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Congress & the Middle East: The Pro-Israel & Pro-Arab Lobbies

by Mitchell Bard (Updated July 2012)

Reference is often made to the "Jewish lobby" in an effort to describe Jewish political influence in the United States. This term is both vague and inadequate. While it is true that American Jews are sometimes represented by lobbyists, such direct efforts to influence policy-makers are but a small part of the lobby’s ability to shape policy.

Organized groups do attempt to directly affect legislation. One of these, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a registered lobby. Other groups do not generally engage in direct lobbying (e.g., B’nai B’rith and Hadassah), but do disseminate information and encourage their members to become involved in the political process. They also sometimes lobby on specific issues. Though they have rarely influenced policy, Christian groups have also frequently weighed in on Israel's behalf and several pro-Israel organizations are comprised entirely of non-Jews. These organizations comprise the formal lobby.

U.S. Middle East policy is further shaped by Jewish voting behavior and American public opinion. These indirect means of influence are the informal lobby.

The formal and informal components tend to intersect at several points so the distinction is not always clear-cut. Together, however, they form the Israeli (or pro-Israel) lobby. This is a more accurate label than "Jewish lobby" because a large proportion of the lobby is made up of non-Jews. This term also reflects the lobby’s objective. The Israeli lobby can then be defined as those formal and informal actors that directly and indirectly influence American policy to support Israel.

The Israeli lobby does not have the field to itself. On any given issue, it may be opposed by a variety of interest groups unrelated to the Middle East (e.g., conservative groups that have nothing against Israel, but oppose foreign aid on principle), but its main rival is the Arab lobby, which similarly consists of those formal and informal actors that attempt to influence U.S. foreign policy to support the interests of the Arab states in the Middle East.

- The Informal Israeli Lobby
- The Informal Arab Lobby
- Campaign Donations
- Public Opinion
- The Formal Israeli Lobby
- The Arab Lobby
- Contrasts
- Measuring Influence

The Informal Israeli Lobby

American Jews recognize the importance of support for Israel because of the dire consequences that could follow from the alternative. Despite the fact that Israel is often referred to now as the fourth most powerful country in the world, the perceived threat to Israel is not military defeat, it is annihilation. At the same time, American Jews are frightened of what might happen in the United States if they do not have political power.

As a result, Jews have devoted themselves to politics with almost religious fervor. This is reflected by the fact that Jews have the highest percentage voter turnout of any ethnic group. The Jewish vote also matters because the population is concentrated in key states. Though the Jewish population in the United States is only about six million (about 2.3% of the total U.S. population), the 10 states with the highest concentration of Jews are worth 244 of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect the president. If you add the non-Jews shown by opinion polls to be as pro-Israel as Jews, it is clear Israel has the support of one of the largest veto groups in the country.

The political activism of Jews forces congressmen with presidential ambitions to consider what a mixed voting record on Israel-related issues may mean in the political future. There are no benefits to candidates taking an openly anti-Israel stance and considerable costs in both loss of campaign contributions and votes from Jews and non-Jews alike. Potential candidates therefore have an incentive to be pro-Israel; this reinforces support for Israel in Congress. Actual candidates must be particularly sensitive to the concerns of Jewish voters; it follows that the successful candidate's foreign policy will be influenced, although not bound, by the promises that had to be made during the campaign.

One way that lobbyists attempt to educate politicians is by taking them to Israel on study missions. Once officials have direct exposure to the country, its leaders, geography, and security dilemmas, they typically return more sympathetic to Israel. Politicians also sometimes travel to Israel specifically to demonstrate to the lobby their interest in Israel. Thus, for example, George W. Bush made his one and only trip to Israel before deciding to run for President in what was widely viewed as an effort to win pro-Israel voters' support. While there, he also was educated and was particularly influenced by a helicopter tour given to him by a man he would later work with as a fellow head of state — Ariel Sharon. In 2005 alone, more than 100 members of Congress visited Israel, some multiple times.1

Jewish congressmen are naturally expected to be supportive of Israel and, with the exception of occasional odd votes, this is true. Historically, however, few Jews have held elective office or primary positions of power, even though they have always been politically active. In the past decade, however, this has gradually begun to change. Today, Jews occupy more positions of influence than ever before. For example, in the 109th Congress, 11 Senators are Jewish (11 percent) while Jewish members comprise almost 6 percent of the House.

