Interest Groups

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Interest groups are private organizations that try to shape
public policy. They are made up of individuals or other
organizations that share an interest that they are trying to
protect or advance with the help of government. Interest
groups are often called pressure groups or lobbies.

Interest Group Role in a Democratic Society?

Interest groups are usually regarded as narrowly self- interested, out for themselves, and without regard for the public good. The danger to good government from special interest groups is a familiar theme in American politics.

James Madison developed this theme in The Federalist (No. 10) where he discusses factions (his term for interest groups). Although Madison worried about factions, he believed that they were inevitable in a free society, in which people have diverse interests based on economic circumstances, property ownership, occupation, and region.

Trying to eliminate factions would require tyranny. The only way to control factions, Madison believed, was to organize constitutional government in a way that moderates the bad effects of factions and to have a society that would be so large that no single faction could dominate public life. Factions can neither be eliminated nor made to serve the public good, he said, but their bad effects can be controlled.

This theme of selfish special interests recurs throughout American history, from President Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States to the Progressive Era muckrakers who attacked the unholy alliance of trusts, lobbyists, and corrupt public officials. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates revived the theme of selfish interests as a central focus of their successful effort to increase the regulatory role of the government.

For political scientists who take a pluralist approach, interest groups do not hurt democracy and the public interest but are an important instrument to attain both. Pluralists believe that elections are essential to a democracy, but they do not readily communicate what the people want in terms of policy. This is better communicated to political leaders on a day-to-day basis by the many groups and organizations to which people belong.

Pluralists argue that the interest group system is democratic because people are free to join or organize groups that reflect their interests. Because of federalism, checks and balances, and the separation of powers, governmental power in the United States is broadly dispersed, making governmental institutions remarkably porous and open to influence by the diverse groups that exist in society. Pluralists, therefore, do not see interest groups as a problem but as an additional tool of democratic representation.

Interest Group Formation
Structural, Political, and Governmental Influences

The number of interest groups active in American politics has increased dramatically since the late 1960s. Much of this increase is accounted for by the creation of new kinds of organizations, especially public-interest or citizen groups organized around some cause or idea, as opposed to an economic or occupational interest. Public interest groups include environmental, consumer, civil rights, and ideological organizations. Despite the proliferation of public interest groups, business, producer, and occupational groups still dominate by their sheer numbers.

Structural factors help explain the shape of the nation's interest group system. One factor has been the growing complexity of the U.S. economic and political systems. Work and occupations have become more complex as agricultural and craft pursuits have been augmented by factory, office, and laboratory occupations. The economy has changed from one of small competitive firms to one of national and global corporations. These trends have contributed to diversification and complexity, and an inevitable multiplication of interests.

The political culture of the United States is another structural factor which contributes to the proliferation of groups. This country honors the pursuit of private, particular, and narrow interests. In classical liberalism, the pursuit of self-interest is not only permitted but also celebrated as the basis of the good and prosperous society. Such an ideology teaches that when opportunities present themselves in the form of getting government to do something that might be helpful, then these opportunities should be taken.

The rules of the political game in the United States encourage the formation of interest groups. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to speak, assemble, and petition the government, all of which are essential to the ability of citizens to form organizations for the advancement of their interests before government. Moreover, the organization of American government makes decision-makers relatively accessible to interest groups. Federalism, for example, allows for many more places where interest group pressure can be brought to bear. The lack of strong centralized parties in the U.S. also makes for a fragmented policymaking process.

The enormous growth of government has also contributed to group formation. As government has taken on more responsibilities, it has come to have a significant impact on virtually all aspects of economic, social, and personal life. Consequently, the decisions made by the president, members of Congress, bureaucrats, and judges have increasing relevance for people, groups, and organizations who respond to the intrusions of government by forming interest groups.  Enabling conditions and encouraging conditions all explain why interest groups form. Enabling conditions include factors such as the ability of U.S. citizens to express themselves and to form organizations, the fragmented and decentralized organization of the government, and a political culture that celebrates the pursuit of self-interest.

