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.