Commentary Magazine


He’s Against the Special Interests

John Conway, Kentucky attorney general and the Democratic candidate for the Senate, running against Ron Paul, was asked on Fox News Sunday this morning why he wanted to be elected. He answered (paraphrasing, as the transcript is not yet available) that he wanted to go to Washington to fight against the special interests and for the state of Kentucky.

One question: isn’t the state of Kentucky a special interest? My dictionary defines the term to mean a “person or group seeking to influence legislation or government policy to further often narrowly defined interests.” As Kentucky is not coterminous with the entire country, it is, by this definition, a special interest. There’s nothing wrong with being one. A country, after all, is made up of practically nothing but. What good politicians mostly do is assemble temporary coalitions of special interests in order to further the national interest. What bad ones do is pander to particular special interests in order to ensure their own re-election.

So the constant political refrain about “fighting the special interests” is nonsense. President Obama never tires of railing against the special interests but has no problem doing big favors for labor unions, especially public-service ones. Republicans rail against the special interests but give all the help they can to advancing the agenda of the National Rifle Association.

It reminds me of one of this country’s more eccentric writers, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), a critic, journalist, poet, and short story writer, known as “bitter Bierce” for his sometimes savage dismembering of other people’s prose. He is largely forgotten today, except for two things. One is his death. He went to Mexico in 1913 at the age of 71 to report on the Mexican Revolution and disappeared while “embedded” (to use a very modern term) with rebel troops. He was never seen again and no trace of him was ever found. The other thing for which he is remembered is  The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911.

A sometimes hilarious and often deeply cynical book, it is, second only to Mark Twain, a bottomless well from which to draw snappy quotations about politics. He defines politics as astrife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” A conservative, to Bierce, is a “statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” A scribbler is a “professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one’s own.”

Ambrose Bierce did not define the term special interest, which was coined only a year before his dictionary was published. But one can imagine what he would have made of it. My suggestion would be: special interest, n. Any organization or identifiable group of individuals likely to fund or vote for one’s political opponents.