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Advocacy in American Politics: Examining the Quality and Effectiveness of Lobbying in the Trump Era

Advocacy in American Politics: Examining the Quality and Effectiveness of Lobbying in the Trump Era

The quality of the United States’ advocacy and lobbying practices, as well as the effectiveness of the profession’s role in policymaking, have become a recent subject of debate. The transition to the Trump administration has particularly served to amplify an ongoing criticism of the lobbying profession, particularly in regard to the influence of special interests and the economic elite. The quality of practice towards the end of a pluralist representative democracy and the profession’s ability to adapt was, and continues to be, scrutinized by the media, political pundits, and lawmakers alike. Ultimately, the quality of advocacy and lobbying practices within the United States is lacking, despite its effectiveness in adapting strategy and tactics to fit the unique political situation, particularly in response the growing distinction of partisan interests as well as congressional gridlock.

In measuring the quality of advocacy practices within the Trump administration, the standard that the Framers, particularly James Madison, envisioned for competing factions must be recognized. An “extended” republic, or a pluralist model of democracy, was proposed by Madison as the best defense against partisan factions, special interests, and a potential “overbearing majority.” This pluralist model ideally limits the influence of a singular dominate interest – the “tyranny of the majority:” a potential ill-effect of democracy addressed by Madison in Federalist No. 10 and later by Alexis de Tocqueville in his observation of American democracy. Ultimately, the standard of quality that contemporary advocacy practices should reflect is that of  Madison’s “extended” republic, with special interests remaining numerous and equally competitive within the policymaking process.  

The quality of contemporary advocacy practices, however, does not meet this standard of a well-functioning pluralist representative democracy. This concept is widely explored within political and sociological academia; one recent study conducted by Dr. Martin Gilens and Dr. Benjamin Page creates individual and comprehensive statistical models for four distinct theoretical perspectives of democracy. Gilens and Page measure the relationship between the policy preferences of average citizens, economic elites, and special interests and respective policy outcomes. The results suggest that organized interest groups maintain significant influence over the majority’s preference in the policymaking process, especially with the assistance of PAC contributions, lobbying expenditures, and membership. Moreover, this study reaffirms Madison’s argument that a domineering majority can be restrained as various interests in the United States compete for political influence. Yet, sociopolitical variables like money and organizational agency impede and conceivably discourage the open competition of interests. In short, today’s advocacy process fulfills the intent of a pluralist model of democracy, but the process is facilitated through an inequity of resources.

The inequity of monetary resources and organizational agency has led to an increased likelihood of ethical misconduct with contemporary advocacy practices. Indeed, these variables can influence how advocacy strategies engage in the policy-making process and influence their adherence to ethical standards. Attempts have been made, specifically by the American Bar Association, to limit the influence of financial contributions, “shadow” lobbying, and to emphasize organizational accountability by reforming the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), which made significant strides in establishing transparent and ethical advocacy practices. The recommended reforms that target these key issues include the requirement for LDA registrants to specify specific public offices that are being targeted, as well as reporting all activities of the advocacy and partner entities. Yet, these reforms have faced setbacks, especially following the landmark ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 which lifted restrictions on campaign and advocacy donations. Nonetheless, the advocacy profession ideally fulfills the intent of a pluralist model of democracy with a competitive and level playing field for special interests.  

The role of special interests and their influence in the policymaking process has contributed to the negative disposition that the public has of lobbying practices, prompting notable responses from the Obama and Trump administrations. With the media’s reinforcement of a negative special interest narrative, both President Obama and President Trump crafted unique responses pertaining to ethics in order to reflect the public’s negative opinion on lobbying and corruption. For instance, both administrations established direct ethical standards by way of executive order, targeting gift bans and the “revolving door.” Even more pertinent is the Trump administration’s unorthodox structure, which creates indirect challenges for advocacy practices. Specifically, the Trump administration’s lack of intervention points/points of contacts, as well as the President’s frequent use of social media, mainly Twitter, as a platform to disrupt, veil, and shape his intentions, creates a dynamic and unpredictable environment to maneuver for advocacy practices.

