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5.3 Interest Groups

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will learn:

  1. What an interest group is.
  2. The ways in which interest groups try to influence public policy.

A major source of information for journalists, and another way in which people can get involved in politics, is interest groups. Interest groupsCoalitions of like-minded individuals and businesses who unite in pursuit of particular political and policy goals. James Madison, architect of the U.S. Constitution, called them factions. are formal coalitions of individuals and organizations who unite in pursuit of common policy goals. People tend to think of them as interest groups when they share or don’t mind those goals, and “special interest groups” when they disagree with them.

Interest groups are not new. In fact they are as old as politics. Plato and Aristotle warned about them, and James Madison had them in mind when he wrote the Constitution. Madison referred to them as factions. He warned that factions could be dangerous because they tend to pursue their issues to the exclusion of all else. Historically, Madison said, factions could undermine government as they single-mindedly pursued their own interests. Nonetheless, he also recognized that factions are an unavoidable fact of political life, and that limiting factions would in fact limit the very liberty the Constitution was trying to create. His answer was to divide power in the government by way of federalism and by checks and balances—dividing power between different branches and levels of government. His genius was to create a system of government in which power is so divided that it’s difficult for a single group to dominate the whole government, and that purposefully pits factions against each other in the practice of that government. The question remains, however, if this works, and interest groups continue to play influential roles in states around the world.

The public tends to view interest groups (except for the ones they belong to) with suspicion and mistrust. Depending on who you talk to, people will say that this group or another has too much influence, be it the gun lobby or religious conservatives or abortion rights activists.

Some political scientists say that interest groups aren’t all bad. In this view, interest groups are in fact a sign of a healthy political society, a sign that competition (what Madison intended) is alive and well. By that measure, you should be really concerned is when everyone is happy with a decision, because that may mean something’s not right. Elected officials can be heard to say that when everyone is equally unhappy with something they’ve done, they’ve probably done about as well as they can hope to.

Groups have a few things in common. The people who belong to groups tend to have time, money and desire. Groups without resources tend to be less organized and less successful, so the rich tend to be overrepresented and the poor tend to be underrepresented. There are welfare rights lobbies, and student lobbies, and neither tends to be successful because they don’t have money. They also represent two groups of people—students and poor people—who tend to vote less often. Contrast that with senior citizen lobbies. As they represent retired people, they’re not all wealthy, but senior citizens have one thing in common: They vote. Elected officials know that, and behave accordingly. A state legislator came to one of my classes once and began his presentation by saying, “I don’t care what you think. I just finished talking to a group of senior citizens, and I listened to what they had to say. They vote. You guys don’t vote, so why should I listen to you?” A number of the students were incensed at his comments, but some of them got his point: If you want to be heard, you have to go out and get involved, and that includes voting.

And yet not all groups are successful, even ones with money. As one lobbyist said, “I’ve seen large organizations with plenty of money with fairly pathetic public affairs efforts.” Having money is not enough; a successful interest group hires the right people and presents the right message.

How Groups Work

Groups attempt to influence policy in a number of ways:

Lobbying is a basic form of political activity. Representatives of groups attempt to contact elected officials, often directly, to tell their side of a story. The terms lobby and lobbyistPeople hired or assigned to contact elected officials to present information about issues that are important to the client or group they represent. might come from the habit of British members of Parliament to meet in the lobby of the House of Commons before and after debate. It might also come from the interest group representatives who would try to chase down President Ulysses S. Grant in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., where he liked to enjoy a cigar and a brandy.

Some lobbyists work for particular organizations or businesses; others, contract lobbyists, may have multiple clients. A good lobbyist tells the legislator both sides of an issue, so that the legislator can go home and anticipate the inevitable objections to his or her position. Consequently, good lobbyists are known for not lying. If a legislator were to catch a lobbyist in a lie, then the lobbyist would lose all access to the legislator. End of game; you lose. Lobbyists certainly try to persuade elected officials of the rightness of their position, but they try to do that through information.

Advertising and public relations campaigns which are directed at convincing voters and elected officials of one position or another. These range from “what a great company we are” (especially firms that don’t sell directly to consumers, who nonetheless purchase television ads), to campaigns directed at specific issues (such as recent campaigns singing the praises of “clean coal” and other energy initiatives). Ads such as these will sometimes target particular markets and the members of Congress who represent that market (“call Congressman Smith and tell him to stop attacking our freedom!”).

Get out the vote campaigns seek to get people to vote on ballot measures, or for or against certain candidates. Groups that can deliver votes obviously will have lots of clout. Groups send information to members at election time, often with a “report card” on people in office, detailing who voted in the direction of the group’s interests and who didn’t. Groups attempt to mobilize members to both vote and to make campaign contributions to approved candidates.

Making campaign contributions. Groups give a lot of money to candidates and, increasingly, spend money on their own. People do give money to candidates in hopes of swaying their decisions. But a lot of that money goes to people who already agree with the donor, in which case the issue could be whether certain groups overrepresented in Congress (or state legislatures)?

Engaging in legal action. Interest groups with enough money can hire lawyers, who can file suits to block unfavorable laws or the try to compel government to adhere to the law as written.

