The Impact on Interest Groups on Twentieth Century American Government

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Interest Group is defined as 'an organized body of individuals who try

to influence public policy.' This system is designed so that interest groups

would be an instrument of public influence on politics to create changes, but

would not threaten the government much. Whether this is still the case or not

is an important question that we must find out. Interest groups play many

different roles in the American political system, such as representation,

participation, education, and program monitoring. Representation is the

function that we see most often and the function we automatically think of

when we think of interest groups. Participation is another role that interest

groups play in our government, which is when they facilitate and encourage

the participation of their members in the political process. Interest groups

also educate, by trying to inform both public officials and the public at large

about matters of importance to them.

Lobby groups also keep track of how

programs are working in the field and try to persuade government to take

action when problems become evident when they monitor programs. The

traditional interest groups have been organized around some form of

economic cause, be it corporate interests, associates, or unions. The number

of business oriented lobbies has grown since the 1960s and continues to

grow. Public-interest groups have also grown enormously since the 1960s.

Liberal groups started the trend, but conservative groups are now just as

common, although some groups are better represented through interest groups

than others are. There are many ways that the groups can influence politics

too. The increase in interest group activity has fragmented the political

debate into little pockets of debates and have served to further erode the

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power of political parties, who try to make broad based appeals. PACs also

give money to incumbents, which means that incumbents can accumulate

large reelection campaign funds, that in result, discourages potential

challengers. As a result, most incumbents win, not because they outspend

their challengers, but because they keep good potential opponents out of the

race. Conservatives are one of the big groups that influence politics and for

many reasons.

Conservative thinking has not only claimed the presidency; it has

spread throughout our political and intellectual life and stands poised to

become the dominant strain in American public policy. While the political

ascent of conservatism has taken place in full public view, the intellectual

transformation has for the most part occurred behind the scenes, in a network

of think tanks whose efforts have been influential to an extent that only five

years after President Reagan's election, begins to be clear.

Conservative think tanks and similar organizations have flourished

since the mid-1970s. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) had twelve

resident thinkers when Jimmy Carter was elected; today it has forty-five, and

a total staff of nearly 150. The Heritage Foundation has sprung from nothing

to command an annual budget of $11 million. The budget of the Center for

Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has grown from $975,000 ten years

ago to $8.6 million today. Over a somewhat longer period the endowment of

the Hoover Institution has increased from $2 million to $70 million. At least

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twenty-five other noteworthy public-policy groups have been formed or

dramatically expanded through the decade; nearly all are anti-liberal.

No other country accords such significance to private institutions

designed to influence public decisions. Brookings, began in the 1920s with

money from the industrialist Robert S. Brookings, a Renaissance man who

aspired to bring discipline of economics to Washington. During the New

Deal the Brookings Institution was marked-oriented--for example, it opposed

Roosevelt's central planning agency, the National Resources Planning Board.

Only much later did the institution acquire a reputation as the head of


Through the 1950s and 1960s, as Americans enjoyed steady increases

in their standard of living and U.S. industry reigned over world commerce,

Washington came to consider the economy a dead issue. Social justice and

Vietnam dominated the agenda: Brookings concentrated on those fields,

emerging as a chief source of arguments in favor of the Great Society and

opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the Washington swirl where

few people have the time to read the reports they debate, respectability is

often proportional to tonnage. The more studies someone tosses on the table,

the more likely he is to win his point. For years Brookings held a dominance

on tonnage. Its papers supporting liberal positions went unchallenged by

serious conservative rebuttals.

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As the 1970s progressed, a core of politically active conservative

intellectuals, most prominently Irving Kristol, began to argue in publications

like The Public Interest and The Wall Street Journal that if business wanted

market logic to regain the initiative, it would have to create a new class of its

own --scholars whose career prospects depended on private enterprise, not

government or the universities. 'You get what you pay for, Kristol in effect

argued, and if businessmen wanted intellectual horsepower, they would have

to open their pocketbooks.'1

The rise of Nader's Raiders and similar public-interest groups--which

achieved remarkable results, considering how badly outgunned they were;

brought a change in business thinking about money and public affairs. So did

the frustration felt by oil companies, which were being fattened by rising

prices but still dreamed of being fatter if federal regulations were abolished.

They were willing to invest some of their riches in changing Washington's


Women also have a voice in their own interest groups. The Woman

Suffrage movement was headed up by many groups that differed in some of

their views. The moderate branch was by far the largest and is given most of

the credit for the Nineteenth Amendment. Under the banner of the National

Women's Party, the militant feminists had used civil disobedience, colorful

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demonstrations and incessant lobbying to get the Nineteenth Amendment out

of Congress.

These are just some of the ways that American politics in the twentieth

century was influenced by special interest groups. Interest groups have

grown this much in this century and will probably keep progressing in the

coming centuries.


1. Groliers Encyclopedia on CD-Rom, 1993 Grolier Inc., Software

Toolworks Inc.

2. Ideas Move Nations, The Atlantic Monthly, 1986