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Political Behavior - Organized Political Action

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In the second half of the twentieth century, developed nations throughout the world witnessed the establishment of old-age-based political organizations, and a tremendous expansion in their number, the size of their memberships, and their visibility. These have been stable and enduring organizations, and some of them have substantial bureaucracies, in contrast, for example, with occasional ad hoc U.S. groups and movements that sought government income assistance for older Americans prior to the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. In the United States alone, there are over one hundred national organizations focused on aging policies and concerns, sometimes referred to as the "gray lobby." These include mass membership groups representing older people in general or subgroups of the elderly, single-issue advocacy groups, and organizations of professionals and service providers (see Day; Van Tassel and Meyer). Although the United States has probably seen the largest number of older people organized into the most numerous and diverse array of such groups, aging-based political organizations have also emerged in Australia (Kendig and McCallum), Canada (Gifford), Japan (Campbell), and throughout Europe (Walker and Naegele).

The proliferation of stable old-age political organizations can be traced to several factors. First, the existence of policies on aging, in itself, tends to create old-age-based political organizations and action (Hudson). The expansion of old-age benefits that took place following World War II gave the elderly and those who serve them a substantial stake in protecting what they had gained. In the United States, for instance, perceptions that old-age benefit programs were in financial and political jeopardy in the late 1970s and early 1980s led directly to the formation of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) and a broad coalition of old-age-based organizations, Save Our Security. Second, grants and contracts from government agencies, as well as foundations, have propelled the growth of existing interest groups and the emergence of new ones. And third, the stability and growth of these organizations have been effectively promoted by a variety of incentives that attract members and maintain political legitimacy.

Clark and Wilson's incentive systems theory of organizations—distinguishing among material, associational or solidary, and purposive incentives (which may overlap within a given organization)—provides a useful framework for distinguishing among types of old-age organizations. Among U.S. organizations that are primarily characterized by purposive incentives are NCPSSM and the United Seniors Association; a number of organizations focused on improving the status of elderly minority group members (e.g., the National Hispanic Council on Aging); trade associations of service-providers to older people (e.g., the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Providers); and the Alliance for Retired Americans, the Older Women's League, and the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

The archetype of an old-age interest group that has been maintained and has grown primarily through material incentives that attract mass memberships is AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons). For a $10 enrollment fee it provides publications, drug and travel discounts, assistance in filing taxes, and driver training programs, and offers its members insurance programs, investment funds, and a variety of other "affinity" products. With these incentives it achieved a membership of about 36 million and total revenues of $485 million in 1999 (AARP), and it is currently promoting membership enrollment internationally. AARP also provides associational incentives in the form of local chapters, but only 3 percent of the membership is involved in them (Day). In addition, it expends about 11 percent of its revenue on lobbying and public policy research (AARP). But the staff and volunteer leaders have long recognized that the organization's large membership is inherently diverse in political views. They try to avoid taking stands on what they regard as relatively divisive issues and, for example, have been largely inattentive to the needs of the poorest and most disadvantage elderly. Nonetheless, on several occasions in recent years the leadership's issues positions have generated angry dissent from members and substantial resignations (Binstock, 1997b).

Even as no one organization can fully represent the diversity of the elderly, the groups themselves are diverse in terms of constituencies, tactics, decision-making procedures, and are often divided on old-age policy issues. Coalition building, like that exemplified by the forty-organization Leadership Council of Aging Organizations in the United States, has been a political strategy for these organizations to help them cope, somewhat, with the problems of diversity. Yet the effectiveness of these coalitions tends to be limited because they often have internal divisions on a number of important issues (Day).

What has been the impact of old-age based organizations in bringing issues to the agenda and influencing their outcomes? Although there is no credible evidence of old-age voting blocs or voting cohesion in the United States, the mass membership groups, in particular, do have some role in the policy process. Public officials find it both useful and incumbent upon them to invite such organizations to participate in policy activities. In this way public officials are provided with a ready means of having been "in touch" with tens of millions of older persons, thereby legitimizing subsequent policy actions and inactions. This also symbolically legitimizes the old-age organizations and gives them several types of power. First, they have easy informal access to public officials and their staffs. Second, they are able to obtain public platforms in the national media, congressional hearings, and national conferences and commissions dealing with old-age policy issues. Third, the mass membership groups can mobilize their members in large numbers to contact policymakers and register displeasure when changes are being contemplated in old-age programs. Fourth, and perhaps the most important form of power available to the old-age groups is the "electoral bluff." Although these organizations have not demonstrated a capacity to swing a decisive bloc of older voters, the perception of being powerful is a source of political influence. Incumbent members of Congress are hardly inclined to risk upsetting the existing distribution of votes that puts them and keeps them in office by calling the bluff of the elderly or any other latent mass constituency.

Nonetheless, these forms of power have been quite limited in their impact. The old-age interest groups have had little to do with the enactment and amendment of major old-age policies such as Social Security. Rather, such actions have been largely attributable to the initiatives of public officials who were focused on their own agendas for social and economic policy. Support in Congress for old-age benefits has been linked more to perceptions of need and deservingness than to group or constituency pressures (see Cook and Barrett). The power of old-age interest groups has been largely defensive, aimed at protecting existing programs. Even so, these organizations have not been able to prevent significant (though not radical) policy reforms that have been perceived to be adverse to the interests of an artificially homogenized constituency of "the elderly" (see Binstock, 1994; Day).



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