Interest Groups in American Politics: A Historical Review

Interest Groups in American Politics: A Historical Review

An interest group is any organization that seeks to influence public policy. Interest groups are found in many societies, but there is an unusually large number of them in the United States. This proliferation is a result of

1. The great number of social cleavages along income, occupational, religious, racial, and cultural lines.

2. The American constitutional system, which stimulates political activity, including interest group activity. Because of federalism and the separation of powers, there exist many different centers in which important decisions are made. Therefore many different interest groups can exercise some power. In Britain, on the other hand, groups are fewer in number and larger in scale (to match the centralized governmental

3. The decline of political parties, which has made the wielding of power by interest groups more practical (because the system is more fragmented) and seemingly more needed. In European countries with strong parties, interest groups-such as labor unions and professional societies-tend to be closely allied to parties.

There are two kinds of interest groups: institutional and membership. The former are individuals or organizations representing other groups. Typical of
institutional interests are business, governments, foundations, and universities. Membership groups are supported by the activities and contributions of individual citizens.

Since 1960 the number of interest groups has increased rapidly. There have been other historical eras of interest group proliferation. These include the 1770s (pro independence groups), the 1830s and 1840s (religious and antislavery groups), the 1860s (trade unions, the Grange, and fraternal organizations), the 1880s and 1890s (business organizations), the 1900s and 1910s (a vast array of organizations), and the 1960s (environmental, consumer, and political-reform organizations). Interest groups do not, therefore, arise spontaneously or automatically out of natural social processes. At least four factors help explain the rise of interest groups.

1. Broad economic developments. For example, the rise of mass-production industry allowed the rise of mass-membership labor unions.

2. Government policy. Public programs create constituencies with an incentive to organize to maintain their benefits. Veterans’ benefits create veterans’ groups; the licensing of professionals by state governments gives societies of doctors and lawyers a strong reason to exist. Sometimes the government supports the formation of organizations (the American Farm Bureau Federation is an example) by providing benefits to their members. Sometimes government policies are designed to make private interest group formation easier, as was the case with the passage of laws in the 1930s to aid labor.

3. Religious and moralistic movements. These produce people, frequently young people, who are willing to form organizations, often at large personal cost. The religious revivals of the 1830s and 1840s thus fed the antislavery crusade, and the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s likewise produced an organizational explosion.

4. The more activities government undertakes, the more interest groups form as a response to those activities. Accordingly, public interest lobbies have increased since 1970, when government became active in civil rights, social welfare, and consumer rights.

Do interest groups form according to the particular historical era and social conditions? In Interest-Group Politics in America by Ronald J. Hrebenar and
Ruth K. Scott (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982, pp. 9-12), this question is considered via the examination of various theories of group formation. In an earlier work, James Q. Wilson argued that there had been three great waves of association between 1800 and 1940. The great explosion between 1900 and 1920 had been due to a communications revolution, the government’s attempt to regulate business activity, the increased division of labor, and immigration, which had added to the growing diversity of the American population. In short this era, like those that preceded it, was related to important social movements and unrest, which collectively produced new interest groups in the United States.

In a related theory, dubbed the disturbance theory by David Truman and Robert Salisbury, it was argued “that interest groups arise as a result of two interrelated societal processes. One process involves the increased complexity of society, while the second is the natural tendency to seek a condition of equilibrium” (pp. 10-11). The complexity axiom asserts that specialized groups will form associations by which they can articulate their needs. The equilibrium theory argues that disadvantaged groups that have lost political ground because of societal disturbances try to renew that balance by fresh efforts at reorganizing.

Salisbury suggests another theory, the entrepreneurial theory which “sees as the key element in group formation the organizer or entrepreneur of the new group … the desire of the organizer to establish a viable organization.” In the
final analysis, “it may be that the disturbance theory better fits economic groups, while ideological or cause groups are better explained by the entrepreneurial theory.”

If it is true that America has more interest groups than other nations, does it follow that more Americans belong to groups? The answer is no for unions and for business, professional, and charitable organizations. It is yes for civil or political organizations and religious associations. Americans’ willingness to join civic or political organizations probably reflects a greater sense of civic duty and political efficacy here.

