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1.8: Interest Groups

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    204118
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    m interest, as it pertains to interestThe deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, when a 19-year-old former student killed 14 students and three staff members. Mass shootings — usually defined as incidents involving four or more victims — happen tragically often in America, enough that most Americans are familiar with what happens in their aftermaths. First, frantic news coverage scrambles to establish the details while the shooter is still active. Then begins the somber work of numbering and naming the dead. Statements of sympathy and vows of change are issued by politicians and other public figures. After a few days of grieving, the nation quietly moves on to the next news item, while those personally affected wish they could forget what happened as easily as the rest of us can.

    Photograph of students protesting during March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
    Students protest in favor of stricter gun control laws in Washington, D.C., during March for Our Lives in 2018.

    Parkland’s survivors were determined not to let their tragedy fade into history like so many others had. Less than a week after the shooting, they announced that a march would take place the following month in Washington, D.C. Celebrities, corporations, and advocacy organizations pledged support. Companion events were planned in all 50 states. Students made appearances on national news programs to share their experiences and publicize the protest. Over a million Americans took part in the March for Our Lives, with thousands more joining in from around the world. It was hard to imagine a more effective way of sending the message that stricter gun control laws were urgently needed to prevent further bloodshed.

    And yet, despite the protests, and despite the fact that a majority of Americans favored making it more difficult for people to obtain guns, very little changed in terms of policy. Florida tightened some of its laws regarding firearms purchases, and Congress allocated funding for increased school safety provisions such as metal detectors, but no major national gun control policies came to fruition. For many of the young people who took to the streets to demand government action to address gun violence, this outcome was a bitter disappointment.

    In Chapter 7, we examined the American people and their opinions at the individual level and the American people as a unified entity whose collective view constitutes “public opinion.” However, much of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” occurs somewhere between the individual level and the national level. To understand why March for Our Lives was so successful at drawing public attention to the issue of gun control and yet so unsuccessful at channeling that attention into government action, we must also examine the American people from a third perspective: as an assortment of groups.

    Strength in Numbers

    Most people have political preferences of one sort or another. These preferences vary in their origin and strength, and not everyone has a firm stance on every issue. Still, almost all of us can articulate something about how the government works that we would either like to change or like to keep the way it is.

    Although we have political preferences, most of us lack the power to do much of anything about them individually. Unless you are a government official, a celebrity, or some other highly influential person, your ability to impact national, state, or even local politics on your own is severely limited. Popular sovereignty means that power rests with the people, but large populations mean that each person possesses only a minuscule fraction of that power.

    We can increase our power by combining it with that of others who share our interests. By yourself, you might struggle to get the government’s attention if, for example, you protest a law you think is unjust. Find a handful of people who agree with you and are willing to protest alongside you, and together you might make the local news. Increase that handful to a hundred, or a thousand, or a million, and eventually you become impossible to ignore (though you still might not get what you want).

    An interest group is essentially that: an organized group of people that seeks to influence public policy in some way. Its members may not agree on every issue, but they agree enough on one issue or set of issues to band together in pursuit of their desired policy outcomes. Interest group membership is generally not exclusive; a single person might be a member of multiple interest groups, each pursuing a different objective or set of objectives.

    The ideal The term interest, as it pertains to interest groups, is not synonymous with hobby (although interest groups can and sometimes do form based on hobbies). Any policy from which you stand to benefit is considered to be “in your interest.” Politically speaking, your interests are not what fascinates or intrigues you (in the sense that you find them “interesting”) but rather what things would be good for you if they existed or happened.law is easy to remember and apply in solving problems, as long as you get the proper values a

    Interest groups are akin to parties (the subject of the next chapter), which also act collectively to influence public policy. The main difference between an interest group and a party is how they go about pursuing their goals. Parties strive to win elections and obtain government offices from which they can enact policies, whereas interest groups attempt to persuade government officials to act in certain ways. Parties want to put their members in government; interest groups want to influence government while remaining outside of it.

    Types of Interest Groups

    Roughly half of the interest groups active in Washington, D.C., including all of the top ten groups by spending in 2022 (as shown in Figure 8.1 below), are economically focused. Some, such as the United States Chamber of Commerce, are made up of companies in multiple industries and advocate for policies that are good for business in general, such as lower taxes and deregulation. Others, such as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, consist of companies in the same industry — in PhRMA’s case, drug manufacturing — and push for policies beneficial to that industry. Individual corporations, such as Coca-Cola, sometimes function as interest groups to influence government policy in their favor. Professional associations representing specific occupations, such as the American Bar Association (which promotes the interests of lawyers), also fall under this economic umbrella.

