Pressure groups play an important role in American politics. In America, as with other democracies, other institutions exist, apart from the political parties, to organise and transmit to government and politicians the views of different sections of society. Pressure groups allow this to happen. 

These organisation are pressure or interest groups, and they provide the link between the people and the government.

In America, the title “pressure group” has all-but been replaced with the title “interest group“. Therefore, an organisation such as Greenpeace would lobby for the interests of environmental issues; the pro/anti gun groups would lobby for the interests of those concerned with either side of the gun issue. The word “interest” is seen as being less forceful than the word “pressure” which could hint at vaguely undemocratic tendencies and processes as a pressure group goes about the work it does to support its beliefs – especially if they represent a minority of people within a community.

The differences between pressure groups and political parties are often hard to see, but generally, political parties nominate candidates for elective office, seek to win and then staff these offices, by appealing to the electorate.

Pressure groups, on the other hand, do not usually offer candidates in elections or seek to gain political power by holding positions in office, but try to influence legislation by mobilising public opinion. Pressure groups can be called to give evidence at Congressional hearings and give evidence to government departments on their specific area(s) of concern. A pressure group may therefore be described as

an organised body of individuals who share some goals and who try to influence public policy.”

The distinction between political parties and pressure groups has become blurred. Today many groups endorse candidates for office, raising campaign funds, provide workers, pay for television advertising and generally help out at election time. For example, in 1988, the Liberty Federation provided campaign funds and television advertising for both George Bush and conservative Republican Congressional candidates.

In the 2000 election campaign, the National Rifle Association part-funded George W Bush’s campaign with its 4.3 million members expecting the now elected president to fulfil his pre-election promise of not to essentially interfere with the gun laws as they currently stand. Before the November election, the vice-president of the NRA told senior members of the organisation that if Bush won the election they “would have a president where we work out of their office.” Bush plans to spend over £400 million over two years in decreasing gun violence not by cutting down the ease with which guns can be acquired, but by sentencing those who use a gun for criminal acts to longer sentences and by increasing the number of state prosecutors thus speeding up the judicial process. In May 2001, Gale Norton, told the NRA that “many of you helped President Bush win the election………as a former prosecutor, I understand that the best way to reduce crime is to lock up the criminals.”

Pressure groups should not be seen as rivals to political parties in America but the two groups do complement one another. There are many access points in the American political system, which means that both groups can exist. The question remains, do pressure groups pose a threat to democracy  or do they contribute to the proper functioning of democracy in America?

Although anybody has a right to set up a pressure group, not all pressure groups are equal. Those who have received a better education, are wealthier and are members of the business community are in a better position to organise a pressure group than those who are poorer and less well educated.


How are pressure groups formed?


Each pressure group has its own history and particular circumstances surrounding its formation, but political scientists have suggested three linked factors that are important in determining whether pressure groups develop or not :

1. When a group of unorganised people are adversely affected by change. It has been suggested that pressure groups form when the need arises. This is why when governments attempt to regulate some social, political, or economic activity, those affected will lobby the government not to take actions that would adversely affect them.

For example, when President Reagan announced his re-armament programme and the construction of the neutron bomb, the Nuclear Freeze Groups began a series of protests attracting significant public support. These groups tended to fade away in the eight years of Clinton’s presidency as the Star Wars issues had been dropped by then.

President George W Bush’s plans to build on Reagan’s dream of a Star War’s ‘peace shield’ with “Son of Star Wars” has rekindled these pressure groups, though with less enthusiasm when compared to the 1980’s. Most complaints against the new system seem to be based on cost and reliability as opposed to an ideological issue.

President Clinton faced pressure from both logging groups and environmentalists when the loggers wanted parts of Washington State opened to them whereas the environment groups protested that rare species found there were likely to become even rarer. A compromise that satisfied both groups was arrived at : some logging, but stronger protection for those areas not opened to logging.

