“Special interest” is a bad word. Like lobbyist.
But the truth is, we have very special interests.
Interests that, most of the time, if we (nonprofit organizations, social work advocates, forces of good) are not defending and advancing, no one else will.
And, of course, power abhors a vacuum.
Where there is silence–on a given issue, or event, or piece of legislation, someone will likely be quite ready to step into the breach.
Just maybe not on our terms, from our perspective, or in our interests.
This dynamic was illustrated clearly in the incidences of genocide, which cried out for U.S. involvement, described in A Problem from Hell. For example, when Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Kurdish people, and there were chemical companies and other interests speaking loudly against action, that was only part of the problem. The other half of the equation was that, apart from these lobbies that were especially interested, there were no competing voices making phone calls on behalf of the Kurds. There was, effectively, no ‘human rights lobby’ and, even today, there are relatively few voices oriented in that direction.
Similarly, in the struggle to ratify the UN genocide convention, senators complained that they only heard about the treaty from John Birch Society types, not from ‘reasonable’ people who urged U.S. participation in the convention’s tenets. The pro-ratification folks didn’t call, or email, or show up at forums. The interests, then, of basic human dignity and protection–while just about as ‘special’ as they get–didn’t have a lobby.
Our failure to claim our identity as a special interest, and to coalesce around the concerns that unite us, is particularly alarming given historical evidence that, in the arena of congressional policymaking, these one-sided interest group politics are an especially serious liability. Many members of Congress fear acting against the special interests to which they respond even occasionally, even when a rational actor could presume that a history of supporting a given organization’s cause could allow some independence on another issue.
To a large extent, this is because of the distorting influence of money in politics.
But it’s also because those powerful interests are moving in to fill the vacuum. As they will.
We are special. We engage in politics, and in policy advocacy, not primarily to enhance our own market standing, but to improve the conditions of those we have the honor to serve. And they–and we–deserve to be represented, as interests, within a policymaking structure that works that way, even as we seek to change the terms of engagement.