Encouraging conditions include factors such as the society becoming more complex and diverse, the government becoming larger, and the government assuming a greater role in people's lives. Disturbance theory says that these enabling and encouraging conditions alone don't completely explain why interest groups form. Groups will only form if interests become threatened in some way, usually by economic and social change.

Some social scientists believe that individuals do not form groups unless they receive selective benefits from the group. A selective benefit is a benefit that is available to members but not to non-members. If someone can get the benefit without joining the group, then joining makes no sense. He or she would be a free-rider (along for the ride without contributing).

This theory of how groups form emphasizes how difficult and unlikely it is that groups form at all. It cannot account, therefore, for the great proliferation of interest groups since the end of World War II and the upsurge in group formation during the 1960s and 1970s, especially groups of the public-interest and ideological variety.

The proliferation of such groups suggests that groups form not only around material and selective incentives, but also around purposeful (ideological, issue-oriented) and solid aristic (the sense of being part of something that one values) incentives as well. People join groups, for instance, because they believe in a particular cause or because they enjoy the companionship or social life afforded by belonging to a group.

Diversity of Interest Groups

There are many organizational forms which interest groups can take. One such form is that of a single company. It is common for a single company to maintain an office in Washington, D.C. to monitor the national government and to lobby for the company's interests.


Another organizational form is that of the individual membership organization. These groups depend on large numbers of members as a basis for their influence within the government. Some organizations are made up of smaller organizations from all around the country which are usually tied to some type of economic interest. These so-called peak associations include groups such as the AFL-CIO, the Business Roundtable, and many trade associations.

Finally, staff organizations are another form of interest group organization. Many public-interest or citizen groups with offices in Washington, D.C. are small-scale organizations run by professional staffs, with a small membership base, financed by a few wealthy contributors interested in a cause or by grants from private foundations. Such groups include the American Conservative Union, the Center for Auto Safety, and the Liberty Lobby.

Another way to think about interest groups is in terms of the type of interest they represent. The most common distinction made is between economic and non-economic groups. Economic groups have some economic stake that they wish to protect or advance by means of government action. Non-economic groups are motivated by a desire to see a set of ideas form the basis of public policy, advance a general cause, or bring a single issue to the attention of policymakers.

There are several types of groups which can be categorized as economic groups. Producer groups, which include business and agriculture interests, have an enormous amount of power in Washington, D.C. because of the vast resources at their disposal and the strategic role they play in the health of the economy.

Professional groups represent the interests of professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and dentists. Because of their members' importance in local communities and their ability to make substantial campaign contributions, these organizations are influential in the policymaking process on matters close to their professional expertise and concerns.

Although labor unions are sometimes involved in what might be called public interest activities, their main role in the U.S. has been to protect the jobs of their members and to gain maximum wage and benefit levels for them. The power of labor unions to influence the national government has eroded over the past several years because of the strong pro- business Reagan administration policies and declining membership.

Non-economic groups include public-interest or citizens' groups which try to get government to do things that will benefit the general public (as they define it) rather than the direct material interests of their own members. These organizations, which are motivated by ideological concerns or a cause, are often spawned by social movements. The consumer movement, environment movement, women's movement, and the conservative movement are all social movements which led to the creation of interest groups. 


Public-interest groups generally do not use material incentives to convince people to work for them or contribute to their activities. These organizations depend primarily on solidaristic and purposeful incentives to entice people to support the group. Their ability to maintain themselves as organizations over the long haul seems to depend on the presence of a core of dedicated people who are willing to work in the interest of some cause or ideology for generally long hours and with little compensation.

What Interest Groups Do

Interest groups exist for the purpose of conveying the views and defending the interests of some sector of society to public officials. There are two basic types of interest group activity. The first, called the inside game, involves direct interaction of interest group representatives and government officials. The second type, called the outside game, is an indirect form of group activity which involves interest group efforts to mobilize public opinion, voters, and important contributors in order to bring pressure on elected officials.

