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Are interest groups good or bad for American democracy?

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Interest groups can be useful in bringing attention to an issue or focusing resources on solving a single problem, but they have been used in the United States in ways that are more often bad than good for American democracy.

For example, interest groups tend to focus on one single...

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Interest groups can be useful in bringing attention to an issue or focusing resources on solving a single problem, but they have been used in the United States in ways that are more often bad than good for American democracy.

For example, interest groups tend to focus on one single issue to the exclusion of all else, such as fighting gun control at all costs or refusing to condone any tax increases under any circumstances. This can distort the democratic process. For example, small groups of people who come out and vote in a primary can ensure that the candidate who backs their issue will be the candidate running for office for either the Republican or Democratic Party in their district. This candidate may support a certain popular issue but in many other ways not reflect the broad desires of his or her constituents—and yet he may be elected on the basis of a single issue.

Being the candidate of a special interest group can also tie the hands of a political office holder once he is elected. American democracy is predicated on the idea that our elected representatives will broadly look out for and protect the interests of the wider electorate. Sometimes these best interests are served by acting against a single interest group. It may serve the wider safety issues of the electorate, for example, to have strong background checks in place for gun purchasers or to raise taxes because of a particular crisis, but a politician, to be reelected, may well work against the interests of his broader constituency in order to ensure he has the support of the needed, but small, interest group to be reelected.

The answer to this, of course, is for more many Americans to become involved in politics from the ground up, but this isn't always possible, which is why we elect representatives in the first place, rather than decide every legislative item through a referendum. Democracy works best when representatives can be trusted to do their best to serve the interests of the broadest possible public, not the interests of a narrow group with disproportionate power over their reelection.

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Good:

  • Interest groups give a voice to those traditionally excluded from the political process. Examples would include the NAACP and labor unions. Their tireless collective endeavors have led to much-needed changes in the United States, from better treatment of workers to civil rights legislation.
  • Even if interest groups don't immediately achieve their objectives, they can still advance the cause of democracy by putting unpopular causes on the political agenda. For many years, most Americans were profoundly hostile to LGTBQ equality. Yet it was thanks to the advocacy work of interest groups such as GLAAD that attitudes gradually began to change.

Bad:

  • Not all interest groups are equal, either in size or political power. The largest and better-funded groups can all too often exert a disproportionate influence on the political process. This can lead to corruption as well as a crowding out of those important political causes that don't attract the same degree of interest or funding.
  • Interest groups encourage a divisive mindset by highlighting what divides Americans rather than what unites them. The prevalence of interest groups means that Americans increasingly see themselves as only really existing within the democratic process if they're allied with some particular interest. In turn, this can often lead to an estrangement from the democratic system by those who feel that their individual needs are not being adequately met by the advocacy of interest groups.
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This is a question that many political analysts debate. Most would agree that interest groups have mixed effects on the American political system. 

On one hand, interest groups play a very important role. They help to shape the national agenda by raising awareness of issues that are important to them. Most would agree that this is a positive and even necessary effect of special interest groups. However, the way that special interest groups exercise this influence is controversial. Interest groups raise money from supporters and donate it through political action committees to candidates. They also pay for advertisements and other means to promote their views in elections. This raises the obvious issue that politicians become beholden to interest groups because they donate money to them, not because their views are persuasive. The opportunities for corruption are obvious. 

Special interest groups provide an opportunity for people to get their views into the national conversation. Senior citizens, for example, can support legislation that they view as desirable through the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). The group, in other words, mobilizes senior citizens politically, giving them a collective voice that they would not have as individuals. However, even this has a downside. It can be argued that many special interest groups, backed by large corporations and individual donors, have an outsized and disproportionate influence on politics. Many people make this argument about the NRA (National Rifle Association). This very powerful interest group opposes gun regulations that are favored by many Americans. Interest groups, for better or for worse, are part and parcel of American politics, and their influence seems to be expanding.

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I will explain some of the positive aspects and some of the negative aspects of interests groups so you can decide if they are good or bad for our country.

Interest groups perform an important service. They allow a group of people who believe in a common cause or common issue to work together to accomplish their goals. They are able to obtain resources to spread their message. A good interest group will provide unbiased information to the public to explain why they believe the way they do. The interest group is able to get its message out to the public in a more effective manner than individual people would be able to do. They may be able to educate the public on an issue of which the public might be unaware.

Interest groups may also have some negative aspects to their existence. Sometimes the information the interest group presents to the public isn’t completely accurate or isn’t unbiased. If the interest group is really well funded, they may be able to reach a lot of people with inaccurate information. It may be difficult for other individuals to respond to correct the inaccuracies that the interest group is spreading because these individuals may not have the money to spend to counteract the information being presented. Therefore, public opinion may be swayed by inaccurate or biased information.

Based on this summary you should be able to decide if interest groups are good or bad for our country.

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