If you could only study one topic in order to understand American politics, this would probably be the best one. We live in such a large complex society, that in order to have significant influence on anything beyond the local level, we must join forces with others (unless, of course, you have a lot of money or extraordinary political and communication skills). When we join forces with others we are forming interest groups.
Although we usually see interest groups as corrupt, almost all of us are members of some kind of groups. Chances are that you are members of some groups of which you are not aware. For example, at most colleges and universities part of your fees go to support student governments which lobby both state and national government for more funding--a highly worthy cause, I might add! In recent years, student governments from some of the USC system campuses lobbied the state legislature concerning proposed tuition increases and other quality issues surrounding the budget cuts. If you get your degree and join almost any profession, you will become a member of some professional group. I am a member of both the American Political Science Association and the American Society for Public Administration. Of course, most of us see our own groups as good and groups that others form as bad. That is the nature of politics. Or as one wit said, "where you stand depends on where you sit."
The "right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition government for a redress of grievances," that is, the right to form interest groups and ask that government act, is guaranteed in the first amendment of the Constitution. If democracy means anything, it must include the right of free association with others in pursuing some political goal. The limit is in the word "peaceably." The courts have ruled throughout American history that if the government can prove that the assembly has a direct link to violence, then it can be banned. (Do you remember the phrases "clear and present danger" or "grave and immediate danger" from the civil liberties chapter?) Proving that link without hindering the rights of peaceful groups is the problem government has in writing and enforcing laws to deal with militant militia groups, militant anti-abortion groups and allegedly terrorist groups that are so much in the news.
Interest groups share many similarities with political parties. Both bring like-minded citizens together. Both attempt to influence public policy. Both try to influence the outcomes of campaigns. Both run public relations campaigns and operate at the grassroots level in trying to bring pressure on government. Both are essential links between individual opinions and government policy. Both find money a very useful weapon in their efforts. In a very real sense they are in competition with each other in many of these things.
In areas of the nation where interest groups are strong, parties tend to be weak. In some cases interest groups are so well organized that they seem to capture control of one political party or the other. For example, in South Carolina in the middle 1990s many political observers felt that the Christian Coalition had effectively captured control of the state Republican Party. While many would challenge that observation, none doubt that the group has been a very powerful influence within the party. Other interest groups in the state have taken strong stands on such issues as the flying of the Confederate naval jack (no, it's not the battle flag!), video poker, and most recently, the lottery.
Despite these similarities with parties, significant differences exist. Parties are generally broader than interest groups, touching on a wider range of issues and bringing together more groups. Therefore, parties are more prone to promote moderation and compromise. Parties must build moderate compromises if they are to be successful in commanding a plurality of voters in elections. Indeed, one difficulty of compromise today is due to the fact that interest groups are relatively more powerful than parties in our current political environment. Parties run candidates for all offices under a label. Interest groups may try to influence several campaigns, but they do not run whole slates of candidates, and you certainly do not see a candidate listed on the ballot as "the insurance industry candidate," for example.
Our cynicism about both parties and interest groups is nothing new. The men who wrote the Constitution shared that cynicism. Look, for example at "Federalist Number 10," which is in the back of your text. It was written by James Madison as one of the many Federalist Papers that argued for ratification of the Constitution. This particular argument is based on the idea that the new larger central government would help control what Madison called the violence of "factions." The term "factions" refers to what we would today call interest groups and parties--he did not really distinguish between them. After all, parties had yet to be invented as the institutions we know today! For Madison, the bottom line was that these inherently selfish groups that were willing to sacrifice the general public good for their own narrow interests must be controlled if democracy were to survive. He argued that a larger union than the individual states, as created under the Constitution, would help control them because a larger area would bring in more groups that would more likely oppose each other--a kind of self-checking mechanism. Today we have a term for this theory of self-checking groups working to protect the public good by keeping each other in balance--"pluralism."
Do interest groups check each other in such a way as to protect the public interest? Political scientists have spilled a lot of ink in exploring this question. The conclusion is not clear, in part because the precise meaning of the public interest is not always clear. Almost every group will present its particular interest as "the public interest." A lumber company that cuts down forests will talk about jobs and homes and a strong economy as being in the public interest. The environmental group that opposes it will talk about protecting clean air and wildlife and ecological balance as being in the public interest. While environmental groups are classified as "public interest groups," that classification speaks mainly to the fact that the things they provide, if they win, are what economists call "public goods" rather than "private goods." A public good in this sense means something that benefits everyone whether or not they contributed to the cost--like cleaner air. A private good is something that can be restricted to those who paid the cost--like profits from cutting the lumber go to the groups that paid for the lobbying effort to make the forest available to be cut. But while useful, this distinction does not really help us solve the problem of deciding whether jobs or the environment should win out.
While I would like to give you a blanket rule to determine the public interest, I cannot. Each case must be argued out with a lot of data and factors to be considered. What can be said is that this ongoing discussion must be fair in the sense that all groups have a chance to be heard and try and make their case and that the decision should rest on the merits of their respective cases. Here is where pluralism begins to break down. Those groups with money and political connections have a much better chance of being heard than those who lack those resources. To put it another way, the interest group system has a distinct upper and upper middle class bias. Corporations and the wealthy can buy television time to mold public opinion and buy access to political leaders much more so than those who lack resources. We saw the influence of money in the chapter on elections.
If this imbalance exists, then the question becomes what we can do to to improve the balance. We could give up on pluralism, but that would require a major overhaul of our political system, which is not likely to happen and might create more problems than it would solve. Indeed, in "Federalist Number 10" Madison contemplated the prospect of having government restrict the freedom to form factions. He concluded that this would make as much sense as eliminating air in order to prevent the danger of fire--the cure would be worse than the disease.
Let me suggest two much more modest directions. First, serious campaign finance reform that would free political candidates from dependence on interest group money would have an impact. You studied that in the last section of the course, and such groups as Common Cause are working on these reforms. After many years of effort, a significant reform bill passed in the Spring of 2002. As we noted in the last chapter, that is not the end of the reform movement because we have yet to see how well the reform will work in practice over the long run. We quickly saw it being undermined as President Bush and two of the leading Democratic contenders for the White House in 2004 chose to stay outside the system in raising money for the primaries and with the ban on soft money, as both parties funnelled money into independent advocacy groups . It is likely that we will see more of the same in 2008.
Second, citizens need to arm themselves with knowledge about the political process in order to be less swayed by interest group media campaigns. They need to be better informed about issues so that they demand candidates discuss issues in serious and fairly detailed ways. Your taking this course is a small but significant step in that direction. Unfortunately, much of the American public pays little attention to politics and issues unless there is a crisis.
You should now turn to the Gitelson, Dudley, and Dubnick text, American Government, and read chapter eight, "Interest Groups." Pay particular attention to the discussion of the factors that determine the power of groups.
After you have completed your reading, go to Blackboard and complete the Test Mastery Questions for unit 8. Then return to the Assignment 8 Page and go to the Internet Assignment and Class Discussion links to complete your writing assignment for this reading.