Interest Groups

By Harrison, B.C., Harris, J.W.

Edited by Paul Ducham


Scholars who study civic engagement acknowledge the significant ways in which interest groups channel civic participation. Interest groups afford a way for people to band together to influence government as a collective force. Interest groups also seek to involve individuals more actively in the political process by encouraging them to vote and to communicate their views one-on-one to their elected officials. In addition, interest groups assist in the engagement of communities by providing a forum through which people can come together and form an association. Importantly, too, interest groups offer an alternative means of participation to individuals who are disenchanted with the two-party system. By taking part in interest groups, individuals, acting together, perform important roles in the polity not only by communicating their viewpoints to policy makers but also by providing a medium that other people can use to express their opinions.


An interest group can represent a wide variety of interests, as in the case of a community Chamber of Commerce that serves as an umbrella organization for local businesses. Alternatively, an interest group can restrict itself to a narrower focus, as does the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing. Scholars who support pluralist theory emphasize how important it is for a democracy to have large numbers of diverse interest groups representing a wide variety of views. Indeed, pluralists view the policy-making process as a crucial competition among diverse groups whose members attempt to influence policy in numerous settings, including agencies in the executive branch of government, Congress, and the courts. Pluralists believe that interest groups are essential players in democracy because they ensure that individual interests are represented in the political arena even if some individuals opt not to participate. Like some of the founders, pluralists argue that individuals’ liberties can be protected only through a proliferation of groups representing diverse competing interests, so that no one group dominates.
Pluralists believe, moreover, that interest groups provide a structure for political participation and help ensure that individuals follow the rules in participating in civic society. Following the rules means using positive channels for government action rather than extreme tactics such as assassinations, coups, and other forms of violence. Pluralists also stress that groups’ varying assets tend to counterbalance one another. Pluralists contend that this is frequently the case with many policy debates. And so although an industry association such as the American Petroleum Institute, an interest group for the oil and natural gas industry, may have a lot of money at its disposal, an environmental group opposing the industry, such as Greenpeace, may have a large membership base from which to launch grassroots activism.
Proponents of elite theory dispute some claims of pluralist theory. In particular, elite theorists point to the overwhelming presence of elites as political decision makers. According to elite theory, a ruling class composed of wealthy, educated individuals wields most of the power in government and also within the top universities, corporations, the military, and media outlets. Elite theorists claim that despite appearances that the political system is accessible to all, elites hold disproportionate power in the United States. They also emphasize that elites commonly use that power to protect their own economic interests, frequently by ensuring the continuation of the status quo. And so though nonelites represented by interest groups may occasionally win political victories, elites control the direction of major policies. But elite theorists posit that there is mobility into the elite structure. They emphasize that (in contrast to the situation in aristocracies) talented and industrious individuals from nonelite backgrounds can attain elite status in a democracy, often through education. This mobility, they say, gives the political system an even greater façade of accessibility.
Although these theories offer competing explanations for the role and motivation of interest groups in the United States, many political scientists agree that aspects of both theories are true: elites do have disproportionate influence in policy making, but that power is checked by interest groups. Undisputed is that interest groups are an essential feature of American democracy and provide an important medium through which individuals can exercise some control over their government.


Many Americans join interest groups, and yet interest groups have a generally negative reputation. For example, it has been said of many a politician that he or she is “in the pockets of the special interests.” This statement suggests that the politician is not making decisions based on conscience or the public interest but, rather, has been “bought.” This notion is closely linked to the ideas held by elite theorists, who argue that elites’ disproportionate share of influence negatively affects the ability of the “average Jill or Joe” to get the government to do what she or he wants it to. Yet despite the criticisms frequently leveled by politicians, pundits, and the populace about interest groups’ efforts to influence government, they serve several vital functions in the policy-making process in the United States:

Interest groups educate the public about policy issues. Messages from interest groups abound. For example, thanks to organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), most people are aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. In educating the public, interest groups often provide a vehicle for civic discourse, so that genuine dialogue about policy problems and potential solutions is part of the national agenda.
Interest groups provide average citizens with an avenue of access to activism. Anyone can join or form an interest group. Although wealthy and well-educated people are most likely to do so, interest groups can speak for all kinds of people on all kinds of issues. Historically in the United States, groups have been significant forces for advocates of civil rights for African Americans as well as for supporters of equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, and ethnic minorities. Even you and your fellow students can form an interest group. At Swarthmore College, a small number of students formed the Genocide Intervention Network, a group concerned about the genocide in Darfur that became a full-fledged interest group.
Interest groups mobilize citizens and stimulate them to participate in civic and political affairs. Some people are “turned off” by politics because they feel that neither the Democratic nor the Republican party represents their views. In these cases, interest groups, with their typically narrower area of focus, can sometimes fill the void. Moreover, interest groups nurture community involvement by encouraging the formation of local chapters of larger interest groups. They support public education activities by private citizens. And interest groups not only can facilitate the ongoing conversation of democracy between people and their government officials but also encourage voting.
Interest groups perform electoral functions. By endorsing and rating candidates and advertising their positions, interest groups provide voters with cues as to which candidates best represent their views. Interest groups also mobilize campaign volunteers and voters. These activities facilitate informed civic participation.
■ Interest groups provide information and expertise to policy makers. The private sector often has greater resources than the public sector and can be a source of meaningful data and information for policy makers on pressing social issues.
Interest groups can protect the common good. The federal government is structured so that only one individual (the president) is elected from a national constituency. Interest groups can work to protect the nation’s interest as a whole rather than just the needs of a specific constituency.
Interest groups are an integral part of the government’s system of checks and balances. Interest groups often “check” one another’s influence with competing interests, and they can similarly check the actions of policy makers.


