Position Paper: The Role of Interest Groups in Policy Making
The involvement of interest groups in policy making has gained a significant attention in research and public debate over the past decade. With a large number of interest groups, the political system is likely to be characterized by conflicts and bias as each group tries to assert its goals and interests in policymaking (Cigler 34). Some researchers and commentators argue that organized interest groups receive favorable treatments in politics at the expense of the public. James Madison argued against majoritarian democracy in which large interest groups control the political system, arguing that such large factions pose a significant threat to individual rights. However, pluralists are optimistic about interest groups as tools for giving individuals bargaining power, and achieving democratic equilibrium. Interest groups are important components of a democratic political system, but they should not be allowed to interfere with the ability of the government to protect individual rights and serve public interests.
Interest groups are organizations of people with common goals who come together within the political process to raise their issues (Hays 2017). Such organized teams exist to maximize their interests, which sometimes occur at the expense of the general public. Politics is essentially a system of conflicting interests as competing groups engage in continuous bargaining processes to gain power (Connolly 123). Differences and inequalities exist across various interest groups, but the political processes enhance even distribution of resources and power. The different bipartisan assemblages proclaim their concerns, attitudes, views and needs to the elected officials.
Pluralists support interest groups as a way of distributing power through political processes (Connolly 178). Through power distribution, people can balance interests and achieve democratic equilibrium where the varying needs, views and interests are represented in decision making and service delivery (Horn 35). According to pluralists, individuals have a higher chance of achieving their goals by participating in a group to further their interests. Pluralism promotes competition of group interests and equality, such that people balance their interests to achieve an agreeable central position.
According pluralists, there is nothing that is absolutely certain about power; hence an actual participation of citizens in policymaking is necessary to promote effective leadership (Connolly 178). Power is tied to issues, and no particular group can assert its interests over others to achieve their values. There is no issue that is permanent, and leadership roles are necessary to adjust to the changing issues. Pluralists believe that resources and power are widely distributed in society; some resources are available to everyone; and potential power exceeds actual power at any given time (Connolly 182). Furthermore, no individual is proven to be all-powerful and capable of asserting absolute power. A group or individual that is strong in one situation may be weak in another realm. Thus, interest groups help individuals and groups to balance their strengths and weaknesses to achieve effective public policy.
In the United States, citizens are reliant on interest groups to a large extent; and they benefit from these groups because they can identify an interest group that advocates for their concerns, and use it to negotiate or bargain for their needs and interests to be served. Although some of the groups do not have any political alignment, they all try to influence public policy to meet their goals (Hays 2017). For instance, people of color aligned themselves to various interest groups in the civil rights movement in 1960s to propagate their agenda for the abolishment of racial discrimination and segregation. As suggested by Tocquiville, the United States is historically characterized by politics of joining or banding together for a common purpose. Interest groups represent a wide range of interests that cannot be easily categorized, but they are all represented in the political system as each uses unique tactics to achieve their interests.
The founding fathers of independent USA drafted the constitution of the country with an understanding and appreciation of the existence and influence of interest groups. The constitutional system of the republican government allows organized groups to participate in policy making at different levels (Cigler 89). James Madison, one of the drafters of the constitution, argued that organized interests may threaten the freedoms, liberties and interests of individuals or minority groups (Hays 2017). In his Federalist papers, he opines that the constitution should recognize the existence of such groups; and the solution to the problems caused by factions is not to eliminate the groups, but to control their effects.
One of the approaches that would be used to mitigate the negative influence of interest groups is to encourage the spread of many different kinds of factions with various motives, sizes and shapes (Loomis et al 43). Accordingly, no band of interests is able to dominate the other groups so immensely that it can undermine the basic rights and liberties of others. Based on the Madisonian democracy, it is therefore important to have several interest groups that represent a wide range of interests, to ensure that all the needs and welfare of the public are taken into consideration in policy making processes.
