This discussion of political behavior has focused primarily on individual participation (and non-participation) in the decision-making processes of government and on involvement in the nations political parties. However, there are other important ways that American citizens can play a role in the nations political arena. Because of common needs or common frustrations, people may band together in social movements such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the anti-nuclear power movement of the 1980s. Americans can also influence the political process through membership in interest groups (some of which, in fact, may be part of larger social movements).
An interest group is a voluntary association of citizens who attempt to influence public policy. The National Organization for Women (NOW) is considered an interest group, so, too, are the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the National Rifle Association (NRA). Such groups are a vital part of the American political process Many interest groups (often known as lobbies) are national in scope and address a wide variety of political and social issues As we saw earlier, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Common Cause, the American Conservative Union, and Christian Voice were all actively involved in the debate over the nomination of Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court.
Typically, we think of interest groups as being primarily concerned with regulatory legislation However, as political scientist Barbara Ann Stolz (1981) points out, even the federal criminal code has become a target for interest-group activity Business groups have sought to strike the "reckless endangerment" provision that, in effect, makes it a crime for a business to engage knowingly in conduct that will imperil someones life Business interests have also attempted to broaden the criminal code to include certain types of incidents that occur during labor disputes, unions, by contrast, wish to maintain current laws.
Interest groups often pursue their political goals through lobbyingthe process by which individuals and groups communicate with public officials in order to influence decisions of government. They also distribute persuasive literature and launch publicity campaigns to build grass roots support for their political objectives Finally, interest groups, through their political action committees, donate funds to political candidates whose views are in line with the groups legislative agendas.
The role of interest groups within the American political system has generated intense controversy, particularly because of the special relation ships that exist between government officials and lobbyists for interest groups The widespread nature of these ties is evident from the number of former legislators who, after retiring or losing bids for reelection, immediately go on the payroll of interest groups In 1985, there were 300 former lawmakers and former high-level White House officials parlaying their governmental experience into profitable new careers as Washington lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, and administrators So pervasive is this network of insiders that an organization. Former Members of Congress, links them together Currently, there are no laws preventing members of Congress from returning as lobbyists to reshape (or even dismantle) legislation that they created in the public interest.
Interest groups are occasionally referred to as pressure groups, implying that they attempt to force their will on a resistant public In the view of functionalists, such groups play a constructive role in decision making by allowing orderly expression of public opinion and by increasing political participation They also provide legislators with a useful flow of information
Conflict theorists stress that although a very few organizations work on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, most American interest groups represent affluent white professionals and business leaders From a conflict perspective, the overwhelming political clout of these powerful lobbies discourages participation by the individual citizen and raises serious questions about who actually rules a supposedly democratic nation.
MODELS OF POWER STRUCTURE IN THE UNITED STATES
Who really holds power in the United States Do "we the people" genuinely run the country through elected representatives? Or is there small elite of Americans that governs behind the scenes? It is difficult to determine the location of power in a society as complex as the Unite States In exploring this critical question, social scientists have developed two basic views of our nations power structure the elite and pluralism models.
Karl Marx essentially believed that nineteenth century representative democracy was a shape.
He argued that industrial societies were dominated by relatively small numbers of people who owned factories and controlled natural resources In Marxs view, government officials and military leaders were essentially servants of the capitalist class and followed their wishes therefore, any key decisions made by politicians inevitably reflected the interests of the dominant bourgeoisie Like others who hold an elite model of power relations, Marx thus believed that society is ruled by a small group of individuals who share a common set of political and economic interests.
The Power Elite. In his pioneering work. The Power Elite, sociologist C. Wright Mills described the existence of a small ruling elite of military, industrial, and governmental leaders who controlled the fate of the United States. Power rested in the hands of a few, both inside and outside of governmentthe power elite. In Mills words:
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women, they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. … They arc in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society.
In Millss model, the power structure of the United States can be illustrated by the use of a pyramid. At the top are the corporate rich, leaders of the executive branch of government, and heads of the military (whom Kills called the "warlords"). Below this triumvirate are local opinion leaders, members of the legislative branch of government, and leaders of special-interest groups. Mills contended that such individuals and groups would basically follow the wishes of the dominant power elite. At the bottom of society are the unorganized, exploited masses.
This power elite model is, in many respects, similar to the work of Karl Marx. The most striking difference is that Mills felt that the economically powerful coordinate their maneuvers with the military and political establishments in order to serve their mutual interests. Yet, reminiscent of Marx. Mills argued that the corporate rich were perhaps the most powerful element of the power elite (first among "equals"). And, of course, there is a further dramatic parallel between the work of these conflict theorists The powerless masses at the bottom of Millss power elite model certainly bring to mind Marxs portrait of the oppressed workers of the world, who have "nothing to lose but their chains".
Mills failed to provide detailed case studies which would substantiate the interrelationship among members of the power elite. Instead, he suggested that such foreign policy decisions as Americas entry into the Korean war reflected a determination by business and military leaders that each could benefit from such armed conflict. In Mills s view, such a sharing of perspectives was facilitated by the frequent interchange of commanding roles among the elite. For example, a banker might become the leader of a federal regulatory commission overseeing financial institutions, and a retired general might move to an executive position with a major defense contracting firm.
A fundamental element in Millss thesis is that the power elite not only has relatively few members but also operates as a self-conscious, cohesive unit. Although not necessarily diabolical or ruthless, the elite comprises similar types of people who regularly interact with one another and have essentially the same political and economic interests. Millss power elite is not a conspiracy but rather a community of interest and sentiment among a small number of influential Americans.
Admittedly, Mills failed to clarify when the elite acts and when it tolerates protests. Nevertheless, his challenging theories forced scholars to look more critically at the "democratic" political system of the United States.
The Ruling Class. Sociologist G. William Domhoff agreed with Mills that American society is run by a powerful elite. But, rather than fully accepting Millss power elite model, Domhoff argued that the United States is controlled by a social upper class