2. Pressure group leadership : the quality of a pressure group’s leadership has been crucial in determining its success. if a pressure group is to be successful, the leader must convince its members that the benefits outweigh the costs. Martin Luther King was very good at this. Kink’s campaign of passive resistance attracted much needed support from leading white politicians. The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965  was largely due to King’s leadership in the Black American community.

3. Socio-economic structure of pressure group membership : In addition to group leadership, another factor is the ‘quality’ of group membership. Those who are well educated and better off have a greater knowledge of how the political system works and an increased confidence in their activity having some impact. This also gives members more incentive to devote their time and resources to organising and supporting interest groups. However, the less well off and the politically less experienced can achieve significant results as the Civil Rights movement demonstrated.


Growth of pressure groups


From the end of the Second World War to 2000, there has been a significant increase in the number of pressure groups in America. Of those that are based in Washington, 30% were formed between 1960 and 1980. There are two main factors in explaining the growth in pressure groups:

1. The increase in the power of government in society. Government activity has penetrated into every aspect of society and there are those who feel that the role of Federal government has gone too far. The Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh was his way of protesting about the growth of Federal government – hence his targeting of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. Even when the Federal government responds to public concerns, it expands its own power : public concern over pollution lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which gives the Federal government powers to regulate private businesses should they pollute. In this sense the Federal government would have satisfied environmental pressure groups that it was heading in the right direction, but it would have offended those pressure groups that are campaigning for a reduction in the power of Federal government.

         2. The decreasing power of individuals to secure their objectives privately: As modern life becomes more complex, the power of the individual to impact on governmental outcomes has diminished. Conversely, the power that business groups, professional organisations etc. have acquired in Washington DC is borne out in this table:

Percentage of Total in Washington DC

Offices in Washington Retains lobbyists in Washington
Corporations 20.6 45.7
Trade Associations 30.6 17.9
Foreign Corporations 0.5 6.5
Professional Associations 14.8 6.9
Unions 3.3 1.7
Citizen Groups 8.7 4.1
Civil Rights/Minorities 1.7 1.3
Social Welfare and the poor 1.3 0.6
New Entrants 2.5 1.1
Governmental Units 1.4 4.2
Other unknown 14.6 10.2

Hence, individuals who have a common aim have bonded together with groups to influence Federal government and direct it to their concern.

There are some who believe that George W Bush’s current hard-line against Iraq in August 2002, has been influenced by pressure groups representing the military. A report by the World Policy Institute based in New York, states that the president’s policy may have been influenced by some of his advisors who have close ties to the “military-industrial complex”. 

The report shows that those companies that have given large but legal donations to the Republicans have received federal contracts for military equipment worth £27 billion (about $40 billion) since 2000. Thirty two senior members of the president’s staff are said to have links with these companies who have won contracts. The biggest winner to date is Lockheed Martin which won £21 billion (about $30 billion) of Pentagon contracts in 2000 to 2001. The report by the World Policy Institute claims that Lockheed has more connections to the president’s staff than any other company involved with the manufacture of weapons. It has a contract worth $1 billion a year to operate a nuclear laboratory and is involved in designing a ‘bunker-busting’ nuclear weapon. Lockheed also has a $4 billion interest in the new ‘Son of Star Wars’ system which has been vociferously pushed by the president.

The World Policy Institute report claims that some very senior members of the president’s staff have very close associations with Lockheed including Vice-President Dick Cheney whose wife was on Lockheed’s board until 2001; Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich who is a paid lobbyist for the company; Transport Secretary Norman  Mineta who was a vice-president at Lockheed and Deputy Transport Secretary Michael Jackson who was also a former vice-president at Lockheed.

The report claims that defence-contractors contributed $13.5 million to the 2000 election cycle with a 2 to 1 margin in favour of the Republicans. Bush directly got £125,000 (about $200,000)  for his presidential campaign – four times more than Gore got from defence-contractors. 

However, for those who claim that pressure groups have got into the Oval Office, there is always the one problem. It is very difficult to prove that they have any influence or ability to influence decisions made in the White House. Ultimately, those companies that get Federal contracts, in this instance for the development of military hardware, may simply be the best ones for the job. 

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