Interest Groups

Interest Groups

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Interest Groups

Interest Group is defined as "an organized body of individuals who try
to influence public policy." This system is designed so that interest groups
would be an instrument of public influence on politics to create changes, but
would not threaten the government much. Whether this is still the case or not
is an important question that we must find out.

Interest groups play many different roles in the American political system, such as representation, participation, education, and program monitoring. Representation is the
function that we see most often and the function we automatically think of when
we think of interest groups. Participation is another role that interest groups
play in our government, which is when they facilitate and encourage the
participation of their members in the political process. Interest groups also
educate, by trying to inform both public officials and the public at large about
matters of importance to them. Lobby groups also keep track of how programs are
working in the field and try to persuade government to take action when problems
become evident when they monitor programs. The traditional interest groups have
been organized around some form of economic cause, be it corporate interests,
associates, or unions. The number of business oriented lobbies has grown since
the 1960s and continues to grow. Public-interest groups have also grown
enormously since the 1960s. Liberal groups started the trend, but conservative
groups are now just as common, although some groups are better represented
through interest groups than others are. There are many ways that the groups
can influence politics too. The increase in interest group activity has
fragmented the political debate into little pockets of debates and have served
to further erode the power of political parties, who try to make broad based
appeals. PACs also give money to incumbents, which means that incumbents can
accumulate large reelection campaign funds, that in result, discourages
potential challengers. As a result, most incumbents win, not because they
outspend their challengers, but because they keep good potential opponents out
of the race. Conservatives are one of the big groups that influence politics
and for many reasons.

     Conservative thinking has not only claimed the presidency; it has spread
throughout our political and intellectual life and stands poised to become the
dominant strain in American public policy. While the political ascent of
conservatism has taken place in full public view, the intellectual
transformation has for the most part occurred behind the scenes, in a network of
think tanks whose efforts have been influential to an extent that only five
years after President Reagan's election, begins to be clear.

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     Conservative think tanks and similar organizations have flourished
since the mid-1970s. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) had twelve
resident thinkers when Jimmy Carter was elected; today it has forty-five, and a
total staff of nearly 150. The Heritage Foundation has sprung from nothing to
command an annual budget of $11 million. The budget of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies (CSIS) has grown from $975,000 ten years ago to $8.6
million today. Over a somewhat longer period the endowment of the Hoover
Institution has increased from $2 million to $70 million. At least twenty-five
other noteworthy public-policy groups have been formed or dramatically expanded
through the decade; nearly all are anti-liberal.

     No other country accords such significance to private institutions
designed to influence public decisions. Brookings, began in the 1920s with
money from the industrialist Robert S. Brookings, a Renaissance man who aspired
to bring discipline of economics to Washington. During the New Deal the
Brookings Institution was marked-oriented--for example, it opposed Roosevelt's
central planning agency, the National Resources Planning Board. Only much later
did the institution acquire a reputation as the head of liberalism.

     Through the 1950s and 1960s, as Americans enjoyed steady increases in
their standard of living and U.S. industry reigned over world commerce,
Washington came to consider the economy a dead issue. Social justice and
Vietnam dominated the agenda: Brookings concentrated on those fields, emerging
as a chief source of arguments in favor of the Great Society and opposed to U.S.
involvement in Vietnam. In the Washington swirl where few people have the time
to read the reports they debate, respectability is often proportional to tonnage.
The more studies someone tosses on the table, the more likely he is to win his
point. For years Brookings held a dominance on tonnage. Its papers supporting
liberal positions went unchallenged by serious conservative rebuttals.

     As the 1970s progressed, a core of politically active conservative
intellectuals, most prominently Irving Kristol, began to argue in publications
like The Public Interest and The Wall Street Journal that if business wanted
market logic to regain the initiative, it would have to create a new class of
its own --scholars whose career prospects depended on private enterprise, not
government or the universities. "You get what you pay for, Kristol in effect
argued, and if businessmen wanted intellectual horsepower, they would have to
open their pocketbooks."1

     The rise of Nader's Raiders and similar public-interest groups--which
achieved remarkable results, considering how badly outgunned they were; brought
a change in business thinking about money and public affairs. So did the
frustration felt by oil companies, which were being fattened by rising prices
but still dreamed of being fatter if federal regulations were abolished. They
were willing to invest some of their riches in changing Washington's mood.

     Women also have a voice in their own interest groups. The Woman
Suffrage movement was headed up by many groups that differed in some of their
views. The moderate branch was by far the largest and is given most of the
credit for the Nineteenth Amendment. Under the banner of the National Women's
Party, the militant feminists had used civil disobedience, colorful
demonstrations and incessant lobbying to get the Nineteenth Amendment out of

     These are just some of the ways that American politics in the twentieth
century was influenced by special interest groups. Interest groups have grown
this much in this century and will probably keep progressing in the coming


1.     Groliers Encyclopedia on CD-Rom, 1993 Grolier Inc., Software Toolworks

2.     Ideas Move Nations, The Atlantic Monthly, 1986
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