Though the methods and strategies vary by organization, there are three distinct tactics that have proven effective within the Trump administration: (1) anticipating unpredicted outcomes, (2) isolating and targeting key players, especially through social media, and (3) emphasizing the player over the policy. Each of these tactics effectively counters some aspect of the Trump administration’s direct and indirect approach to impede the role of special interests and advocacy practices. Ultimately, the ability for advocacy practices to maneuver this political climate is noteworthy and illustrates the adaptability and effectiveness of the industry.

The intense partisan gridlock and the unpredictability of Trump’s style of governance has prompted organizations to anchor their advocacy strategies with administrative networks and the rulemaking process. Though Trump’s victory was not predicted within most academic circles, engaging with the Trump campaign and transition teams proved to be advantageous compared to strategies that relied on their established connections in presuming Secretary Clinton’s Beltway-insider victory. Moreover, the executive institution has grown in administrative authority and is uniquely comprised of appointed and hired officials with backgrounds in advocacy and special interests, such as the appointments of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. With the anticipated momentum of a unified government falling short on several legislative failures, strategies sought key administrative intervention points, despite facing difficulties with empty roles and a lack of appointments. Demonstrating network connections within the Trump administration displays to potential clients that an advocacy organization maintains control within an unpredictable administration. As such, strategies have been reallocating efforts towards the rulemaking process in an increasingly partisan and gridlocked environment.

Isolating and targeting key players through social media, especially Twitter, has become an increasingly utile strategy within advocacy. Though it is unclear whether President Trump’s Twitter habits are impulsive or calculated, the acute fixation on Trump’s tweets and other social media platforms provides publicity and the potential for earned media to promote targeted messages. For example, a coalition effort known as “Boot Pruitt,” which targeted EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, promoted a targeted Twitter-ad campaign to reach key public officials in areas that EPA and Trump administration heads frequent, like the White House, the EPA, and Trump’s private club Mar-a-Lago. In subscribing to the media effects model, in that the media takes on an agenda-setting role in the policymaking process, Trump’s usurpation of the conversation has now become a manipulation of the policy-making agenda. In adapting to President Trump’s governing strategy, advocacy groups can easily test, deploy, and reassess their messages, tracking them through polling, focus groups, or statistical data gathering software, to refined and better implement their issue campaigns. With the media’s, political pundit’s, and the public’s attention focused on social media, advocacy strategies have increasingly become centered on social media issue campaigns.

The most noticeable adaptation that advocacy practices have made in response to the Trump administration is how issue-oriented campaigns now focus on the key players as opposed to the policy. Rather than emphasizing an issue and anticipating the opposition’s arguments, targeted messaging now pinpoints key players within the policymaking and/or rulemaking processes, as opposed to specific policies. As it turns out, the Trump administration has a high tolerance for unpopular public officials and contentious issues, notably with Secretary of Education DeVos and EPA Administrator Pruitt. Rather than argue over policy provisions, advocacy organizations and coalitions, like “Boot Pruitt,” have targeted messages surrounding the player’s background, qualifications, and overall character, which can be measured through focus groups, benchmarks, and brushfire surveys. While these messages can vary, a successful campaign can dehumanize key players and render their policies unpopular and without support.

The state of advocacy and lobbying practices in the United States consists of several, yet surmountable, issues. In an ideal pluralist model of democracy, public competition between interests over policy preferences is undoubtedly encouraged. Advocacy strategies and tactics of the profession are rather effective in adapting to President Trump’s unorthodox administration. The ability for lobbying organizations to skirt professional norms and ethical codes, however, detracts from the demonstrated effectiveness of advocacy practices. It reaffirms the negative perception lobbying and strikes at the quality of the practices. In adapting strategies of network engagement, message targeting, and discrediting attacks, it is necessary to increase transparency and oversight of the industry in order to encourage an open competition of interests.

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