The not-so-special interest

A lot of politicians perpetually attack their opponents for “catering to the special interests,” and, at the same time, support other causes that their opponents brand with the same label. (And, of course, several politicians vote for things they pretend to condemn in speeches.) But what exactly are these dastardly “special interests?” That depends on who is defining it.

When liberals criticize “special interests,” they generally mean either money-worshiping business interests that harm workers and the environment, or fundamentalists of the theocratic, pro-gun, anti-tax, anti-equality or anti-abortion varieties.

Conservatives — who seem especially fond of the term — tend to apply it to labor unions, environmentalists, family-planning groups and, well, pretty much anybody who isn’t just like they are. In both cases, the “special interests” decried by one side are the core constituents of the other. So are any of them really “special?”

But how do we define a “special interest” anyway? As a less-than-majority interest? Maybe a cause embraced by the minority of the population? Well, that’s basically any cause.

How about a concern that doesn’t directly benefit everyone?

Apparently a general definition of “special interests” is hard to come by. That’s because if we look at how the term is actually used, it’s often both contradictory and utterly meaningless. The curious thing about alleged “special interests” is that they’re often denounced and rarely they’re clearly defined by conservative candidates.

The Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell types are largely preaching to the choir. But politicians usually need to appeal to undecided voters. That’s why hazy expressions like “freedom,” “family values” and “special interests” are such favorites of the politicians and talking heads. Their ambiguity allows them to function as code terms with meanings for “true believers,” while at the same time encouraging uncertain potential supporters to fill in whatever meaning they like. By having both precise meanings and none at all, these buzzwords can be used both cater to diehard followers and to con the undecided.

Think about it this way: If a bunch of sinister, vaguely defined “interest groups” really are “special” and somehow unworthy, then exactly whose interests are implied as being legitimate general interests? Maybe the bland, complacent moderates who don’t feel strongly about much of anything? Or the so-called edgy moderates who basically function as passive conservatives? Perhaps the kind who maybe aren’t fully content with the status quo, yet cling to it merely because it’s familiar? What about the kind who are easily unnerved by rumors of shadowy forces threatening to change things? Or maybe wishy-washy uninformed swing voters who decide on little more than sound bites and don’t worry much about specifics?

Unfortunately, these are the main targets for most of this fear mongering about “special interests.” And sorry to say, they often vote their fears.

Conservatives aim above all to conserve their strict conceptions of proper behavior, enforced by established authority and traditions, which are viewed as unquestionably right and just. They therefore regard challenges to that structure as either whiny and ungrateful (such as unions, minorities and feminists), or foolish and freakish (“tree huggers,” homosexuals and again feminists). For such groups, “special interests” is a euphemism for “deviants.” It’s a term of condescension and exclusion.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that society should respect and promote dignity, creativity and opportunity for all individuals, and that practices hindering these principles should be changed.

Some conservatives find such ideas threatening, so they write off liberal causes as no more than self-serving “special interests.” But if that term can be accurately applied to anything in the real world, then what deserves it more than the conservatives’ persistent defense of small-minded authoritarianism under the delusion that no alternative could be better?

Roy Vaughn is a post-baccalaureate student in biology.