Despite the valuable functions of interest groups, certain criticisms of these organizations are valid. Interest groups do contribute to the appearance of (and sometimes the reality of) corruption in the political system. Indeed, there are various criticisms of the “interest group state.” Former president Jimmy Carter bemoaned the influence of special interests, saying that they are “the single greatest threat to the proper functioning of our democratic system,” and former president Ronald Reagan charged that interest groups are “placing out of focus our constitutional balance.”
Another criticism is that interest groups and their political action committee (PAC) fundraising arms make money a vital force in American politics. By contributing large sums of money to political campaigns, interest groups’ PACs make campaigns expensive and often lopsided; candidates without well-stuffed campaign war chests have a difficult, if not impossible, task in challenging those who receive large PAC contributions. Money also changes the nature of campaigns, making them less engaging for citizens on a grassroots level and more reliant on the mass media. These concerns have been exacerbated by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enables corporations and labor unions to spend money freely on political ads supporting or targeting candidates for federal office, and allows corporations and unions to buy issue advertisements even in the last days of political campaigns. Critics, including President Obama, say these rule changes will increase the importance of money in political campaigns and will enable corporations to exert greater influence over the electoral process.
Interest groups, moreover, are faulted with strengthening the advantages enjoyed by incumbents. Most interest groups want access to policy makers, regardless of these elected officials’ party identification. Realizing that the people already in office are likely to be reelected, interest groups use their resources disproportionately to support incumbent candidates. Doing so increases incumbency advantage even further by improving the odds against a challenger.
Finally, although the option to form an interest group is open to any and all activists and would-be activists, elites are more likely to establish and to dominate interest groups than are nonelites. This fact skews the policy process in favor of elites. Interest group activism is much more prominent among the wealthy, the white, the upper-middle class, and the educated than among the poor, the nonwhite, the working class, and the less educated. Although Internet-based interest groups have been particularly effective in attracting young people and others not traditionally drawn to such organizations, many of the most effective national interest groups remain dominated by traditional interest-group populations.


There are several reasons for interest group membership patterns, some of which, as we shall see, are interconnected. For example, people with higher incomes have more disposable income to spend on membership dues for organizations. They are also likely to have occupations in which interest group activity is useful (or even required, as in some professional fields such as the law).
Doctors and lawyers, for example, are likely to be members of professional associations such as the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Bar Association. These organizations give incentives for membership, such as accreditation of qualified professionals. They also confer benefits by providing various services to members and by attempting to influence government policy on members’ behalf. The AMA accredits qualified physicians, promotes opportunities for continuing education to members, and lobbies the government on policy issues related to health care. For example, during the debate over the 2010 health care reform legislation, the AMA sponsored television ads opposing a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians, and urged viewers to call their senator asking them to “fix the Medicare access problem.”
Workers such as teachers and tradespeople are likely to belong to labor unions. Many labor unions are influential in local politics, generating grassroots support for candidates through their membership base. A few of the national labor unions, especially the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers’ union in the country, and the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), an organization of many different labor unions, are strongly influential in national politics.
Executives in business and industry are likely to be members of industry-specific and general business organizations that advocate on behalf of their members. All of these professional associations, labor unions, and business organizations are types of interest groups.


Differentiating the influence of income from that of class can be difficult when examining the impact of social class on the likelihood of joining an interest group. But in general, people who identify themselves as working class are less likely to have been socialized to participate in interest groups, with the important exception of labor unions, which historically have been most likely to organize working-class occupations. An important predictor of political participation (and interest group participation, specifically) is whether a person learns to take part and join from a young age. If your mother participated in your town’s historical preservation society, and your father attended meetings of the local Amnesty International chapter, you are likely to view those behaviors as “what people do” and do them yourself. If you come from a working-class family, you are generally less likely to see your parents engage in these participatory behaviors, rendering you similarly less likely to participate. Although scholars trace much of the lack of participation of working-class people to how they are socialized, the overlapping occurrence of working-class status and lower income is also a factor. That is, working-class people are likely to have lower incomes and less job security than their middle-class counterparts. Thus they may not be able to afford membership dues and contributions to interest groups or may not have access to child care that would allow them to attend meetings. Their lower likelihood of owning a computer limits their chances of taking an active role in Internet-based groups. Or they may simply lack the leisure time to participate.


Educational attainment also has a strong impact on whether a person will join an interest group. One recent study surveyed 19- to 23-year-olds and found that those who were college students were more than twice as likely to join a politically motivated interest group as their age-group peers who did not attend college. Individuals with higher education levels are more likely to be informed about issues and more willing to invest the time and energy in joining an interest group that represents their views. They may also be more likely to understand how important interest groups are in shaping public policy.
College students are among the most avid participants in Internet-based activist groups. But “belonging” to these groups varies a great deal (not unlike the situation in “real-world” interest groups). A member of an Internet-based interest group may play a highly active role—communicating with other members regularly, attending rallies and other campus events, and taking concrete actions such as signing an Internet petition and participating in a protest. Or members may be more passive: they may limit their activity to reading the regular e-mails from the group that inform them of issues and events, and may only occasionally participate. Or they may be members of a group in name only. But this phenomenon is not unique to Internet-based groups. Many interest groups are dominated by a cadre of committed activists supported by “sometimes-activists.” And nearly every group has a contingent of “members” who signed up mainly for the free T-shirt, tote bag, or umbrella.


