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.
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
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.