America’s political system has never easily fit into formal definitions of democracy. In fact, the framers of the United States Constitution debated what kind of democracy would be best for the new nation in the form of three competing political theories: majoritarianism, elitism and pluralism. Those who promoted majoritarianism believed that government should conform to what the majority of people want. Elitist proponents like Alexander Hamilton saw the masses as turbulent, unsteady and seldom able to make the right decisions. Hamilton therefore believed that a well-educated few, an elite group of citizenry, should make the important decisions of the country and in this sense check the turbulence of the majority. Pluralist theorists, in keeping with founders like James Madison, see politics as a struggle between many competing groups where conflicts are eventually settled through compromise and accommodation. Modern scholars of political science argue that none of these theories adequately describe the American system of government, and one subject that seems to crystallize the inability of these theories to do so is that of interest groups and their role in the U.S. democracy. With some hundred thousand associations in existence today and nearly two-thirds of the American populace affiliated with these groups or associations, there is no wonder that simple definitions of democracy cannot be applied to the U.S. While interest groups are certainly responsible for significant policy changes throughout America’s history, and cannot therefore be denied a legitimate place in the political system, their existence fails to resolve the debate over whether majoritarianism, elitism or pluralism rules the nation.
Interest groups proliferate in America for a number of rather complex reasons. Groups allow individuals’ interests to appear more powerful. Association with an interest group provides belonging for individuals; they become part of groups who share their ideologies and beliefs. Most significantly, alignment with a group empowers the political system itself through creating a diversity of voices. The multiplicity of interests groups gives the majority and elites an important place in the nation’s politic, as well as ensuring plurality continues. Regardless of whether Americans join a group for economic, political, or social reasons, those who add their voice to the group can enjoy the strength of joint action to their individual cause. And even those who may not actively participate in interests groups to which they join and pay membership are able to reap the benefits of those who effectively fight for the collective whole. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is a prime example of this dynamic. While every member of the AARP doesn’t actively lobby government to meet their needs, individuals within the organization nonetheless benefit from the success of those who do. Even those who are not members of AARP can ultimately benefit from the group’s victories in that the organization claims to represent all older Americans. Interest groups then would seem to be a vital component in working to guarantee that the unique aspects of the U.S democracy continue to remain successful. Nonetheless, the numerous positives associated with interest groups are in danger of being countered by public servants who choose work as lobbyists. In other words, the big business of Washington threatens to undermine their effectiveness to represent all groups equally.
Perhaps the most problematic issue with regard to modern interest groups in the U.S. has to do with the lucrative possibilities involved in becoming a lobbyist. The most powerful lobbyists tend to be former members of government offices, administrations, or Congress. That means that the enlightened political establishment who were once there to serve only the best interests of the country becomes the servants of moneyed interests. Instead of using their intellect to serve the public good, many of the civic-servants America trained and once elected to serve the country are moving in ever larger numbers to become lobbyists that work to enrich big business. In this sense, the American political system ultimately suffers at the hands of the most powerful special interests because they have well-informed and connected former political insiders at their disposal. The United States complex form of democracy has survived so successfully, one might argue, precisely because it does not fit into any definitive model. America is in fact a curious admixture of majoritarian, elitist, and pluralistic theories. Our political system has always been dependent on the people and the many competing groups, as well as the enlightened political establishment. Each of these factions operates as an integral element ensuring that our government responds adequately to its citizenry. However, the displacement of any one of these critical elements, as in the case of our political elites, could endanger the system as a whole. In the end, it is up to the American citizens, as individuals and as a whole, to make certain former public servants turned lobbyists do not subject undue influence on government. One of the great dangers that powerful interest groups pose is their ability to corrupt the political system through soft-money, perks, and other under-the-table promises. It is crucial that Americans hold interest groups and their lobbyists as accountable as they do their elected politicians. Even interests groups, who have historically enabled the many voices of America to be heard are not above the need for transparency we demand from other players in the political system. Only an active citizenry can keep all these elements working for the good of the people.
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