Pressure Groups

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  • Created on: 25-04-19 18:32

Pressure Groups

What do we mean by political pluralism in the USA? 

Political pluralism is when there is a huge range of political views and interests in the USA. 

The term pre-supposes that democracy is made up of competing influences and interest groups - although dominated by two main parties, there is a shared common commitment to notions of American values such as liberty, opportunity and justice. 

In reality, there are numerous, often competing, viewpoints that seek to influence decision makers in DC and all 50 states. 

For example, while every American respects the concept of 'freedom', citizens interpret it in hugely different ways:

  • To racial minorities such as African-Americans, it is about the freedom to be treated fairly by the police and the absence of discrimination
  • Conservative America see's freedom as the ability to retain most of one's wealth and the freedom to enjoy property and possessions without fear of confiscation or interference by the government. 
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What are the different categories of pressure grou

Membership and aims

Pressure groups are traditionally grouped as interest/sectional groups groups or cause/promotional groups depending on their membership and aims. 

Interest groups seek to defend and advance their own members. These are labour unions such as the National Education Association (NEA), which is the largest trade union with nearly 3 million members. 

Cause groups aim to promote broader causes which they consider as beneficial for society as a whole. Their motivation might be described as more altruistic and less selfish than that of interest groups. Key cause groups include the Children's Defense Fund, which promotes the rights and well-being of children.

Many pressure groups combine elements of both categories and are known as hybrid groups. For example, the National Rifle Association seeks to protect the interests of its gun-owning members, but also seeks to promote more widely a defence of the Second Amendentand the status of gun ownership in the USA.

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The different categories of pressure groups


Pressure groups can be classified by their status, especially whether they are insider or outsider groups. 

Insider groups tend to possess these attributes:

  • Close ties with political establishment.
  • Greater financial resources, so can pay to employ lobbyists and spend significant amounts at election times.
  • A reliance on personal contacts, formal and informal meetings with decision makers - much of their work is done behind closed doors. 
  • A small but selective membership.
  • A greater likelihood of success in exercising influence and being routinely consulted by government/legislators on policy and legislation. 
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The different categories of pressure groups


Outsider groups possess these characteristics: 

  • Large, mass membership.
  • Few financial resources and a greater reliance on volunteers rather than paid staff - rely on social media to promote public awareness.
  • A lack of strong and established links with existing political institutions such as Congress. Such groups need to feel like they have to 'make noise' to be heard. 
  • They use direct action, such as demonstrations and protests. This can sometimes lead to violence and clashed with the authorities.
  • A strong desire to frequently challenge the staus quo in areas such as economics, the environment and race. 
  • A lack of success in achieving their aims, though sime groups such as the civil rights movement have achieved many of their aims. 
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Pressure groups

The role of pressure groups and PACs/Super PACs in election campaigns and policy making.

Pressure groups in the USA are more likely to get involved in election campaigns and donate funds via their political action committees (PACs) to favoured candidates and produce voting guidance. Some groups specifically rate or endorse certain candidates. 

Larger, well-financed pressure groups are big players in campaign finance raising and spend millions of dollars each election cycle, adding to the ever-growing cost of US elections. 

Outside groups raised more than $600 million in support of the various 2016 presidential candidates via their PACs/Super PACs. 

87% of agribusiness donations went to Republicans and 99% of labour union donations went to the Democrats.

EMILY's List, which works for the election of progressive, pro-choice female Democrat candidates, rasied and spent around $40 million on favoured candidates such as Tammy Duckworth, elected senator for Illinois in 2016. 

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Pressure groups

The role of pressure groups and PACs/Super PACs in election campaigns and policy making.

Certain politicians are more likely to receive donations than others. Senior figures on powerful and relevant congressional committees can anticipate hefty donations, especially from corporate donors. 

Jeb Hensarling, Republican chair of the House Financial Services Committee, received more than $1.1 million in campaign donations from the finance and banking sector in the 2015-2016 election cycle. 

Many pressure groups become involved in ballot initiative campaigns. In 2016, Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun control group with millions in funding from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, successfully backed the Question 1 ballot initiative in Nevada that eliminated loopholes allowing guns to be sold with background checks online and at gun shows.

Equally, in 2008, many conservative religious groups successfully poured money into supporting Prop 8 in California that banned same-sex marriage. 

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Pressure groups

The role of pressure groups and PACs/Super PACs in election campaigns and policy making.

In 2016, Trump received relatively few donations from pressure groups, yet won the election. Many pro-Republican pressure groups had donated heavily to more established candidates in the primaries, such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Clinton received large donations from Democrat-leaning pressure groups via their Super PACs and outspent her Republican rival, but still lost. 

Pressure groups tend to back the candidates most likely to win, so in a year of anti-establishment politics, they had less impact on the final outcome. 

They have influence on policy, but it tends to serve as a reinforcement and a reminder to politicians of their policy stance.

