The Pros and Cons of Interest Groups
Interest groups generate a great deal of controversy. Some critics even blame interest groups for many of the problems in America. Other people, however, see interest groups as a vital component of the American democratic system.
Pluralism is the idea that democratic politics consists of various interest groups working against each other, balancing one another out so that the common good is achieved. President James Madison first put forth this idea in an essay called Federalist Paper No. 10 (1787), which urged New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. According to Madison, competing interest groups are necessary to good government because they not only give people a means of contributing to the democratic process but also prevent any one minority from imposing its will on the majority. Interest groups therefore are a vital party of a healthy democracy.
Flaws in Pluralism
Critics of pluralism contend that there is no such thing as the common good because there are so many conflicting interests in society: What is good for one person is often bad for others. They argue that the interest groups interfere with democracy because they seek benefits for a minority of people rather than the greater good of the majority. The National Rifle Association, for example, has repeatedly blocked new gun control legislation despite the fact that a majority of Americans actually want stricter gun laws. Other critics argue that the interest group system is really effective only to economic interest groups, which have greater financial resources at their disposal. Nearly two-thirds of lobbyists in Washington represent economic groups. Critics also argue that interest groups tend to ignore the interests of the poor in favor of middle- and upper-class Americans, who have more time and money to contribute.
Other scholars have argued that interest groups have been too successful and use the term hyperpluralism to describe political systems that cater to interest groups and not the people. These critics argue that too many interest groups lead to demosclerosis, the inability of government to accomplish anything substantial. These critics contend that the U.S. government cannot make serious changes, even if those changes are needed, because competing interest groups stymie the government from governing the country effectively.