The term "lobbying" conjures up images of favors, substantial honoraria paid for brief appearances, and other unsavory exchanges verging on bribery. In the main, however, such images do not help us fully understand the intricacies of the inside game. This game does not always involve money or favors. It is mostly about the politics of insiders. It is the politics of one-on-one persuasion, in which the skilled lobbyist tries to persuade a strategically placed decision- maker to understand and sympathize with the point of view of the interest group.

Access is critical if one is to be successful at this game, as is an intimate understanding of the game itself. The best lobbyists are those who have been in and out of one office or another in one administration or another for many years. They know the Washington, D.C. scene and are paid well for their services. The inside game is most effective when the issues are narrow and technical, don't command much media attention or public passion, and do not stir up counter activity by other interest groups.

The essence of the inside game in Congress is the cultivation of personal relationships with those who matter, whether they be Senate and House leaders, other influential and well- placed legislators, chairpersons of important committees or subcommittees, or key members of professional staffs. Relations with subcommittee members and staff are particularly important in the intricate and intimate lobbying game.

The heart of the legislative process in Congress is not the floor debate, but the workings of specialized committees and subcommittees of the House and Senate. Skilled lobbyists spend their time cultivating relationships with key members of such committees and with their professional staffs, and transmitting information that is useful to members and staff. The committee staffs take on an enormous importance, and the rational lobbyist does well to focus attention there and to be as helpful as possible.

Members of Congress are busy. On many issues, they have neither the time nor interest in developing detailed expertise and thus rely heavily on their staff for information. A good lobbyist cultivates contacts with the staff, providing information to be passed along to the member of Congress. Interest group representatives also spend a great deal of time offering testimony at public committee or subcommittee hearings. Hearings are often used to bring some issue to the public's attention. They can be devices by which a legislator uses friendly interest groups to build public support for something that he or she wants to do. Public hearings can also be a way in which interest groups convince legislators to allow them to make a case to the public.

Lobbying the executive branch is another way in which  interest groups attempt to have their views heard. Career civil servants and upper-level appointees in the executive branch have a great deal of discretionary authority because Congress often writes legislation broadly, leaving it to bureaucratic agencies to fill in the details.

Given the broad powers they carry, it behooves interest groups to establish stable and friendly relationships with those agencies of the executive branch that are most relevant to their interests. As with Congress, the key to success in the lobbying game with the executive branch is personal contact and long-term relationships. Once established, interest group representatives can convey technical information, present the results of their research, help public officials deflect criticism, and show how their group's goals are compatible with good public policy and the political needs of the officials.

Interest groups also lobby the courts but not in the same way in which they lobby Congress and agencies in the executive branch. A group may find that neither Congress nor the White House is favorably disposed to its interests, and that the courts can serve as an alternative route to the transformation of public policy. Going to court, however, is a secondary strategy for most groups, because they must have standing. This means that the group must be a party to the case and be able to demonstrate a direct injury. Going to court, moreover, is very expensive and beyond the means of many groups.

When interest groups get involved in court actions there are a number of things that they can do. First, they can file amicus curiae (or friend of the court) briefs in cases involving other parties. In this kind of brief, a person or an organization that is not a party to a lawsuit may file an argument in support of one side or the other in hopes of swaying the views of the court. Second, interest groups can become involved in court actions through the process of appointment and approval of federal judges.

Government officials are more likely to listen to a lobbyist if they are convinced that a great many politically active people stand behind the lobbyist. The outside game is a form of interest group activity in which such support is identified, created, mobilized, and brought to bear on policymakers in government.

For instance, when a bill that is relevant to the interest group comes before Congress or a ruling or regulation comes before an agency in the executive branch, the efforts of the group's lobbyist are greatly enhanced if decision-makers know that their constituents back home and around the nation care about the decision. Interest groups with a large membership base will try to persuade their members to send letters and make phone calls to the appropriate officials. 


Interest group leaders generally do not wait for their members to react spontaneously, but use direct mail to sound the alarm. Members of Congress are most attuned to those in their state or district who can affect their reelection prospects. The smart interest group, therefore, will not only convince its own members in the state and district to put pressure on the senator or House member but also will make every effort to be in touch with important campaign contributors and opinion leaders there.