Are Interest Groups Effective?

So, do interest groups have too much power? They have power, but how much is too much? Some factors seem to limit groups’ influence. Groups rarely are coherent monoliths when it comes to policy. People join for lots of reasons, and politics often is not one of them. They join for fellowship, for group discounts and benefits (this is why the American Association of Retired Persons has more than 35 million members). As a consequence, groups often are unable to deliver the votes they promise. Interest group leaders often turn out to be a rather imperfect mirror of their memberships’ diverse desires.

The larger the group, the more diverse it is, and group diversity poses special challenges. The National Federation of Independent Businesses claims 350,000 members, but it probably has less clout than the National Association of Manufacturers, which has 14,000 members (typically larger firms with more money). A diverse membership may help deliver votes, but it makes it harder for the group to take strong stands on issues about which their members do not have a consensus.

Numbers by themselves aren’t enough. Political scientists once theorized that cities would be a powerful lobby at the federal level. The United States has thousands of cities, staffed by people who understand politics, with an umbrella group, the National League of Cities. But they can’t make campaign contributions, and despite similar issues they lack a common agenda.

A specific agenda can help a lot. Consider the National Rifle Association. It has fewer than 5 million members, and isn’t wealthy compared to a number of other organizations. It is, however, narrowly focused on issues involving gun ownership rights and the Second Amendment. Opinion polls consistently show that most Americans favor gun control laws, yet that feeling is neither organized or intense. As a consequence, the NRA has been very successful in its efforts to limit gun control, because the group is largely unified around the issue.

That speaks to another limit on interest groups: They can’t afford to watch every issue all the time. Successful interest groups stick to their knitting, as they say in business, and try to focus their resources on issues that matter most to their leaders and members.

So, do we have too many interest groups, or too much government? The number and intensity of groups seems to have risen over time, and it has paralleled the increasing size and scope of government. The nation’s rising wealth also has meant people have more at stake, and more resources to do something about it. State and federal regulation has increased in the post-World War II era, and a couple things haven’t changed since the start.

The Iron Law of Public Policy: Every government action creates winners and losers in the marketplace. Intelligent business people act accordingly.Robert A. Leone, Who Profits: Winners, Losers and Government Regulation, New York, Basic Books, 1986. This leads to Sell’s Second Law of Political Economy: Politics is economic competition carried on by other means. A lot of what happens in government is about interests attempting to tilt the rules of the game in their favor. Ask yourself who really benefitted from President Bush’s Medicare senior citizen prescription drug buying plan. Senior citizens, who do get drug coverage. But also large pharmacy chains stores, as they can best afford to subscribe to the plan and offer the group discounts. They can make it up in volume. Who loses? Smaller chains and independents, who can less afford the discounts and lacked the political clout to forestall the plan.

Should we do anything about groups? That’s a tricky question. If you limit the ability of groups to participate in the political process, in some sense you limit freedom. On the other hand, without some limits, it’s clear from history that the wealthy and powerful can at times dominate the discourse of society. Where do you strike a balance?

Madison’s original idea was to create a competitive political marketplace, where groups would keep each other in check. Does this still work? Everybody is represented somewhere in the political spectrum, but is everybody’s interest represented all the time? You may be represented by a labor union or the business lobby or a group concerned with one social issue or another. But who represents your interest when the car dealers try to weaken lemon laws, or when tax burdens are shifted from one group to another? The answer isn’t always obvious. Meanwhile, interest groups (including congressional campaign committees, who get most of their money from other interest groups), spent more than $280 million on the 2010 congressional elections. That was five times more than was spent on the 2006 elections. Court decisions such as Citizens United, which opened the door for private groups and corporations to spend all the money they wanted on politics, further muddy the water. In the first half of 2012, interest groups had spent $170 million on the presidential and congressional campaigns. The billionaire Koch brothers promised to spend $100 million to ensure that President Obama was not re-elected. If the voices with the most money speak the loudest, are other voices being heard? Meanwhile, interest groups representing the private prison industry helped push for three-strikes-you’re-out legislation in various states, which has raised the prison population and increased the need for prisons. The private education industry has helped back the push for charter schools across the country.

Following the financial meltdown and the Great Recession of 2007-2008, many people called out for reform of the financial sector. For the most part, it didn’t happen, despite the substantial evidence that a lack of regulation had contributed to the enormous size of the problem. The financial services industry in 2009 and 2010 deployed 3,000 lobbyists in Washington, D.C.—five for each member of Congress. They spent $1.3 billion battling against further regulation, and largely succeeded. It’s their right to do this under U.S. law, and it’s not immediately obvious how this could be addressed. But it’s a question worth asking.

Key Takeaways

  • Interest groups have always been a part of politics.
  • Interest groups attempt to influence public policy through activities such as lobbying, voter mobilization, and campaign contributions.
  • Interest groups are not all equally effective. Successful groups tend to be more narrowly focused on a smaller set of issues.


  1. What interest groups do you belong to? What issues matter to you right now that would tend to connect you to an interest group (even if you’re not an active member)?
  2. If you decided to limit the influence of interest groups, what steps would you take? What would be the trade-offs involved?