In the American model of democracy, interest groups play an essential role. US political parties generally can not offer satisfactory representation for the full range of different interests and opinions in America’s diversified society, since the parties’ main function is to combine interests into a coherent political entity capable of governing all the states. Interest groups, also referred to as pressure groups, bring forth particular interests and causes and exert influence on the state’s decision-making policy as well as public opinion. (Truman, “Introduction to Pressure Groups”). There are a number of different types of interest groups identified, mainly according to their methods of operation: sectional groups focussed on a particular defined interest such as trade unions; cause or promotional, advancing a cause (for instance, animal welfare), insider and outsider interest groups, distinguished according to the extent of their involvement in the formulation of policies.
Therefore, as a typical characteristic of similar democracies around the world, apart from political parties, pressure groups exist to engage in organising and transmitting the interests and opinions of different sections of society to the government and politicians. Thus interest groups act as intermediaries between the government and the public in an attempt to ensure a more active role of the people in their own government. One of the purposes of this paper will be to present a comprehensive definition of interest groups. Only when clear delineations of the concept of interest groups are considered, can the influence of pressure groups be looked at. A discussion will then follow focused on the contrast between the positive effects interest groups have on American democracy and the concerns about their intervention with the government’s effectiveness.
In his study of interest groups, David Truman used the term interest group to address “any group that, on the basis of one or more shared attitudes, makes certain claims upon other groups in the society for the establishment, maintenance, or enhancement of forms of behaviour that are implied by the shared attitudes” (Truman, 1951: 33). The term interest group then is not precise at all. According to Truman (1951: 33) it includes broad categorical groups from the general public that have shared attitudes and shared views on the actions needed to be taken in order to achieve their interests (Walker, 1991: 4). Truman notes that any group in society that makes an attempt to influence the government in order to achieve certain goals can be considered political. His definition covers virtually any grouping within society, whether it is what he refers to as “potential groups”, people who share interests and attitudes but are not organized formally into functioning organizations, or the more conventional groups maintaining staff and making evident attempts to take part in politics (Walker, 1991: 4)
In their attempt to influence the government, interest groups play diverse roles in American politics. Pressure groups represent their constituents before the government. Jeffrey Berry describes their task as “a primary link between citizens and their government, forming a channel of access through which members voice their opinions to those who govern them”. Berry’s pluralist idea is that pressure groups overcome the democratic deficit that builds up as most people’s political participation is limited to casting a vote on election day every few years, thus leading to people having little or no influence over decisions made between elections, and minority views not being represented. Pressure groups increase participation and access to the political system, thereby enhancing the quality of democracy. Berry states: “… in the real world of politics, the democratic process must provide some means by which manufacturers, environmentalists, construction workers, or whoever can speak to government about their specific policy preferences and have the government listen”.
Interest groups also educate the American public about various political issues. They can make people more aware of both policy problems and proposed solutions through publications and publicity campaigns (Berry, 1997: 7). Berry illustrates this with an example of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposing regulations aimed at cutting down on teenage smoking, and the counter reaction of tobacco companies. “The FDA rules were designed to stop vending machine sales, limit billboard advertising, and prohibit cigarette company sponsorship of sporting and entertainment events”(Berry, 1997: 7) As a result, cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris “ran a series of full-page ads in leading newspapers that warned people that these regulations were symptomatic of a federal bureaucracy growing bigger rather than smaller”(Berry, 1997: 7). This example, of course, shows how the influence of anti-smoking groups have exercised in informing people about the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer results in “defensive actions from the tobacco companies”(Berry, 1997: 8). Interest groups therefore are helpful and necessary for providing diverse viewpoints as well as factual information into the policy-making process (Lindblom, 1993: 75).