Some people may join an interest group for the benefits they can gain. Others may gravitate to a group sponsoring a particular cause. Still others may become members of a group for the simple reason that they want to meet new people. Recognizing that individuals have various motivations for joining, interest groups typically provide a menu of incentives for membership. As Figure 7.1 shows, for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) offers a wide range of motivations for people to join the group. In doing so, the NAACP, like many other interest groups, attempts to attract as many members as possible.

SOLIDARY INCENTIVES  Some people join interest groups because they offer solidary incentives—the feeling of belonging, companionship, friendship, and the satisfaction derived from socializing with others. Solidary incentives are closely linked to Robert Putnam’s idea of social capital: both solidary incentives and social capital are related to the psychological satisfaction derived from civic participation. For example, a person might join the Sierra Club because she wants to participate in activities with other people who enjoy hiking or care deeply about wilderness protection. Your uncle might join the National Rifle Association because he likes to compete in shooting contests and wants to get to know others who do the same.

PURPOSIVE INCENTIVES  People also join interest groups because of purposive incentives, that is, because they believe in the group’s cause from an ideological or a moral standpoint. Interest groups pave the way for people to take action with likeminded people. And so you might join People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) because you strongly object to animal abuse and want to work with others to prevent cruelty to animals. A friend who is passionately pro-life might join the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), whereas your prochoice cousin might join NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly the National Abortion Reproductive Rights Action League).
The Internet is a particularly effective forum for attracting membership through purposive incentives. Accessible anyplace and anytime, the Internet provides resources for you to join an interest group even during a bout of insomnia at 3:00 a.m. Suppose a conversation earlier in the day got you thinking anew about the brutal genocidal conflict in Darfur. In those dark predawn hours, you can google “save Darfur” and within seconds have a variety of access points for becoming civically engaged by participating in an interest group. Some interest groups may ask you to contribute money; others may urge you to sign an online petition or to call the White House to make your opinions known. You may follow other interest groups on Twitter, enabling you to learn about demonstrations sponsored by other groups right on your college campus and in your community. You may even find out about state and national demonstrations. The media contacts provided by online interest groups make it easy for you to write a letter to an editor, attempting to convince others of your views. Just learning about the wide variety of activities available can make you feel that you are “doing something” about a cause you believe in.

ECONOMIC INCENTIVES  Many people join interest groups because of material or economic incentives; that is, they want to support groups that work for policies that will provide them with economic benefits. For example, the National Association of Police Organizations lobbies Congress concerning many appropriations measures that could affect its membership, including bills that would provide or increase funding for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) programs, bulletproof vests, and overtime pay for first responders to disasters.
Nearly all corporate and labor interest groups offer economic incentives to their members. They sometimes do so by advocating for policies that support business or labor in general, such as policies focused on the minimum wage, regulations concerning workplace conditions, and laws governing family leave or health coverage.
Other interest groups offer smaller-scale economic benefits to members. Many Americans over age 50 join the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) because of the discounts members receive on hotels, airfares, and car rentals. Other organizations provide discounts on health insurance, special deals from merchants, or low-interest credit cards.
Most people join and remain in interest groups for a combination of reasons. A person may initially join an interest group for purposive incentives and then realize some solidary benefits and remain in the group because of the friendships formed. Or someone may join a professional association for the economic benefits but then develop rewarding social networks. Many individuals who join and stay in interest groups do so because of overlapping incentives.

Figure 7.1 final


A large membership enhances an interest group’s influence because policy makers are more likely to take note of the group’s position. The age-old concept of “strength in numbers” applies when it comes to interest groups. The sheer number of a group’s membership is often an important factor in forcing policy makers, the media, and the public to pay attention to an issue. Among the largest U.S. interest groups is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which boasts a membership of more than 35 million people. This vast size gives the organization incredible clout and historically has made policy makers unwilling to take on any issue that would unleash the wrath of AARP’s formidable membership. For example, for years many economic analysts have suggested increasing the age at which people become eligible to receive Social Security. They reason that the average life span has risen significantly since the eligibility age was set, and that people are working longer because they remain healthier longer. But this potential policy solution has long simmered on the back burner. The reason? Politicians in Congress and the White House have not wanted to incur the disapproval of the AARP’s members, who would widely oppose increasing the eligibility age and might respond by voting unsympathetic officials out of office. While he was Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) remarked that he took “the AARP very seriously”—as had Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker before—and that “Republicans had been courting AARP for some time, listening to them, engaging in a give-and-take dialogue that none of the capital’s pundits even suspected was going on.”
But size is not the only important aspect of an interest group’s membership. The cohesion of a group, or how strongly unified it is, also matters to participants and to policy makers. For example, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) lobbies for federal legislation to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and provides research to elected officials and policy makers on issues of importance to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. The HRC has a membership of about 600,000, but because the organization limits its advocacy to issues affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, it is an extremely cohesive association.
Another significant aspect of an interest group’s membership is its intensity. Intensity is a measure of how strongly members feel about the issues they are targeting. Certain kinds of organizations, including pro-life interest groups such as the National Right to Life Committee, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, and animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), are known for sustaining high levels of intensity. These organizations are more adept at attracting new members and younger members than are older, more entrenched kinds of groups. These newer, youthful members are a significant force behind the persistence and intensity of these groups.
The demographics of a group’s membership also may increase its success. Members who know policy makers personally and have access to them mean greater influence for the group. Other demographic attributes also matter. Members who are well educated, geographically dispersed (because they can influence a broader network of policy makers than a geographically consolidated membership), or affluent tend to have more influence. Policy makers perceive these attributes as important because the groups’ membership is more likely to lobby and to contribute financial resources on behalf of the organization’s cause.