Shaping opinion by educating the public on issues that are important to the interest group is one of the central features of new-style lobbying. The idea is to shape public opinion and elite opinion in such a way that government officials will be favorably disposed to the views of the interest group.

This attempt to shape public opinion and elite opinion comes in many different forms. When an organization believes that it has research results that will bolster its position, it may call a press conference to present a summary and mail the research report to influential people in government, the media, and education.


Interest groups may often conduct national and regional advertising campaigns to impress their views on government policy. The smart and well-heeled interest group will regularly prepare materials that are of use to radio, television, newspapers, and magazines. Many produce opinion pieces, magazine articles, television and radio spots, or even stage events to be covered by the news.

Groups may also use targeted mailings to gain support on a particular issue. Finally, groups without substantial resources or ready access to the offices of government officials sometimes turn to the use of public demonstrations to attract attention to their cause.

Interest groups have become key players in American electoral politics. Many interest groups rate members of Congress on their support for the interest group's position on a selection of key legislative votes. These ratings are then distributed to members of the interest group and other interested parties in hopes that it will influence their voting behavior in upcoming elections.

Another activity by some groups is to try to shape the Republican and Democratic party platforms. This will usually work only if the group has had a friendly, long-term relationship with key sectors of the party or a party leader. Interest groups may also encourage their members to get involved in the electoral campaigns of candidates who are favorably disposed toward their interests.

This type of encouragement may be through tangible means such as allowing the candidate use of the group's telephone and mailing lists or by simply endorsing the particular candidates which hold positions in line with the group's interests.

Finally, the most important development in American electoral politics over the course of the past two decades has been the rise of political action committees (PACs) as an important part of financing electoral campaigns.

 The Interest Group System and Democracy

In order to determine if inequalities exist, we first need to examine who interest groups represent. Only about 40 percent of the population join an organization other than a labor union and only 52 percent join any organization at all. Most important, the tendency to join an organization is greatest among those people who are the best educated, have the highest incomes, and have the most prestigious occupations. 


Significant inequalities also exist in terms of the sectors of American society that are represented in the interest group system. For the most part, the interest group game is dominated in sheer number and weight of activity by corporations, business trade associations, and professional associations. These organizations account for over two- thirds of all associations that have a lobbying presence in Washington.

Moreover, the representational advantage of business and the professions is increasing and there is evidence that business and professional groups last longer than others, whereas public interest groups tend to come and go.

Interest groups representing business and the professions can afford to spend more money than other groups to hire professional lobbying firms, form their own Washington, D.C. liaison offices, place advertising in the media, conduct targeted mailings, mobilize members to contact government officials, and do all the other activities associated with lobbying.

Not many Americans can fly high-government officials to important meetings in their own planes, as corporations do routinely. Not many other groups can match the routine lobbying presence of large corporations. Interest groups representing business and the professions are also major players in PAC fund-raising and spending. During the 1990 elections, PACs representing business and the professions accounted for roughly 60 percent of all PACs and PAC contributions to congressional candidates.

Inequalities of representation and resources are accentuated by the ability of some groups to form relatively stable alliances with important government institutions and decision-makers. 

There are several forms which these alliances can take. One is capture. Regulatory agencies tend to become allies, protectors, and advocates of the industries that they regulate. Although capture theories are no longer as popular among political scientists as they once were, they still sensitize us to the potential problems for democracy posed by the alliance of private and public power.

Clientelism describes situations in which private interests are protected and promoted by patrons throughout the federal bureaucracy, with most of the interests being businesses. The theory of interest group liberalism focuses on the process by which Congress allows private organizations to formulate many of the details of policies that directly affect them.

Iron triangles or sub-governments is another approach to describing the alliance of private and public power in Washington, D.C. In this three-way arrangement, an alliance is formed between a private-interest group (usually, but not always, a business corporation), a bureaucratic agency, and some committee or subcommittee of Congress.

