Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science






What is political competition? What is the primary source and basic cause of political conflict and competion? Why do people "go into politics"? How is political competition normally carried on in a constitutional democracy? What is the primary role of political parties in political competition? What is the primary role of political interest groups in political competition? What is a political elite? What is the difference between political elitism and political pluralism? How do political elites operating within a constitutional democratic society normally compete for political power?

1. Political Competition--A Definition:

Political competion is competition for political power. It is competition for the ability to shape and control the content and direction of public policy--rivalry for the capacity to influence or determine official governmental decisionmaking and action on questions of public policy.

2. Political Conflict and Competition--The Primary Source and Basic Cause.

We have seen that the government of a political society, when making and carrying out official decisions on public policy, authoritatively allocates among the different individuals and groups within the society the benefits and costs of living in that society. The allocation is never equal. Some segments of the society receive more of the benefits, rewards, and advantages which the society has available to distribnute through governmental decisionmaking and action, while other segments of the society are compelled to bear more of the costs and burdens.

This fundamental fact of political life is the primary source of political conflict within a society. It is the basic cause of continuing competition for political authority, of continuing controversy over who is to control the government and officially decide how its formal-legal power is to be used. Moreover, it is the basic cause of continuing competition for political influence--continuing competition among private groups and individuals for the ability to influence, condition, and shape the official decisions of those who hold formal positions in the government and who decide how the formal-legal authority of government is to be used. The government's uneven and unequal allocation of resources and values is the primary source and basic cause of continuing competition for political power--continuing competition for political authority and for political influence.

Since different individuals and groups are differently situated within society and thus have varying and competing interests, there is a very high probability that any decision or action of the government will affect different people differently, helping some and hurting others. Any decision or action taken by the government is likely to be favorable to some segments of the society and detrimental to others, or to have the effect of allocating greater benefits and rewards to some segments than are distributed to others. Hence, there is continuing political conflict within the society, continuing conflict among different segments of the society over who will have more and who will have less of what the government allocates-- ongoing, unending controversy and competition over who in the society will receive more of the benefits, rewards, and advantages allocated by the government and who will bear more of the governmentally imposed burdens and costs.

3. Why People "Go into Politics":

Why do particular individuals and groups become political actors--i.e., become politically active, enter into the political arena as active participants? Why do they "go into politics"? They do so in order to ensure that they will receive from their government a more favorable allocation of society's resources and values. In becoming active participants in the political process, individuals and groups seek to acquite and exercise political power and to prevent or minimize its acquisition and exercise by individuals and groups whose interests are in conflict with their own. That is to say, one coalition, or alliance, of political actors engages in political conflict with a rival coalition and competes with it for political power. Why? It does so in order to shape and control the authoritative allocations of government, seeking to increase the benefits allocated to its members and supporters and reduce the costs allocated to them--to maximize the gains and minimize the losses they derive from governmental decisionmaking and action.

4. Political Competition in a Constitutional Democracy:

Under a free and competitive, constitutional democratic political regime, such as that in Canada, Britain or the U.S.A., different groups and organizations within the society engage in political competition; they compete for political power. Some groups and organizations compete primarily for political authority, while others compete primarily for political influence.

a. Political Parties and Competition for Political Authority. When rival political parties (e.g., the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S.A., the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties in Canada, and the Labor and Conservative parties in Britain) compete with each other for political power, they compete primarily for political authority. Political parties compete for the legitimate authority to govern the entire political commu- nity; they compete for direct control of the government and for the legitimate right to officially decide how and for what purposes governmental authority is to be used. Each political party seeks to place its own political leaders in the major policymaking offices of the government and thereby give them the right to decide and act for and in the name of the entire political society, exercising formal-legal authority to make and enforce authoritative, binding decisions on public policy. The individual candidate seeking his party's nomination and then election by the voters to a major government office, such as member of the legislature, is competing with his rivals for the right to be a formal-legal participant in the processes of authoritative decisionmaking and action carried on by the government.

b. Political Interest Groups and Competition for Political Influence. When political interest groups, or pressure groups, compete with one another for political power, they compete for political influence.

