Interest Groups in the United States

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Though the United States shares the same “Liberal Democracy” classification as its Western European brothers, there is substantive difference in the role an individual plays, and can play, in the shaping of their political system. The best example of differences between European and American political action is recognized in the role of interest groups. In those countries which most align themselves with the United States, namely Great Britain, France, and Germany, the role of interest groups is downplayed and only seen as a radical option for voicing political dismay. However, citizens of the United States are far more likely to voice their respective ideologies and beliefs via interest groups. As a result, interest groups play a much larger role in shaping the politics of the United States then they do of its European contemporaries. Lawrence Graham writes of the inevitable existence of interest groups in his book The Politics of Governing. Stating, “Interest group activities are...essential and effective in a constitutional democracy (21).” Instead of looking at whether or not the United States is better or worse than Europe because of the prevalent existence of interest groups, it is more important to understand why such a divide exist. In order to do so the characteristics which differentiate these constitutional democracies must be examined. Evidently the government’s structure, legislative process, and social makeup define the role of interest groups in a specific country.

The United States dual federalist plural-majority system was conceived with notion of interest groups in mind. As a result there is a concrete separation of powers and an intricate system of checks and balances. Not only are these two unique characteristics reflective of founders’ fears of one interest group dominating government practices, they also contribute directly to their existence. “The liberty the government was created to guarantee includes the liberty of individuals to pursue their own aspirations…to do so they will join with others and form interest groups (18). James Madison and other founders such as Alexander Hamilton recognized the necessary role of interest groups in the forming of the nation. Competing interest groups would instead be relied upon to ensure the success of democracy. Thus the First Amendment expressively grants citizens the privilege to “assemble,” “petition,” and “redress grievances.” Exclusionary interest groups are now recognized as a necessary part of the American political structure, even being seen as a necessary part of the “iron triangle” of American politics. The effectiveness, and thereby the existence, of interest groups in European nations is much less likely because of their government structure. Great Britain operates under a system of “fusion of power,” in which the executive branch exists with in the legislative branch. As a result the party which controls Parliament has complete control over the government till the next election. Single party control, without the existence of committees, practically negates any sort of impact an interest group could have. Leaving those who look to push their own political agenda alienated and instead opting to participate via local government. In France and Germany the Constitution advocates a strong executive branch and expressively limits the powers of legislature and individuals. This presents a major problem for interest groups, as they often look to directly impact legislators. Instead, in order to be heard citizens must voice their disproval via referendums, which have come to take on the role of interest groups. The single member district electoral structure is another aspect of the American political process advantageous to the existence of interest groups. This winner take all arrangement predicates itself on having two major political parties, essentially manufacturing an environment where smaller third parties have no...
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