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Interest Groups: Organizing for Influence

This chapter focuses on interest groups and the degree to which various interests in American society are represented through organized groups. It argues that economically powerful groups dominate the group system, an issue deemphasized by pluralist claims. The chapter begins with a delineation of various types of interest groups, and offers an explanation for differences in the degree to which various interests are organized. The chapter also focuses on the lobbying process by which interest groups seek to achieve their policy goals, evaluating its impact on national policy. It examines the differences between inside and outside lobbying, and the various forms of activity each entails. It ends with a discussion of how the group system is simultaneously indispensable and flawed. These are the chapter’s main points:

  • Although nearly all interests in American society are organized to some degree, those associated with economic activity, particularly business enterprises, are by far the most thoroughly organized. Their advantage rests on their superior financial resources and on the fact that they offer potential members private goods (such as wages and jobs).
  • Groups that do not have economic activity as their primary function often have organizational problems. They pursue public or collective goods (such as a safer environment) that are available even to individuals who are not group members, so individuals might choose not to pay the costs of membership.
  • Lobbying and electioneering are the traditional means by which groups communicate with and influence political leaders. Recent developments, including "grassroots lobbying" and PACs, have given added visibility to groups’ activities.
  • The interest group system over-represents business interests and higher-income groups and fosters policies that serve a group’s interests more than the public interest. Thus, although groups are an essential part of the democratic process, they also distort that process.

A political interest group is a set of individuals organized to promote a shared political concern. Most interest groups owe their existence to factors other than politics. They form for economic reasons, such as the pursuit of profit, and maintain themselves by making profits (in the case of corporations) or by providing their members with private goods, such as jobs and wages. Their lobbying for political advantage is an outgrowth of their economic activity.

Such interest groups include corporations, trade associations, labor unions, farm organizations, and professional associations. Collectively, economic groups are by far the largest set of organized interests, accounting for about three-fourths of registered Washington lobbies.

Other groups do not have the same organizational advantages. They depend on voluntary contributions from potential members who may lack interest and resources, or who recognize that they will get the collective good from a group’s activity even if they do not participate (the free-rider problem).

Non-economic or citizens’ groups include public-interest, single-issue, ideological, and governmental groups. Their numbers have increased dramatically since the 1960s despite their organizational problems.

In general, America’s group system is relatively open and encompasses nearly all interests in society. However, interests are not equally well organized. Economic interests particularly corporations, are more fully organized than other interests, and relatively affluent Americans are more fully organized than poorer Americans. As a result, the group system tends to favor interests that are already economically and socially advantaged.

Organized interests seek influence largely by lobbying public officials and contributing to election campaigns. Lobbying serves primarily to provide policymakers with information and to alert them to group members’ views. Using an "inside strategy," lobbyists develop direct contacts with legislators, government bureaucrats, and members of the judiciary in order to persuade them to accept their group’s perspective on policy. Through iron triangles and issue networks particularly, groups develop the access to and influence with policymakers that result in policies favorable the them.

Groups also use an "outside strategy," seeking to mobilize public support for their goals. This strategy relies in part on grassroots lobbying—encouraging group members and the public to communicate their policy views to officials. "Outside" lobbying also includes efforts to elect officeholders who will support group aims. Groups endorse candidates and urge their members to vote for them and, most importantly, contribute money to candidates’ election campaigns. Through political action committees (PACs), organized groups now provide nearly a third of all contributions received by congressional candidates.

Public policy has increasingly been decided through the activities of organized groups. As society has become more complex and its sectors more interdependent, public policy has become more technical and increasingly targeted at particular problems. This situation works to the advantage of organized interests because they concentrate their attention on specific policy areas and have the expertise necessary to participate in the making of complex policy decisions. Interest groups have also gained strength because of the decline of political parties. Elected officials have turned to groups for campaign assistance, and this development has enhanced the influence of groups on policy.

The policies that emerge from the group system bring benefits to many of society’s interests, and in some instances these benefits also serve the general interest. But when groups can essentially dictate policies, the common good is not served. A major challenge of democratic politics is to keep special interests in their proper place. They must be allowed to advocate their point of view, but they cannot also be permitted to judge the merits of their claims. Increasingly, interest groups have become both advocate and judge, and this is a development that cannot serve the common good.

Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:

Define "interest group."
List the different types of interest groups and their constituencies. Compare and contrast the organizational advantages and disadvantages of economic and non-economic groups.
Define lobbying and explain its objective. List the tactics employed by interest groups in the lobbying process.
Compare and contrast the processes of inside and outside lobbying, their targets in the power structure, and the circumstances in which each is most effective.
Discuss the activities of political action committees and their influence on the election process.
Explain pluralist theory and "interest-group liberalism." Discuss the major weaknesses of the pluralist argument.
Discuss the Madisonian dilemma: the conflict between the advocacy of self-interest as the basic prerequisite for a free society, and the government's responsibility to protect and preserve the public interest. Also, explain how James Madison's constitutional system of checks and balances gives special interests precedence over the common good.

The American DemocracyOnline Learning Center

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