groups and lobbyists, I also listed a few ways we can fix the problem. Now we have determined that we have this problem, we just need the will power to follow through. Only time will tell if it happens. I hate to be pessimistic, but if hour track record history is any indication, it will be just more of the “same old same old”.

Resources:, “Interest Groups.” By Sparknotes editors;, “I was a lobbyist for more than 6 years. I quit. My conscience couldn’t take it anymore. “The hypocrisy from both sides is staggering.” By Jimmy Williams;,”Our constitutional crisis is already here.” By Robert Kagan;, “Corporate money in politics threatens US democracy—or does it?” By David Primo;, “Conflict of Interests: Does the wrangling of interest groups corrupt politics—or constitute it?” By Nicholas Lemann;, “Liberalism Drops Its Mask: The past year’s devastation reveals elite special interest groups as liberalism’s master.” By Michael Watson;, “The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government: From trying to stop plain packaging on cigarettes to pushing through HS2 and opening the countryside to fracking, big business employs lobbying companies to persuade government to meet their interests. But what are the tricks of their trade?” By Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell;, “Fighting Special Interest Lobbyist Power Over Public Policy: Solutions to Fight corruption of government from special interest lobbying.” By Jerry Parshall;

What Is Wrong With Our Country?

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