Parties, Interest Groups, and Campaigns An Introduction
Parties, interest groups, and campaigns are the essence of contemporary American politics. Political parties were invented in the United States in the late 1790s and have dominated American politics ever since. In the early decades of the republic, interest groups were subordinated to the much more powerful parties. But as the range of government activities gradually expanded, powerful interest groups paid more attention to politics. By the late 1800s, Washington, D.C., had become a major arena for lobbying. However, the real power of "pressure group" politics was on the state level as various lobbies came to dominate state capitals. As one commentator noted, "Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it" ( Thayer 1973, 37). In 1908 a political scientist named Arthur F. Bentley called interest groups the core unit for understanding politics, and that observation seems even more true as the century ends.
Interest groups have so extended their range of activities that they are now challenging political parties in the latter's traditional campaign lair. Campaigns now provide a common arena for both political parties and interest groups. Of course, there have been interest groups in campaigns throughout our political history. The rapid growth of the new Republican party in the 1850s, for example, was largely driven by various abolitionist groups that used the party as a vehicle to pursue their policy goal of ending slavery. Similarly, the great increase in Democratic party power in the 1930s was in part a reflection of the increased political power of labor unions and their support of Democratic party campaigns. Although interest groups and political parties have long been key players, the role they have played in the drama of American politics has changed considerably over the past few decades.