James Madison argued for a pluralistic society in which no group could become tyrannical over others, because when all groups have equal opportunity to form and compete, they become natural checks on one another. However, his social ideal is unrealistic. Interest groups are an inevitable by-product of a free society.
Most Americans are part of organized groups, even if most people also disparage the idea of group politics because it’s associated with favoritism.
However, America has never figured out how to construct a system that guarantees liberties and gives every group an equal opportunity to participate in politics. Here is seen the competing themes of liberty and equality.
Part of the reason the American system of interest groups is out of balance is because groups that have ready access to resources have a much easier time participating in politics compared to groups that struggle to solve their collective action problems. However, if we created rules that redistributed resources so that everyone had exactly the same amount of opportunity to engage in the political process, those rules would necessitate restrictions on essential behaviors regarding speech and organizing that would be antithetical to a free society.
So, while interest groups are an important part of American democracy because of the added source of representation and advocacy they provide, not all interests in society are equally able to benefit from such representation.
Learn more about the theory of collective action.
Freedom of the Press
Another downside of liberty are the negative consequences of a relatively unrestricted freedom of the press.
Today’s media is a veritable cacophony of voices providing information as ideas and ideas as information. As a consumer of media, it can be challenging to know what to believe. For most of American history, news media has had a bias or slant to it.
The idea that today’s news media is abnormally imbalanced is not really accurate for two reasons. First, news media has historically been a for-profit industry. The period between 1960 and the 1980s was an unusually serene time in American news journalism in which some form of objectivity dominated. Second, even during that period, news media focused on the narratives that were of interest to society’s dominant classes.
Today’s news environment is more diverse, more with an eye to entertaining, and produces content of interest to more audiences. However, it’s not hard to get good information. If one’s goal is to be informed, rather than outraged or entertained, there are several high-quality media sources that people can turn to. Yet, it is reasonable to be concerned about the increasing presence of fake news that is strategically planted in an effort to disrupt American society and politics.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Fiscal and Monetary Policies
The government also uses tools to manipulate the economy through fiscal and monetary policy. Congress and the president have fiscal policy tools that they can use to engage in government spending or taxation, either to stimulate or slow down the economy. Typically, government spending and lower taxes will stimulate a slow economy.
The Federal Reserve Board controls monetary policy that regulates the country’s money supply. By manipulating interest rates and buying and selling treasury bonds, the Fed can also work to solve macroeconomic problems. When the Fed raises interest rates and sells treasury bonds, it is working to head off inflation and slow an economy that it perceives as running too fast. But when the Fed lowers interest rates and buys back bonds it stimulates the economy.
There are also social policies focused on programs related to poverty.
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are the federal government’s largest social welfare programs. These programs help millions of Americans out of the most wretched forms of poverty, and while they are incredibly expensive to run, they have also been very successful at achieving their goals.
Learn more about the US democratic system.
America as a Leader
America has only been a major player on the international stage for about 100 years, and the role that it has played has been at times heroic, and at other times deeply troubling.
America has participated in international efforts to guarantee freedoms to people, release people from authoritarian states, and brought humanitarian relief and medical help to many in need. But America has also participated in propping up dictators at times, acted in bad faith in international agreements, and withheld evidence about its intentions and actions. Like democracy itself, America has been an imperfect leader on the world stage.
So, how is America doing, as a country, as a democracy, and as a participant in world affairs? While there is a good understanding of how government and politics work in America, there’s much more that can be investigated. You can’t understand elections without understanding parties, and you can’t understand parties without understanding groups, and you can’t understand groups without understanding representation, and you can’t understand representation without understanding Congress, and so on. The interdependencies are built into the system, which is part of what makes it so challenging to understand.
Part of the reason the American system of interest groups is out of balance is because groups that have ready access to resources have a much easier time participating in politics compared to groups that struggle to solve their collective action problems.
The government uses tools to manipulate the economy through fiscal and monetary policy. Congress and the president have fiscal policy tools that they can use to engage in government spending or taxation, either to stimulate or slow down the economy. The Federal Reserve Board controls monetary policy that regulates the country’s money supply.
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are the federal government’s largest social welfare programs.