An interest group is any organization that seeks to influence public policy. Interest groups are
found in many societies, but there is an unusually large number of them in the United States.
This proliferation is a result of:
1. The great number of social cleavages along income, occupational, religious, racial, and
2. The American constitutional system, which stimulates political activity, including interest
group activity. Because of federalism and the separation of powers, there exist many
different centers in which important decisions are made. Therefore many different interest
groups can exercise some power. In Britain, on the other hand, groups are fewer in
number and larger in scale (to match the centralized governmental structure).
3. The decline of political parties, which has made the wielding of power by interest groups
more practical (because the system is more fragmented) and seemingly more needed. In
European countries with strong parties, interest groups-such as labor unions and
professional societies-tend to be closely allied to parties.
There are two kinds of interest groups:
The former are
individuals or organizations representing other groups. Typical of institutional interests are
business, governments, foundations, and universities. Membership groups are supported by
the activities and contributions of individual citizens.
Since 1960 the number of interest groups has increased rapidly. There have been other
historical eras of interest group proliferation. These include the 1770s (pro independence
groups), the 1830s and 1840s (religious and antislavery groups), the 1860s (trade unions, the
Grange, and fraternal organizations), the 1880s and 1890s (business organizations), the
1900s and 1910s (a vast array of organizations), and the 1960s (environmental, consumer,
and political-reform organizations). Interest groups do not, therefore, arise spontaneously or
automatically out of natural social processes. At least four factors help explain the rise of
1. Broad economic developments.
For example, the rise of mass-production industry
allowed the rise of mass-membership labor unions.
2. Government policy.
Public programs create constituencies with an incentive to organize to
maintain their benefits. Veterans' benefits create veterans' groups; the licensing of
professionals by state governments gives societies of doctors and lawyers a strong
reason to exist. Sometimes the government supports the formation of organizations (the
American Farm Bureau Federation is an example) by providing benefits to their members.
Sometimes government policies are designed to make private interest group formation
easier, as was the case with the passage of laws in the 1930s to aid labor.