UCLA prof: Interests groups, activists are running politics


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The smoke-filled rooms of Washington were aired out long ago, the political machines disassembled, and the former bosses jailed, but in some ways their existence is still felt, but now replaced by interest groups and activists.

John Zaller, a political-science professor at University of California-Los Angeles, presented a lecture at the University of Iowa on Monday how he feels these groups affect political parties.

“Mostly, the public isn’t watching, and the interest groups are watching,” he said. “There is a whole bunch of stuff that government does that voters aren’t monitoring at all, and so you can get control of that by nominating someone who cares about the details the same way [interest groups and activists] do.”

One UI faculty member agreed with Zaller’s belief, which is interest groups and activists can affect parties the most through primaries, in which turnout can be low.

“Much lower turnouts give an opportunity for a well-organized or highly motivated group to elect someone who could lose in a general election,” said Tim Hagle, a UI associate professor of political science.

Hagle  said the 2010 Republican senatorial nominees such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware were examples of this.

Even with increased activity of interest groups and activists, Zaller believes political parties are not more extreme than in the past, saying use of the extreme label is a “slippery concept."

“Parties try to control the agenda in way where they only put things on that will pass, not embarrass them publically,” Zaller said. “They only do what they can get away with."

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, disagreed with Zaller and Hagle as he blamed most of the gridlock in Washington on Republicans, specifically targeting their use of filibuster during Senate debate.

“… While Democrats are by no means blameless in their use of the filibuster, the growing gap between the parties is primarily a function of the extreme rightward drift of the Republicans Party, as evidenced by its dramatic escalation of the use of the filibuster after they lost control of the Senate several Congresses ago,” Kate Frischmann, a spokeswoman for Harkin, wrote in an email.

A.J. Spiker, the chairman of the Iowa GOP, disagreed with Harkin, believing Senate Republicans have not lead to an increase in partisanship; they are instead working to address the nation’s deficit.

“What were seeing right now in Washington is reality is starting to set in that the country is broke,” Spiker said. "People like Sen. Harkin who believe we should spend money we don’t have and put more debt on future generations, they are the radicals.”

The smoke may have been replaced, but lasting effects of activists and interests groups have yet to be seen, and both Hagle and Zaller said the spirit of compromise, which sometimes filled the backrooms of Washington, may return if a crucial crisis or immediate issue arises.

“As soon as we reach a breaking point, such as the fiscal cliff or the situation in the Middle East becomes more extreme, officials will put partisan bickering aside and work toward z compromise,” Hagle said.

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