    Bar chart showing the top ten interest groups by lobbying expenses in 2022, according to Open Secrets
    Figure 8.1: Top ten interest groups by lobbying expenses, 2022 (Source: Open Secrets)

    An important subset of economic interest groups is labor unions. These organizations, such as the AFL-CIO (the largest federation of labor unions in the United States), stand for worker’s rights and advocate for policies such as higher wages, safer working conditions, and generous benefits programs. Labor unions often find themselves at odds with business groups over these policies, with the former arguing that they are necessary for workers’ well-being and the latter contending that they are bad for business. The power of unions, especially private-sector unions, in the United States has declined over time from its peak in the 1950s. No unions appear among the ten top-spending groups in 2022 — in fact, if the spending of all U.S. labor organizations was combined, they would only come in at number three on the list — but they nonetheless remain an influential force in American politics.

    Some interest groups are primarily concerned not with economic issues but with other aspects of politics. These groups are sometimes called “public interest” or “single-issue” groups, depending on how broad their goals are. AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) exist to promote the interests of the groups represented in their names. The American Legion, the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club all concentrate their advocacy on a specific issue or issue area (veterans affairs, gun rights, abortion, and the environment, respectively).

    Yet another class of interest groups is made up of governments (or coalitions of governments) trying to influence other governments. One such group, the National League of Cities, advocates on behalf of municipal governments, focusing their efforts on policies related to American federalism that impact cities. Foreign governments also send representatives to the United States to push for diplomatic, economic, and security policies to benefit their countries; Israel, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are among the biggest spenders in this category. These organizations meet the definition of interest group because, although they are governments themselves, they are attempting to influence the actions of a different government (the U.S. national government) from outside that government.

    This chapter mostly focuses on interest groups that pressure America’s national government in Washington, D.C., but interest groups can and do pressure state and local governments as well. America’s federal system separates power across multiple levels of government, and outside organizations attempt to influence how that power is exercised wherever it resides.

    Interest Group Tactics

    The main mechanism through which interest groups attempt to influence public policy is lobbying. Many interest groups hire registered lobbyists to contact members of Congress and persuade them to cast votes, sponsor bills, or make speeches favorable to their groups’ interests. This persuasion involves providing members of Congress with information about issues they consider important. Congress relies heavily on interest groups for such information, though of course each interest group focuses on information that supports its side of the issues. Sometimes interest groups even write whole bills and present them to senators or representatives in the hope that they will formally introduce those bills into Congress.

    Lobbying has a negative reputation among the American public, and lobbyists are often thought of as sleazy political operators, willing to bribe politicians to change their minds and break the promises they made to their constituents. This caricature is unfair in a few ways. First, lobbyists must abide by complex and strict laws that prohibit, among other things, outright bribery (though some do occasionally get caught breaking these laws). Second, rather than attempting to change minds, lobbyists prefer to seek out politicians who already agree with them on key issues and then persuade them to act on those issues. Finally, although some lobbyists lobby politicians to act against their constituents’ interests, others lobby them from the other side to remember the wants and needs of the voters who elected them.

    Besides contacting politicians through hired lobbyists, interest groups can do grassroots lobbying: so through average citizens. This practice, called grassroots lobbying, involves persuading a politician’s constituents to write letters, make phone calls, or send emails to voice their opinions on an issue and demand action. An effective grassroots lobbying campaign can swamp a congressional office with messages of anger or concern, putting pressure on the member by demonstrating that his or her constituents are paying attention to an issue. (Protests, rallies, and demonstrations organized by interest groups can also be considered forms of grassroots lobbying.) If you’ve ever seen a commercial advising you to write to your representative or call your senator, you’ve experienced a grassroots lobbying appeal.

    Lobbying is not confined to the legislative branch of government. Courts also experience pressure from interest groups in the form of amicus curiae briefs. If an interest group is not directly involved in a court case but cares about the outcome of that case, it can submit a brief to the judges as an amicus curiae (Latin for “friend of the court”). As with lobbying legislators, the purpose of an amicus brief is to provide information and arguments to persuade government officials — in this case, judges — to act a certain way. Some high-profile court cases involve hundreds of amicus briefs from concerned interest groups (and individual citizens) on both sides.

    Influencing Elections

    Interest groups also attempt to influence the actions of government officials by participating in the electoral process. By definition, interest groups do not nominate their own candidates for office, but they can and do endorse, donate to, advertise on behalf of, volunteer for, and otherwise support candidates and parties they expect to act favorably to them if elected.

