Pluralist View of Interest Groups on American Politics

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  • 0:03 Pluralist Theory Defined
  • 2:35 Pluralism and Group Theory
  • 4:05 The Denial of Pluralism
  • 6:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson covers the political theories that attempt to assess the perceived benefits of interest groups in American politics. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Pluralist Theory Defined

There's a famous song lyric that goes, '...You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.' Sorry for my horrible singing there, but this lyric perfectly sums up what interest groups hope for when they try to influence legislators.

There are numerous interest groups who try to influence our government, some with unique wants and others with overlapping goals. Nevertheless, the question needs to be asked if whether or not the government listens to those wants, and also if those needs are met, do they have the best interest of society in mind?

The fact of the matter is that all Americans have some interest they want represented. Therefore, organizing to promote these interests is an essential part of democracy. Interest groups are, therefore, formed to help promote these interests. However, there are competing views of how fairly these needs are met from within our government.

Say, for instance, I wanted to make chocolate cake the national dessert. There is the pluralist theory of interest groups that states that politics is mainly a competition among groups, where each interest group presses for its own policy preferences but where all interests are represented. So, in this case, my chocolate cake interest group would try to promote that dessert, but we realize that there may be other dessert groups out there that deserve some attention too, like ice cream and cupcakes.

There is also the elitist theory, which states that society is divided along class lines and the only group with the real power is the upper-class elite. So, in our dessert example, if I owned most of the factories to make a dessert, I make the other choices largely irrelevant because I control the resources for making sweets. Some even go so far as to argue for a hyperpluralist theory, which states that too many groups are getting too much of what they want, and so government policies become contradictory and lack direction. In this case, interest groups are so strong that the government is weakened. Something like this might happen if the government wanted to make chocolate cake the national dessert one day, ice cream the next day, and then apple pie the day after that. We all get what we want, but it really confuses everyone else as to what the national dessert really is.

Pluralism and Group Theory

Pluralism paints a pretty rosy picture of how interest groups work in American politics. It assumes a couple of key things, namely that groups provide a key link between people and government. Once interests are organized, groups can turn to the government and get a hearing.

Secondly, that groups compete. Labor, business, farmers, consumers, environmentalists, and other interests constantly make competing claims on the government. However, no one group is likely to become too dominant. If one group flexes their muscles, the other group will do the same. Because for every action there is a reaction, power remains balanced. It also assumes that groups usually play by the 'rules of the game.' Few groups rely on lying, stealing, cheating, or engaging in violence to get their way, and that group politics is usually a fair fight.

And lastly, groups weak in one resource can use another. For example, while big business may have money on their side, labor has large numbers on their side. All legitimate groups are able to affect policy by one mean or another. So again, in our dessert example, all desserts get an equal shot at vying for the title of national dessert.

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