Pressure groups are collections of individuals who hold a similar set of values and beliefs based on ethnicity, religion, political philosophy, or a common goal. Based on these beliefs, they take action to promote change and further their goals. For example, members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) share a common belief that, in turn, influences the actions (e.g., advocacy, public awareness programs, policy research) they use to achieve their goals.
Pressure groups often represent viewpoints of people who are dissatisfied with the current conditions in society, and they often represent alternative viewpoints that are not well represented in the mainstream population. By forming a pressure group, people seek to express their shared beliefs and values and influence change within communities and sociopolitical structures, such as governments and corporations. Some pressure groups, such as the tobacco-control movement, have been successful at influencing change across a number of sociopolitical structures.
Pressure groups are different from political parties. Political parties seek to create change by being elected to public office, while pressure groups attempt to influence political parties. Pressure groups may be better able to focus on specialized issues, whereas political parties tend to address a wide range of issues.
Pressure groups are widely recognized as an important part of the democratic process. Some groups offer opportunities and a political voice to people who would traditionally be thought of as disadvantaged or marginalized from the mainstream population. In this way, pressure groups strengthen the democratic process by giving a voice to a variety of people. Pressure groups also offer alternatives to the political process by providing opportunities for expressing opinions and a desire for change.
While pressure groups are acknowledged as potentially beneficial to a democratic society, problems can arise when the democratic process becomes dominated by a few specific groups. In this situation, the voice of a small group of people with a particular interest can become overly influential and negatively affect the rights of other individuals. In the democratic process, there is a need for compromise in order to reach consensus regarding the common good. If pressure groups remain rigid and refuse to compromise on specific issues, they can potentially monopolize the democratic process by focusing public debate on a few specific issues.
Pressure groups may adopt a variety of strategies to achieve their goals, including lobbying elected officials, media advocacy, and direct political action (e.g., organized protests). Clearly, some pressure groups exert more influence than others. The degree to which such groups are able to achieve their goals may depend on their ability to be recognized as legitimate by the population, media, and by those in power. For example, civil rights groups, trade unions, and professional associations are more widely recognized and accepted than a newly formed, single-issue pressure group.
Significant gains in public health have been achieved because of efforts by pressure groups, including important changes and advances in public health issues such as tobacco control, occupational health and safety, air pollution, and HIV/AIDS.
Pressure groups can fulfill a valuable function within public health. They have the potential to raise the profile of previously marginalized issues and force action to improve the health of their members, as well as the health of the general population. For example, mental health service consumers have joined together to form pressure groups that have identified the issue of homelessness as an unintended consequence of deinstitutionalization. Initiatives spawned by these groups aim to improve living conditions for the homeless. These actions have provided benefits not only to the homeless, they have also positively affected the well-being of entire communities.
Individual pressure groups can form larger coalitions to advance their cause more effectively. The tobacco-control movement provides an excellent example of how a variety of pressure groups can work together across sectors and at many different levels to affect change. This movement has successfully pulled together many organizations under the umbrella of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. Members include organizations from a number of sectors including health (American Public Health Association), education (American Federation of Teachers), medical (American Medical Association), civic (Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights), corporate (Adventist Health Care), youth (Girl Scouts of the USA), and religious (National Council of Churches).
Mahood, H. R. (2000). Interest Groups in American National Politics: An Overview. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Pressure groups are private organizations that attempt to influence the lawmaking process to benefit the members they represent. Though the term has been applied to corporations and nonprofit organizations engaging in advocacy, it properly refers only to organizations that represent factions of the public before government. Pressure groups form when individuals sharing some want or desire that can be realized through public policy mobilize, usually with the aide of an experienced political entrepreneur or wealthy patron. But in a highly diverse society such as the United States, it is rare that policy advancing the interests of one group can be produced without harming those of others. As lawmakers must choose between winners and losers when they divide public resources and enact regulation, pressure groups compete with each other to convince lawmakers to promote and protect their interests by offering campaign contributions and the votes of their members in elections.
The term pressure group is rarely used by social scientists in the early twenty-first century because how scholars view advocacy groups and lobbying has changed. It is more specific than the term interest group because it only conceives of groups as proactively pushing lawmakers to enact policies they desire at the expense of the electorate. This view was part of a larger belief first articulated by American behavioral scientist Arthur Bentley (1870–1957) in 1908, and which came to fruition with the behavioral revolution of the 1950s, that U.S. politics was only about competition among social factions mobilized as pressure groups. Law was simply the outcome of competition favoring the stronger group. For several reasons, however, this view declined in the late 1960s. First a major study in 1963 by Raymond Bauer and his colleagues articulated a more benign view of interest groups gaining access to lawmakers by providing services the latter required, not by pressuring them with threats of electorate reprisals. Second, in 1956 American sociologist C. Wright Mills argued that competition among advocacy groups was largely irrelevant because lawmaking was always rigged in favor of a ruling elite. Finally, in 1965 Mancur Olson demonstrated that the whole premise of many groups representing the interests of the public was untenable because the reason groups formed had little to do with any desire to influence policy.
This change from seeing groups as proactively wielding pressure also dampened an important debate among political scientists as to their importance as vehicles of representation in a democratic society. Believing the electorate to be too poorly organized and motivated to hold elected officials accountable through elections, scholars divided into two camps regarding the legitimacy of pressure groups. One, exemplified by political scientist Robert Dahl (1956), argued that groups representing minority factions were a legitimate form of representation, while the other, as described in The Semi-Sovereign People (1942) by E. E. Schattschneider, believed they inhibited political parties from electing slates of candidates that voters could hold responsible for the performance of government. With a decline in the belief of the real power of groups to pressure lawmakers, this debate also faded. New evidence, however, has emerged regarding how truly large and diverse the modern community of interest groups is in U.S. politics, and there is new attention in the early twenty-first century on whether groups might really be competing to shape policy. If so, it may be time to revive this debate over the role of pressure groups in democratic politics and return the term to the political lexicon.
Bentley, Arthur F. 1908. The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dahl, Robert A. 1956. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Olson, Mancur, Jr. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schattschneider, E. E. 1942. Party Government. New York: Farrar and Rinehart.
Thomas T. Holyoke
A distinction is sometimes drawn between protective and promotional groups, the former defending a section of society, the latter promoting a cause. The first category includes trade unions, professional associations, employer and trade associations, and motoring associations defending the interests of car owners. The second category would include societies seeking to prevent cruelty to animals or to children, groups arguing for or against censorship, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The distinction between the two types of interest group is obviously not watertight. For example, trade unions frequently campaign for national minimum wage laws as a means of defending the interests of their members, although the case is always offered as being in the public interest.
pres·sure group • n. a group that tries to influence public policy in the interest of a particular cause: an environmental pressure group.