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14. Interest Groups: Organizing to Influence, Readings
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources





Readings Unit 14

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 14 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 14 Readings, Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

  • Introduction—Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “That the Americans Combat the Effects of Individualism by Free Institutions” and
  • Of the Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life”

  • “The Whole World's Temperance Convention Held at Metropolitan Hall in the City of New York”

  • “An Appeal to the Women of the United States by National Woman Suffrage and Educational Committee”

  • I.W.W. Song: “Long-Haired Preachers”


  1. What did Tocqueville suggest was the consequence of a free government for individual relationships?

  2. What were the relationships between the rich and the poor in a democracy, according to Tocqueville?

  3. According to the National Woman Suffrage and Educational Committee, what did the Constitution provide concerning the political participation of women?

Introduction—Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

In any acceptable version of democratic government, people organize to influence public policy—well-organized groups are called interest groups. Tocqueville explained that above the government’s institutions, “and beyond all these characteristic forms, there is a sovereign power, that of the people, which may destroy or modify them at its pleasure.” The many ways that the sovereign people influenced the government was a central concern for Tocqueville. “It remains to be shown in what manner this power, superior to the laws, acts; what are its instincts and its passions, what the secret springs that retard, accelerate, or direct its irresistible course, what the effects of its unbounded authority, and what the destiny that is reserved for it” (179). Interest groups perform a wide range of functions in American politics including acting as a conduit for the power of the people. The destiny of the government of the United States is directed and resisted by citizens acting in accordance with each other. Interest groups perform an important representative function—they speak for their members. Not only do these institutions speak for people, they give people a way to be politically involved in their society. Interest groups, furthermore, educate people—they send members magazines, email, and notices; keeping them abreast of the latest events and problems in their area of interest. They teach people to be involved in their world and ways to participate. Interest groups also educate non-members and the larger political community in such a way that they help to set the concerns and issues faced by the larger community.

Within political science, the study of interest groups was a way to critically engage with sociological studies that succeeded in demonstrating that politics was often highly influenced by a very small group of people. Sociologists argued that these people move between business and government, always retaining their positions of privilege and power. Their families, furthermore, retain their wealth for generations. Studies of this powerful elite criticized American society as maintaining a surprising degree of privilege for the very wealthy. America, they reported, was not quite the land of opportunity it often pretended to be. Political scientists responded with attempts to define the United States as a pluralist or interest group society. They maintained that society in the United States was so plural that no group could sustain cohesion over a very wide range of issues for very long. Citizens had too many interests, too many issues and to many ways to make their opinions heard for any one group to dominate for very long.

The previous and following units explore many of the issues of how and who influences government—questions of the media, political parties, and political participation. This unit explores some documents generated by interest groups—pamphlets, leaflets, fliers, songs, and membership appeals—in order to flesh out the day-to-day functioning of interest groups that were involved in grand questions of voting rights and imperialism.


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