For an interest group, money can buy power. Money fuels the hiring of experienced and effective staff and lobbyists, who communicate directly with policy makers, as well as the undertaking of initiatives that will increase the group’s membership. Money also funds the raising of more money. For example, the Business Roundtable represents the interests of 150 chief executive officers of the largest U.S. companies, including American Express, General Electric, IBM, and Verizon. In 2009, it spent over $13 million lobbying the president, Congress, and several cabinet departments for policies that would benefit its member corporations, their shareholders, and their member corporations’ 10 million employees. Issues of concern to the Business Roundtable include policies such as Securities and Exchange Commission rules, laws concerning corporate ethics, and reform to the nation’s class action lawsuit regulations. In the aftermath of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that enables corporations and labor unions to spend their resources targeting or supporting specific candidates for office, including individuals running for Congress and the presidency, many critics believe that the financial resources of an organization will play an even greater role in determining the group’s success in the future.
Sometimes interest groups form a separate entity, called a political action committee (PAC), whose specific goal is to raise and spend money to influence the outcome of elections. Interest groups use PACs to shape the composition of government; that is, they contribute money to the campaigns of favored candidates, particularly incumbents who are likely to be reelected. That is just one specific example of the influence that interest groups’ money has on politics. Interest groups representing the economic concerns of members—business, industry, and union groups—generally tend to have the greatest financial resources for all these activities.


The setting in which an interest group attempts to achieve its goals is the organizational environment. Key factors in the organizational environment include its leadership and the presence or absence of opposition from other groups.26

LEADERSHIP  Strong, charismatic leaders contribute to the influence of an interest group by raising public awareness of the group and its activities, by enhancing its reputation, and by making the organization attractive to new members and contributors. An example of a dynamic leader who has increased his interest group’s effectiveness is James P. Hoffa, the son of powerful Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared without a trace in 1975. He has served since 1999 as the president of the Teamsters Union, which primarily represents unionized truck drivers. The younger Hoffa—a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School—is lauded by many teamsters as an intelligent, energetic, and charismatic leader whose skills have increased the size and power of the union.

OPPOSITION  The presence of opposing interest groups can also have an impact on an interest group’s success. When an interest group is “the only game in town” on a particular issue, policy makers are more likely to rely on that group’s views. But if groups with opposing views are also attempting to influence policy, getting policy makers to act strongly in any one group’s favor is more difficult. Consider this example: Hotel Employees and the Restaurant Employees International Union supported increasing the minimum wage, but the National Restaurant Association, which advocates for restaurant owners, opposed a minimum wage hike, arguing that the higher wage would cut into restaurant owners’ profits or limit its members’ ability to hire as many employees as before. In the face of such opposing interests, policy makers are often more likely to compromise than to give any one group exactly what it wants.
Although each of these factors—organizational resources and the organizational environment—influences how powerful an interest group will be, no single formula determines an interest group’s clout. Sometimes an interest group has powerful advocates in Congress who support its cause. Other times, a single factor can prove essential to an interest group’s


When economic interest groups lobby government, the benefits for their members can be direct or indirect. In some cases, the economic benefits flow directly from the government to the interest group members, as when an agricultural interest group successfully presses for subsidies, monies given by the government to the producers of a particular crop or product, often to influence the volume of production of that commodity. For example, in 2008 the finance, insurance, and real estate sector spent nearly $460 million on federal lobbying efforts. These same industries were among the prime beneficiaries of both federal government bailouts and the 2009 economic stimulus package.
In other instances, economic interest groups lobby for or against policies that, though not directly benefiting their members, have an indirect impact on the interest group’s membership. That was the case when many unions, including the AFL-CIO, lobbied against the creation of private Social Security accounts, fearing that this privatization would result in a decrease in Social Security retirement benefits for their members.

CORPORATE AND BUSINESS INTERESTS  Large corporate and smaller business interest groups are among the most successful U.S. pressure groups with respect to their influence on government. These groups typically seek policies that benefit a particular company or industry. For example, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) represents the seven major U.S. manufacturers and distributors of movies and television programs. The MPAA lobbies policy makers (often by hosting prerelease screenings of films and lavish dinner receptions) with the goal of securing the passage of antipiracy laws, which aim to prevent the illegal copying of movies and to penalize individuals who sell them. This advocacy benefits the group’s members and their employees, because antipiracy laws help to ensure that any copies of movies sold are legal and thus profitable for MPAA members.
Certain industries’ associations are stand-alone organizations, such as the National Association of Realtors and the National Beer Wholesalers Association. But industry and business groups also commonly advocate for policies using umbrella organizations, which are interest groups representing groups of industries or corporations. Examples of umbrella business organizations include the Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executive officers (CEOs) of 150 large corporations, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a federation of local chambers of commerce that represents about 3 million large and small businesses.
Often corporate and business groups compete against labor groups. This rivalry is a natural result of having different constituencies. Typically, corporate interests advocate on behalf of the company owners, stockholders, and officers, whereas labor unions champion employees’ interests.