Interest group joiners tend to be high-status individuals: they have the income, the free time, and the wide range of interests necessary for group activity. Some believe that interest group activity therefore has an upper-class bias. However, this bias must be considered in light of political outputs (who wins and who loses in particular issues at particular times) and internal divisions within groups (farmers, for example). There are major opinion cleavages among elites. Furthermore, some organizations of better-off persons have considerable political influence (the NAACP or consumer groups, for example), whereas others (taxpayer associations or pro-gun control groups) are relatively poorly organized and ineffective. However, interest groups representing
business and the professions seem more influential and better financed than groups representing the poor, consumers, and minorities.

Furthermore, we cannot assume that what an interest group does in the political arena is simply the expression of the interests of its members. Every political organization has an external political strategy and an internal recruitment strategy. These may be different or even in conflict. The active support of labor unions for civil rights legislation in spite of the opposition
or skepticism of union members, and the consistently leftist positions of the National Council of Churches, which represents fairly conservative Protestants (many of the southerners), are examples. Whether an organization’s political position will represent its members’ interests will depend on at least four

1. The homogeneity of the group. The United States Chamber of Commerce consists of many different types of businesses and thus can say little or nothing about tariffs.

2. People’s motives for joining. As long as union members are satisfied with the union’s performance on bread-and-butter issues, and as long as Protestant churchgoers receive spiritual or social satisfaction in local congregations, the national AFL-CIO and the National Council of Churches can do pretty much as they please. Thus members motivated by solidarity or material incentives will give great discretion to the staff to pursue their own goals.

3. The size of the staff. Organizations with large staffs are more likely to take political positions in accordance with staff beliefs. Furthermore, staffs will tend to have distinct views, either liberal/left (National Council of Churches) or conservative/right (American Farm Bureau Federation).

4. The level of militance and activity of the membership. Members of some organizations, such as the John Birch Society or Greenpeace, tend to be passionately convinced of the rightness of particular policies. Leaders of these organizations will not find members indifferent or easily satisfied, and they will be forced to take strong stands-perhaps even stands they would prefer to avoid. Social movements also create dedicated interest groups, as exemplified by
civil rights, feminism, and environmental groups.

Not only do groups not necessarily represent the views of their members, but also large constituencies (consumers, or women, or taxpayers) are particularly hard to organize. This is not because such people are apathetic but because of the free-rider problem. No single individual’s membership perceptibly affects the likelihood that the group will succeed in achieving its goals, yet if it does achieve its goals, every person in the class represented will share in the benefits, regardless of whether he or she was actually a member. The average individual has virtually no incentive to join.

Organizations may overcome this problem by supplying services to individual members, in addition to engaging in political activity. The Illinois Farm Bureau and American Association of Retired Persons follow this strategy. Groups such as Common Cause or Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen may raise large amounts of money through direct mail. (Organizations that make their appeals
to broad, controversial principles are termed ideological interest groups.)

Interest groups attempt to influence policy by supplying public officials with things they want. These things include:

1 . Credible information. This may include policy information to allow a legislator to take a position on an issue or technical information needed to implement a policy. When the Federal Energy Administration was trying to allocate scarce oil and gasoline supplies, it discovered that the information it needed was possessed only by the oil companies. An interest group is most powerful when the issue is narrow and technical and there are no competing interest groups to supply competing information. Finally, it may involve political cues that will allow a public official to line up on the liberal or conservative side of an issue.

2. Public support. It is unlikely, therefore, that these tactics are effective for more than a handful of visible issues with great emotional significance (abortion, the Panama Canal treaties). Although there has been a recent rise in single issue politics, which often generates grass-roots lobbying, members of Congress generally hear what they want to hear and deal with interest groups that agree with them. However, interest groups have successfully mobilized support for and against legislators, as was the case with the “Dirty Dozen.”

3. Money. Interest groups can establish political action committees to finance political campaigns, they can lobby Congress to reduce or increase the appropriations for government agencies, they can provide jobs for former government officials (revolving door), and on occasion they may offer a cash bribe. To obtain money beyond mere dues, interest groups have turned to foundation grants (Ford Foundation, Scaife Foundation), federal grants and contracts, and direct-mail solicitation.

4. The absence of trouble. Tactics such as protest marches, sit-ins, picketing, and violence have always been part of American politics, used by both the left and the right. The object is to disrupt the workings of some institution to force it to negotiate with you, to enlist the support of third parties (for example, the media), or to provoke attacks and arrests so that martyrs are created.

