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Introduction to Political Science

8.1 What Is an Interest Group?

Introduction to Political Science8.1 What Is an Interest Group?

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Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. Introduction to Political Science
    1. 1 What Is Politics and What Is Political Science?
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 Defining Politics: Who Gets What, When, Where, How, and Why?
      3. 1.2 Public Policy, Public Interest, and Power
      4. 1.3 Political Science: The Systematic Study of Politics
      5. 1.4 Normative Political Science
      6. 1.5 Empirical Political Science
      7. 1.6 Individuals, Groups, Institutions, and International Relations
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  3. Individuals
    1. 2 Political Behavior Is Human Behavior
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 What Goals Should We Seek in Politics?
      3. 2.2 Why Do Humans Make the Political Choices That They Do?
      4. 2.3 Human Behavior Is Partially Predictable
      5. 2.4 The Importance of Context for Political Decisions
      6. Summary
      7. Key Terms
      8. Review Questions
      9. Suggested Readings
    2. 3 Political Ideology
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 The Classical Origins of Western Political Ideologies
      3. 3.2 The Laws of Nature and the Social Contract
      4. 3.3 The Development of Varieties of Liberalism
      5. 3.4 Nationalism, Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism
      6. 3.5 Contemporary Democratic Liberalism
      7. 3.6 Contemporary Ideologies Further to the Political Left
      8. 3.7 Contemporary Ideologies Further to the Political Right
      9. 3.8 Political Ideologies That Reject Political Ideology: Scientific Socialism, Burkeanism, and Religious Extremism
      10. Summary
      11. Key Terms
      12. Review Questions
      13. Suggested Readings
    3. 4 Civil Liberties
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 The Freedom of the Individual
      3. 4.2 Constitutions and Individual Liberties
      4. 4.3 The Right to Privacy, Self-Determination, and the Freedom of Ideas
      5. 4.4 Freedom of Movement
      6. 4.5 The Rights of the Accused
      7. 4.6 The Right to a Healthy Environment
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 5 Political Participation and Public Opinion
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 What Is Political Participation?
      3. 5.2 What Limits Voter Participation in the United States?
      4. 5.3 How Do Individuals Participate Other Than Voting?
      5. 5.4 What Is Public Opinion and Where Does It Come From?
      6. 5.5 How Do We Measure Public Opinion?
      7. 5.6 Why Is Public Opinion Important?
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  4. Groups
    1. 6 The Fundamentals of Group Political Activity
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 Political Socialization: The Ways People Become Political
      3. 6.2 Political Culture: How People Express Their Political Identity
      4. 6.3 Collective Dilemmas: Making Group Decisions
      5. 6.4 Collective Action Problems: The Problem of Incentives
      6. 6.5 Resolving Collective Action Problems
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
    2. 7 Civil Rights
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Civil Rights and Constitutionalism
      3. 7.2 Political Culture and Majority-Minority Relations
      4. 7.3 Civil Rights Abuses
      5. 7.4 Civil Rights Movements
      6. 7.5 How Do Governments Bring About Civil Rights Change?
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
    3. 8 Interest Groups, Political Parties, and Elections
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 What Is an Interest Group?
      3. 8.2 What Are the Pros and Cons of Interest Groups?
      4. 8.3 Political Parties
      5. 8.4 What Are the Limits of Parties?
      6. 8.5 What Are Elections and Who Participates?
      7. 8.6 How Do People Participate in Elections?
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  5. Institutions
    1. 9 Legislatures
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 What Do Legislatures Do?
      3. 9.2 What Is the Difference between Parliamentary and Presidential Systems?
      4. 9.3 What Is the Difference between Unicameral and Bicameral Systems?
      5. 9.4 The Decline of Legislative Influence
      6. Summary
      7. Key Terms
      8. Review Questions
      9. Suggested Readings
    2. 10 Executives, Cabinets, and Bureaucracies
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Democracies: Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semi-Presidential Regimes
      3. 10.2 The Executive in Presidential Regimes
      4. 10.3 The Executive in Parliamentary Regimes
      5. 10.4 Advantages, Disadvantages, and Challenges of Presidential and Parliamentary Regimes
      6. 10.5 Semi-Presidential Regimes
      7. 10.6 How Do Cabinets Function in Presidential and Parliamentary Regimes?
      8. 10.7 What Are the Purpose and Function of Bureaucracies?
      9. Summary
      10. Key Terms
      11. Review Questions
      12. Suggested Readings
    3. 11 Courts and Law
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 What Is the Judiciary?
      3. 11.2 How Does the Judiciary Take Action?
      4. 11.3 Types of Legal Systems around the World
      5. 11.4 Criminal versus Civil Laws
      6. 11.5 Due Process and Judicial Fairness
      7. 11.6 Judicial Review versus Executive Sovereignty
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 12 The Media
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 The Media as a Political Institution: Why Does It Matter?
      3. 12.2 Types of Media and the Changing Media Landscape
      4. 12.3 How Do Media and Elections Interact?
      5. 12.4 The Internet and Social Media
      6. 12.5 Declining Global Trust in the Media
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
  6. States and International Relations
    1. 13 Governing Regimes
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Contemporary Government Regimes: Power, Legitimacy, and Authority
      3. 13.2 Categorizing Contemporary Regimes
      4. 13.3 Recent Trends: Illiberal Representative Regimes
      5. Summary
      6. Key Terms
      7. Review Questions
      8. Suggested Readings
    2. 14 International Relations
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 What Is Power, and How Do We Measure It?
      3. 14.2 Understanding the Different Types of Actors in the International System
      4. 14.3 Sovereignty and Anarchy
      5. 14.4 Using Levels of Analysis to Understand Conflict
      6. 14.5 The Realist Worldview
      7. 14.6 The Liberal and Social Worldview
      8. 14.7 Critical Worldviews
      9. Summary
      10. Key Terms
      11. Review Questions
      12. Suggested Readings
    3. 15 International Law and International Organizations
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 The Problem of Global Governance
      3. 15.2 International Law
      4. 15.3 The United Nations and Global Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
      5. 15.4 How Do Regional IGOs Contribute to Global Governance?
      6. 15.5 Non-state Actors: Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)
      7. 15.6 Non-state Actors beyond NGOs
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 16 International Political Economy
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 The Origins of International Political Economy
      3. 16.2 The Advent of the Liberal Economy
      4. 16.3 The Bretton Woods Institutions
      5. 16.4 The Post–Cold War Period and Modernization Theory
      6. 16.5 From the 1990s to the 2020s: Current Issues in IPE
      7. 16.6 Considering Poverty, Inequality, and the Environmental Crisis
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  7. References
  8. Index