LABOR INTERESTS  Like corporate interest groups, labor interest groups include both national labor unions and umbrella organizations of unions. The AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization made up of more than fifty labor unions, is among the nation’s most powerful interest groups, although its influence has waned over the past several decades as union membership has declined generally. During the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 35 percent of all U.S. workers were union members. By 1983, membership had decreased to about 20 percent, and today about 12 percent of all U.S. workers belong to unions. In part, this decline stems from changes in the U.S. economy, with many highly unionized manufacturing jobs being replaced by less unionized service sector jobs. Given the drop in union membership, labor interest groups’ influence has also waned, although the unions’ reduced clout is in part due to a lack of cohesion among labor union members.
Like corporate and business interest groups, labor unions pursue policies that benefit their members, although these are frequently at odds with the positions of corporate and business interest groups. And like corporate and business interest groups, labor unions sometimes press for policies that primarily benefit their own members, and at other times they promote policies that benefit all union workers and sometimes even non-union workers. For example, in 2007 the AFL-CIO successfully lobbied Congress for an increase in the federal minimum wage, which benefited the members of many unions whose contracts are based on federally mandated minimum wages but also many non-union workers who are paid the minimum wage.

AGRICULTURAL INTERESTS  Of all types of U.S. interest groups, agricultural interest groups probably have the most disproportionate amount of influence given the small number of farmers and farmworkers in the country relative to the general population. And because agricultural producers in the United States are also very diverse, ranging from small farmers to huge multinational agribusinesses, it is not surprising to see divergent opinions among people employed in the agricultural sector.
The largest agricultural interest group today is the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which grew out of the network of county farm bureaus formed in the 1920s. With more than 5 million farming members, the AFBF is one of the most influential interest groups in the United States, primarily because of its close relations with key agricultural policy makers. It takes stands on a wide variety of issues that have an impact on farmers, including subsidies, budget and tax policies, immigration policies that affect farmworkers, energy policies, trade policies, and environmental policies. For example, when President Obama sought to end direct subsidies to farmers with sales of over $500,000 as part of his 2010 budget proposal, the opposition by agricultural interest groups, including the AFBF, killed the proposal in Congress.
In addition to large-scale, general agricultural interest groups such as the AFBF, there is an industry-specific interest group representing producers for nearly every crop or commodity produced in the agricultural sector. Table 7.1 shows that corn producers are among the most effective groups in securing subsidies for their growers. Between 1995 and 2006, more than 1.5 million corn farmers across the United States received in excess of $56 billion in government subsidies. Table 7.1 reveals as well that the producers of several other crops—wheat, cotton, soybeans, and rice—have managed to secure subsidies of more than $10 billion each from 1995 to 2006.

TRADE AND PROFESSIONAL INTERESTS  Nearly every professional occupation—doctor, lawyer, engineer, chiropractor, dentist, accountant, and even video game developer—has a trade or professional group that focuses on its interests. These interest groups take stands on a variety of policy matters, many of which indirectly affect their membership.

Table 7.1 final


Public interest groups typically are concerned with a broad range of issues that affect the populace at large. These include social and economic issues such as Social Security reform and revision of the federal tax structure, as well as environmental causes such as clean air and clean water. Examples of public interest groups include the National Taxpayers Union, Common Cause, and the Sierra Club. Usually, the results of the efforts of a particular public interest group’s advocacy cannot be limited to the group’s members; rather, these results are collective goods (sometimes called public goods)—outcomes that are shared by the general public. Collective goods are “collective” and “public” because they cannot be denied to people who are not group members. For example, if the Sierra Club succeeds in winning passage of an environmental bill that improves water and air quality, everyone shares in the benefits. Specifically, it is impossible to make pure drinking water and clean air a privilege restricted to Sierra Club members.
The nature of collective goods—the fact that they cannot be limited to those who worked to achieve them—creates a free rider problem, the situation whereby someone derives a benefit from the actions of others. You are probably familiar with the free rider problem. Suppose, for example, that you form a study group to prepare for an exam, and four of the five members of the group come to a study session having prepared responses to essay questions. The fifth member shows up but is unprepared. The unprepared group member then copies the others’ responses, memorizes them, and does just as well on the exam. The same thing happens to interest groups that advocate for a collective good. The group may work hard to improve the quality of life, but the benefits of its work are enjoyed by many who do not contribute to the effort.
Economist Mancur Olson asserted in his rational choice theory that from an economic perspective it is not rational for people to participate in a collective action designed to achieve a collective good when they can secure that good without participating. So, in the study group example, from Olson’s perspective, it is not economically rational to spend your time preparing for an exam when you can get the benefits of preparation without the work. Of course, taking this idea to the extreme, one might conclude that if no one advocated for collective goods, they would not exist, and thus free riders could not derive their benefit.
Current scholarship on civic engagement has focused on the free rider problem. Researchers have investigated the increased benefits of widespread citizen participation in interest groups, citing evidence that groups with higher levels of public participation may be more effective, and may provide greater collective benefits, than groups with lower rates of participation. Studies also indicate that through the act of participating in civic life, individuals derive some benefit themselves in addition to the benefits created by their work. So, if the fifth person in the study group prepares for the exam, too, all members of the group may perform better on the exam. And if more people are civically involved in groups, then their potential to have an impact on their government increases. In addition, civic engagement scholars cite the psychic benefit to an individual of knowing that a collective good was achieved in part because of her participation, and these researchers also mention the other benefits derived from collective action, including solidary and purposive benefits.

