Interest Group Theory believes that many different interests compete to control government policy, and that their conflicting interests can balance out each other to provide good government. It is a very American theory that is popular with political scientists.  It fits well with economic principles such as Adam Smith. Leading advocates are James Madison (Federalist No. 10), Alexis de Tocqueville (1824), Bentley (1905), David Truman (1950), and Robert Dahl (Who Governs?). Its advantages are that it is comparatively neutral as to values and explains process. The theory is also called pluralism because there are many groups.

Aninterest group may be defined as an organized body of individuals who share policy goal and try to influence policy, for example the AFL CIO, the American Bankers Association, the American Medical Association, NRA, the Diabetes Association, the Children's Defense Fund and the NAACP. It differs from a political party in that it does not try to win office.  The power of an interest groups comes from its: 1. size (number of members), 2. wealth, 3. organizational strength, 4. leadership, 5. access to decision makers and 6. internal cohesion. Groups form when a disturbance occurs and people come together to resist change. The leader is a policy entrepreneur like Ralph Nader, Lois Gibbs, Clara Barton, or David Brower.  Interest groups often lobby in Washington, where their techniques are direct, grass roots, information campaigns and coalition building. Groups sometimes compete with each other, and sometimes cooperate.

The tenets of the theory are that the task of the political system is to manage group conflict by establishing the  rules of the game, arranging compromises, enacting the deals into law, enforcing the laws and adjudicating them. Government is like a referee calling the balls and strikes. Public policy is only a temporary equilibrium. Adherents believe that government is held together by: 1. latent group which supports the system, 2. overlapping membership in different groups, 3. checks and balances of group competition and 4. agenda building. Both the group leaders and political scientist believe that situation will remain fluid permanently; no one group will have a permanent victory.

The recent campaign finance reform law is premised on interest group theory. It assumes that many groups are too powerful because they can raise money to donate to politicians, therefore the law restricts them. Critics often agree that the groups can spend a lot of money, but believe the law will merely make the donations harder to track. Like James Madison, they believe the solution is to play one group against another. The idea that "money talks" in this direct fashion is a form of group theory.

Elite Theory believes that a wealthy elite runs the United States. The economic elite consists of the same people as the political elite (wealth equals power). The elite exerts power downward on the masses. A large minority of political scientists believe the theory. Leading advocates are Karl Marx, Gaetano Mosca, Robert Michels ("the iron law of oligarchy"), and C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite).

The theory maintains that very rich families are in power, people such as the Rockefellers, the Fords, and the Pews. They tend to live in the Northeast and attend exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities. They tend to belong to mainline Protestant churches and they marry one another. Often members of the elite do not occupy governmental positions themselves, but depend on elected and appointed officials who do their work for them. It takes two or three generations of wealth to arrive in the elite. New members of elite are thoroughly socialized by the time they arrive at the top. Power flows downward making it democratic theory in reverse. The elite shares a consensus on the importance of private property, limited government, individual liberty and the fact that change should be incremental rather than revolutionary. As demonstrated in many charities, the elite may be may be public regarding, displaying a sense of noblesse oblige. On the other hand, big foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers, Ford, Pew, Johnson, etc. have the added benefit of keeping control of stock in the hands of the family and avoiding taxes. The elite manipulates the masses by exploiting symbols such as charity or elections. Philanthropy reduces the threat that the masses will demand that money be seized from the wealthy. The power of money is latent and takes a long time to have its effect.  It is not the direct "money talks" of group theory.

Although few political scientists who believe the elite theory consider it good for democracy, they consider it to be an accurate view of reality.  It does have the advantage of reducing conflict due to elite consensus. Two presidents make an interesting contrast.  George H. W. Bush (Senior) came from an old New England family that gained its wealth in banking.  He attended Andover School and Yale University. Bill Clinton came from a working class family in Arkansas. Rising out of the masses, he attended a mid-range prestige university, Georgetown, and an Ivy League law school, Yale. He also won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England. He married Hillary Rodman, who had her undergraduate degree from one of the Seven Sisters and was the daughter of a Chicago businessman. Elite theorists consider Bush to be a member of the elite and Clinton as an official who was recruited to serve the elite. George W. Bush (Junior) is not quite as pure an example of the elite as his father, although his own mother was also from an old wealthy New England family. He was raised in Texas even though he was born in Connecticut. Like his father, he attended Andover and Yale.

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Last Updated: 6/17/14