Many policies have been enacted or proposed to regulate interest groups; all must deal with the fact that interest group activity is a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. For example, the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 requires interest groups to register with the secretary of
the Senate and clerk of the House of Representatives, as well as to file quarterly financial reports. The Supreme Court upheld the law but limited its impact to groups whose “principal purpose” is to influence legislation. Both the 1946 law and the subsequent Supreme court ruling, therefore, left significant loopholes for interest groups to exploit. It was not until 1995 that Congress responded to popular concerns with the passage of tighter regulatory legislation. The new law broadened the definition of a lobbyist, thereby requiring more advocates to register with the House and the Senate, and also
obliged lobbyists to disclose more information about their clients. Lobbyists must now register if they spend at lease 20 percent of their time lobbying and/or are paid $5,000 or more for lobbying in any six-month period. Corporations and groups must register if they spend more that $20,000 in any six-month period on their lobbying staff. Having registered, lobbyists must submit biannual reports that list the names of their clients, their income and expenditures, and the issues on which they worked. Although the law did not establish a new enforcement agency, violations may be referred to the Justice
Department for investigation. Fines for breaking the law could amount to $50,000. In addition, a controversial proviso barred those tax-exempt nonprofit groups currently receiving federal funds from lobbying.

Ultimately the most effective restraints on interest group activity may result from the tax code (which threatens to revoke a group’s tax-exempt status if it engages in substantial amounts of lobbying) and campaign finance laws. Yet interest groups have discovered ways to evade even these restraints. Consider the restriction on campaign contributions. According to Hedrick Smith, these spending limits can be circumvented by bundling. “Bundling is the practice by which a central PAC in some industry will appeal to individual executives in its field for contributions to individual senators or congressmen. The PAC acts as the collection point for private checks, but since these funds are not its own, these contributions do not count against its $5,000 legal limit. The PAC puts these checks together in a ‘bundle’, delivers them to the politician, and reaps the political credit for raising the money.”

Bundling has become one of the most common PAC practices and has been
used with considerable success. An outstanding practitioner is EMILY’s List, a PAC that supports pro-choice, Democratic women candidates. (The PAC name is an acronym: “Early Money Is Like Yeast”-to complete the phrase, “it makes the dough rise.”) In the 1992 cycle, EMILY’s List spokespersons claimed to have contributed or bundled $6.2 million. Thus, even the best regulations are ineffective barriers against the power of interest groups.

Discussion Questions

1.Why have interest groups grown stronger as the parties have grown weaker? Could this inverse relationship be changed, with both interest groups and parties growing more powerful?

Or are there incentives for these organizations to compete? Could interest groups and political parties both grow progressively weaker?

2. Which have been more important in the formation of interest groups: changes in the economic structure of society or changes in people’s ideas and beliefs? What evidence does the text give on this point? Can you think of other

3. The text contends that governmental policy encourages the growth and activity of interest groups; programs create constituencies. What about the reverse-do interest groups create governmental programs? 

Could interest group activity be responsible for the expansion of government itself? In The End of Liberalism, Theodore Lowi presented the theory that public
policy is formulated by government bureaucrats in conjunction with interest groups. Has the complexity of contemporary society shifted the advantage to interest groups?

4. If one assumes that American society will become more complex in the future, can one rightfully assume that new waves of interest group formation are also likely to concur?

5. What specific social trends and changes in contemporary America have the distinct ability to trigger interest group formation?

6. Which incentive-material, purposive, solidarity routinely most important in students’ decisions to join an interest group? Why? Does this lead students to pay greater attention to the group’s external political strategy or its internal
recruitment strategy?

7. Explore the reasons why an interest group’s external political strategy and internal recruitment strategy may appear contradictory. Can an interest group confronting these circumstances be successful? Why? What leadership skills are required to direct an interest group experiencing these tensions?

8. Do students belong to any groups for purely purposive reasons? Are they free riders in relation to any interest groups? Weigh the costs and benefits associated with group membership. What ethical obligations should each citizen confront as a potential participant in public interest groups?

