Participating in Interest Groups
In the American political system, there are a wide variety of interest groups that are organized for the sole purpose of exerting influence on the political and legal systems. These groups play a central role in deciding who gets what, when, where and how in legislative and budget processes. They also play a significant role in deciding which values will be promoted and enforced by the government.
Why Do Groups Form?
When individuals have common interests, it often makes sense for them to join together in pursuit of those interests. When this happens, a special interest group is formed. These groups then compete for a share of the limited resources distributed through the political process.
While many groups are formed to compete for economic resources, others are formed to support their positions on issues like abortion and gun control. The limited resource these groups compete for is not money or real estate but rather the use of governmental power to enforce a particular set of values.
Why Do People Join Groups?
At the group level, it makes sense for groups to form and do the things they do. However, at the individual level, there are powerful incentives to be a free rider. If a group is pursuing your interests even though you, as an individual, are not contributing your time or your money to the group, what incentive do you have to contribute time or money to the group's efforts?
Some people join groups because they are strongly motivated by the group's goals or, perhaps, they believe they can exercise power within the group that they would not otherwise have. Groups also entice people to join them by offering group benefits or even by punishing those who do not join.
Examples of group benefits include travel and insurance discounts, such as those available to members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Other groups, like the Sierra Club, send members calendars or other inexpensive but attractive rewards for group membership. The most common form of "punishment" is to deny those who do not join a group the ability to work in a particular profession. Unions accomplish this by supporting"closed shops" that only employ union members. Professional associations, such as the American Bar Association (ABA), license their members to practice their professions. Membership is a prerequisite to working in these professions.
Are All Groups Created Equal?
While there are thousands and thousands of groups in the American political system, not all groups are created equal. In fact, groups vary widely in their size, goals, unity, resources and influence. These differences are often interrelated. A group's size and resources depend on how attractive the group's goals are to potential group members and contributors. Group unity depends on how strongly and uniformly group members feel about the group's goals. A group's influence, in turn, depends on its size, unity and resources.
A relatively large, highly unified group with ample resources, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), can exert a significant amount of influence on the policy process. A less unified but larger group, also with significant resources, such as the AARP can also be influential. In contrast, groups that are small, those with fewer resources and those that lack unity are less likely to be effective in the political process.
Kinds of Interest Groups
There are several different kinds of interest groups in the American political system. Some of the most common types include:
- Economic Groups Groups with a primarily economic focus include business and trade associations such as the National Florists Association, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Beer Wholesalers Association and professional associations for doctors, dentists and lawyers. Some economic "groups" consist of a single member, generally a large corporation such as Union Pacific or General Motors (and, presumably, its employees).
- Social Policy or Ideologically Based Groups Some groups are organized to support and promote a set of core ideological or political beliefs and ideals. Such groups include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Landmark Legal Foundation. Some of these groups are narrowly focussed on a single issue, such as abortion--with the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) on one side and the National Right to Life Committee on the other--or gun control--with the National Rifle Association (NRA) on one side and groups like Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence on the other.
- Public Interest Groups Some groups exist for the express purpose of pursuing public interests that would not otherwise be pursued. Examples of such groups include Common Cause, which seeks campaign finance reform, and Public Citizen, a broad consumer advocacy group.
- Labor Unions Unions are generally formed to provide laborers with the power of collective bargaining against the strength of businesses and corporations. Unions also tend to be heavily involved in the political process. Prominent, politically active labor unions include the AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
What Do Groups Do?
Interest groups attempt to influence public policy in a variety of ways. They try to influence the membership of Congress and who becomes President by giving money to political candidates. Interest groups cannot give money directly to candidates in federal elections--they must form political action committees or PACs. When an interest group's PAC gives money to a candidate, they hope to help elect someone who is favorable to their cause. After the election, they hope to be able to have access to and work effectively with the people they supported. (Because PAC contributions are limited to $5,000 and congressional campaigns generally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it is inaccurate to suggest that any one campaign contribution "buys" a vote.)
Interest groups also organize lobbying efforts to persuade members of Congress to support or oppose particular pieces of legislation. They also organize group members and mobilize them to influence the Congress. Group members will often try to "flood" Capitol Hill with letters, phone calls, or e-mail messages from their members.
Terms & Concepts
- free rider An individual who does not contribute to or participate in a group but nonetheless benefits from the existence and activities of the group.
- group benefits Incentives, e.g. mementos (calendars, mugs, etc.) or financial benefits (insurance discounts, etc.), given to people who join a group. These benefits are often unrelated to the primary purposes and goals of the group.
- interest group Group of individuals who share common goals or objectives which the group is organized to pursue.
- lobbying The practice of talking with members of Congress to persuade them to support a particular position or pieced of legislation. Often conducted in the "lobbies" just off the House and Senate chambers.
- political action committee (PAC) The officially registered arm of an interest group authorized to contribute money to candidates in federal elections.
Think About It
- Are interest groups good or bad for American politics?
- Can you think of an interest or set of interests that are not adequately represented by an organized group or groups?
Applying What You've Learned
Complete the "Visit and Compare Interest Group Web Sites" exercise.