Bill Clinton nominated two Supreme Court Justices, both Jewish. He had several Jewish Cabinet members, including National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, and dozens of Jews held other key Administration posts. Bastions of bureaucratic opposition, and sometimes outright anti-Semitism, such as the CIA and State Department now employ Jews at the highest levels. For almost a decade, a Jew (Dennis Ross) was America's principal Mideast negotiator and Clinton appointed the first Jewish Ambassador to Israel (Martin Indyk). The George W. Bush Administration also has included many Jews in high-profile subcabinet positions.

The Informal Arab Lobby

The disproportionate influence of the American Jewish population is in direct contrast with the electoral involvement of Arab-Americans. There are approximately 1.2 million Arabs in the United States, and roughly 38 percent of them are Lebanese, primarily Christians, who tend to be unsympathetic to the Arab lobby's goals. This reflects another major problem for the Arab lobby -- inter-Arab disunity. This disunity is reinforced by the general discord of the Arab world, which has twenty-one states with competing interests. The Arab lobby is thus precluded from representing "the Arabs."

Only about 70,000 Palestinians (6 percent of all Arab-Americans) live in the United States, but their views have received disproportionate attention because of their political activism. Similarly, a great deal of attention has focused on the allegedly growing political strength of Muslims in the United States, but fewer than one-fourth of all Arab-Americans are Muslims according to the Arab-American Institute.2

About half of the Arab population is concentrated in five states — California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York — that are all key to the electoral college. Still, the Arab population is dwarfed by that of the Jews in every one of these states except Michigan.

Jewish and Arab Populations in Key States3

Arab Population (2000)
Percentage of Total State Population
Jewish Population (2011)
Percentage of Total State Population

Campaign Donations

Political campaign contributions are also considered an important means of influence; typically, Jews have been major benefactors. It is difficult to assess the impact of campaign giving on legislative outcomes, particularly with regard to Israel-related issues, where support or opposition may be a consequence of non-monetary factors. In addition, one does not know if a candidate is pro-Israel because of receiving a contribution, or receives a donation as a result of taking a position in support of Israel. In the past, Jewish contributions were less structured and targeted than other interest groups, but this has changed dramatically as Israel-related political action committees (PACs) have proliferated.

Initially, the Jewish community feared that post-Watergate election campaign financing reforms would reduce their influence, but the evidence so far suggests the opposite. If anything, the changes have stimulated greater political activism in the Jewish community.

The first pro-Israel PAC was formed in 1978, but there was little activity until 1982 when thirty-three pro-Israel PACs contributed $1.87 million to congressional candidates. Like other PACs, most of this money was given to incumbents and, because of the long association of Jews with the Democratic party, nearly 80 percent went to Democrats. The number of PACs more than doubled in 1984 as did their contributions. It was estimated that more than seventy pro-Israel PACs spent a little more than $4 million in 1984. By 1988, the figure was nearly $5 million. In 2008, pro-Israel PACs gave a little more than $3 million to candidates, and individuals contributed nearly $11 million more. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-Israel interests have contributed more than $100 million in individual, PAC, and soft money contributions to national-level candidates and national party committees since 1990, but even these contributions are dwarfed by those of labor unions, lawyers, doctors, and trade associations. In fact, out of 80 “industries,” the pro-Israel contributors rank only 40th.

On the Arab lobby side, only three PACs spent a trivial sum through 1988. Between 1990 and 2010, Arab and Muslim PACs combined contributed a total of less than $900,000.

The lobby took a more active and visible role than ever before in the 1984 election. The most obvious manifestation of this came in the congressional race involving seventy-six-year-old Maryland Democrat Clarence Long. Long, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations and a driving force behind increasing aid to Israel, was targeted by the Arab lobby: "to serve notice to members of Congress that the Arab lobby is ready and able to make life uncomfortable for Israel's friends on Capitol Hill."

