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Politics is a significant aspect of any democratic government. Interest groups are one of the institutions that influence functions of a democratic government. “An interest group refers to a group of individuals that are organized to seek public policy influence, usually though not exclusively by attempting to influence government actors” (Brunell, 2005). There are many groups like these. They vary considerably in size and ideological perspectives. The strategies and tools employed by interest groups are not static, and they differ depending on the geographical scope of their operations and the resources they have. While many interest groups tend to address a wide range of issues, others deal with distinct issues.
The life span of interest groups is also not static. In this case, some groups have long term objectives; hence, they remain active for a long time. For instance, the interest groups that aim at challenging policy issues and politics operate on a long term basis. On the other hand, some groups are usually initiated with an aim of achieving a particular end after which they are dissolved. For example, during elections, many groups usually emerge with an aim of ensuring that the process is handled according to the stipulated guidelines of the electoral process.
Representative government is always formulated in a manner that facilitates a participation of contending interests, and at the same time it tries to mitigate the variance that inexorably accompanies a faction competition. In the traditional creation of pluralism, contending interests work together by mobilizing resources and opinions in order to enhance an effective formulation and implementation of essential public policies. “Institutions are formed to accommodate the inevitability of diverse and competing interest from becoming powerful enough to undermine the rights of others” (Wilson, 2009). This process is governed by constitutional provisions, which stipulate the nature of interest groups’ activities. Therefore, many interest groups that work together tend to stabilize the political environment, and this enables them to forward their interests to the government. “This implies that the pluralist vision of politics is an ideal vision of the interest group politics and political institutions” (Barber, 1990).
The activities conducted by various interest groups can be used to differentiate them. For instance, some of them endeavor to address several public issues, while others have a narrow scope of private interests. There are two distinct types of interest groups, and they can be described as follows. First, we have public interest groups, and they aim at working on issues that benefit general public. For instance, they support policies that provide equal opportunities that can be enjoyed by everyone in the society. However, the success of public interest groups may not be very substantial at an individual level since they aim at reaching out to many people. “Some of the major public interest groups in this category are National Taxpayer’s Union and Concerned Women for America” (Orman, 1988).
The second category is referred to as private interest groups. These are groups which endeavor to challenge public policies in order to specifically benefit their members or individuals that support their interests. Nonetheless, objectives and activities of private interests groups should not interfere with the welfare of other individuals. A political self interest is perceived to be healthy for a political system. In the USA, there is a popular belief that contending interests make the society more successful. This is because bad policies are always eliminated when various groups compete against each other “Other examples of interest groups include business organizations labor unions, Professional associations, and Non Governmental Organizations” (Grossman, 2002).
The Relationship between Interest Groups and Political Parties
There is no great disparity between political parties and various interest groups, because they are both composed of individuals having common objectives and opinions. Apart from this, “they are similar in that sense that they both seek to challenge government institutions, elections, and they all make public policy choices” (Brunell, 2005). Nonetheless, there are significant variations between these two bodies. Generally, interest groups never support their own members to contest for public office directly, especially in a case where economic parameter is concerned. In most cases, interest groups never adopt overt party labels, which electors use to identify and express their political affiliations (Dulilio & Wilson, 2011). However, some electors may link particular interest groups with specific parties in a general manner. For example, the Tea Party is often linked with the Republicans and the white conservatives. In the recent past, public interest groups that are ideologically driven have increased considerably (King, 2011). For instance, there are some groups which have pushed the tax agenda in political circles.
Another distinguishing factor is that interest groups have a limited focus, and they only handle specific issues of concern in the public policy. For example, “interest groups form around specific concerns like environment, free speech, tax reform, and labor standards” (Petracca, 1992). In contrast to this, political parties tend to focus on several issues. Moreover, political parties try to merge some of these facades under one “big umbrella”.
In some circumstances, interest groups seriously struggle against political parties. For instance, some internal rivalries have been witnessed in key political parties that operate in Texas. When elections were conducted in 2000, several environmentalists who were members of the Texas Democratic Party massively supported Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, since they felt that Al Gore was less committed toward environmental issues. They labeled him “not green enough”. On the other hand, some Republicans have tried to make the party conservative by working against some of their Republican colleagues. This indicates that the interest groups tend to favor parties and politicians that support their interests, and they ignore those who are less committed in helping them.
Interest groups always aim at maximizing policies, while political parties are usually trying to obtain many Congress seats. These competing interests influence the manner political parties relate with the interest groups. According to Thomas Brunell, “interest groups have a preference as which party controls a majority of seats in Congress, which leads them to direct “sincere” and electorally useful money to this party” (Hay, 2001)
When interest groups offer funds to the “other” party, they always fund it in a manner that is less effective. Interest groups usually execute this goal by offering strategic funds to this party as follows: provide little financial support particularly to the popular candidates who do not necessarily have to be funded in order to succeed in the elections. They can also choose to fund incumbent candidates who already have political clout. Therefore, even if these groups offer funds to these parties, they always do it in a biased manner, and they favor only the parties that are likely to push forward their interests. These funds enable their preferred candidates to run their campaigns smoothly without experiencing financial hitches.
