Political Science

Do Classical Pluralist Accounts Exaggerate the Ability of Interest Groups to Influence Decision-making in Liberal Democracies?

          Classical pluralism is the belief that politics and decision-making is not located mostly on the governmental framework, but in many non-governmental groups who are using their resources to exert influence. These groups of people are trying to maximize their interests. According to Schattschneider (1960), pluralism means that political power does not lie with the electorate but is distributed between a wide range of groups, which may include trade unions, interests groups, business organizations and other formal and informal groups.

According to Dahl (1961), there are two key assumptions: first, is the face of power, which means that a person uses his power over another person to get them to do what they would not have done. Second, there is a political system driven by the public demands and opinions. This is where; the public have the power to influence the decisions that are made by the electorate. An example of this is whereby interest groups had confronted President Obama asking to sign a petition that compelled him to keep his promise of making healthcare and security reform a priority. This group called the AARP, that contains the who’s in business wanted to apply pressure on the President because they had the resources to do so.

Classical pluralists argue that power is not a material possession that one has or doesn’t have. In contrast to this notion, they say that people are said to be powerful because they have control over diverse resources. The resources can be used to compel others to do what a particular person wants. According to Crenson (1970), the most common source of partition of people has been the unequal distribution of property. Those who own and those without property have always been on different sides of interest groups. It is also divided into those who are creditors and those who are debtors.

Through this acquisition of assets, interest groups have the power to influence decision making in liberal democracies. It is worth noting that, in liberal democracies, freedom of expression is emphasized. The general populace is allowed to vote in an electoral system with different parties. This is just a comfort to the public and the interest groups are left to control all the decision-making processes. The groups argue that, political issues require constant and professional attention, which the regular citizen does not have.

According to Dahl & Lindblom (1976), decision-making is not a neutral affair. They also say that the demands of business interests predominate over the demands of other groups. This functions to the disadvantage of the less powerful and the less well- resourced. An example of a person who used resources to influence people is Malcolm X. Resources do not necessarily mean money but may mean an influential personality, a great cause or even great skills and public support.

Modern pluralists say that if the populace is given state power, it gives them greater freedom, which in turn creates more economic problems rather than solutions. Jordan, (1963), says that modern pluralists describe democracy in America as a system of group conflicts in which minorities rule. This means that though there may be several groups who claim to be the decision makers, there are always a small percentage of them who are the real decision makers. These are the people who control the resources and have power over others.

According to Polsby (1980), pluralists see the American society as being divided into hundreds of small interest groups, with differing power bases and a multiple of techniques for exercising influence on decisions important to them. Examples of these were the special interest groups that supported the Obama campaign. A group named Vote Hope and another called Powerpac.org spent around $4 million to influence the decision made by the people of California. Though President Obama denies any knowledge of such groups, it is impossible to rule out the influence of such groups on the electorate. This means that though there are many interest groups, each is concerned about issues that concern them. Its not about a general voice to influence all decisions, it’s about individual concerns that affect each group. Social action is what it takes a group to have succeeded in its quest to influence decision-making.

There is also the issue of state- corporate relationships. The idea of corporatism arises, which means that a few select interest groups are formally involved in policy formulation while others are excluded (Gad, 2003). For example, trade unions are often consulted about some policies. This means that trade unions may form a great part of key decision makers.

Different interest groups have specific areas to which they are powerful in. This may depend on their area of specialization, for example a group powerful in the agricultural sector may have little or no power over the tourism sector. To be a reckoning force in a specific area, expertise and a large pool of resources are required (Lindblom, 1977).

In conclusion, interest groups have the power to influence decision making in liberal democracies. This all depends on what resources they have access to and also their influence on the people. Generally, a person does not have to be a political leader to influence decision making. It may be because he is popular among the people or because his cause is legitimate. People within interest groups may be guided by their leadership roles or their personal qualities. Besides, if power within interest groups is increased, they may overpower governments and finally overhaul them. Interest groups often act on the basis that the government cannot deliver economically and socially with equality to all sections of the populace.

On the other hand, liberal democracies may take control, making it hard for interest groups to push their case. For example, if a government is exceptionally inclined to listening to public demands, it is most likely that the public is the driving force behind decision making. This would mean that the government is led by the masses and that their voice is what counts. Governments have to stay on their toes and keep interest groups in check. Their power is unlimited and therefore has to be controlled.


Crenson, M. (1970). The Un-Politics of Air Pollution. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Dahl, R. (1961). Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New York, NY: Yale U. P.

Dahl, R. & Lindblom, C. (1976). Politics, Economics and Welfare: Planning and Politico-Economic Systems Resolved into Basic Social Processes, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Gad, B. (2003). Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Jordan, G. (1999). The Pluralism of Pluralism: An Anti-Theory? In Political Studies 38: 2, 286-301.

Lindblom, C. (1977). Politics and Markets Basic Books. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Polsby, N. W. (1960). How to Study Community Power: The Pluralist Alternative. The Journal of Politics, (22)3, 474-484.

Schattschneider, E.E. (1960). The Semi-Sovereign People. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


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