9. Information is the primary tactic employed by interest groups. A substantial proportion of the legislation introduced into Congress is written either entirely or in part by interest groups. Why would members of Congress introduce such legislation? Is the public vulnerable to exploitation by powerful groups due to their monopoly over information?

10. Compare and contrast the 1946 and 1995 legislation for the regulation of lobbyists. Why isn’t such legislation an unacceptable limitation of free speech? Why is it so difficult for Congress to develop clear standards for legislative lobbying? (Students should be encouraged to consider how voters, interest group members, lobbyists, and legislators might hold different views of lobbying.)

11. PACs have been called collection agencies for interest groups. They were created to evade laws that forbid corporations and labor unions from giving money “directly” to federal candidates. Why does Congress permit the law to be trampled by allowing the existence of PACs? Do PACs threaten the constitutional order?

Frequently Asked Questions about Political Interest Groups

Political interest groups, often referred to as advocacy or pressure groups, are organizations formed by individuals or entities with shared interests, beliefs, or goals, to influence government policies and decisions. These groups aim to shape public policy in a manner that aligns with their objectives, whether it’s advocating for specific legislation, influencing electoral outcomes, or pushing for regulatory changes.

Interest groups can represent a wide range of issues and sectors, including environmental protection, healthcare, labor unions, business associations, civil rights, and more. They play a pivotal role in the American political landscape by acting as intermediaries between citizens and government officials, bridging the gap between public opinion and policy-making.

These organizations employ various tactics to achieve their objectives, such as lobbying, grassroots mobilization, campaign contributions, public awareness campaigns, and legal actions. While some interest groups operate on a national level, others focus on state or local politics, depending on the scope of their concerns.

Interest groups exert influence on government through several means:

  1. Lobbying: Lobbyists employed by interest groups engage with lawmakers and government officials to provide information, build relationships, and advocate for their causes. They often help draft legislation and propose policy changes.

  2. Campaign Contributions: Interest groups can donate to political campaigns, supporting candidates who align with their positions. This financial support can help candidates win elections and, in turn, influence policy decisions.

  3. Grassroots Mobilization: Many interest groups mobilize their members and supporters to engage in grassroots activism. This can involve contacting elected officials, organizing protests, and spreading awareness about their issues.

  4. Legal Action: Some interest groups resort to litigation to challenge government policies they oppose. They may file lawsuits to protect their interests or challenge the constitutionality of specific laws.

  5. Public Relations and Media Campaigns: Interest groups often employ public relations strategies to shape public opinion on their issues. They use media campaigns, advertisements, and social media to reach a broader audience.

These tactics collectively enable interest groups to have a significant impact on the policy-making process and the decisions of elected officials.

The influence of interest groups on democracy is a topic of debate. Supporters argue that interest groups are essential for a functioning democracy because they:

  • Amplify Voices: They allow individuals and organizations to collectively advocate for their concerns, ensuring that a diverse range of voices is heard in the policymaking process.

  • Provide Expertise: Interest groups often possess specialized knowledge and expertise on complex issues, which can aid lawmakers in crafting effective policies.

  • Foster Civic Engagement: They encourage civic participation by mobilizing citizens to engage with the political process and advocate for causes they care about.

  • Check Government Power: Interest groups serve as a check on government power by holding elected officials accountable and challenging policies they believe are detrimental.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that interest groups can have negative effects on democracy:

  • Influence Imbalance: Some groups with significant financial resources can wield disproportionate influence, potentially undermining the interests of less well-funded groups and the general public.

  • Corruption and Ethical Concerns: There are concerns about the undue influence of money in politics, leading to accusations of corruption or unethical behavior.

  • Policy Gridlock: In some cases, the competing interests of various groups can lead to policy gridlock or the prioritization of narrow interests over the public good.

In essence, the impact of interest groups on democracy varies depending on the group’s goals, tactics, and the overall regulatory framework governing their activities.

Interest groups and political parties serve distinct roles in the political system:

  • Interest Groups: These organizations focus on specific issues, causes, or policy objectives. They can represent a broad array of interests and are primarily concerned with influencing government decisions related to their specific agenda. Interest groups do not seek to directly govern but rather to influence those in power.

  • Political Parties: Political parties are broader coalitions of individuals and groups that seek to win elections and govern. They present candidates for office, develop comprehensive platforms covering a wide range of issues, and aim to achieve a majority or plurality of seats in government bodies.