Like the visible campaign undertaken in 1982 by the Israeli lobby to defeat pro-Arab Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois, the Arab lobby claimed victory when Long was defeated. As was the case in the Findley campaign, where the Congressman's district suffered from a high unemployment rate, and had been gerrymandered to his disadvantage, the reasons for Long's defeat were rooted in politics unrelated to the Middle East. In Long's case, redistricting took away a large percentage of his constituency and, after a narrow victory in 1982, he became a high priority target of the Republican National Committee.

In Jesse Jackson the Arab lobby found, for the first time, a presidential candidate receptive to their interests. Jackson had a long record of support for the Arab cause and was particularly outspoken in support of Palestinian rights, having met with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasir Arafat when it was considered politically taboo. As a result of his stands, Jackson received substantial financial support from members of the Arab lobby. The divisions of the lobby were again apparent, however, when the president of the American Lebanese League said Jackson turns his constituents off: "He seems interested in the welfare of Arab countries but not Lebanon or the United States."

Overall, the comparative impact of the two lobbies on elections was probably best summed up by Harry Truman in his frequently repeated statement to Paul Porter, a Washington attorney appointed as the ambassador to the Arab-Israeli peace talks in Geneva in 1948: "I won't tell you what to do or how to vote, but I will only say this. In all of my political experience I don't ever recall the Arab vote swinging a close election."

Public Opinion

The absence of a large voting bloc requires the Arab lobby to develop sympathies among the general public if it is to use public opinion or the electoral process as a means of influencing U.S. policy. The lobby has tried to support sympathetic American groups, such as Third World organizations, and cultivate friendships in the academic and business realms, but, as opinion polls have consistently shown, there is relatively little popular support for the Arab cause.

Since 1967, polls have found that sympathy for Israel varied between 32 and 64 percent, averaging 46 percent, while sympathy for the Arabs has oscillated between 1 and 30 percent and averaged only 12 percent. In the last several years, support for the Arabs has increased slightly, but this has not affected sympathies toward Israel.

Not only has the Arab lobby been unable to increase its standing significantly with the public, it has also failed to convince the American people that the Israeli lobby controls U.S. Middle East policy. In fact, polls indicate the public sees the Arab lobby as more of a threat than the Israeli lobby. For example, in a poll conducted several weeks after the Senate vote on the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, 53 percent of the public agreed Israel has "too much influence" on American foreign policy, but only 11 percent felt the same way about American Jews. By contrast, 64 percent said Saudi Arabia had too much influence, and 70 percent believed oil companies were too influential. A March 1983 poll asking which groups have "too much" political influence found that only 10 percent of those asked said "Jews." Business corporations and unions were considered too powerful by more than 40 percent of the respondents, with Arab interests next at 24 percent.

Thus, the Arab lobby's problem is twofold; it suffers from a very negative image and Israel enjoys a very positive image. This has gradually begun to change. To combat negative Arab stereotypes, former Senator James Abourezk founded the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in 1980. The ADC is modeled after the Anti-Defamation League, but is considerably smaller and weaker.

The Formal Israeli Lobby

The organization that directly lobbies the U.S. government on behalf of the Israeli lobby is AIPAC. The lobby, originally called the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs, was founded in 1951 by I.L. (Sy) Kenen to appeal directly to Congress for legislation to provide aid to Israel to circumvent State Department opposition. As recently as the late 1960s, the organization now considered the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington was essentially a one-man operation run by Kenen. In the late 1970s, AIPAC still had only a handful of staff based in Washington. Today, it has more than 100 employees with seven regional offices and a budget of more than $40 million and lobbies the Executive Branch as well as the Legislative. Because of its name, AIPAC is sometimes mistakenly thought to be a political action committee (PAC), but the organization does not rate, endorse or finance candidates.