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define interest group.
  • Discuss types of interest groups.
  • Explain and differentiate among different theories about how and why interest groups form.
  • Explain and differentiate among different theories about how and why interest groups influence government.

In the early 1980s at the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America, government response to the increasing need for medical research and assistance to HIV/AIDS patients was scant. In the absence of a federal or state-run public health response, public interest advocacy groups such as The Gay Men’s Health Project provided services for AIDS patients, gathering donations for food and securing shelter for those afflicted by the disease. Almost a decade later, with still no public health response from the federal government, a group named the Lavender Hill Mob vocally criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s handling of the epidemic, storming the agency’s planned convention on the epidemic and demanding research into drugs and treatment. Soon other groups such as ACT UP formed, calling on the government to respond to the need for more public education to prevent the disease and more resources for further research into ending it.2 President Ronald Reagan ultimately created the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1987 in response to citizen activism and public calls for governmental involvement. The history of group mobilization around HIV/AIDS illustrates how interest groups can harness the cooperation and collaboration of individuals in pursuit of a common goal, but also how multiple groups can work in concert to pressure the government to act.

A large street demonstration protests the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Several protestors hold a banner that reads “ACT UP Shreveport AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.”
Figure 8.2 ACT UP protests the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (credit: modification of “ACT UP Demonstration at NIH” by NIH History Office/Flickr, Public Domain)

Interest groups are groups of people who organize in order to seek to influence a political outcome or seek to alter public policies on the basis of a common interest or concern. The universe of interest groups is as vast in number as it is in scope. For example, in the United States, AARP has nearly 38 million members and advocates on behalf of Americans aged 50 and older on issues such as drug prices, health insurance, taxes, and retirement.3 An example of a much smaller interest group is the San Francisco Democratic Party, which has 250,000 members and seeks to “engage, inform, and mobilize San Francisco Democrats.”4 Interest groups are not unique to American politics. In Britain, UK Youth is a group, founded in 1911, that works with 4,000 youth organizations and reaches four million youths, lobbying for investment in a variety of youth-oriented leadership, skill acquisition, and health and wellness programs.5 The French organization La Quadrature du Net works for a “free, decentralized, and empowering Internet”6 and was part of a complaint filed against Amazon in Europe that led to an $888 million fine against the Internet commerce site for violation of customer privacy and data protection measures.7

Types of Interest Groups

Interest groups can be organized into two general categories: economic groups and public interest or noneconomic groups. Economic groups focus on issues such as wages, industry protections, job creation, and profit maximization, to name a few, and can be further sorted into subcategories such as business, labor, agricultural, and professional. For example, the United States Chamber of Commerce is a business group that describes itself as the world’s largest business organization, representing companies of all sizes and advocating for policies that help create jobs and grow the economy.8 In Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses lobbies for lower tax rates on small businesses and credit card rate reductions, among other issues.9 Other types of economic groups include labor groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU),10 which represents the interests of workers in health care, public services, and property services. In Germany, which has a long history of labor groups in politics, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB - Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund) acts as an umbrella organization for eight labor groups and represents the interests of close to six million German workers. It is the largest labor group in Germany and one of the largest trade organizations in the world.11