A Democrat from a majority-minority district will already have a strong commitment to civil rights; endorsement from civil rights groups are unlikely to affect it, but will nonetheless act as an additional incentive to keep that issue high on their policy agenda. 

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Pressure groups and incumbents

When assessing the impact of pressure groups on political campaigns and policies, arguably their greatest influence is on reinforcing the re-election of incumbents.

PACs have one overriding priority: get the most 'bang for their buck'. Hence business group PACs donate 90% of their campaign funds to incumbents, reaching 98% in the case of the electronics and communications sector. 

Labour groups also favour incumbents, with 82% of their donations going to those already elected. 

This suggests that many groups prioritise backing winners and thus securing access to law-makers.

Candidates who share a group's outlook and values but are fighting an unwinnable race are unlikely to be the recipient of pressure group money. 

One consequence of the involvement of pressure groups and their PACs is to reinforce high levels of incumbent re-election for both parties, which reached 98% for the 2016 House Elections. 

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Pressure groups and political parties

Are pressure groups more powerful than political parties? 

In short, there is no simple answer as they both have essentially different functions. 

Political parties are there to fight and win elections and to provide some political 'spine' to the political body by organising elected representatives in Congress. 

They provide broad labels under which candidates can run with a recognisable set of principles and a policy platform. 

Pressure groups seek to influence and keep accountable those in power. 

  • Parties, or candidates running for office need the campaign funding and endorsements from groups that are relevant and prominent in their state or district. Once in office, they then need to pay close attention to their voting record.
  • Pressure groups also rely on elected politicians for much of their influence. They need to be aware that legislators can have competing forces on them when it comes to voting in Congress; their leadership, core voters and the wider electorate. 
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Do pressure groups help or harm US democracy?

The elitist theory proposes that some groups, especially insider ones, are more powerful than others. Their close ties with legislators and powerful resources mean it is an uneven playing field. 

Many criticise the dominance that special interests have on government. This is often termed the 'iron triangle', where pressure groups collude with government agencies and key legislators to maintain the status quo and prevent reforms that threaten their interests.

It is traditionally associated with the defence industry, but it has also been linked to the farming lobby. Pressure groups such as the agricultural business work alonside the US Department of Agriculture and congressmen from states with big agricultural sectors to keep farm subsidies (and food prices) artifcially high. 

This benefits the government agency that sees its influence sustained, legislators who receive large donations from agribusinesses, and the businesses and farming lobby themselves. 

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Do pressure groups help or harm US democracy?

The 'pluralist theory' advocates that in a huge, dynamic and evolving democracy, competing pressure groups jostle for power and influence as much as political parties do. 

The best organised and most popular prevail, there are no inecvitable outcomes and democracy is fundamentally all about compromise between the competing groups

What are some of the key arguments put forward as to whether pressure groups help or hinder US democracy? 

  • Representation: they enable wide diversities of America to be represented, as well as those with no direct voice: animals, the environment, illegal immigrants etc. They also allow a broader spectrum of interest to be represented in a way not possible in a rigid two-party system. 

Critics would argue that the dominance of a few well-connected groups means that some interests in the USA are much better represented than others. The establishment prevails at the expense of the ordinary citizen. 

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Do pressure groups help or harm US democracy?

  • Participation: in a nation with low levels of turnout in elections, pressure groups encourage more Americans to become more politcally engaged and active. They also promote political activity between elections. 

Critics would say that only a minority of pressure group members are activists. Many are 'cheque book' members, who join either out of general sympathy with the aims of the movement but do not wish to get involved further, or simply because of the practical benefits bestowed by membership. 

  • Education and public debate: pressure groups promote public debate and awareness of a whole range of issues that legislators might otherwise ignore. Their literature and campaigns at election times make voters more informed when casting their vote. 

The counter-argument is that the material put out by pressure groups is necessarily one-sided and biased, and simply adds to the huge volume of campaign propaganda that either confuses voters or reinforces existing attitudes. 

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  • Both countries have clear insider and outsider pressure groups as well as hybrid groups. 
  • Their fundamental aim of influencing decision makers without seeking elected office is identical. 
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  • US pressure groups are more likely to be directly involved in election campaigns by endorsing candidates, making political donations and informing voters about the policy positions of individual candidates. This is because the election law is different: The First Amendment enables groups to spend money and promote issues in a way that campaign spending limits and rules on television adverts do not in the UK.
  • There are more access points in the USA. Most UK pressure groups have traditionally foucsed on Westminster and Whitehall, while US groups target not just Congress, but the White House and state governments where many important decisions are made. 
  • The lower levels of party unity in the USA give more scope to pressure groups to inluence congressmen in how they vote on individual measures. Thus, in traditionally conservative states, even the Democrats would be wary of being too emphatically pro-choice or pro-gun control. 
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