AIPAC was not the first domestic lobby to concern itself with foreign affairs, but it is regarded as the most powerful. In 1998 and 1999, for example, Fortune Magazine named AIPAC the second most powerful lobby in Washington after the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP). The lobby strives to remain nonpartisan and thereby keeps friends in both parties. By framing the issues in terms of the national interest, AIPAC can attract broader support than would ever be possible if it was perceived to represent only the interests of Israel. This does not mean AIPAC does not have a close relationship with Israeli officials, it does, albeit unofficially. Even so, the lobby some times comes into conflict with the Israeli government. One of the most blatant examples occurred when AIPAC’s Executive Director Thomas Dine was quoted on the front page of the New York Times as saying the 1982 Reagan peace plan had some good points (and many bad ones) after the Israeli government had rejected the plan in toto. Despite such disagreements, the Israeli lobby tends to reflect Israeli government policy fairly closely. Though its influence is limited primarily to issues where Congress has a say, in particular, economic matters, the organization also serves as a watchdog to deter anti-Israel policies from being adopted.

Lobbyists usually roam the halls of Congress trying to get the attention of legislators so they can explain their positions. AIPAC has the luxury of being able to call its allies in Congress to pass along information, and then leaves much of the work of writing bills and gathering cosponsors to the legislative staffs. The lobbyists themselves are mostly Capitol Hill veterans who know how to operate the levers of power.

Since it does not use stereotypical lobbying tactics, the Israeli lobby depends on the network it has developed to galvanize the Jewish community to take some form of political action. The network consists of at least seventy-five different organizations, which in one way or another support Israel. Most cannot legally engage in lobbing, but are represented on the Board of Directors of AIPAC, so they are able to provide input into the lobby's decision-making process. Equally important is the bureaucratic machinery of these organizations, which enables them to disseminate information to their members and facilitate a rapid response to legislative activity.

A second coordinating body is the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It is composed of leaders of 55 different organizations and is responsible for formulating and articulating the "Jewish position" on most foreign policy matters. The conference allows the lobby to speak with one voice in a way its opponents cannot. The conference is the main contact between the Jewish community and the executive branch, while AIPAC tends to be the conduit with the legislative branch.

Even with the Jewish population concentrated in key states, there is still only a total of about six million Jews; therefore, the Israeli lobby is dependent on the support of non-Jewish groups and actively works to form coalitions with broad segments of American society. The lobby has successfully built coalitions consisting of unions, entertainers, clergymen, scholars, and black leaders. The coalitions allow the lobby to demonstrate a broad public consensus for a pro-Israel policy.

The Arab Lobby

The Arab lobby in the United States is at least as old, perhaps older than the Israeli lobby. It is composed of what I.L. Kenen called the petro-diplomatic complex consisting of the oil industry, missionaries, and diplomats. According to Kenen, there was no need for a formal Arab lobby because the petro-diplomatic complex did the Arabs' work for them.

One of the earliest activities of the petro-diplomatic complex began in 1951 when King Saud of Saudi Arabia asked U.S. diplomats to finance a pro-Arab lobby to counter the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (later the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -AIPAC). The Arab lobby became an official, active, and visible spokesman for the Arab cause in the wake of the oil embargo. "The day of the Arab-American is here," boasted National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA) founder Richard Shadyac, "the reason is oil."

From the beginning, the Arab lobby has faced not only a disadvantage in electoral politics but also in organization. There are several politically oriented groups, but many of these are one man operations with little financial or popular support. Americans for Justice in the Middle East was formed by a group of Americans at the American University in Beirut after the 1967 war to combat "Zionism's virulent thirty-year campaign of hate and vindictiveness." Two Anti-Zionist Jews are also active supporters of the Arab lobby. Elmer Berger runs American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism and Alfred Lilienthal publishes his own newsletter Middle East Perspectives.

There are a number of larger and more representative groups, including the aforementioned NAAA and ADC, the Middle East Research and Information Project; the Middle East Affairs Council, Americans for Near East Refugee Aid, the Arab American Institute and the American Palestine Committee. Typically, these organizations have boards of directors composed of prominent retired government officials. Board members have included former Ambassador to Jordan, L. Dean Brown, Herman Eilts, former Ambassador to Syria and Egypt; Parker T. Hart, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and several others.

