Pressure groups are regarded as having important implications for a modern democracy. Through them, citizens can participate in the political process between elections. They can also use their membership of them to pressurise all three branches of the federal government- the legislature (congress), the executive (the president and the bureaucracy) and the judicary (headed by the Supreme Court). In a country like the United States, with a participatory tradition and an open form of government, pressure groups seem to take on added importance. They benefit from numerous 'acces points' within the political system. They also benefit from a weak and fragmented party system and from election campaigns that are often issue-based rather than merely party-based.
Definiton of pressure groups
A pressure group is an organised interest group in which members share and actively pursue common views and objectives to influence government. Pressure groups are therefore quite distinct from political parties. Whereas political parties seek to win control of government, pressure groups seek to influence thos who have won control of government.
Pressure groups vary considerable in terms of size, wealth and influence. Pressure groups in the US operate at all levels of government- federal, state and local- amd seek to bring influence to bear on all three branches of government- the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.
Types of pressure groups
Robert McKeever Business/trade- American Business Conference, National Association of Manufactures, National Automobile Dealers Associations
Agriculture- American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union
Professional-AMA, American Bar Association
Single Issue- Mothers Against Drunk Driving,National Rifle Association
Ideological- American Conservative Union
Group rights- National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, National Organisation of Women, American Association of Retired Persons
Public Interest- Common Cause, Friends of the Earth
Functions of Pressure Groups
Pressure Groups have 5 basic functions:
1) Representation- they represent the interests of various groups in society.
2) Citizen participation- they increase the opportunities for ordinary citizens to participate in the decision making process between elections.
3) Public education- they attempt to educate public opinion, warning them of dangers if issues are not addressed. One can see this being done by pressure groups operating in such issue areas as the environment and gun control.
4) Agenda building- they attempt to influence the agendas of political parties, legislators and bureaucracies to give prominence and priority to their interests. They will attempt to bring together different parts of American society- for example business groups. religious groups, state governments, professional organisations- to work together to achieve a common interest.
5) Programme monitoring- They will scrutinise and hold government to account in the implementation of policies to try to ensure that promises are fulfilled, policies are actually 'delivered' and regulations are enforced.
Importance of Pressure Groups
1)America is very diverse and heterogeneous society. America has been described as a 'melting pot' conveying the picture of all types of diverse groups of people mixed together. The more diverse a society is, the greater will be the variety of special interests to represent. Prefixes of America- eg African American etc, each has its own pressure group. There are said to be almost 100 different religions that claim at least 50,000 members each. Again, here are more interests and groups to represent. America is a vast country spread over different regions, all with their own cultures and traditions.
2)The American political system has many great access points. In the UK, political power is quite centralised. There are few access points for ordinary citizen to influence government. In the US there is a doctrine of 'shared powers'- shared between the three branches of government and the state governments. Even an institution like Congress is very fragmented. It is not just on the floors of two chambers where decisions are made, but in the numerous committee rooms as well. Hence there are many points at which real political decisions are made. There are therefore many access points.
Importance of Pressure Groups (continued)
3) The weakness of political parties in America means that citizens turn more to pressure groups. In a country such as the UK, which has strong, centralized, disciplined political parties, these parties are seen as the principal vehicles for political activity. Also in the UK, where one party will dominate the government by controlling both the executive and legislative branches of government, parties are seen as more able to deliver their promises and policy proposals. In a country such as the US, which has relatively weak, decentralised and undisciplined political parties,parties are not seen in this light. And as we also know, these days it is highly unlikely that any one party will control both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.