CONSUMER INTERESTS  Well before attorney and activist Ralph Nader gained nationwide attention as a Green Party candidate for the presidency in 2000, he founded numerous organizations to promote the rights of consumers. In the 1970s and 1980s, these organizations lobbied primarily—and successfully—for changes in automotive design that would make cars safer. One result was the mandatory installation of harness safety belts in rear seats, which then typically had only lap belts. In 1971 Nader founded the interest group Public Citizen, which lobbies Congress, the executive branch, and the courts for openness in government and consumer issues, including auto safety, the safety of prescription drugs, and energy policy. Each year in December, the group issues a list of unsafe toys to guide giftbuyers’ holiday purchases.

ENVIRONMENTAL INTERESTS Many groups that advocate for the protection of the environment and wildlife and for the conservation of natural resources came about as a result of a broader environmental movement in the 1970s, although the Sierra Club was founded more than a century ago, in 1892. Some environmental groups, particularly Greenpeace, have been criticized in the media and by their opponents for their use of confrontational tactics. But many environmental activists say that the power of corporate interests (with which they are frequently at odds) is so pervasive that they can succeed only by taking strong, direct action to protect the natural environment, thus rationalizing their sometimes extreme tactics. And so while some environmentalists follow the conventional route of lobbying legislators or advertising to raise public awareness of their causes, others camp out in trees to attempt to prevent their removal or sit on oil-drilling platforms to halt drilling into a coral reef. In addition to stalling the undesired action, the confrontational protest tactic also has the advantage of attracting media attention, which serves to increase public awareness. Such environmental groups hope that they can prevent environmental destruction by embarrassing the corporation or government involved.

RELIGIOUS INTERESTS  For a long time, organized religions in the United States were essentially uninvolved in politics, partly because they were afraid of losing their taxexempt status by becoming political entities. But formal religions increasingly have sought to make their voices heard, usually by forming political organizations separate from the actual religious organizations. Today, religious interests are among the most influential interest groups in U.S. politics.
In the early stages of their activism, Christian organizations typically were most politically effective in the Republican presidential nomination process, when the mobilization of their members could alter the outcome in low-turnout primaries. During the 1970s, several conservative Christian organizations, most notably the Moral Majority, founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, were a force in national politics. The Moral Majority helped to elect Ronald Reagan, a Republican, to the presidency in 1980 and was instrumental in shaping the national agenda of the Reagan years, particularly regarding domestic policy. In 1989, another conservative Christian organization, the Christian Coalition, took shape, marking a new era in the politicization of religious groups. The Christian Coalition advocates that “people of faith have a right and a responsibility to be involved in the world around them” and emphasizes “pro-family” values. During its first decade, the Christian Coalition’s influence grew gradually. During the 2000 election, the organization was an important supporter of George W. Bush’s candidacy for the presidency, and with his election, the group’s influence has grown considerably. In the 2004 presidential election, conservative Christian organizations proved enormously important in activities such as voter registration and getout-the-vote campaigns, thus aiding President Bush’s reelection efforts.
The Christian Coalition and other religious groups—including Pax Christi USA (the national Catholic peace movement), B’nai Brith (an interest group dedicated to Jewish interests), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR, a Muslim interest group)—also advocate for the faith-based priorities of their members. Many of these organizations have become increasingly active in state and local politics in recent years. For example, in 2010, members of CAIR vocally advocated for the construction of an Islamic center at the site of the World Trade Center, which had been destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.


In the United States, advocacy by interest groups is not limited to U.S.-based groups. Foreign governments, as well as international corporations based abroad, vigorously press for U.S. policies beneficial to them. Foreign governments might lobby for U.S. aid packages; corporations might work for beneficial changes to tax regulations. Often a foreign government will rely on an interest group made up of U.S. citizens of the foreign nation’s heritage to promote its advocacy efforts. Indeed, one of the more influential interest groups lobbying for foreign concerns is the U.S.-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has 65,000 members. AIPAC lobbies the U.S. government for pro-Israel foreign policies such as the grant of nearly $2.5 billion in economic and military aid for Israel in 2007. Despite its relatively small membership, AIPAC is considered highly influential because of its financial resources and well-connected membership base, which enjoys access to many policy makers.
Sometimes it is readily apparent when foreign interests are lobbying for their own causes—as, for example, when a trading partner wants better terms. But in other cases, particularly when international corporations are lobbying, it is difficult to discern where their “American” interest ends and their “foreign” interest begins. So although only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants can contribute to federal PACs, American employees of foreign companies do form and contribute to PACs. Many people would be surprised at the large amounts of money that international corporations’ PACs contribute to both of the major U.S. political parties. But because many subsidiaries of these corporations are important American businesses, their lobbying activities are not necessarily a foreign encroachment on U.S. politics.


