An Oral History of Mobilizing Interest Groups in America
30 years since publication of classic book on interest groups in the US, this is the story of its publication
Thirty years ago, in September of 1991, the University of Michigan Press published Jack L. Walker Jr.’s Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions, and Social Movements. The book remains a classic, regularly cited as a part of the cannon of interest groups studies alongside Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People, Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, and Schlozman and Tierney’s Organized Interests and American Democracy.
Mobilizing Interest Groups in America
In this major new study of interest groups in America, Jack L. Walker, Jr., introduces a new theory of interest group…
The legacy of its publication, the focus of a recent set of essays in Interest Groups & Advocacy (introduced by Professor Andrew McFarland with additional essays by Kathleen Marchetti and Jesse M. Crosson, Alexander C. Furnas, Geoffrey M. Lorenz), reveals much about responding to unexpected loss, research collaboration, academic legacies and the evolving ways academics study interest groups. In 1990, Prof. Walker died in a car crash while on leave from the University of Michigan at Stanford, leaving an unfinished manuscript.
To commemorate the anniversary of the book’s publication, I collected the memories of a few of Jack Walker’s students and collaborators to provide an oral history of Mobilizing Interest Groups in America.
How were you involved in the early parts of this Mobilizing Interest Groups?
THOMAS GAIS (Provost Fellow, State University of New York, System Administration): I began working with Jack Walker as a research assistant in the summer of 1978 (I think). I was the first of the group to work with him on interest groups. Mark Peterson came on soon afterwards.
At first we worked on identifying and analyzing groups in selected policy areas — I worked on “aging policy” initially, partly because the federal government appeared to work on developing the constituency. But after a while Jack decided that case studies weren’t the way to go — he liked to say that he didn’t know what they were a case of.
So the idea of a national survey, drawing from Congressional Quarterly’s almanac, evolved and Jack got a grant to get it started. Mark and I had a small office in a lousy building, though it had a great group of scholars, including Jack, Joel, Bob Axelrod, John Kingdon, Michael Cohen, Ned Gramlich, etc.
Mark and I were drowning in surveys to be sent, resent, coded, interpreted, etc. It was good that Mark was (and is) well organized. Eventually, we ran dozens of analyses of the 1980 survey, which Jack used for the initial APSR article on the origins and maintenance of interest groups, which stressed the role of patrons, and which was the initial source of Ch. 5.
After that, Mark and I suggested some other articles. I suggested the idea of using the data to raise questions about the subgovernment thesis — that interest groups in the U.S. were largely organized in fairly insulated “iron triangles,” an idea we developed into a 1984 BJPS article, and which was revised into Ch. 7 of the book. I also worked with Jack on an analysis of interest group strategies, which later became Ch. 6.
MARK PETERSON (Professor of Public Policy and Political Science in the UCLA Department of Public Policy’s Meyer and Renee Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law): In Spring 1978, I was closing out my first year in the Michigan PhD program and was recruited by Tom Gais, a second-year student, to join Jack Walker’s project. Tom had been the first research assistant and — as the work was moving from Jack’s original ideas to a full-fledged study — there was a need for more research time. I was thus involved in the creation and execution of the 1980 survey of interest groups (formally national voluntary associations), and Tom and I co-authored the Midwest Political Science Association annual meeting paper, and later 1984 British Journal of Political Science article, with Jack on “Interest Groups, Iron Triangles, and Representative Institutions in American National Government,” which was the project’s first publication and became the basis for a chapter in the book.
After Tom departed Michigan, I took the lead in producing and implementing the 1985 survey, and oversaw the development of the data set. Along the way Jack and I co-wrote a couple of other pieces, including a book chapter based on the survey that focused on “Interest Group Responses to Partisan Change: The Impact of the Reagan Administration upon the National Interest Group System” (in the 2nd Edition, 1986, of the Cigler and Loomis volume). As I was developing my own research agenda on presidential politics and policy making, Jack kindly let me include a series of questions in the 1985 survey on the White House and interest groups, from which I wrote a 1992 APSR article on “The Presidency and Organized Interests: White House Patterns of Interest Group Liaison.”
