With the NRA featuring prominently in the discussions of many US political commentators in recent months, perhaps it’s time to question the influence of pressure groups in American politics. There are two main types of pressure groups in the US, institutional and membership, each with their own methods of political persuasion. Institutional groups seek to represent organisations and collective entities, whilst membership groups endeavour to respond to the wishes of individual Americans. Despite the supposedly-pluralist purpose of these groups, contemporary American society experiences predominantly elitist politics, wherein power and influence are often gained through wealth and status rather than worthy causes and good intentions alone. As a result, it has become clear that some pressure groups in the US have become too powerful, dominating the political scene in ways frequently overlooked by the general public, undermining the democracy upon which the country prides itself.
Some pressure groups in the US have become too powerful, dominating the political scene in ways frequently overlooked by the general public…
Traditionally, pressure groups have held a variety of functions, the most important being their capacity to represent the minority. Pressure groups are a means by which US citizens have their individual views taken seriously and their grievances articulated; they serve the individual while the government serves the collective electorate. They act as an important link between the public and the politician, providing a channel of easy access through which ordinary citizens can voice their opinions.
While positive in theory, there exists a great inequality between groups, leading to the disproportionate representation of certain points of view. Some groups are valued over others, not because of their cause, but because of their wealth and political affiliations. For example, the financial disparity between The National Organisation for Women and The Sierra Club reaches into the millions, with the latter benefiting from billionaire donors, despite the morally-reputable causes of both.
With few legal obstacles to gargantuan donations, though, such disparity is inevitable, but the danger of the imbalance becomes clear when observing even the ten biggest groups in the US. The third largest, the American Medical Association (AMA) spent an estimated $306 million in lobbying from 1998 to 2014. In the same period, the US Chamber of Commerce, the second largest group, spent a grand total of $1 billion – equivalent to the GDP of countries like Mongolia and Belize.
In the same period, the US Chamber of Commerce, the second largest group, spent a grand total of $1 billion – equivalent to the GDP of countries like Mongolia and Belize…
Not only do a minority of pressure groups hold a greater influence over others of their kind, they hold a worrying amount of influence over congress and government, too. It’s important to note that the Chamber has supported almost exclusively-Republican candidates since its foundation, a trait it shares with the NRA, which sits as the largest group in the US. Pressure groups seek to influence the way House and Senate members vote by gaining direct contact with congressmen and their staff, often through websites and social media. They also seek to contact relevant congressional committees, aware of their ability to amend legislation relevant to their cause.
Some pressure groups even publicise the voting records of congressman, and oppose or endorse incumbents through fundraising and media advertising. The NRA, for example, publicly grades members of congress on their perceived degree of ‘friendliness’ towards gun rights, and with a following of over 5 million people, this can prove incredibly damaging to an election campaign. In this way, politicians often seek to please the pressure groups rather than pursuing their own genuine interests, in both fear of the threat of a derailed campaign and the hope of a financially-glowing endorsement.
Politicians often seek to please the pressure groups rather than pursuing their own genuine interests…
To an outsider looking in, pressure groups act to gain the support of politicians through lobbying and compromising on legislative proposals, as is their purpose – but reality suggests that job-security often prevails and the reverse occurs.
Pressure groups also seek to maintain a foothold within the executive branch by creating strong ties with relevant executive departments, especially concerning the federal government’s regulatory work. This poses the question of whether federal regulators are watchdogs or lapdogs towards pressure groups, with the latter suggesting that the federal government, much like congress, acts to keep in good relations with the groups they are under literal ‘pressure’ from.
Some groups find themselves courted by the White House for their support, as they know the damaging impacts of pressure group disapproval. Problems emerge when these federal bodies are thought to have too-tight a relationship with the groups they are supposedly regulating, and this poses the threat of an ‘iron triangle’ situation, wherein pressure groups, congress, and the government have a strong relationship that guarantees policy outcomes.
While this might seem a convenient notion, by reducing political tensions and petty disagreement, an iron triangle situation would isolate many people from political decisions, primarily those who do not share the ideologies of the groups involved. In this way, the relationships between some pressure groups and executive departments renders certain groups grossly over-influential, and poses a danger to the legitimacy of political democracy in the US. While the likelihood of an iron triangle situation occurring is minimal, since it is rare for the legislative and executive branches to share the same goals (let alone a consensus between both them and the pressure groups in question), it’s very potential poses a dangerous risk to America’s concepts of both democracy and federalism.
In this way, the relationships between some pressure groups and executive departments renders certain groups grossly over-influential, and poses a danger to the legitimacy of political democracy in the US…
What becomes clear, then, is that despite their necessity to both represent the views of the minority and provide information to public and politician, pressure groups’ influence over the bodies of power in the US has become disproportionately excessive, especially when considering their un-elected and essentially un-regulated nature. In any case, the close analysis of pressure groups, just one part of the extensive American political framework, reveals the inadequacy and inequality of the system as a whole. It remains to be seen whether the NRA can maintain its foothold in US politics amongst the increase in gun-control advocacy, but regardless, Washington’s elite have become the lapdogs of the pressure group equivalent, and Trump should choose his next move wisely if he hopes to retain their influence.