Apart from offering finances, interest groups also provide key information that enables their favorite candidates to be more competitive than other contenders. They also sensitize their preferred candidates on issues that always influence election outcomes. All these services are organized by interest groups with an aim of fulfilling their common objective of influencing election results and policies. The fact that these institutions have a relationship is therefore undeniable. These groups often forge close ties and pursue similar objectives in order to enhance their political clout. Nonetheless, they remain independent, and their nature of operation and design also remain different. “The space for action, speech and flexibility that is maintained in politics makes them much more political than interest groups” (Grossman, 2002).
How Interest Groups Try to Influence the President and the Congress
Although interest groups do not directly have elected members in political offices, they do aim at fixing their members into appointed positions. They normally do this to enable them perform their state functions through mechanisms that support the desired policies of the interests groups that facilitated their appointments. The fact that “groups” operate as political players has always been recognized and examined, even if not properly understood. The manipulation of legislative processes by groups is a question that has not yet been answered, and it is still being begged.
Between the period of the 1970 and 1980s, some “explosions” were witnessed in Washington, and researchers wanted to clearly understand them. As many groups emerged in Washington, many people joined them, and the groups increasingly funded parties. The citizens at the same time criticized the roles of interest groups and joined them in large numbers probably to suppress the powerful corporate groups. The role of groups in policy issues seemed to have taken a new dimension, and everyone was keen to see how it happened. Therefore, it can be argued that group manipulation of the Congress can be identified by simply examining the development of legislation that the group is favoring. For instance, a group’s ineffectiveness in legislative process can be measured through its failure to intercept unpopular bills. In general, “interest group activities predict, at least in part, how far bills will progress through the legislative process” (Brunell, 2005).
The term influence as applied in this context is quite narrow from the perspective of interest groups, and it is broad from a congressional perspective. Interest groups perceive influence as a process that should produce good policies or prevent undesirable policies from being adopted. However, a group does not have to obtain policies from the Congress that directly indicate their actual desires; rather a group’s influence is seen when the Congress makes or discards a policy, which is in line with the interests of a group. From a congressional perspective, influence emerging from interest groups can come in several ways.
Interest groups are often said to have manipulated the Congress when its members are compelled or encouraged to change the course or the provisions of a given bill in order to meet the demands of the interest groups. “This influence might come in the form of a change of wording, a passage from a subcommittee, and not passing from a standing committee” (Orman, 1988). In this process, interest groups may lead to the change of legislation, and the President may not have the capacity to reverse the whole process of legislation, even if he does not like the content of the bill.
On the other hand, the president can also manipulate the Congress by working closely with the interest groups. As discussed above, the law making process can be indirectly manipulated through elections. For instance, an incumbent President may pass some bills in favor of some groups so that he may get some support from them during the next elections. Besides this, interest groups may support pliable candidates whom they can easily manipulate during the law making processes. This symbiotic relationship between the interest groups and the politicians to some extent affect the capacity of both the president and the Congress to formulate effective laws.
Politics in America has become complicated to many politicians. This is because interest groups have managed to seriously entrench themselves in politics and much of their attention has been geared towards influencing the White House. “Since the American President has come to play an increasingly important role in the public policy process, interest groups and their lobbyists now descend on the presidency with the same vigor as they descend on the congress” (Orman, 1988). In this context, the president is faced with the challenge of fulfilling the needs of the ordinary citizens and the interest groups.
Interest groups have faced much criticism especially when it comes to policy issues. Its critics contend that most of the policy issues dealt with by interests groups have no connection to desires of the public. The leaders of these groups have also been blamed for being dishonest because they always fail to fulfill the demands of their members. The weaknesses of the interests groups have been seen as one of the factors interfering with democracy in the USA. It has also been noted with a lot of concern that some political candidates have been seriously intimidated by some interest groups, and this further affects the reputation of the interest groups.
The above discussion indicates that the American government is guided by various institutions, which work together with an aim of building a more democratic society. The interest groups have been instrumental in addressing the plight of the public by ensuring that policy issues are handled properly. The effectiveness of the government has also been enhanced by the numerous contending interests. The American government has been able to adopt better policies due to the serious competition that exists among various institutions. These groups have played a fundamental role of widening the democratic space in America. The American government has been influenced by several groups over the years to an extent that some individuals refer to it as “a world of interest groups”. The interest groups should, therefore remain committed towards enhancing democracy and good governance.
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