Interest groups hire professionals to lobby, or communicate directly with, policy makers on the interest groups’ behalf. President Ulysses S. Grant coined the term lobbyist when he walked through the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., and commented on the presence of “lobbyists” waiting to speak to members of Congress.
Today, lobbying is among the most common strategies that interest groups use, and the practice may include scheduled face-to-face meetings, “buttonholing” members of Congress as they walk through the Capitol, telephone calls, and receptions and special events hosted by the interest groups. The professional lobbyists whom interest groups hire are almost always lawyers, and their job is to cultivate ongoing relationships with members of Congress (and their staff) who have influence in a specific policy area. In many situations, lobbyists help navigate access to these policy makers for industry and interest group members.
Interest groups have learned that one of the most effective ways of influencing government is to hire former government officials, including cabinet officials, members of Congress, and congressional staffers, as lobbyists. Because these ex-officials often enjoy good relationships with their former colleagues and have an intimate knowledge of the policy-making process, they are particularly effective in influencing government. Frequently, this practice creates an issue network, the fluid web of connections among those concerned about a policy and those who create and administer the policy.
Similarly, an interest group’s efficacy often depends on its having close relationships with the policy makers involved in decisions related to the group’s causes. During the rough-and-tumble policy-making process, the interaction of mutual interests among a “trio” comprising (1) members of Congress, (2) executive departments and agencies (such as the Department of Agriculture or the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and (3) organized interest groups is sometimes referred to as an iron triangle, with each of the three players being one side of the triangle (see Figure 7.2). Although each side in an iron triangle is expected to fight on behalf of its own interests, constituents, or governmental department, the triangle often seeks a policy outcome that benefits all parts of the triangle. Often this outcome occurs because of close personal and professional relationships that develop as a result of the interactions among the sides in an issue-based triangle. And sometimes the individual players in a triangle that is focused on a particular issue—say, military policy or subsidies for tobacco growers—share a personal history, have attended the same schools, come from the same region of the country, and have even worked together at one time. Such long-term relationships can make it difficult for opposing interests to penetrate the triangle. Figure 7.2


Sometimes, interest groups challenge a policy in the courts. For example, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case that resulted in a drastically altered political landscape for campaign funding came as the result of a lawsuit filed by an interest group. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the interest group Citizens United argued that federal bans on corporate and union expenditures to promote or target candidates for federal office violated the organization’s right to free speech. A 5–4 majority of Supreme Court justices agreed with the interest group, and lifted the ban.
In other instances, interest groups sue to prevent a particular public policy from being enacted or to prompt a court ruling on the constitutionality of an issue. The latter was the case in 1992, when Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania, an abortion-rights advocacy group, sued the state’s governor, claiming that the state’s Abortion Control Act violated the constitutional protections on abortion outlined in the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973). In particular, Planned Parenthood argued that the clauses in the state legislation that required a pregnant woman to notify her husband, a pregnant teen to get parental consent, and any abortion seeker to satisfy a twenty-four-hour waiting period after receiving counseling presented an undue burden and violated the spirit of Roe v. Wade. In Roe, the Supreme Court had ruled that a woman’s right to abortion was essentially guaranteed in the first trimester, could be regulated by the states in the second, and could be banned by the states in the third. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the Planned Parenthood case and struck down some components of the Pennsylvania legislation, including the requirement for spousal notification, while allowing other components not specified in Roe, including the parental consent requirement and the twenty-four-hour waiting period, to stand.
By litigating, interest groups can ensure that laws passed by legislatures and signed by executives are in keeping with current constitutional interpretation. By bringing their causes before the courts, they also can shape policy and encourage enforcement by executive agencies.


Interest groups are one of the chief sources of information for policy makers. Interest groups have the resources to investigate the impact of policies. They have access to data, technological knowhow, and a bevy of experts with extensive knowledge of the issues. Most interest groups provide information to policy makers, and policy makers understand that the information received is slanted toward the group’s interest. But if competing interest groups supply information to policy makers, then policy makers can weigh the merits of the various sets of information.
Sometimes interest groups use celebrities as “experts” to testify, knowing that they will attract greater attention than most policy experts. Elmo, the furry red Sesame Street Muppet, testified in 2002 on behalf of a bill that would provide $2 million in federal funding to public schools for music education. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education heard testimony from Elmo, who apparently is an authority on music education. Elmo told the subcommittee: “Elmo loves to sing and to dance and to make music with all his friends on Sesame Street. It helps Elmo learn ABCs and makes it easier for Elmo to remember things. Sometimes it makes Elmo excited, and sometimes it calms Elmo down. Elmo’s teacher really likes that! My friend [American Music Conference Executive Director] Joe Lamond says some kids don’t have music in school. That makes Elmo sad.” Other celebrities who have testified on behalf of causes important to them include Bono, the lead singer of the group U2, who testified concerning debt relief for African nations; actor Michael J. Fox, who testified about Parkinson’s disease, from which he suffers; actor Goldie Hawn, who testified against granting permanent, normal trade status to China; and actor Julia Roberts, who spoke on behalf of those who suffer from Rett Syndrome, a nervous system disorder disproportionately suffered by women.


