Introducing the Symposium on Mobilizing Interest Groups in America


It has been thirty years since the publication of Jack L. Walker, Jr.’s book Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions, and Social Movements (1991). The book remains important today and is surely worthy of a re-examination by established and new scholars. That is the purpose of this symposium.

For those who do not know, after Jack Walker’s sudden death in a car accident in 1990, at the age of 55, a number of students and colleagues prepared the manuscript for publication. They were surely influenced by the book in their own work in the interest group field, and in other fields such as political institutions and public policymaking. They were: Joel D. Aberbach, Frank R. Baumgartner, Thomas L. Gais, David C. King, Mark A. Peterson, and Kim Lane Scheppele. Several have contributed an essay to this retrospective.

Mobilizing Interest Groups in America is a research work that has guided and influenced subsequent research about interest groups by American political scientists. As such, it is in succession to David B. Truman’s The Governmental Process (1951) that had a short-lived status as the landmark book in the study of interest groups in America. Truman’s volume was a useful compendium of political science observations of the politics of processes of adoption and implementation of public policies. However, a decade after its publication, Truman’s generalizations about interest group enhancement of democratic representation and interest group causal control of institutions were widely rejected as poorly supported exaggeration.

Mancur Olson, Jr.’s book The Logic of Collective Action (1965) then became the most influential work in the study of American interest groups. Olson’s work is essentially a formal model, constructed by an economist, which was formulated as a theory of group formation, and applied to the formation of American interest groups. If lobbying for a public policy is a public good (received in common) by a group of beneficiaries, then why would a rational decision-maker contribute to the organization and maintenance of the lobby, when the decision-maker will receive a benefit without so contributing?

The logic of collective action indicated that a rational calculus frequently resulted in an individual or business not joining a group and becoming a “free rider” letting others organize a group. During the 1970s and 1980s, political scientists saw the discipline as explaining why interest groups do not form, but as lacking a theory as to why groups do form. Subsequent to its publication, Olson’s collective action theory provoked confusion about the value of empirical research about interest groups and thus slowed down research in the field (Baumgartner and Leech 1998).

Walker acted to remedy this slowdown in empirical research about interest groups. Thus, he organized two national surveys (1980, 1985) to get information about the maintenance and organization of interest groups -- information in the context of the general acceptance of Olson’s logic of rationality. Survey questionnaires were sent to executive secretaries or other officers of interest groups, identified from samples drawn from the Washington Information Directory, shown to be a nearly complete assembly of relevant interest group data, together with some smaller supplementary data about additional interest groups not listed in the directory. The 1980 survey tapped 1326 groups with 734 responses, a 55.4% return rate. The 1985 survey tapped 1636 groups with 892 responses, a 54.5% return rate. Unfortunately, the response rate of unions was only 30.9%, leading Walker to drop unions from the study.

Walker’s Mobilizing Interest Groups then became the major book in the study of interest groups in America through its analysis of data and theoretical interpretation of two national surveys of interest groups. In his research, Walker dealt with the empirical research slowdown following The Logic of Collective Action adroitly and with common sense. Walker’s early research concerned sit-ins in Atlanta, a social movement phenomenon (1963, 1966). Walker’s subsequent article, “The Diffusion of Innovations Among the American States” (1969), observed the operations of networks of professionals in adopting policy innovations among American states. “Social movements” and “professions” are terms in the subtitle of Mobilizing Interest Groups in America. Thus, previous research by Walker focused on social movement values in protest politics and professional values in determining policy action. His usage of values motivation came from familiarity with sociological and organization theories of action. In this way, Walker adroitly and with practical common sense ignored the somewhat obsessive preoccupation of many interest groups scholars (including this writer) with the search for solutions to Olson’s barriers to cooperation.

Nevertheless, Walker also embodied in his work rational decision-making, the barriers to collective action, and the resource needs of political organizations. In particular, he emphasized the importance of patrons in providing necessary resources for the organization and maintenance of groups. With the concept of patron, we are not regarding a group solely as a sort of contractual agreement among individuals or other particular agencies. Not in the range of particular individual contributors belonging to the group, patrons include wealthy individuals, foundations, and preexisting organizations including NGOs. Patrons also include government, especially the national government. For instance, the national government had a major role in the foundation of the Farm Bureau, the Business Roundtable, while the Wagner Act might be considered institutional patronage. Emphasis on governmental patronage was an important contribution by Walker; future interest group researchers became more aware of circular causation between government and groups, as opposed to the basic one-directional causal model of groups pushing government. Thus, Walker set forth a variety of causal models which usually appeared in combination: variations on standard models of rational decision-making and resource provision; sociological perspectives on motivation by values; and feedback effects from institutional action.

Influence of Mobilizing Interest Groups in America

In my own research and writing about interest groups since 1991, I felt a greater freedom in loosening the strictures of Olson’s collective action theory and going ahead with Walker’s assumption of observing a combination of emotion, values, and rational choice in political motivation (McFarland 2004). I believe other interest group researchers reacted in the same way, as there has been a noticeable decline in their fixation upon approaches to the logic of collective action.

One of the best known of these is Walker’s student Frank R. Baumgartner. Together with his own student Beth L. Leech, Baumgartner published Basic Interests: The importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science (1998). A major argument from Baumgartner and Leech is that interest group scholars had paid too much attention to the puzzle of why groups form, and that attention should be diverted to the study of how groups exercise influence after they have formed. Accordingly, Baumgartner and Leech, joined by Jeffrey M. Berry, Marie Hojnacki, and David Kimball, published Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why, a compilation of the exercise of power in 98 policy issues in Washington (2009). This volume exhibits Walker’s lesser concern for using collective action theory and his positive concern for circular causation among government actors and groups, as seen in the five authors’ idea of lobbying between “sides,” with both sides usually including both government and group actors.

Frank R. Baumgartner with his colleague Bryan D. Jones also published Agendas and Instability in American Politics (1993), which has become a standard introduction to public policymaking for graduate students. This work is influenced by Walker’s concern for the interaction of governmental policy processes and interest groups. The Baumgartner and Jones volume is known for its emphasis upon “punctuations” of routine action in the policy processes, that is sudden changes in public policy, wrought by outside influences, usually including interest groups.

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page achieved wide attention with the publication of their article “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (2014) which, in contrast to the Baumgartner et al. study of lobbying of Congress, found a greater impact of big business lobbying (elites) upon legislative outcomes. Gilens and Page contrast their findings with those of a school termed “biased pluralism,” left largely undefined but which apparently includes the study by Baumgartner et al (2009). A striking omission in Mobilizing Interest Groups in America is the lack of a term for Walker’s vision of political power in America, such as Robert Dahl’s “polyarchy” (1971) or Theodore M. Lowi, Jr.’s “interest-group liberalism” (1979). Walker’s view was that America is pluralistic, with numerous professional groups, citizens groups, and social movements affecting public policy. But Walker also saw a strong bias in this pluralism, in that business groups usually seemed to have the most power, while groups such as the unemployed and those stricken by poverty had inadequate representation. If he had lived into the 1990s, Jack Walker might have developed a general outlook on power and policymaking and used a term such as “biased pluralism.”

The essays that follow reflect more on Walker’s book from a variety of perspectives. All speak to the legacy of these ideas and how scholars can expand upon them in the future.


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Correspondence to Andrew S. McFarland.

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McFarland, A.S. Introducing the Symposium on Mobilizing Interest Groups in America. Int Groups Adv (2021).

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