Are pressure groups good or bad for democracy? Harmful or Helpful?

August 18, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students


a) Pluralism Robert Dahl in “Who governs?” – examined decision-making in New Haven, Connecticut. Conclusion was that no elite group ran the town – on different issues, different groups were dominant. For pluralists pressure groups help the govt. to operate, their pressure is a reflection of public opinion and is vital to democracy providing a healthy ‘free market’ of opinion and influences. There are many access points, and freedom of speech and association are entrenched in the constitution. Ed Davis (California State Senator) – “About 90% of all legislation is conceived by special interests. That’s what democracy is all about”. Examples of pressure group activity helping democracy include Brown v. Board of Education which transformed the South, Rose v. Wade, legalised abortion. Also Lawrence v. Texas which meant that laws which discriminated against gays were declared unconstitutional and, in 2004, gay marriage was permitted in Massachusetts. Both of these changes were the result of intense pressure group activity (and to some extent counteract the view that minority voices aren’t heard because of ‘the elite’).

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b) They express view and interests of different groups in society that cut across state boundaries (unlike parties who must have a broad appeal to their constituents) i.e. they provide representation on single issues which parties do not do. They provide an additional secondary tier of democracy behind elected politicians. They help to formulate policy.

c) They provide info/specialist knowledge for decision makers (e.g., at Congressional hearings).

d) Channel of communication between public and politicians.

e) They monitor the activities of government (keep government accountable), e.g., FECA laws passed in 1970s as pressure groups lobbied to tighten up election law after Watergate. Similarly, when the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act (1946) proved ineffective, it was replaced with the Lobbying Disclosure Act in 1995. Pressure groups, therefore, far from shaping the political landscape are forced to respond to it.

f) They allow people to participate in politics, beyond just voting in elections.

g) Pressure groups generally balance each other out e.g. pro. v. anti-abortion. Intensifies the system of checks and balances set up by the Founding Fathers.

h) Note that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002) tightened up the rules on finance limiting the actions of PAC’s. Money could no longer be spent on directly supporting or opposing a candidate or supporting Federal campaigns. But a loophole was found and ‘527’ pressure groups were set up to collect unlimited soft money to spend on:

o voter mobilisation

o advertising which is issue based rather than candidate based.


a) Power elitism C Wright Mills wrote “The Power Elite”. He said a small group, the “possessors of power, wealth, and celebrity”, govern the nation in their interest and not in the interests of the majority of the American people. Military – Industrial complex. Theodore Lowi says p.g. power is now so great the govt has given up its right to make difficult decisions and merely responds to p.g. demands. Note that campaign finance laws and the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act have had a very limited effect on preventing the importance of money in lobbying. The ‘K Street Project’ (named after the street where the largest lobbying firms are based) was a Republican initiative to pressure Washington lobbying firms to hire Republicans in top positions, in return for access to influential officials.

b) Unfair. Wealthy economic groups have more resources and access to decision makers, than poor, disabled, minorities, unemployed (who are unable to promote or defend their interests very well in the corridors of power) e.g., the Tobacco Industry v. the Anti-Smoking lobby. Unlike democracy (one man one vote) pressure groups are selfish and power goes to the strongest (E.E. Schattsneider- “The Semi-Sovereign People”) Senator Edward Kennedy once said the US has ‘the finest Congress that money can buy’. PAC money can be unhealthy for democracy.

c) Change is difficult. Those pressure groups that seek to prevent change and preserve status quo are most successful. US system of checks and balances is geared towards easy delay/obstruction. Pgs. are more concerned with ‘special’ interests than the national interest.

d) Pressure group leaders are often unaccountable. Often not elected.

e) The ‘revolving door’ syndrome allows former politicians to take up highly paid jobs as lobbyists.

f) Violence, increasing in recent years. Anti – abortion bombs and assassinations, animal rights groups, anti-capitalist groups.

g) Clientelism – p.g. and bureaucrats reinforce each other’s goals e.g. Pentagon and the


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