Interest groups like the Irish Farmers Association,12 which works on behalf of agricultural workers in Ireland, are referred to as agricultural groups. In the United States, the National Farmers Union has worked with Congress to make school lunches permanent and to increase country-of-origin labeling protocols, to name a few of their policy initiatives.13 Other types of interest groups include professional groups like the American Medical Association (AMA),14 which promotes the interests of working medical professionals such as surgeons and physicians in the United States, and the Japan Medical Association,15 which, with 170,000 members, is considered the largest and most politically powerful medical lobby in Japan.

Noneconomic groups do not organize themselves around economic or business-oriented purposes, instead working to advance noneconomic issues such as the environment or education. One example is Greenpeace International, an umbrella organization representing Greenpeace offices in 27 regions and 55 countries that all work together to promote environmental protections.16 Varieties of noneconomic groups include public interest groups, single-issue groups, civil rights groups, and ideological groups. The Trust for Public Land, a registered nonprofit that creates public parks and preserves outdoor spaces for public use, can be considered a public interest group.17 The Toronto Public Space Committee, another public interest group, advocates for ecologically responsible, advertisement-free public spaces in Toronto.18 As their name suggests, single-issue groups champion solitary policies or issues. The Japan Rice Millers Association focuses on just that—the milled rice industry. Founded in 1969, it promotes the interest of rice producers in Japan and advocates for government assistance in ensuring increased production and distribution.19 Groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)20 and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP)21 are civil rights groups that work to champion the rights of specific minority groups. Because the tenets of democratic socialism drive its work and focus, the Democractic Socialists of America is considered an ideological group. Another example of an ideological group was the Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy group in Hong Kong that protested for democratic representation and voting rights in Hong Kong. Members of the Civil Human Rights Front were arrested and prosecuted by the Beijing government, which claims that pro-democracy protesters are “inciting violence.”22 In the face of an intensified crackdown on dissent, the group was forced to disband in August 2021.23

A group of people stand at the edge of a lake wearing long ponchos woven with First Nations symbols. They watch as A-in-chut (Shawn Atleo) returns to shore in a canoe.
Figure 8.3 The Assembly of First Nations works to protect and advance the rights and interests of First Nations people in Canada. In this photo, A-in-chut (Shawn Atleo), hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation, returns to his home village on July 31, 2009, after being elected Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. (credit: “A-in-chut (Shawn Atleo) returns to his home village of Ahousaht” by Ecotrust Canada/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Theories of Interest Group Formation

How and why do interest groups such as the NAACP or La Quadrature du Net form? Three major theories about interest group formation allow us to better understand how interest groups form and how they function within the political sphere. The first of these, pluralist theory, posits that multiple and diverse interests compete for attention and resources and that political power is distributed amongst these various interests. Competition among interests allows for the representation of a diversity of views rather than solely those of elite interests, and it prevents single issues from dominating public discourse. In other words, individual interests can be advanced through collective action24 (e.g., “You and I both want more open spaces in the city; let’s get together and advocate.”), and multiple groups compete for attention to promote change. Thus, according to pluralist theory, interest groups form as a means for individuals to engage in collective action in support of common goals.

Columbia University professor David Truman’s work on disturbance theory suggests that interest groups form in response to the changing complexity of government and society. In other words, external factors, or “disturbances,” cause people to form new groups. These factors can be changes in social norms, environmental factors, or changes in technology.25 For example, 50 years ago, the idea of legalizing marijuana was unthinkable. As social and medical norms around the use of cannabis have changed, groups such as NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance have formed to promote the legal use of marijuana in a controlled market and to reduce “the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition.”26 As global climate change continues to make media headlines, newer and more radical groups also continue to form, such as Britain’s Extinction Rebellion, which engaged in “the biggest act of peaceful civil disobedience seen in London for decades.”27

The third major theory, transaction theory, refutes the idea of pluralism. In An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups, renowned political scientist Robert H. Salisbury argues that political actors are not influenced by groups that have mobilized to enact change so much as they are responding to the interests of narrowly focused elites, and that the relationship between interest groups and government is that of an exchange.28 As University of Maryland professor Mancur Olson has argued, this idea rests on the notion that, because of the idea of collective goods and the free rider problem, individuals will not exert extra energy to mobilize into groups.29 In other words, while an interest group works to provide its members with collective goods (goods or services that all members can share), there is no incentive for all members to work for those goods. Free riders gain the benefits of membership without action.

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