The formal Arab lobby is the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA), a registered domestic lobby founded in 1972 by Richard Shadyac. The NAAA was consciously patterned after its counterpart, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Shadyac believed the power and wealth of the Arab countries stemming from their oil reserves, would allow the Arab lobby to take advantage of the political process in the same way the Jews have been thought to. Like AIPAC, the NAAA makes its case on the basis of U.S. national interests, arguing a pro-Israel policy harms those interests. Aid to Israel is criticized as a waste of taxpayers' money, and the potential benefits of a closer relationship with the Arab states is emphasized.

The highlight of the NAAA's early efforts was a meeting between President Ford and twelve NAAA officials in 1975. Since then, the NAAA has participated in meetings with each president and obtained access to top government officials. In 1977, for example, after Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem, the Arab lobby made its displeasure over United States support for the initiative known to President Carter, who wrote in his diary: "They [Arab-Americans] have given all the staff, Brzezinski, Warren Christopher, and others, a hard time. Although the lobby's concerns began to reach the highest levels of government, there were no perceptible changes in United States policy."

It is not only Arab-Americans who have made the lobby's case; the Arab lobby, like the Israeli lobby, has successfully built coalitions with other interest groups. As noted earlier, the pedro-diplomatic complex was the lobby until 1972, when the NAAA was formed. Even today, arguably, it is the most influential component of the lobby. Nevertheless, most of the nation's major corporations have not supported the Arab lobby. In fact, prior to the AWACS sale, oil companies were about the only corporations willing to openly identify with Arab interests. The reason is that most corporations prefer to stay out of foreign policy debates; moreover, corporations may feel constrained by the implicit threat of some form of retaliation by the Israeli lobby.

The major oil companies feel no such constraints. Exxon, Standard Oil of California (SoCal), Mobil, and Texaco have long sought to manipulate public opinion and foreign policy on the Middle East. These companies as a group comprise the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). Participation in the public relations campaign amounted to the price of doing business in the oil-producing nations.

The campaign began after the 1967 War when ARAMCO established a fund to help present the Arab side of the conflict. In May 1970, ARAMCO representatives met with Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco and warned him American military sales to Israel would hurt U.S.-Arab relations and jeopardize U.S. oil supplies. The former chairman of ARAMCO testified before Congress that the United States' pro-Israel policies were harming U.S. business interests. In 1972, at Kuwait's urging, Gulf Oil joined the campaign, providing $50,000 to create a public relations firm to promote the Arab side.

The campaign took on greater urgency in 1973 after Frank Jungers, then Chairman of the Board of ARAMCO, met with Saudi King Faisal, and was pressured to take a more active role in creating a sympathetic attitude toward the Arab nations. In June, a month after the Jungers meeting, Mobil published its first advertisement/editorial in the New York Times. In July, SoCal's chairman sent out a letter to the company's 40,000 employees and 262,000 stockholders asking them to pressure Washington to support "the aspirations of the Arab people." The chairman of Texaco called for a reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy. When the October 1973 War broke out, the chairmen of the ARAMCO partners sent a memorandum to the White House warning against increasing military aid to Israel. Since 1973, ARAMCO has maintained its public relations campaign and become involved in occasional legislative fights, such as the AWACS sale, but, on the whole, the campaign has had no observable impact on U.S. policy.

Other companies outside the oil industry are involved in the Arab lobby, the most well-known being the international engineering firm Bechtel, but the Arab and Israeli lobbies have had virtually no confrontations since the AWACS fight in 1981, in part because the Israeli lobby hasn't opposed any major arms sales or other economic investments in the region that threatened U.S. corporate interests.

A relatively ignored component of the "Arab lobby" is found among the Christian community, most notably, the National Council of Churches (NCC). The NCC is composed of thirty-two Protestant denominations, including virtually all major church bodies. The Council has taken consistently anti-Israel stands, and its 1980 policy statement on the Middle East called for the creation of a PLO state. Besides passing anti-Israel resolutions, the NCC puts on seminars, radio shows, and conferences. From 1972 to 1977, it published the ARAMCO financed SWASIA (Southwest Asia) newsletter. When SWASIA ceased publication, the NCC established an Islamic desk to "enable American Christians to understand Arab Christian and Muslim attitudes." The relationship between the NCC and other Arab lobby organizations is primarily informal, with NCC leaders serving on many of their boards.


