Interest groups have long played a part in US politics. Even in the Federalist Papers, James Madison talks of the negative role of factions in breaking apart the republic1. They can be defined as a collection of people who seek to publicly promote and create advantages for its cause, and typically aim to further common interests2. I think there is ultimately a conflict between two points of view. On the one hand there is the accurate representation of interests, which is in keeping with the “unalienable rights…of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”3, which the Declaration of Independence says has been given to all human beings by their Creator, and for which governments are created to protect4. But there is also the idea that the First Amendment, which prevents the making of any law that inhibits freedom of speech, means that interest groups should not have their power altered, as this would be a violation of this. This aspect has become particularly significant since the Supreme Court case of Citizens United vs FEC, which ruled that banning political spending by corporations was a violation of this amendment, and so it was overturned5. This ruling has negated much of the literature which talks about how the limits put in place have curtailed their power6, and the fact that these rulings are made proves that their power is at least a contentious issue. But in this essay I will argue that accurate representation of interests and seeking democracy is more important than free political speech, because of the ways in which interest groups’ power is formulated, namely through money, and how this in itself inhibits the freedom of speech of many, to protect the freedom of speech of the few. I will argue this by analysing problems of the set up of interest groups and explaining how this means wrong interests are represented, namely the role of money, which leads to a problem of hidden motives and a lack of transparency.
The first thing that is important to establish is why and how money is important for what interest groups set out to achieve. I will not attempt to ascertain whether interest groups’ money buys access, votes or anything else, but it seems plausible, at the very least, that interest groups give large sums of money to parties and party candidates in exchange for something. Given that interest groups are united by a common interest, it makes sense that this something that the donations are used for is to try and bring the distribution of ideological positions in Congress closer to the ideal point of that interest group7. Jack Walker’s research is telling as he discovered that 80 percent of survey respondents reported that membership in a certain profession or industry is either a requirement or exceedingly important8. The remaining twenty percent, known as ‘citizen groups’, are at an immediate disadvantage because it is very difficult to organise groups whose members have nothing more in common other than an idea or cause, such as those representing socially disadvantaged sectors of society, such as the physically handicapped. They typically need financial assistance, with only 34% saying that they have received this, and 70 percent of the groups reporting support from the government received it solely for maintenance of their operations9, which is significant as it shows that this money is needed in order for them to survive. Therefore without significant money, these interests are not accurately represented. This then violates the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness set out in the Declaration, as these voices cannot accurately be heard.
So ultimately, the number of interest groups, mixture of group types and the level and direction of political mobilisation in the US will largely be determined by the composition and accessibility of the system’s major patrons of political action, and the key is the ability