A special interest group is a group that, in pursuit of its goals, lobbies for government assistance or against government interference. The U.S. founding fathers created separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism in order to keep such groups from gaining too much power or influence. However, concerns about the disproportionate influence of interest groups, as well as the unbalanced influence among those groups, remain despite the passage of various laws governing lobbying and the participation of special interest groups in campaigns.
Three primary theories address the role of interest groups in the United States. The pluralist theory holds that enough interest groups should participate in the political process so that everyone’s interests get represented, whether or not individuals participate. The elitist theory challenges the pluralist view, arguing not all groups are represented and the ones that are not represented equally. It argues further that public policy is primarily influenced by a small elite group rather than by a wide array of interest groups or the general population. Although examples of elite success exist, other successful examples that elitists thought would not succeed have also occurred. Hyperpluralism, the third theory, notes the large number of interest groups in U.S. politics and says those who are against something have a better chance of success, because the government’s structure makes change more difficult than maintaining the status quo.
Types of Interest Groups
Groups can be categorized in several ways, including by membership, organizational structure, and goals. Membership categories include groups run by members, groups with corporate or other types of entities as members, groups with pocketbook members, and groups without members that are run by their staffs. Pocketbook members are people who pay dues but do little else in the group, although they may occasionally write letters or call Congress if asked by the group. Some groups have a formal organizational structure while other groups are less formal, and some are not really structured at all. In terms of goals, private interest groups (i.e., businesses) primarily seek benefits that can be limited to their members. Public interest groups (i.e., civil rights) advocate for benefits that cannot be limited to their own members.
What Interest Groups Do
Interest groups seek to influence government policy and to obtain government benefits by lobbying the legislative and executive branches of government and sometimes by participating in election campaigns. After passage of a law, the lobbyists pressure the bureaucracy charged with creation and implementation of its regulations and/or the courts charged with interpreting the law.
Lobbying can be direct or indirect. Direct lobbying includes any activity intended to influence, which involves personal contact with government officials or their staff. Activities include meeting with, calling, faxing, or writing government officials and staff as well as giving testimony or speaking at public meetings, submitting position papers, engaging in relevant lawsuits, and writing amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs—statements written by nonparticipants in a case that supports the legal argument made by one of the participants.
Indirect lobbying seeks to influence government officials through a third party such as the media or a group’s members. Staging events that obtain press coverage (i.e., press conferences and protests) and writing letters to the editor are two common methods of using the media. Also, groups ask their members to engage in various direct lobbying activities (rather than the organization doing so itself), perhaps by e-mailing or calling their congresspersons.
Interest groups participate in the campaign process by donating money to candidates and/or instructing their members to donate money to or volunteer for a particular candidate. They also engage in independent campaigns using their money and members to assist in getting out a message to their members and/or the public to vote for a candidate or party. Organizations may engage in all, some, or none of these activities.
Likelihood of Success
How successful a particular interest group is depends on its resources, which include knowledge, membership, money, and reputation, all of which can be maximized through coalitions. The first of these resources—knowledge—falls into four types: knowledge about the group’s issue(s); knowledge about how the political process works and the people whom you are trying to influence; knowledge relating to effective organization building, leading, and maintaining; and general knowledge, particularly in the areas of writing and speaking in standard English.
The second resource—membership—involves five important characteristics: number, geographic dispersion, cohesiveness, intensity, and market share. All things being equal, larger groups have an advantage over smaller ones. A group with a large number of members in a small geographic area would have significant influence in that area but less broad influence in a larger area. On the other hand, a group such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which has more than 50,000 members in a significant number of congressional districts, is able to have a much broader impact nationally, since all representatives have constituents who are part of the group.
A small cohesive group will do better than a large divided group. A group unable to decide what it wants makes it easier for politicians not to respond. It also makes it harder for the group to act. Sometimes multiple groups represent the same group(s) of people. When all of these groups are unified, they are more successful than when there is division among the groups.
Intensity is a benefit because when members feel intensely about their group’s cause(s), they are going to be willing to work harder, donate money, and vote accordingly. Intensity is one of the reasons the religious right is playing a significant role in U.S. politics.
A group’s market share—the percentage of eligible people who join the group—may also affect its success. This is most significant for organizations such as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association, where the total number of people eligible to join the organizations is known. An organization has an easier time representing a specific group of people the higher its market share.
Money is a significant resource because it can be used to purchase many of the other resources as well as to pay for communications and make campaign donations. It is also the resource that is at the center of much of the controversy over the influence of interest groups in a democracy. The concern is that small groups with significant financial resources can influence policy in ways that disadvantage the majority.
Reputation, the final resource, has two elements. First, politicians do not want to be associated with unpopular groups. Second, the groups who have a history of giving good information are more likely to be trusted and believed than the groups who do not.
Three aspects of goals affect success rates. Groups seeking to block change do better because the government is structured to make change more difficult to achieve than maintaining the status quo. Groups with narrow or technical interests also do better than those with broader or less technical goals because they are less likely to stir up substantial opposition. This is in part because narrow goals are less likely to be noticed or, if noticed, inspire opposition from a significant number of groups or individuals. Technical goals are hard to understand and thus tend to receive less opposition.
Also, if a group has no organized competition, it has a better chance of success. When there is a mismatch in the resources groups have, the group with the superior resources has an advantage. These realities raise concerns for both democratic theorists and citizens. The primary concern is that policy decisions favor groups because of their resources, not because of the merit of their positions or because their positions represent the majority. When groups are evenly matched, the outcome is either compromise or stalemate. Sometimes the result in the former case is incoherent and/or piecemeal policy. In the latter case the status quo wins.
Impact of Interest Groups
Interest groups provide information, new ideas, an opportunity to pool individual resources, and the ability to rely on others to participate in one’s place. The recent explosion of interest groups driven by technology, changes in campaign finance laws, and the weakening of political parties has increased people’s concerns about their overall influence. The mismatch in group resources and the focus of groups on their own interests leave many concerned that the public is not represented, thereby possibly overriding the majority will. Research suggests the influence of interest groups is greater for issues on which there is no intense public sentiment. Interest groups also have more influence on less visible votes such as those taken in congressional committees as opposed to the floor of Congress.
- Cigler, Alan J. and Burdett A. Loomis, eds. 2006. Interest Group Politics. 7th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- Herrnson, Paul S., Ronald G. Shaiko, and Clyde Wilcox, eds. 2004. The Interest Group Connection: Electioneering, Lobbying, and Policymaking in Washington. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- Madison, James. Federalist Paper 10. Retrieved March 26, 2017 (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp).
- Pertschuk, Michael. 1986. Giant Killers. New York: Norton.
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