At least two major differences distinguish the Arab and Israeli lobbies. First, the Arab lobby almost always lobbies negatively; i.e., against pro-Israel legislation rather than for pro-Arab legislation. In 2004, for example, members of Congress were graded on a number of issues, including: opposition to the war with Iraq; opposition to resolutions that condemned terrorism inflicted on Israel, that supported President Bush's letter supporting Israel, that called for a halt to Saudi support for terrorism and Syrian accountability, and that supported Israel's construction of a security fence; opposition to a letter calling for the Palestinians to meet certain obligations; and a resolution expressing sympathy for an American woman who was accidentally killed protesting Israeli house demolitions.4

The other major difference between the two lobbies is the use of paid foreign agents by the Arab lobby. Pro-Arab U.S. government officials can look forward to lucrative positions as lobbyists, spokesmen, and consultants for the Arab cause. For example, the outspoken critic of the Israeli lobby, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright, was hired by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. It was the Saudis' agent, Fred Dutton, a former Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs and special assistant to President Kennedy, who spearheaded the AWACS campaign and reputedly conceived the "Reagan vs. Begin" angle. Other top officials who have provided their services to the Arab lobby include: Clark Clifford, President Johnson's Defense Secretary; Richard Kleindienst, President Nixon's Attorney General; and William Rogers, Nixon's Secretary of State.

Overall, the Israeli lobby is effective because it enjoys advantages in every area considered relevant to interest group influence. It has (a) a large and vocal membership; (b) members who enjoy high status and legitimacy; (c) a high degree of electoral participation (voting and financing); (d) effective leadership; (e) a high degree of access to decision-makers; and (f) public support. Moreover, for reasons at least partly attributable to the lobby's efforts, the lobby's primary objective — a U.S. commitment to Israel — has been accepted as a national interest.

Measuring Influence

Most articles and research on the Middle East interest groups are based on anecdotes, case studies or casual observation. They either vaguely conclude the Israeli lobby has some influence some of the time or (usually in the case of works by authors hostile to Israel) assert the Israeli lobby is a powerful and dangerous influence that controls U.S. policy.

In a more rigorous study of 782 policy decisions made from 1945 to 1984, I found the Israeli lobby won; that is, achieved its policy objective, 60 percent of the time. The most important variable was the president's position. When the president supported the lobby, it won 95 percent of the time. At first glance it appears the lobby was only successful because its objectives coincided with those of the president, but the lobby's influence was demonstrated by the fact that it still won 27 percent of the cases when the president opposed its position.

One of the most surprising results, particularly in light of conventional wisdom and evidence presented in case studies, was that the president's position was not significantly affected by the electoral cycle. Although candidates may appear to pander to Jewish voters, the data indicate the electoral cycle does not affect influence success.

Lobby success also varied depending on the policy at issue. The lobby was very successful in overcoming presidential opposition on economic issues, but rarely able to defeat the president on security and political issues. The lobby was more successful on economic issues because most of those were decided in Congress where pro-Israel congressman frequently fought for increased aid levels for Israel, earmarked funds for Israel and adopted amendments to aid bills that were endorsed by the Israeli lobby.

The lobby's lack of success on political issues was most likely a result of the fact that most of these cases were decided in the executive branch where lobby influence is relatively weak. The outcome might also be explained by the tradition of congressional deference to the president on matters of security and diplomacy.

Sources: 1JTA, January 13, 2006).
2Alex Ionides, "Getting Their House Together," Egypt Today, (November 2003).
3U.S. Census Bureau (2000); Jewish Demography Project.
4Shirl McArthur, “Five Senators, 29 Representatives Included in 108th Congress' 'Hall of Shame,'” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, (November 2004), pp. 36-37.

Mitchell G. Bard. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008;
The Water's Edge And Beyond
. NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1991;
Center for Responsive Politics