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Special Interest Groups: Striking A Balance in American Democracy

Updated on January 6, 2014

James Madison held many titles throughout the continuation of his life: American statesman, political theorist, collaborative author of the Federalist Papers, and Father of the Constitution. But Madison holds another title that any individual would not automatically appoint him of, and that is a psychic. Madison discusses in Federalist No. 10 the problematic issue of factions, and the means to resolve this problem. Madison recognized that factions will continue to pose problems as long as American Democracy exists. Coincidentally, these problems are still occurring today in this nation. Interest groups and political parties can be beneficial to American Democracy, but also harmful when certain precautions are not taken.

It is a safe assumption to make that if James Madison was present today, he would be gravely disappointed in the handling of special interest groups and political parties in America. Madison realized that factions are an inevitable obstacle and there are two ways to handle factions: to remove or to control. Removing factions is impossible due to the fact that along with the death of factions goes the death of liberty. The structure of the United States government and the laws of the U.S. Constitution provide the control necessary to prevent interest groups from becoming too powerful. The creation of such a large union instead of separate state governments prevents any faction from gaining control over the majority. Madison believed that factions “could have beneficial effects on policy when they were nonfacitous” (Yoho, 1995, p. 1). Therefore, special interest groups are only positive when they support policies that are promoting the general good. James Madison’s original ideals of utilizing factions to a positive degree seem to have fallen through the cracks of society as the years have passed. To rediscover the genius intentions of Madison, the government must balance and regulate the powers of these factions in order for the voice of the minority to not be muffled any longer.

Interest groups and political parties provide a connection between the citizens and their government, reconnecting to the ideal of a democracy, which is “rule by the people”. These factions bring to the forefront issues that the general public may not realize need attention or are unable to carry it out themselves. Interest groups provide benefits to the citizens, which in return benefits the ruling government. Interest groups improve participation among the people and their government, preventing social stagnation. In return, issues that the people believe their officials should focus on are able to reach the political agenda and then produce social and government progress. These ways enhance the quality of such a precious democracy that so many strive to strengthen. By interest groups rallying the general population over a specific cause, its members are then given hope. These citizens become passionate and feel as if they are making a difference in society and altering for the better. As Michael Johnston stated, “parties are not potential corruption problems, but rather essential agents that enliven democracy and ingrain it into a nation’s daily life” (p. 5). These factions inspire and bring politics into any individual’s daily life, truly embodying the purpose of American Democracy. Political parties and interest groups do not only have an effect on the political portion of society, but also on the economic portion. It is said that “economic and political freedoms are mutually reinforcing” sparking the idea that when a large portion of people are focused on a specific cause, then they tend to spend money in order to ensure that their cause is provided for (Barro, 1996, p.2). Barro also points out that “more democracy fosters economic rights and tends to thereby stimulate growth” (1996, p 2). When this idea that political freedom enhances economic freedom, it portrays the thought that these factions are a positive aspect of American Democracy. With all of these perspectives taken into consideration, it is a safe conclusion that political parties and interest groups are beneficial to American Democracy.

In life, no situation is perfect and one must always take the bad along with the good. Although it has been concluded that factions are good for American Democracy, political parties and special interest groups also have a way of obtaining too much control. One of the most significant examples of the negative effects of political parties and special interest groups is that of the present day rebellion, Occupy Wall Street. Citizens have begun to rebel against the government and handling of America’s economic ways due to their anger towards powerful special interest groups. A reason for this sudden outbreak is to “defend the real majority against the powerful elites and vocal interest groups that control the political system” (Mathew, 2011, p. 31). This particular quote generates the idea that many Americans are feeling that they do not have a voice in the government today and that those who have such immense control are not fighting for the majority and their needs. A landmark Supreme Court case, known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, forever changed individuals’ perspectives of political parties and special interest groups. The decision by the United States Supreme Court was that the First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring political broadcasts in candidate elections when the broadcasts are funded by factions. The court’s 5-4 decision was deemed controversial in the public eye. Some claimed that it “gives corporations, shadowy interest groups, and unions permission to spend limitless amounts to influence elections” and that is “undermines the voice of individual constituents” (Cassidy, 2010). These situations provide evidence that the general public is angered with the fact that “more and more special interest groups are controlling American agenda” (Tobin, 2010).

In order for American Democracy to return to its original ideas the James Madison set in place with the United States Constitution, there must be limits on the power that special interest groups and political parties obtain. Although there are already limits on the amount of money that factions may raise for a candidate, the American people still feel that these interest groups hold too much power. The government needs to strive to respond to the public’s needs and desires instead of just the special interest groups and political parties and the issues that they are flashing before the government. If no limits are placed upon interest groups and political parties, then these factions will continue to act as they please in a selfish manner, instead of acting for the greater good. If a balance of power can be found for these factions, then order will be replaced and peace could be found between the silent majority and factions.

To say that James Madison would be disappointed in some parts of American Democracy today is clearly an understatement. Madison recognized the issues of factions early on when he first began to structure the United States Constitution and made necessary alterations to prevent from the overpowering of interest groups and political parties. One can weigh the pros and cons of special interest groups and political parties and find themselves at a crossroads. Although these factions definitely benefit American Democracy in a way of involving the public more in politics, they can become corrupt and cause immense repercussions. In order for factions to be utilized to the most positive intentions, a balance must be restored and the nation must return to Madison’s original ideals.

References

Cassidy, M. (2010, January 25). Supreme court decision bad for democracy. Retrieved from http://blog.stamfordadvocate.com/stamford411/2010/01/25/supreme-court-decision-bad-for- democracy-himes-says/

Johnston, M. (n.d.). Political parties and democracy in theoretical and practical perspectives. Retrieved from http://www.ndi.org/files/1949_polpart_johnston_110105.pdf

Matthew, D., L. (2011, November 3). Who Speaks for the Silent Majority? New York Times. p. 31

Tobin, M. (2010, September 17). American democracy crushed under the fist of special interest groups. Retrieved from http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/6790857-american-democracy- crushed-under-the-fist-of-special-interest-groups

Yoho, J. (1995). Madison on the beneficial effects of interest groups: what was left unsaid in "federalist" 10. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/pss/3234961

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