The most common example given of an iron triangle is the alliance among the Pentagon, defense contractors, and the armed services committees of the Congress. Iron triangles are more common in the United States, where central government power is fragmented and where the legislative branch plays an important role in policymaking, than in countries with parliamentary systems.

Scholars do not agree on which model is an accurate portrayal of the relationship between private and public interests. No matter how the debate is settled among scholars, it remains the case that each of these models of the Washington policy process is characterized by the existence of privileged access for some, the frequent exclusion of majorities of the public, and the violation of political equality.

Although large corporation have more resources than other groups, resources do not always translate into real political influence. An interest group may have enormous resource advantages over other interest groups, but may use its resources ineffectively. Similarly, an interest group with great resources may find itself opposed by other interest groups that together might be able to mobilize impressive resources of their own.

A powerful interest group may also find that elected politicians do not cooperate because the voters disagree with the interest group's position. Interest groups, therefore, don't always get their way. Nonetheless, the question remains as to the extent of corporate political power in American government: how much influence do these groups actually have? 

Observers disagree as to how much power corporate interests have in American politics. Business leaders and the business press often complain that business is without power in Washington, D.C. This view of business as a helpless victim is generally articulated during times when restrictions have been placed on corporate behavior.

Many scholars believe that corporations are no more or less important than other interest groups. Although corporate and business interest groups may have more resources and access than other groups, in the end they still must compete with other groups and will therefore be unable to play a dominant role in the policymaking process.

Other political scientists take a somewhat different stance toward interest groups by asserting that corporations wield such disproportionate power in American politics that they undermine democracy. Because of the vital role which corporations play in the economic health and well-being of the United States, officials tend to interpret business corporations, not as special interests, but as the voice of the national or general interest, and listen more attentively to their demands than they do to other sectors of American society.

Finally, it may be that corporate political power is not a constant but waxes and wanes over time. Corporate power seems to reach its apex under certain conditions. During bad economic times, for instance, Americans are more interested in getting the economy going again than in undertaking reforms that cut into corporate profits. Politicians in bad times are more solicitous of corporate interests. In good economic times, such as the late 1960s, politicians are less worried about corporate profits drying up if tax monies are used for social purposes. 

Corporations are also more powerful when they can build coalitions. Most of the time corporations are in competition with one another. They do not form a unified political bloc capable of moving government to action on their behalf. On those few occasions when corporations feel that their collective interests are at stake, however, they are capable of coming together to form powerful political coalitions. Perhaps, then, the best way to think about corporations in American politics is to see their power waxing and waning within a generally privileged position.

Curing the Mischief's of Factions?

The politics of faction is usually not the province of majorities, but of narrow, particularistic, and privileged interests. This is problematic in two respects. First, it undermines political equality, which is vital for a functioning democracy. Second, it makes it difficult for the United States to formulate broad and coherent national policies. Instead, policy tends to be a glued-together patchwork of agreements made between narrow factions, each with its own ends in mind. The problem, then, is to alleviate the most pressing mischief of faction without diminishing freedom.

Americans have worried about the politics of faction for a long time and have attempted to resolve some of the most glaring problems. Lobbyists are required to register with Congress. Reformers have also tried to restrict the freedom of former government officials from accepting positions with firms they regulated while in government employment. Another major effort to alleviate some of the mischief of faction involves the attempt to control some of the campaign practices of PACs.

Although some of the worst abuses of the interest group system have been address, many observers worry that the reforms do not get to the heart of the main problem. These problems are related to the narrowness and the particularism of interest group politics and its undermining of both political equality and political coherence. Recognizing this, some political scientists have suggested that reform efforts be focused on strengthening institutions of majoritarian democracy such as political parties, the presidency, or the Congress.

Nonetheless, efforts to reform the interest group system in the service of majoritarian democracy may be frustrated in the end by the inescapable fact that groups with substantial resources will inevitably find a way to influence politics. Whether there is a way to decrease inequalities without seriously eroding liberty remains to be seen, although the experience of other capitalist democracies in western Europe suggests that such a thing may be possible.