Pressure groups are collections of individuals who hold a similar set of values and beliefs based on ethnicity, religion, political philosophy, or a common goal. Based on these beliefs, they take action to promote change and further their goals. For example, members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) share a common belief that, in turn, influences the actions (e.g., advocacy, public awareness programs, policy research) they use to achieve their goals.
Pressure groups often represent viewpoints of people who are dissatisfied with the current conditions in society, and they often represent alternative viewpoints that are not well represented in the mainstream population. By forming a pressure group, people seek to express their shared beliefs and values and influence change within communities and sociopolitical structures, such as governments and corporations. Some pressure groups, such as the tobacco-control movement, have been successful at influencing change across a number of sociopolitical structures.
Pressure groups are different from political parties. Political parties seek to create change by being elected to public office, while pressure groups attempt to influence political parties. Pressure groups may be better able to focus on specialized issues, whereas political parties tend to address a wide range of issues.
Pressure groups are widely recognized as an important part of the democratic process. Some groups offer opportunities and a political voice to people who would traditionally be thought of as disadvantaged or marginalized from the mainstream population. In this way, pressure groups strengthen the democratic process by giving a voice to a variety of people. Pressure groups also offer alternatives to the political process by providing opportunities for expressing opinions and a desire for change.
While pressure groups are acknowledged as potentially beneficial to a democratic society, problems can arise when the democratic process becomes dominated by a few specific groups. In this situation, the voice of a small group of people with a particular interest can become overly influential and negatively affect the rights of other individuals. In the democratic process, there is a need for compromise in order to reach consensus regarding the common good. If pressure groups remain rigid and refuse to compromise on specific issues, they can potentially monopolize the democratic process by focusing public debate on a few specific issues.
Pressure groups may adopt a variety of strategies to achieve their goals, including lobbying elected officials, media advocacy, and direct political action (e.g., organized protests). Clearly, some pressure groups exert more influence than others. The degree to which such groups are able to achieve their goals may depend on their ability to be recognized as legitimate by the population, media, and by those in power. For example, civil rights groups, trade unions, and professional associations are more widely recognized and accepted than a newly formed, single-issue pressure group.
Significant gains in public health have been achieved because of efforts by pressure groups, including important changes and advances in public health issues such as tobacco control, occupational health and safety, air pollution, and HIV/AIDS.
Pressure groups can fulfill a valuable function within public health. They have the potential to raise the profile of previously marginalized issues and force action to improve the health of their members, as well as the health of the general population. For example, mental health service consumers have joined together to form pressure groups that have identified the issue of homelessness as an unintended consequence of deinstitutionalization. Initiatives spawned by these groups aim to improve living conditions for the homeless. These actions have provided benefits not only to the homeless, they have also positively affected the well-being of entire communities.
Individual pressure groups can form larger coalitions to advance their cause more effectively. The tobacco-control movement provides an excellent example of how a variety of pressure groups can work together across sectors and at many different levels to affect change. This movement has successfully pulled together many organizations under the umbrella of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. Members include organizations from a number of sectors including
Libby, R. T. (1998). Eco-Wars: Political Campaigns and Social Movements. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mahood, H. R. (2000). Interest Groups in American National Politics: An Overview. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.