Interest groups – for example, business and professional associations, labor unions, and environmental and consumer groups – are a feature of every functioning democracy. All interest groups perform certain functions: providing information to public officials; seeking to persuade policy makers to pursue a preferred course of action, an activity that may be difficult to distinguish in practice from the attempt to inform; and communicating with and educating members. Within the context of these widely shared functions, organized interests vary substantially both within and across democracies with respect to the difficulty they face in gaining access, the techniques they use to influence policy, and the targets of their activities. In addition, political systems differ in terms of the structure of relations between interest groups and government: some political science scholars have suggested that there are two basic patterns of organized interest interaction with the state, neocorporatist and pluralist. In terms of the kind of citizen interests represented by groups, although there are both substantial differences across democracies, the interests of producers are inevitably well represented. Two recent developments affect interest-group politics on a cross-national basis: the emergence of interest representation at the European Union and the emergence of greater pluralism in democracies everywhere.
- Problems of Definition
- Interest Groups and the Policy Process
- Interest Group Systems: Who is Represented?
- Interest Groups and Parties
- The Evolution of Interest Group Politics
Among the requisites for democracy on a sustained basis are not only free and fair elections but also the rule of law, respect for dissent and freedom of expression, and the legitimation of the organized representation of citizen interests – often in opposition to those currently in power – through parties and interest groups. Interest groups, those myriad organizations – ranging from business and professional associations to labor unions to environmental and consumer groups to groups concerned about issues as diverse as abortion and nuclear power – that link the individual to public institutions and seek to influence public policy, are a feature of every functioning democracy. Although they may be present in nondemocratic systems as well, it is not an exaggeration to claim that democracy on a national scale is impossible without interest groups.
Problems of Definition
Differences of opinion arise in any discussion of how to categorize the various collectivities that mediate between the individual and the state in a democracy. Many of the institutions often described as interest groups – for example, corporations, foundations, or public bodies such as regional governments – are not groups at all, in that they do not have members in the ordinary sense. For this reason, some analysts prefer the term ‘organized interests’ to ‘interest groups.’ Interest groups have much in common with other social aggregates that represent citizen preferences to policy makers in a democracy. In fact, organized interests often have connections, formal or informal, with political parties or social movements. However, unlike political parties, they do not nominate candidates to campaign under their name for the purpose of running the government. They contrast with social movements in their greater degree of formal organization.
Interest Groups and the Policy Process
Wherever they are, interest groups serve as intermediaries in a two-way process of communication linking a citizen constituency with policy makers. All interest groups perform certain functions: they provide information to public officials to assist in designing policy; they seek to persuade policy makers to pursue a preferred course of action, an activity that may be difficult to distinguish in practice from the attempt to inform; and they communicate with members – keeping them apprised as to what the government is doing, educating them about the political process, and cultivating support.
Within the context of these widely shared functions, organized interests vary substantially – in ways that reflect the degree of permeability of the political system to new interests, and the nature and relative importance of formal political institutions – with respect to the difficulty they face in gaining access, the techniques they use to influence policy, and the targets of their activities. Newly emergent groups have much more difficulty penetrating interest group politics in Israel, which has a strong, centralized state, than in the USA, with its tradition of voluntarism and a public domain that, because it is divided by federalism and separation of powers, provides many points of access. Within and across polities, there is tremendous variety in the kinds of techniques groups use to realize their objectives. France, for example, has a tradition of direct action by groups not present in, say, the UK. Within any single country, organized interests differ in the extent to which they function solely as insiders utilizing traditional, low-profile means of achieving political influence or operate as outsiders, adopting more public tactics of mobilization and protest – with unions and environmental groups more likely to engage in protest activities than, say, business associations.
In choosing where to direct their energies, organized interests inevitably gravitate to power. Hence, the primary focus of interest group activity in Japan is the bureaucracy, while in Italy it is parliament. In a system as fragmented as the US political system, interest groups often have choices, and may seek to locate a political controversy in the institutional arena in which they would have the greatest probability of success.
Political systems differ not only in terms of what interest groups do and where they channel their activities but also in terms of the structure of relations between interest groups and government. Some political scientists have suggested that there are two basic patterns of organized interest interaction with the state: neocorporatist and pluralist. According to the neocorporatist model, approximated most closely in Sweden and Austria, mechanisms providing for equal representation of individuals on a geographical basis are supplemented by mechanisms providing for functional representation of organized interests – ordinarily by a relatively limited number of peak associations. Such organizations are recognized and licensed by the state and attain a regularized role in policy making through delegations of administrative power or participation on public councils or committees. Important government decisions are made only after consultation with major economic interests, most notably workers, employers, and farmers.