A political interest group whose members have common interests and views in a single area of public policy focuses its attention, energy, and resources upon that particular policy area and seeks to acquire and exercise political influence therein. The political interest group endeavors to exercise predominant influence over governmental decisions and actions in the policy area in which its members have shared interests and views. Examples of such political interest groups include (1) the National Education Association (NEA) and the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) in the area of public education, especially as regards policies affecting the quality of education in the public elementary and secondary schools, (2) the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in the area of public education, both groups being particularly concerned with the salaries of public school teachers, (3) the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the area of civil-rights, equal-opportunity, and affirmative-action legislation, (4) the Ameri- can Association of Trial Lawyers in the area of tort-reform legislation, (5) the American Petroleum Institute and the oil companies in the area of energy and transportation policy, (6) the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in the area of national health insurance, (7) the AARP in areas where governmental decisionmaking and action affect Social Security and other retirement pro- grams, (8) the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and other veterans' organizations in policy areas where the interests of war veterans are at stake, (9) the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Defenders of Property Rights in the area of environmental regulatory policy, (10) the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Gun Owners of America (GOA), the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and Handgun Control, Inc., in the area of gun-control legislation, (11) the National Right-to-Life Committee, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the area of legislation regulating or prohibiting abortions, (12) the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the area of legislation affecting homosexuals, (13) the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in the area of minimum-wage legislation, (14) the National Taxpayers Union in the areas of government spending, taxation, and protection of the rights of taxpayers, (15) the American Federation of Immigration Reform in the area of immigration legislation, (16) the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in the area of national policy governing the allocation of publicly owned channels on the broadcast spectrum, (17) the American Security Council and the Coalition for Peace Through Strength in the area of United States military defense policy, and (18) the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Hadassah, and other Jewish organizations in the area of U.S. foreign policy affecting the State of Israel. In the case of each of the foregoing interest groups, the leaders of the group seek to develop and effectively utilize the ability to influence, condition, and shape the official decisions and actions of government office- holders and institutions in the policy area or areas of interest to the group--the area or areas in which its members have common interests and views.

A political interest group develops and wields political influence through such activities as (1) lobbying members of the legislature and officeholders in the executive branch of the government, providing them with information and persuasive arguments in successful efforts to impact on their official decisions and actions, (2) forming political action commit- tees which contribute money to the election campaigns of candidates for government office, (3) providing candidates with other kinds of political support, (4) mobilizing letter-writing campaigns aimed at particular legislators or other government officeholders, (5) staging media events and thereby generating dramatic, eye-catching newspaper headlines, (6) staging mass demonstrations that catch the attention of the news media and the general public, (7) filing suit in a court of law to prevent enforcement of a decision of the legislature or of the executive branch, and (8) conducting political advertising campaigns, i.e., disseminating political propaganda through the mail and the mass media.

A political interest group, as such, does not compete for political authority; it does not contend for the formal-legal right to govern the whole political society. Unlike a major political party, an interest group does not officially put up candidates for elective government office and run them under its own name. Instead, it seeks to develop and mobilize sufficient political influence to shape the policy decisions and actions of government in one or more areas of public policy. Rather than attempt to impact on public policy in general, an interest group concentrates its efforts on influencing and shaping public policy in a limited number of areas, usually in only one policy area.

If two interest groups have differing and conflicting interests and views in a single area of public policy, i.e., the common interests and views of one group in the particular policy area clash with the commom interests and views of the other group in the same policy area, the contending groups will compete with each other for the capacity to influence and mold government governmental decisions in that specific policy area. For example, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Handgun Control, Inc., have clashing interests and views in the area of government regulation and control of firearms. Handgun Control, Inc., advocates federal and state laws which severely limit legal possession of handguns by private citizens, while the NRA strongly opposes such legislation. The two interest groups compete with other for the ability to influence and shape decisions of Congress and the state legislatures, whenever gun-control legislation is proposed and is under consideration in those lawmaking bodies.

Likewise, the National Right-to-Life Committee and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) compete with one another for political influence in the area of abortion policy, the former seeking to obtain enactment by state legislatures of laws prohibiting abortions and the latter endeavoring to prevent passage of state antiabortion statutes or, failing in this, appealing to the United States Supreme Court in order to persuade that body to overturn the state statutes, on grounds that they violate civil liberties guaranteed and protected by the Constitution of the United States. To cite a third example, the National Audubon Society and the Defenders of Property Rights compete for political influence in the area of environmental regulatory policy to protect wetlands and wildlife natural habitats, with the National Audubon Society supporting federal and state legislation strictly prohibiting destruction and significant modification of wetlands and wildlife natural habitats--including those located on privately owned property--and the Defenders of Property Rights opposing such legislation or advocating its less rigid enforcement.

In short, political interest groups are issue-specific, area-specific, political organizations. An interest group seeks to wield political influence over governmental decisionmaking and action on specific public-policy issues, usually in a single area of policy. When the shared interests and views of one interest group are in conflict with those of another interest group, the two opposing groups compete for political influence relevant to governmental decisionmaking and action on the specific issues over which they differ, in the particular policy area in which the common interests and views of one group are in conflict with those of the other group. Unless it is an ideologically oriented organization, an interest group is not interested in exercising political influence in all or most areas of public policy, nor does it seek, in its own name, to acquire and exercise political authority--the formal-legal authority to govern the whole political community, making and enforcing, for and in the name of the community, authoritative, binding decisions.


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