There are various ways that interest groups help in the furtherance of the common goals and interests. First, interest groups may articulate their goals in public policy through lobbying (Loomis et al 56). In this regard, interest groups may select one person to communicate with the executives or parliament about the pros and cons of a proposed public policy or legislation. As a result of such lobbying, the legislative and executive arms of government can make informed decisions based on a wide range of views. Some organized groups also participate in writing reports containing opinion about court processes, which can be used by the judges to make informed judgments about certain issues of public interest.
Secondly, interest groups may engage in election activities with the aim of getting people elected to represent their interests. For example, African Americans may work together with Latinos and other people of color to elect one person who will represent their interests in legislation concerning immigration and discrimination (Hays 2017). In this process, all the members of Congress will represent certain different interests which will be reflected in policy making and legislation. Accordingly, the different organized interests will achieve a balance of power among different groups rather than a single group dominating the political and policy making process.
Bands of individuals with organized interests also educate the public about various issues related to public policy. An individual citizen can choose to align himself or herself to any group that focuses on issues affecting them; and encourage the group to create awareness in his community, social group, or professional circle. Engagements in community campaigns, training and education enable the public to gain understanding of their rights and duties in policy making and implementation (Loomis et al 87). Interest groups may also educate government officials, their members, and private organizations to motivate and mobilize them to influence policy making positively through efforts that focus on the causes of the group.
Various interest groups such as trade associations, citizen action groups, non-membership groups, labor unions, professional associations, and intergovernmental groups represent different causes and issues (Cigler 153). For example, business plays a key role in politics in the United States. Large corporations hold a significant position in the U.S. economy, and legislators listen to managers of multinational companies to avoid implementing policies that might hurt business and harm the entire economy (Hays 2017). Thus, business organizations use their representatives to lobby for pro-business policies that will boost trade and the economy.
Labor unions, through the National Labor Relations Act, choose representatives who disseminate the interests of civil servants including issues such as minimum wage and working conditions. As politicians look for support, some of them may identify with pro-union ideals and promise labor unions and workers to advocate for their interests at the executive or legislative branches. Therefore, interest groups that focus on the needs of workers can be actively involved in policies that aim at improving welfare of workers.
Professional associations such as the American Bar Association and American Medical Association also advocate for the collective interests and values of their professions. Consequently, organized professional groups look for accreditations, respect, dignity, recognition, and support for their professions so that they can become influential in various aspects of the society and political systems (Loomis et al 102). The public interest groups have grown significantly since 1970s, leading to a stronger civil society and increased civil liberties and social welfare. The successes of certain interest groups such as the civil rights movement shows that a large number of interest groups is good for democracy and civil rights (Cigler 54). Political analyst Jeffrey Berry has defined the concept of public interest group as a band of individuals that does not benefit members of a group directly, but channels the needs of the society as a whole.
Interest groups formed as a result of the civil rights, environmental activism, and women’s rights have ensured that the interests of underrepresented members of society are disseminated and represented in public policy and political processes. Furthermore, interest groups may mobilize members on social issues such as healthcare, domestic violence and child abuse, drug and alcohol misuse, rights of people living with disabilities, rights of gays and lesbians (LGBTs), and homelessness (Hays 2017). In the use, these public issues have gained a lot of audience in the political system and the public, leading to legislations and policies targeting social welfare, legislations on LGBT rights, and children’s social support.
Despite the direct and indirect benefits of interest groups, there are some limitations and weaknesses that could hinder their effectiveness and legitimacy. For instance, interest groups may lack cohesion and common grounds for policy-making. Some groups such as labor organizations and environmentalist associations have significant support, but they enroll a small number of members (Cigler 97). Elected officials rely on these groups and align themselves to their causes based on opinion polls which show that such organizations have a significant level of support from the public. Politicians understand that they can add large number of voters to their coalitions by representing popular causes; but the interest groups that propagate such values have limited membership. In this regard, important views and perspectives of popular public interests are not well represented.