What were you doing when Prof. Walker died?
MARK PETERSON: I was sitting at my desk in the Department of Government in Littauer Center, in the middle of my fifth year on the Harvard faculty, when Dave King called me with the devastating news of Jack’s passing. Jack and I had continued to have many interactions after I left Michigan in 1985, so his sudden death was especially shocking.
He and I had spoken not long before, and I knew how enthused he was to be at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in Behavior Sciences in the midst of pulling together the book manuscript. Jack and his son had, a bit earlier, stayed with me in the Cambridge area when they were checking out Tufts for college. I had expected to continue collaborations with Jack, and he remained a major advocate for my career advancement. I had lost a friend, a colleague, and in many respects my main mentor as a junior faculty member.
FRANK BAUMGARTNER (Richardson Distinguished Professorship in the Department of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill): I was an assistant professor, just three years into my first tenure track position when Jack Walker passed away on January 30, 1990. It was a devastating blow, and a complete surprise.
Jack and I had recently published two articles together and had another in press. I had recently completed my first book (published in 1989) and had a new project in the works that would soon become Agendas and Instability in American Politics, eventually published in 1993, with a first journal version appearing in 1991. So it was a busy time. Like any assistant professor, I was pretty stressed out with the demands of the tenure clock.
I had seen Jack just a few weeks before his death, when he flew down from Palo Alto to UCLA and we met with Joel Aberbach and worked on our tennis as well as a paper. I also got some advice from Jack about my new project with Bryan Jones. Jack was always full of advice.
I don’t recall anymore what I was doing exactly when I heard about his death, but I can say that on my own 55th birthday, more than 20 years later, I did not leave the house. Jack had been hit by a car and I was not going to let that happen.
He was not a person to celebrate the positive elements of our country’s system of government. Rather, he wanted to shine a spotlight on its warts, scabs, and bruises. Only by repairing the harms and ameliorating the deficiencies could we make the country better.
How did you participate in finishing the manuscript and its eventual publication?
FRANK BAUMGARTNER: (E)very person involved in working with Jack agreed we needed to come together in Ann Arbor to bring together the notes and drafts he had for his book. Joel Aberbach, Mark Peterson, Dave King, Tom Gais, and I arranged to spend weeks in Ann Arbor, with lots of logistical help and moral support from John Kingdon, serving as Department Chair during that time. We dropped what we were doing and devoted several weeks to a kind of boot camp to get the manuscript together.
MARK PETERSON: I traveled to Ann Arbor for a week or two that summer of 1990 to join Joel Aberbach, Frank Baumgartner, Tom Gais, and Dave King to complete a book manuscript that represented as best we could achieve the vision that Jack had for the book.
Joel, as one of Jack’s oldest and closet friends and colleagues, provided the knowledgeable overview for this effort. The rest of us took primary responsibility for revising the articles and chapters that we had written with Jack to weave together the manuscript — for me those are the two essays noted above that became Chapters 7 and 8 (on iron triangles and interest groups and the Reagan presidency). I also wrote the first draft of the preface. We all worked through the iterative refinements of the preface, chapters, and epilogue.
FRANK BAUMGARTNER: Working toward the completion of Jack’s book was a huge distraction for me, during a period when I did not yet have tenure. I was not 100 percent sure it was the right thing to do. But I hesitated only about 30 seconds, then threw myself into it, as did all the others. I’m glad I did. I got to give back to a person who had helped me so much. I got to work with a great team of friends and colleagues. I got to learn a little more about the publishing process. I made contacts with editors at University of Michigan press, eventually leading to the idea for my next book, Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science, which I did with my own graduate student, Beth Leech.
