Jeffrey M. Berry: Selected Publications and Working Papers

The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups

Jeffrey M. Berry, American Politics, Political Behavior

(The first two pages of this book are reprinted below. This does not incorporate the publisher's copyediting, so please do not quote from this text)

One of the truisms about American politics is that liberalism is dead. Labor is weak; the welfare state has collapsed; conservatives dominated Congress even before the Republicans formally took control in 1995; and Bill Clinton could win re-election in 1996 only by running on Republican issues. Liberals are seen as a sad lot, still trying to figure out what happened. They almost have a nostalgic quality about them, sort of like the bell bottoms stuck in the back of the closet.

But liberalism is not dead. Indeed, it's thriving.

Liberalism has, however, changed its stripes. The dominant strain of American liberalism today is postmaterialism--concerns of culture, status, life style, morality, and rights. What it is in retreat is traditional liberalism, concerned with issues of economic equality and promoted primarily by unions and groups sympathetic to the poor. Although postmaterialism is advocated by groups on both the right and the left, liberal groups have been most successful in getting government to respond to their priorities. Citizen lobbying groups are the moving force behind modern liberalism.

The Liberals' Agenda

This argument about contemporary liberalism is not based on revisionist history, a deconstruction of what the terms liberal and conservative actually mean, a novel interpretation of current social policy, or a new research methodology for studying American politics. Instead it rests on a rather conventional analysis of the congressional agenda. I looked at what Congress actually did in three separate sessions and recorded basic information about the types of policies they were acting on and which kinds of interest groups were involved. In this regard it is important to emphasize that this study is restricted to policymaking in the Congress. Thus, the argument about liberal postmaterialism is an argument only about how it has fared there. Research on the federal courts or on state-level politics or on public opinion might reveal different patterns; the mix of issues and advocacy may be significantly different outside of Congress. Still, Congress is at the very center of American national politics, and the policies it considers and acts upon shape the lives of Americans in direct and fundamental ways.

The major findings can be stated succinctly:

First, since the early 1960s the agenda of American politics has shifted from a preoccupation with issues that are exclusively material in orientation to a focus on issues that involve quality-of-life concerns. In simple terms, policy decisions in Congress have moved from questions on how to increase the economic pie to questions about how to balance economic growth with the need to enhance the environment, protect consumers, or improve personal well-being. The change has been dramatic and enduring, and the rise of postmaterialism has profound consequences for whose interests are represented in the legislative process.

Second, it is citizen groups that have been the primary political force behind this change. More specifically, it is primarily citizen groups of the left that caused this change. Despite the prominence of conservative citizen groups and their success in attracting members, they have been marginal players in the legislative process. (By citizen groups I mean lobbying organizations that mobilize members, donors, or activists around interests other than their vocation or profession).