    Investing in unelected politicians is a somewhat risky strategy, because politicians can’t do much for the interest groups that support them if they lose their elections. For this reason, most interest groups concentrate their energies on lobbying rather than electioneering. However, electioneering efforts by interest groups can easily seem bigger than their lobbying efforts, because the former happen largely in public (with slick television ads and large events) whereas the latter take place mostly behind closed doors.

    A political action committee (PAC for short) is a special type of interest group, established specifically to raise money and spend it on political campaigns. PACs can be formed by candidates, campaigns, parties, other interest groups, or individual citizens. Much of their electioneering activity involves advertising on behalf of candidates or parties. PAC contributions are limited by law: an individual voter, for example, may only donate a maximum of $5000 per year to PACs.

    Related to the PAC is the super PAC. Like PACs, super PACs raise money to spend on political campaigns, largely on advertising. Fundraising rules for super PACs are much laxer than for PACs: an individual can donate as much money as he or she wants to a super PAC without breaking the law, enabling super PACs to raise and spend far more money than PACs. The catch is that super PACs cannot coordinate directly with candidates or parties, even though they are working toward the same goal.

    The precise legal definitions of PACs, and super PACs — as well as the laws that govern them — are extremely complex. The main thing to understand here is that political actors choose which type of group to form strategically based on their goals and the abilities and legal limitations of each type.

    Super PACs emerged in 2010 as the result of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC. Citizens United, a nonprofit organization which produces conservative and pro-Republican documentaries, had attempted to release its film Hillary: The Movie on video-on-demand prior to the 2008 presidential primaries (when Hillary Clinton was challenging Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination). The Federal Election Commission blocked the film’s release on the grounds that Citizens United had not abided by campaign finance rules governing political advertising. Citizens United contended that, because they were not formally affiliated with any particular party or candidate, they should be exempt from these rules limiting their First Amendment freedom of speech.

    The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, and in doing so created the concept of a super PAC (though it did not coin that term) by establishing that other organizations like Citizens United could enjoy same leeway to raise and spend money on political advertising as long as they did not affiliate or coordinate with a candidate or party. Two years later, super PACs outspent PACs in the 2012 election cycle, as they have done in all but one election cycle since (as depicted in Figure 8.2 below).

    Skyrocketing campaign spending has raised concerns about the influence of money in politics. Critics claim that Citizens United v. FEC opens a loophole for the wealthy to purchase political influence by contributing to super PACs. Supporters of the decision argue that overturning it would give the government too much power to stifle political speech using campaign finance laws, and that the political inequality created by Citizens United is outweighed by the freedom of speech it preserves.

    Line chart showing total PAC and super PAC spending by election cycle from 1990 to 2022, according to Open Secrets
    Figure 8.2: Total PAC and super PAC spending by election cycle, 1990–2022 (Source: Open Secrets)

    Interest Groups & Collective Action

    Interest groups, like governments, form for the purpose of solving collective action problems to provide public goods. For interest groups, the public goods at stake are the policies that could be enacted (or prevented) if enough members of a group pooled their resources and coordinated their actions to influence government. A single college student has little power to influence education policy, for example, but millions of college students working together might be able to bring about significant change.

    To organize effectively, interest groups, like all groups, must act collectively. They may represent a large segment of the population, but they can only leverage that size if a large number of people contribute time, money, and other resources to a shared cause. Each individual member, however, has an incentive to free-ride. If a coalition of college students succeeds in pressuring government to pass laws that lower the cost of tuition, all college students benefit, including those who personally contributed nothing to the group’s success.

    Governments solve collective action problems primarily through coercion: forcing citizens — at gunpoint if necessary — to contribute to public goods. Interest groups generally lack this ability to coerce their members, and must therefore resort to other means. One option is the offering of a selective incentive to members who contribute. AARP provides health insurance and other benefits to its paying members, just as the American Automobile Association (AAA) encourages contributions from its members in exchange for roadside assistance and exclusive discounts. These private goods are limited to people who pay their dues to the groups, dues which are in turn used to fund the groups’ pursuit of public goods.

    Material benefits like insurance and discounts are not the only upsides to contributing to interest groups. For some interest group members, the opportunity to work in solidarity with other like-minded people for a noble goal is enough of an incentive to motivate them to participate actively in the group’s efforts. Such members, however, are limited in number, and there are usually too few for an interest group to rely on them alone for its effectiveness. This is why so many groups offer material benefits, and why those that don’t or can’t often struggle to influence policy.