We all focused on separate chapters, some of which appeared with coauthorship indications in Jack’s 1991 book. By the end of the summer we had a manuscript and a dedicated panel at the APSA meetings where we presented our chapter drafts. We submitted the drafts from that APSA conference directly to the press and were able to get reviews, make revisions, and get the book in print quickly enough that the book bears a 1991 publication date.
In retrospect, my head spins. In the moment, it was just what we needed to do.
How did this experience impact your career?
JOEL ABERBACH (Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA): [Jack Walker’s] vibrant personality and warmth were a treasure to his students, his colleagues, and especially to those of us who were fortunate enough to know him well. And our profession lost a great student of American democracy whose insights would have been invaluable in this difficult time for our country.
MARK PETERSON: I worked for a number of years on four major projects while in the PhD program at Michigan: John Kingdon’s on agenda-setting, Tom Anton’s on intergovernmental fiscal analysis, Edie Goldenberg and Michael Traugott’s on campaign finance, and Jack’s. All were outstanding experiences that played important roles in my development as a quantitative political scientist, but my individual engagements and contributions were the most extensive working with Jack. He made me a true collaborator, as well as the others on the project. Being involved from soups-to-nuts, co-presenting and co-authoring with Jack, working from initial deliberation over ideas to data gathering, analysis, and writing, granted me the best sense of how to do effective political science at that particular time.
Moreover, he engaged me, and the others, in ways that went far beyond the project itself — in discussions of the discipline, the nature of academic administration, the character of a public university, balancing research and family, teaching during challenging political times (such as the Vietnam war era), etc. Jack also showed what it meant to be an exemplary human being, combining a real, authentic passion for scholarship with humor as well as humility and grace.
THOMAS GAIS: I used the interest group surveys in my dissertation and eventually my book on interest groups and campaign finance, Improper Influence: Campaign Finance Law, Political Interest Groups, and the Problem of Equality (U. Michigan Press, 1996). Jack’s ideas about the role of patrons greatly influenced my theoretical analysis in Chapter 2, where I linked those ideas to Mancur Olson’s work and campaign finance regulation. I also drew on our work on interest group strategies in a book I co-authored with Michael Malbin on campaign finance reform in the states, The Day After Reform: Sobering Campaign Finance Lessons from the American States (Brookings/Rockefeller Institute Press, 1998).
After 1998, much of my work has touched on federalism issues, and though the influence was indirect, some of the ideas in the BJPS article on the opening up and growth of conflict and competition among interest groups in the U.S., and the erosion of “subgovernments,” influenced my thinking about changes in U.S. federalism, including the decline of what some called “picket fence” federalism (which has a lot of overlap with the old subgovernment literature) and the growth of what I called executive federalism in Ch. 15 of The Executive Branch, edited by Aberbach and Peterson (Oxford U. Press, 2005).
FRANK BAUMGARTNER: Finishing a book for a close academic mentor is no fun. We would have much rather have seen what Jack would have come up with. And we lost a friend, mentor, and colleague at the peak of his career.
He was such a creative intellect, having made huge contributions in so many subfields of political science, that who knows what he would have done in the last 20 years of his career if he had survived as we expected him to.
I recall having Jack come to College Station to give a talk. One colleague thanked me, with some surprise, for having invited a theorist to campus. (He was thinking of “A Critique of the Elitist Theory of Democracy”, APSR 1966). Another said, thanks for bringing a state politics scholar to campus. (He was thinking of “The Diffusion of Innovations Among the American States”, APSR 1969.) Someone else said, thanks for bolstering the study of policy agendas with Walker’s visit. (That person was thinking of “Setting the Agenda in the US Senate”, BJPS, 1977.) And I thought I was bringing him in to talk about interest groups (“The Origins and Maintenance of Interest Groups in America”, APSR 1983).
I’ve often thought about those confusions in the years since. Who else did I know who had such varied impacts? Could I ever do such a thing?
No matter how the project had turned out, I would have known participating in it was the right thing to do. But what a pleasure it is to see the continued impact of the book now 30 years later, as indicated by the symposium in Interest Groups and Advocacy as well as this discussion.