In contrast, according to the pluralist model, interest groups are much more numerous – less highly aggregated and organized around multiple bases of political conflict – and much more autonomous. Pluralist interest-group politics, approximated most closely by the USA, is relatively permeable to the entry of new groups, and groups arise and get involved in politics at their own initiative, rather than at the behest of the state. In a politics of pluralism, interest groups have greater freedom in choosing which political battles to fight in which political arenas. Typically, those battles involve shifting, issue-specific coalitions taking sides on issues of narrower, more limited import.
It is essential to recognize that these alternative models, which have generated considerable scholarly discussion and some controversy, are ideal types. No polity actually conforms to either model, and many countries – for example, France where a strong, centralized state has meant comparative weakness for interest groups, or Japan where regular consultation between business and government more or less excludes labor – evidence a pattern that is neither pluralist nor corporatist. Furthermore, in most countries no single pattern obtains for the making of policy in all issue areas: the formulation of foreign policy, for example, is less likely to entail regularized bargaining with interest groups than the making of agricultural policy.
Interest Group Systems: Who is Represented?
Reflecting national differences in their political traditions and political culture, in the number and depth of politically relevant social cleavages, and in the number, strength, and ideological distinctiveness of the parties, there are also, across democracies, enormous differences in the nature of interest systems, the collective set of organized interests active in politics. Polities vary widely in both the number of groups and the proportion of citizens who are members of any group at all; in the Scandinavian countries, where most employees belong to some kind of union or professional association, membership is much higher than in, for example, Italy or Greece. There are also differences in the nature and number of the axes of political cleavage encompassed in organized interest politics; the multiplicity of kinds of interests represented in the interest groups of a large and diverse country such as the USA contrasts with that in a relatively homogeneous country such as Norway.
In addition, interest group systems vary substantially in the degree to which interest representation is highly aggregated or fragmented functionally or geographically and in the extent to which interest groups have a monopoly on the organization of a particular constituency. For example, in contrast to the centralized interest group systems of Austria and Sweden are those of the Netherlands, where business associations are organized according to religious differences, or Belgium, where business associations are divided along regional lines but labor is pillarized into socialist, liberal, and Catholic national federations. Furthermore, there are marked differences in terms of the relative strength of organizations representing different kinds of interests – in particular, in the vigor of the opposition provided to traditionally powerful business organizations by organized labor and citizens’ groups concerned about consumer and environmental issues.
There are, however, certain regularities in the kinds of interests represented by interest groups. It is difficult to think of a democracy with active interest group politics where producer interests are not well represented – whether by peak employer groups, sectorally based trade associations, or corporations acting individually. In contrast, with the exception of pensioners, the interests of those who benefit directly from welfare-state policies – for example, students or recipients of public assistance – rarely receive vigorous advocacy by interest groups although their causes may be championed by political parties.
Interest Groups and Parties
That the political parties in a democracy might represent interests not being championed by organized interests – and vice versa – makes clear that an overall assessment of the way in which citizen interests are represented in any particular democracy requires that its interest groups be considered in the context of its parties. Common wisdom holds that strong parties go hand in hand with weak organized interests and, conversely, weak parties with strong organized interests. In the USA, a plurality of groups broadens substantially the range of interests represented in politics by two relatively weak and ideologically moderate parties. However, strong parties do not necessarily preclude strong interest groups. Sweden has strong political parties, and interest groups are guaranteed a consultative role in corporatist policy making in the system of state commissions. And France has traditionally been characterized as having both weak parties and weak interest groups in the face of a strong state.
Democracies also differ in the extent to which interest groups have strong links to like-minded political parties. For example, at least until recently, UK trade unions have had a much closer relationship to the Labour Party than their US counterparts do to the Democrats.
The Evolution of Interest Group Politics
In spite of the substantial differences across democracies, there have been, over the past few decades, two related developments affecting interest group politics on a cross-national basis that suggest the possibility of convergence among democracies. First is the emergence of interest representation at the European Union (EU). Although group activity in Brussels often arises within individual EU nations, many of the groups involved are either individual corporations or European-level, rather than national, organizations.
The second important trend is an advocacy explosion in democracies everywhere with – in a fragmented, pluralist fashion – more concerns being represented by more groups, and a greater reliance on professional lobbyists. This fluid style of interest advocacy is especially characteristic of the EU but has appeared in the national capitals as well. With respect to the kinds of interests represented, a growing number of citizens’ groups concerned about an array of issues including nuclear proliferation, the environment, immigration, and the rights of gays, women, and ethnic minorities supplement traditional economic groups representing business, farmers, and workers. How these developments will alter interest group politics is not yet clear. Nonetheless, private associational life will surely remain essential to the functioning of democracies around the world.
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