Interest groups work hard—and use a variety of strategies—to make the public, government officials, their own members, and potential members aware of issues of concern and to educate people about their positions on the issues. Some interest groups focus solely on educating the public and hope that through their efforts people will be concerned enough to take steps to have a particular policy established or changed. In doing so, the groups promote civic engagement by informing individuals about important policy concerns, even if the information they provide is skewed toward the group’s views. The groups also encourage civic discourse by bringing issues into the public arena. Often they do so by mounting advertising campaigns to alert the public about an issue. NARAL Pro-Choice America used such a strategy during the 2008 elections when the league took out ads in many traditionally Democratic states urging the election of pro-choice senators and alerting the public to the important role the U.S. Senate plays in confirming U.S. Supreme Court nominees. The ads stressed that the balance of the Court could shift in favor of an overruling of abortion protections if a sitting justice were to retire and be replaced by a pro-life justice.
Sometimes interest groups and corporations engage in climate control, the practice of using public outreach to build favorable public opinion of the organization or company. The logic behind climate control is simple: if a corporation or an organization has the goodwill of the public on its side, enacting its legislative agenda or getting its policy priorities passed will be easier because government will know of, and may even share, the public’s positive opinion of the organization. For example, when Wal-Mart started to see opposition to the construction of its superstores in communities across the country, it relied on public relations techniques, particularly advertising, to convince people that Wal-Mart is a good corporate citizen. As critics complained about Wal-Mart’s harmful effects on smaller, local merchants, the firm’s ads touted Wal-Mart’s positive contributions to its host communities. When opponents publicized the company’s low-wage jobs, Wal-Mart countered with ads featuring employees who had started in entry-level positions and risen through the ranks to managerial posts. These ads would be viewed both by policy makers (municipal planning board members, for example) and by citizens, whose opinions matter to those policy makers. This type of climate control is designed to soften opposition and increase community goodwill.
Other groups, especially those without a great deal of access to policy makers, may engage in protests and civil disobedience to be heard. Sometimes leaders calculate that media attention to their actions will increase public awareness and spark widespread support for their cause.


Interest groups often engage in the indirect strategy of electioneering—working to influence the election of candidates who support their issues. All the tactics of electioneering are active methods of civic participation. These techniques include endorsing particular candidates or positions and conducting voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Grassroots campaign efforts often put interest groups with large memberships, including labor unions, at an advantage.
Campaign contributions are considered a key element of electioneering. The importance of contributions puts wealthier interest groups, including corporate and business groups, at an advantage. Figure 7.3 shows the breakdown of contributions by incumbency status. From Figure 7.3, we can see that incumbent candidates have a significant edge in raising money from political action committees. These data indicate that most PACs recognize that incumbents—who are most likely to win reelection—are best situated to look after their interests after the election.
The issue of party affiliation also matters to political action committees. Business PACs and individuals with business interests make up the largest sources of revenue for political candidates and tend to favor Republicans over Democrats. Labor groups and individuals associated with them give overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates, but they contribute a great deal less money than do business PACs. Ideologically driven PACs and individuals are nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Interest groups also commonly use the tactics of endorsements and ratings to attract support for the candidates whom they favor and to reduce the electoral chances of those whom they do not. Through endorsements, an interest group formally supports specific candidates and typically notifies its members and the media of that support. An endorsement may also involve financial support from the interest group’s PAC. And by the technique of rating candidates, the interest group examines candidates’ responses to a questionnaire issued by the group. Sometimes a group rates members of Congress on the basis of how they voted on measures important to the group. The ratings of a liberal interest group such as the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) or a conservative interest group such as the American Conservative Union (ACU) can serve as an ideological benchmark. So, for example, as senators in 2007, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had ADA ratings of 75, while Republican John McCain had an ADA rating of 10. McCain had an ACU rating of 82, and Clinton and Obama each had about an 8. Interest group ratings are used by voters and the media to evaluate candidates and also by candidates themselves, who may advertise their rating to targeted constituencies.

Figure 7.3


The influence of money on politics is not a recent phenomenon. Louise Overacker, one of the first political scientists to do research on campaign finance, wrote in 1932, “Any effective program of control must make it possible to bring into the light the sources and amounts of all funds used in political campaigns, and the way in which those funds are expended. . . . Negatively, it must not attempt to place legal limitations upon the size of contributions or expenditures.” Years later, Congress saw the wisdom of Overacker’s analysis and enacted regulations stipulating that a group that contributes to any candidate’s campaign must register as a political action committee (PAC). For that reason, most interest groups form PACs as one arm of their organization, though federal law now permits corporations and labor unions to use their financial resources to purchase advertisements for federal campaigns directly.
Whereas an interest group pursues a group’s broad goals by engaging in a variety of activities, its PAC raises and spends money to influence the outcome of an election. Typically it will do so by contributing to candidates’ campaigns. Funding campaigns helps an interest group in various ways. For one thing, it establishes the interest group as a formal supporter of one or more candidates. And importantly, campaign contributions are a door opener for an interest group’s lobbyists. For a lobbyist, access to policy makers is crucial, and campaign contributions provide a means of contact and help ensure that a phone call will be returned or an invitation responded to, even if the policy maker does not support the group’s position on every issue.
Table 7.2 lists the PACs that contribute the most money to U.S. campaigns and highlights the party their contributions favor. As the table illustrates, many business and corporate PACs favor Republicans, whereas labor groups tend to support Democrats. More consistently, PACs, particularly those formed by economic interest groups, overwhelmingly favor incumbents. PACs’ powers-that-be know that incumbent candidates are most likely to be reelected, and thus the PACs support their reelection bids. Interest groups rely on political action committees to channel their support to candidates that espouse their views.

Table 7.2