Interest Groups and Political Systems

Group Theory: Pluralism Vs. Neo-Corporatism

The study of interest groups has evolved into different schools of thought during the past four decades. The most prominent ones are the pluralist and the neocorporatist perspective (Thomas, 7ff).

Pluralism

In this theory, democracy is viewed as a marketplace with more or less perfect competition. Various perspectives are represented by individuals, political parties, and interest groups which compete for influence over policy domains. The pluralist model is based on four premises: it assumes equal access to the policy-making arena, fragmentation of the marketplace, a competitive process for the determining policies, and the neutrality of government. These theoretical conditions form a system in which everyone is free to organize for political purposes, and in which the policy-making process is not monopolized by powerful political forces.

All Western democracies exhibit some degree of pluralism, but the United States come maybe the closest to a realization of this model. However, the pluralist model has been criticized on several accounts. The predominant argument has been that in reality political access and power are unevenly distributed in the democratic system, resulting from varying levels in education, economic resources, and political constraints.

Responses of scholars of pluralism to criticism led to the development of the elitist theory, which acknowledges that financially privileged individuals and groups have more impact on policy-making than other groups. Still some criticism remains, for example that distortions of pluralism lead to unequal representation and variations in ability of groups to influence policy. Furthermore, the neutrality of the government is questioned. Rather, it is assumed that the state favors some groups over others, and that it is involved in the conflict resolution process, often with the need to defend interests of its own.

Neocorporatism

This view of interest group activity describes a cooperative relationship between government and certain interest groups. In this model, cooperation serves the purpose of maintaining stability to the procedures of developing and implementing policies. Neocorporatism focuses primarily on economic policies. Three sectors of society, business, labor, and government are involved in negotiations about questions of policy, and the institutionalized process of negotiations between representatives of these key sectors is referred to as intermediation or conservation (Thomas, 9).

The essential elements of corporatism are that government grants a monopoly of representation to certain peak associations in exchange for their cooperation in developing policy. Also, government intervenes substantially in the economy in order to achieve particular goals. One central goal is to develop an income policy -- the attempt to control inflation by influencing wage bargaining and the prices of goods and services. According to Lehmbruch (167), income policy is the "core domain" of corporatism. Also neocorporatism has some shortcomings. There is criticism that corporatism is not any more accurate in description of interest group systems than pluralism.

When examining the interest groups systems in the United States and Germany, it is of help to have these concepts as a guideline of assessing the actual mechanisms of interest group politics today.

Political Systems -- Constitutions -- Democracy -- Group Theory
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