It is also difficult to mobilize mass membership because political processes are complex and involve multiple motivations. For example, the motivations for voting go beyond popular interests to include party loyalty, candidate’s personality and leadership qualities, and other public issues. In fact, a large number of voters are not aware about the policy positions of their preferred candidates (Cigler 78). Thus, interest groups that are able to convince politicians about their voting power get attention regardless of their membership. More cohesive groups that can articulate their issues effectively exert more influence on the policy-making and political processes. Some interest groups also lac adequate funds to recruit more members, mobilize communities and politicians, and carry out activities of the group. In this regard, ineffective interest groups are underrepresented in the political process, leading to the subordination of their interests in policy making.
American societies have also become more reliant on interest groups rather than participating individually in the political process. In the recent past, the number of interest groups has risen significantly in the U.S., leading to group-think mentality in which no individual is able to articulate issues on his own. Politicians also complain of rising pressure from special interest groups that slow down the political decision making process. In a democratic society, participation is an essential element in decision making process; but group thinking could undermine individual uniqueness and skills that could improve policy decision making. According to Kowert (89), group-think creates an environment in which perspectives are unchallenged, and members of the group may not be comfortable in offering their thoughts outside the norm of the group. Consequently, the decisions of the group may ignore individual and cultural differences, and undermines the essence of participation in public policy.
Two of the common examples of circumstances in which interest groups have played a key role in the political process are Citizens United and the 2016 elections. The Citizens United is a non-profit organization that advocates for the control of citizens over the government. In 2010, the group won a court case in which a federal law prohibiting companies and unions from spending money on federal elections was struck down. The Supreme Court case showed how interest groups have a significant influence on legislations that affect the private sector and the public. If the group was non-existent, the legislative and executive branch would assert their political interests at the expense of the public.
Following the 2010 ruling, a significant amount of corporate money was used in the 2016 elections in the U.S. in which businessman Donald Trump became president to represent the interests of the business community and workers. According to Freed and Currinder (2016), more than half of the states in the U.S. approve the use of corporate money in campaigns. Business communities use their resources to lobby through elections for the purpose of influencing policy. Fowler et al (2017) suggests that a more concentrated sources of funding for political elections increases the influence of special interests on political action. In the 2016 elections, oil companies donated approximately a million dollars to fund Trump’s campaign (Fowler et al 2017). Donald Trump supported the energy sector from the beginning, and the donations reflect an influence of public policy considering Trump’s recent decision to undo former President Obama’s legislations on carbon emissions in the energy sector.
Interest groups are important for asserting the values and needs of a wide range of individuals and groups within political processes and public policy; but they should have cohesive membership to provide effective representation of issues affecting individuals and societies. Indeed, different interest groups bring a balance of power in political processes and public policy; but groups that lack cohesion and resources may not have the bargaining power to represent the interests if their members effectively. Thus, a large number of interest groups is important to enhance participation and representation of as much people as possible in public policy, leading to the protection of individual rights, freedoms, and civil liberties.
Cigler, A. J. (2016). Interest group politics. Los Angeles: Sage Publishers.
Connolly, William E. Pluralism in Political Analysis. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017. Print.
Fowler, Anthony, Haritz Garro and Jörg L. Spenkuch. “When Corporations Donate to Candidates, Are They Buying Influence?” Kellogg Insight, September 5, 2017.
Freed, Bruce F. and Marian Currinder. “Do Political Business in the Daylight.” U.S. News, April 6 2016. Web. https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2016-04-06/corporate-money-is-playing-a-shadowy-role-in-2016-politics.
Hays, Allen R. “The Role of Interest Groups.” American Institute in Taiwan, 2017. Web. https://web-archive-2017.ait.org.tw/infousa/zhtw/docs/demopaper/dmpaper9.html.
Horn, Geoffrey M. Political Parties, Interest Groups, and the Media. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library, 2004. Print.
Kowert, Paul. Groupthink or Deadlock: When Do Leaders Learn from Their Advisors?Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Print.
Loomis, Burdett A, Dara Z. Strolovitch, and Peter L. Francia. Guide to Interest Groups and Lobbying in the United States. Washington: CQ Press, a Division of SAGE, 2012.