While both interest groups and political parties engage in political advocacy, they differ in their scope, objectives, and strategies. Political parties aim to control the government, while interest groups work to shape policies and decisions within the existing political framework.

Interest groups obtain funding through various sources, including:

  1. Membership Dues: Many interest groups collect dues from their members. These dues can vary widely depending on the organization and the level of commitment expected from members.

  2. Donations: Interest groups often rely on donations from individuals, foundations, or corporations that support their causes. These contributions can be a significant source of funding.

  3. Fundraising Events: Interest groups organize fundraising events such as galas, auctions, or charity dinners to generate income. These events often attract donors who share the group’s objectives.

  4. Grants: Some interest groups receive grants from government agencies, philanthropic organizations, or other institutions that support their mission.

  5. Corporate Sponsorships: Corporations may provide financial support to interest groups whose goals align with their business interests or corporate social responsibility initiatives.

  6. Political Action Committees (PACs): Some interest groups establish PACs to raise money specifically for political campaign contributions. PACs can collect funds from individuals and use them to support candidates who share the group’s views.

It’s important to note that the sources of funding can impact the perception of an interest group’s influence and agenda. Transparency and disclosure regulations vary, and some groups may face scrutiny for their financial connections.

Yes, interest groups are subject to regulations that vary at the federal, state, and local levels. These regulations are designed to ensure transparency, accountability, and fairness in the political process. Key regulations include:

  1. Lobbying Disclosure: Federal law requires lobbyists and lobbying organizations to register and report their activities, including expenditures and contacts with government officials. This promotes transparency in lobbying efforts.

  2. Campaign Finance Laws: Rules govern the amount and sources of campaign contributions made by interest groups. Contributions to candidates, parties, and political action committees are often subject to contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

  3. Nonprofit Status: Many interest groups operate as nonprofit organizations, which may limit their political activities and involvement in election campaigns. To maintain tax-exempt status, these groups must adhere to specific IRS regulations.

  4. Ethics and Gift Rules: Some states have gift rules that restrict the value and types of gifts or benefits that interest groups can provide to government officials.

  5. Regulation of PACs: Political action committees are subject to strict regulations, including contribution limits and reporting requirements.

Compliance with these regulations is essential to avoid legal issues and maintain credibility. Failure to adhere to relevant laws can lead to fines, penalties, or even legal action.

Interest groups often seek to influence public opinion as a means of furthering their policy objectives. They do this through several strategies:

  1. Public Relations Campaigns: Interest groups use media, advertising, and social media to shape public perception of their issues. They may conduct educational campaigns, disseminate research findings, or run advertisements to garner support.

  2. Coalition Building: Some interest groups join forces with like-minded organizations to amplify their message and broaden their reach. Collaborative efforts can have a more significant impact on public opinion.

  3. Grassroots Mobilization: Interest groups mobilize their members and supporters to engage with the public. This can involve organizing rallies, protests, letter-writing campaigns, and encouraging individuals to contact their elected representatives.

  4. Polling and Research: Some groups commission public opinion polls and research to identify effective messaging and tailor their outreach efforts to resonate with the public.

  5. Media Engagement: Interest groups work to secure media coverage for their issues, leveraging news outlets to raise awareness and generate discussion.

Ultimately, the goal of these efforts is to garner public support and increase the likelihood that policymakers will align with the group’s agenda.

Yes, interest groups can represent conflicting interests. In a pluralistic society like the United States, where diverse opinions and viewpoints exist, it’s common for multiple interest groups to advocate for opposing policies or positions on the same issue. For example:

  • On environmental issues, one interest group may advocate for stricter regulations to combat climate change, while another may represent industries seeking fewer regulations to protect their economic interests.

  • In healthcare, some groups may push for universal healthcare, while others may advocate for free-market solutions and less government intervention.

  • Labor unions and business associations often have conflicting interests when it comes to labor regulations, taxation, and trade policies.

These conflicting interests reflect the diversity of opinions within society and the pluralistic nature of democratic governance. Policymakers must weigh the arguments and evidence presented by various interest groups when making decisions, striving to strike a balance that serves the public interest. The competition of ideas and interests is a fundamental aspect of democratic policymaking.