    Interest Groups & Democracy

    The Founders were wary of the power organized groups could wield in a democratic political system. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison cautioned against “the mischiefs of faction,” by which he meant a group of people with shared interests distinct from the interests of the society as a whole. If a faction were to prevail, policies would be made for its benefit rather than for the benefit of all. Happily, Madison argued, the Constitution was well-designed to prevent these mischiefs: minority factions would naturally lose out in a democracy thanks to majority rule, and majority factions (if any managed to form in such a large and diverse country) would be thwarted by the Constitution’s various safeguards, such as separation of powers and checks and balances.

    Madison’s view of factions reflects a belief in pluralism, the theory that democracy is ultimately a competition among interest groups to determine government policy. From a pluralist perspective, rather than leaving each individual citizen to attempt to influence politics with his or her vote in isolation, interest groups act as intermediaries between citizens and government, giving voice to their needs and wants in a way they would struggle to do for themselves. This competition makes for slow policymaking — because groups are fighting against one another to move policy in opposite directions — but larger groups or coalitions of groups should, in theory, win out in the long run due to the majoritarian nature of democracy.

    Photograph of a portion of a roadmap published by the American Automobile Association in 1918 for its members
    For over a century, AAA members have enjoyed automobile-related selective incentives — such as this roadmap from 1918 — for paying their dues to the organization.

    In reality, America’s political system doesn’t always deliver majoritarian outcomes when it comes to interest groups. The richer someone is, the more money he or she can give to interest groups; the more money an interest group has, the more influence it can wield. Moreover, minorities that strongly support policies have an edge over majorities that weakly oppose them. For example, many policies in the United States provide subsidies to certain industries using taxpayer dollars. These subsidies raise the prices of goods like gasoline and breakfast cereal, but not by enough for most Americans to notice or care about the additional cost. The recipients of these subsidies, on the other hand, benefit massively from them, and are therefore highly motivated to preserve them.

    Under certain conditions, an interest group can informally unite with a congressional committee or subcommittee and a bureaucratic agency to form an iron triangle. Iron triangles coalesce around a policy status quo that each corner benefits from maintaining. The interest group provides electoral support to members of the congressional committee or subcommittee in return for favorable legislative activity related to their interests. The interest group also lobbies Congress on behalf of the bureaucratic agency — often requesting ample funding for the agency — in exchange for the agency imposing lax regulations on them. Meanwhile, the congressional committee or subcommittee directs support (monetary or otherwise) to the bureaucratic agency in exchange for the agency implementing its legislation in particular ways. A sufficiently powerful iron triangle can maintain policies indefinitely without majority public support, often without the public even becoming aware of what’s happening.

    The nonmajoritarian aspects of interest group politics are one reason why March for Our Lives — like many other efforts to strengthen gun control laws — fell short of its goals despite majority support for them. The families and friends of the victims of the Parkland tragedy may never fully recover from that fateful day, but the truth is that for most Americans it was just another Wednesday, and their lives would have been much the same had the shooting never happened. Millions of Americans are sympathetic to the cause of stricter gun control, but motivating them to act on an issue that is unlikely to affect them personally is incredibly difficult. The National Rifle Association, one of the leading gun-rights organizations in the United States, occupies a minority position in the gun control debate, but it represents a class of people (gun owners) who are personally invested in the issue of gun control and willing to pay to contribute to defend their interests. The NRA’s many selective incentives for members provide additional reasons for them to contribute to the group’s efforts.

    Group Politics

    Politics has been a competition between groups since long before the advent of modern democracy. Democratic institutions have changed how groups operate, but fundamentally the recipe for political influence is the same as it has always been: find enough people who share your interests and work together to pursue those interests.

    Yet size is not destiny in this group competition. Small groups can beat larger groups if they are sufficiently motivated and organized to defend their interests. Nor is pluralism, strictly speaking, a “fair fight.” Some groups consist of members with certain advantages (of which disposable income is just one) that make them easier to marshal effectively to impact policy. The inertia of the American political machine creates yet another imbalance: it is far more difficult to generate momentum for change than it is to simply defend the status quo.

    Like many inventors proud of their creations, Madison may have been a bit too optimistic in his sales pitch for the Constitution’s ability to temper the mischiefs of faction. The American political machine has many features to recommend it, but like any government it remains subject to the mathematics of group politics. Outcomes will not always be concordant with majority rule, and the diversity of the United States means that not everyone will get the policies they want all the time. That’s the thing about competitions, group-based or otherwise: they produce both winners and losers.


    This page titled 1.8: Interest Groups is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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