Misuse of the term “Special Interests”

The words “special interest” are used very loosely these days. Thirty years ago in the nation’s capital, “special interest” meant those commercial lobbies who seek influence in Washington to preserve or expand their profits. Now it means any group that is organized to lobby.

Moreover, “special interest” is used to describe the activities of labor, the elderly, children or environmental groups far more frequently than the activities of corporate interest lobbies. To illustrate this point, ask yourself how often you hear or read about the “interest groups” of labor, minorities, the disabled and the elderly influencing the Democratic Party compared to the times you hear or read about business lobbies power over the Republican Party or for that matter the government.

Last week, even Ron Brown, Democratic Party Chairman, was quoted as saying that the “new Democratic Party has broken the stranglehold of special interests.” He was not referring to any of the Fortune 500, some of which are clients of the lobbying firm that lists him as a partner.

This is quite a tour d force by the corporate public relations firms which have been working to shift this “special interest” label onto the organized citizenry. Increasingly, children’s defense groups and other non-profit citizen groups are finding editorial writers using this description to apply to their advocacy. An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle recently lumped environmentalists with corporate lobbies because the former seek regulations to control pollution.

The tactic is not obscure. If citizen groups representing millions of otherwise defenseless Americans are called “special interest” how can they-plead on behalf of the “public interest”, or the general interest as they used to say in the nineteen thirties.

The result is to deprive citizen groups of the linguistic ability to distinguish themselves in the media from the far more narrow, far wealthier and far more powerful corporate interest groups.

Clarifying language needs to be enlisted simply by describing organizations less abstractly as “special interests” and more specifically as to what they are. If they are membership groups made up of the elderly or women or the poor, then describe them as they are. If they are advocacy groups who represent interests such as child safety, safe food, migrant workers, prison reforms, etc. the direct description can be used by reporters and editors.

All this is more than a matter of semantics or even accuracy. For the indiscriminate use of describing groups of oil, auto or drug industries in the same way as non-profit citizen groups seeking rights, safety standards or social services from government leads to the cynical conclusion that government should not concede the urgings of anyone who is organized and staffed to do just that.

What that conclusion gives some current commentators, who bewail the gridlock and the “hardening of the arteries of representative government” (The Chronicle’s phrase), is a dilemma. Government should represent the broader interests of society but only organizations of these interests can make the government deliver this lofty mission.

Corporate lobbies work overtime to debase the language so that it serves their interests. From the notorious $450 claw hammer sold to the Pentagon as a “uni-directional impact generator” to the description of the risk of explosion in a nuclear breeder reactor as an “energetic disassembly”, the word swindlers are hard at it. But that is no reason for the media to fall for their tainted propaganda ploys.

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