Another kind of interest group influence is providing campaign financing for candidates. Lindblom’s view is that “potential candidates who cannot find an ally in at least one major interest group often cannot, for lack of finance, run successfully”, thus legislatures are occupied with members “inclined to at least listen carefully to the concerns of those who helped them win office”.(Lindblom, 1993: 75). This influence however is argued by some to have controversial effects. Even though no interest group can contribute more than $5,000 to one candidate, “individuals still account for 60 percent of all money raised by House candidates and 75 percent of the funds for Senate campaigns”(Lindblom, 1993: 81) Lindblom argues that interest groups favour candidates in office, and thereby “contribute to the problem of low turnover in Congress, especially in the House”(Lindblom, 1993: 81)
In Jeffrey Berry’s study of interest groups, he addresses this very flaw of interest groups. “In a system such as ours, interest groups constantly push government to enact policies that benefit small constituencies at the expense of the general public” (Berry 1997: 1). He mentions “a troubling dilemma that lies at the core of the American political system” (Berry, 1997: 1). What he calls “Madison’s Dilemma” refers to the discussion that if the government does not allow people to pursue self-interest, it takes away their political freedom, thus violating democracy. In countries of the world in which people are forbidden to organize and to express freely their political views, “we find that there the dilemma has been solved by authoritarianism” (Berry, 1997: 1) Therefore, interest groups are an indispensable part of democracy, even though some do not agree. In overall, the benefits that interest groups contribute to the decision-making process outweigh the concerns of some about their increasingly powerful role. As Berry states himself, “permitting people to advocate whatever they want is a far more preferable alternative than obstructing democracy” (Berry, 1997: 1).
There is however, a way to find some middle ground. Looking at the question of interest group influence, we can refer to “The Federalist” for James Madison’s analysis in essay number 10 (The Federalist Papers, pp.77-84). This analysis, according to Berry, “remains the foundation of American political theory on interest groups” (Berry, 1997: 2). Madison foresaw correctly that people would organize in some way to further their common interests. But Madison did not see these organization, or factions as he called them, as anything unusual or as a potential problem. He argued that as society develops, “it is inevitable that different social classes will emerge, that competing interests based on differing occupations will arise and that clashing political philosophies will take hold among the populace” (Berry, 1997: 2). Madison also expressed the concern observed today, that one or several powerful organizations could eventually “come to tyrannize others in society” (Berry, 1997:3). But the solution for him explicitly excluded any restrictions on the freedoms that permitted people to pursue their own selfish interests, stating that “the remedy would be worse than the disease” (Berry, 1997: 3).
In Madison’s mind then, the effects of interest groups must be controlled rather than eliminating interest groups themselves. The idea is that this control can be achieved by “setting into place the structure of government proposed in the Constitution” (Berry, 1997: 3). Madison’s “cure for the mischiefs of interest groups” was based on the idea that since the American government’s authority spreads over such a large and diverse population, the effects of interest groups would be “diluted by the clash of many competing interests across the country” (Berry 1997: 3).
The argument is that in a country as large as the United States, countless interests would arise and a representative government with its own “checks and balances” would not become dominated by any one single interest. Instead, government can manage more easily the views of all, thus resulting in production of policies that would be in the common interest (Berry, 1997: 3). This pluralist point of view argues that “the many (that is, plural) interests in society find representation in the policymaking process through lobbying by interest groups” (Berry, 1997: 4). There is no doubt that indeed the negotiations that went on between interest groups and government lead to “policies produced by compromise and consensus” (Berry, 1997: 4). This thus gives the incentive to perceive interest groups as more beneficial to the system of democracy that is America, rather than an obstruction, based on “the positive contributions made by interest groups in speaking for their constituents before government” (Berry, 1997: 4).
In conclusion, interest groups’ efforts for their “voice to be heard” by administration, representing their constituency, and for their interests to be considered in the decision-making process, results in entwined positives and negatives. The ways by which interest groups promote democracy can sometimes be a hindrance for the implementation of important, effective laws. The disadvantages of these groups’ effect can be arguable, but the presence of the impact itself on modern political systems cannot be disputed. Interest groups contribute to extending American democracy to all sections of its society, granting the American population a unique opportunity to participate more directly in the decision-making processes.
Baggott, Rob. Pressure Groups Today. 1st ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Federalist Papers, 1961. New York: New American Library, pp. 77-84 in Jeffrey M. Berry The Interest Group Society United States: Longman
Berry, J. M. 1997 “The Interest Group Society”. United States of America: Longman
Lindblom, C. E. 1993 “The Policy-Making Process”. United States of America: Prentice-Hall Inc.
Truman, C. “Introduction to Pressure Groups”. Available at www.historylearningsite.co.uk [Accessed 22nd November 2008].
Truman, David B. 1951. “The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion” in Jack L. Walker (1991) Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: patrons, professions, and social movements. United States of America: The University of Michigan Press.
Walker, Jack L. 1991. “Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: patrons, professions, and social movements”. United States of America: The University of Michigan Press.