Chapter Study Outline


Individuals and organizations engage in political activity to pursue their interests, not only during elections, but between elections as well. Organized interests seeking access to government officials attempt both to shape policy directly and to shape public perceptions and the political environment within which policy makers must act. Interest group politics involves thousands of groups and individuals competing for the attention of political elites inside government.

1. What Are the Characteristics of Interest Groups?

What are interest groups? What are the positive and negative aspects of group politics in America? What kinds of groups exist? What are their strengths and biases?

  • An interest group is an organized group of individuals or organizations that makes policy-related appeals to government; unlike parties, groups focus more on policies than on determining the personnel of government.
  • Enhancing American democracy, interest groups educate and mobilize large numbers of people; they represent their “constituencies.”
    • Groups lobby Congress and the executive and engage in litigation in the judicial arena.
    • Groups also monitor government programs to insure that their members are not adversely affected.
  • Interest groups also represent what James Madison called the “evils of faction”, representing their own interests as opposed to those of others, as well as “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
    • According to the theory of pluralism, competition among varied interests produces balance and compromise.
    • On the other hand, because there are tens of thousands of groups in the United States, not all interests are fully and equally represented in the group universe; some types of interests are more likely to prevail than others.
  • Many of the interests that spark the creation of groups directly involve people’s economic interests, including producers and manufacturers, labor organizations, and professional associations. In addition, public interest and public sector groups have grown more prevalent in recent years.
  • In order to attract and keep members, groups advance certain policy goals and seek to provide direct economic or social benefits to members; all groups also need a financial structure capable of sustaining the organization.
  • Because of the dominance of economic interests and the costs of group maintenance, the interest group universe is found to have an upper-class bias wherein educated, affluent, professional persons are more likely to join groups.
  • Over time, we find that interest groups form in response to changes in the political environment.
    • The past thirty years have seen an explosion in the number of groups (including PACs, which raise and distribute funds for use in election campaigns).
    • A “New Politics” movement spawned many public interest groups aimed at causes such as environmentalism and consumer rights.

2. How and Why Do Interest Groups Form?

What are the impediments to achieving collective action in group politics? How do interest groups overcome these impediments to collective action?

  • Although pluralist theory argues that groups should form whenever they can further people’s collective interests, there is a considerable disparity in Washington group representation across categories of individuals and interests in the population.
  • Interest groups facilitate cooperation among like-minded citizens despite the fact that working collectively is not always rational at the individual level.
    • The prisoner’s dilemma metaphor (wherein two prisoners accused of a crime have rational incentives to testify against one another but would both benefit if they refused to testify) suggests that individually rational behavior does not always lead to rational collective results.
    • In The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson argued that it was in an individual’s rational self interest to be a “free rider” rather than to join a group or otherwise participate in collective efforts and that the collective-action problem was felt most deeply by large, diverse groups.
  • Interest groups provide selective benefits to group members to overcome the impediments to collective action; such selective benefits include informational, material, solidary, and purposive benefits.
    • Informational benefits include special newsletters, periodicals, training programs, conferences available only to group members.
    • Material benefits are the special goods, services, or money provided to entice members to join groups.
    • Solidary benefits emphasize the friendship, networking, and consciousness-raising advantages of belonging to a group.
    • Purposive benefits emphasize the purposes and public policy accomplishments of the group.
  • In addition to selective incentives, the existence and extraordinary efforts of political entrepreneurs (who have their own private, selective incentives for creating groups) help to dissolve the paradox of collective action.

3. How Do Interest Groups Influence Policy?

What are the various strategies interest groups employ to influence the policy-making process? Why do they choose certain strategies, and are those strategies effective?

  • Interest groups work to improve the likelihood that their policy interests will be heard and treated favorably by all branches and levels of government, and they employ multiple strategies to accomplish those aims.
  • They engage in “insider strategies,” including gaining access to decision makers and using the courts, but they also engage in “outsider” strategies, wherein they go public and use electoral tactics to indirectly influence decision makers.
  • Direct lobbying is an attempt to use direct contact and personal relationships with government officials to cultivate access and influence.
    • Lobbyists exert influence in Congress by influencing the legislative agenda and crafting the language of legislation.
    • A small portion of highly skilled and well-connected lobbyists also achieves access to the White House in their efforts to lobby the president.
    • Executive branch lobbying is also important, as stakeholders attempt to influence bureaucratic rule making and implementation.
    • Reformers have sought to provide stricter guidelines governing the lobbying industry in recent years.
  • Groups sometimes turn to the judiciary to affect public policy, either by bringing suit themselves, by financing suits brought by others, or by filing amicus curiae briefs.
  • Groups also engage in a kind of “indirect lobbying,” whereby they seek to influence policy by “going public” to mobilize public opinion; advertising, grassroots lobbying, and protest politics are all potentially successful means of going public.
  • Given politicians’ reelection goals, interest groups also seek to influence policy through the electoral process.
    • Political action committees (PACs) give money to candidates that share their views. Although outright bribery is rare, PAC donations do gain access for groups.
    • The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 weakened parties and strengthened groups, which continue to donate to candidates and sponsor their own issue-advocacy campaigns through independent expenditures.
    • In addition to money, campaign activism—whereby groups mobilize their memberships to participate in elections—is also a key tool for influencing the electoral process.
    • Groups sometimes sponsor and promote ballot initiatives at the state level, which, although they are a form of direct democracy, are often subject to group manipulation and even domination.