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Interest Groups in the United States

Functions and Types of Interest Groups in the United States

What Interest Groups Do

Interest groups represent the public or a group of organizations and perform various functions, including representing members' interests and positions, participating in policy debates, educating the public about the issue, influencing policy makers, and monitoring relevant government programs.
An interest group is an association of individuals or organizations that tries to influence public policy. A group may be drawn together by the work done by members, such as teachers or factory workers, or by a shared trait, such as age, gender, race, or ethnicity. Members could organize to support an ideology, such as conservative economics, or by concern for an issue, such as protecting the environment. The fundamental premise of forming and joining an interest group is strength through numbers, based on the idea that a group representing many can have more influence than individuals speaking alone. Interest groups are generally formally organized and perform five key functions.

Functions of Interest Groups

Function Description
Representation Representing their members' political, social, ideological, or economic interests and concerns by assessing the concerns and positions of their members; formulating positions on public issues touching the group; galvanizing the support of group members for those positions
Participation in policy debates Meeting with policy makers in the legislative and executive branches; taking part in legal action; attempting to persuade others through speeches and other public appearances by group leaders; publishing materials in print and online; taking part in other public activities
Education Communicating with and informing members and the general public by publishing newsletters and magazines, producing videos, maintaining websites, and presenting social media messages; unding or publicizing research into issues central to their members' concerns, making the information available to the public, releasing it to the media, and offering it to policy makers
Policy influence Contacting legislators and members of the executive branch and meeting with political candidates; having spokespeople make public appearances, give speeches, and answer questions posed by concerned citizens or members of the media; persuading rank-and-file members to communicate with lawmakers and other public officials to provide a common message in high volume to make it more persuasive
Government monitor Paying attention to pending legislation, executive branch activity, and legal cases to ensure that policies are being implemented in ways that the group supports and, if not, shifting to the representation, education, and policy influence functions

Interest groups can be viewed from two different perspectives on how government functions. Some, like political scientist Robert Dahl, believe that government in a democracy should be broadly pluralist. Pluralism is the theory of government that power in a democracy should be distributed and shared among a variety of groups. Interest groups that compete for the attention of policymakers and try to ensure implementation of their goals—which can conflict with the goals of other groups—demonstrate this pluralistic view. The bargaining and compromise among groups is an essential ingredient of pluralism, preventing any one group from dominating. The other view is elitism, the theory of government that posits that policy in fact is set by just a few powerful individuals or groups who have the means to exercise undue influence on policy makers. C. Wright Mills advanced this view in his study The Power Elite (1956). When candidates or political writers rail against the special interests that use the power of money to dictate legislation or gain favorable treatment from the executive branch, the comments reflect the perspective of elitism.

Types of Interest Groups

Types of interest groups include economic, public interest, ideological, government, religious, civil rights, and single-issue groups. There are many different groups within each of these categories, and they can vary in their size, resources, and influence. Some interest groups are effectively in opposition to each other, consistently taking the opposite side on issues.

The types of groups reflect the diversity of people and concerns in the country and around the world. The major types of interest groups are economic, public interest, government, religious, civil rights, and single-issue groups. Economic groups focus on representing the economic interests of members. They can be further divided into business, labor, professional, and consumer groups. Some of these groups—such as a labor union—represent individuals. Others represent a group of companies in a related field or industry, such as the National Association of Manufacturers. Some groups represent businesses in the same industry; others include a number of businesses across a range of industries. For example, the Business Roundtable is an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies formed to work toward establishing public policy that will strengthen the economy and increase opportunities.

Public interest groups are associations of individuals who have no economic interest in the cause that they work to advance, supporting such causes as good government and environmental protection. For example, Common Cause declares its goal as ensuring "open, honest, accountable government," and the Sierra Club works to protect natural resources and wildlife. Ideological groups try to advance public policy that reflects a particular ideological position. Americans for Prosperity is a conservative ideological group. People for the American Way is a liberal one. Government groups are formed by government officials or bodies that have common interests. They join together to try to influence policy that will affect them and their constituents. For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures works to address shared concern of state lawmakers.

Religious groups form around shared religious background and values. They monitor government action to ensure that no steps are taken to infringe on the religious liberties of their believers or promote positions on other issues related to their beliefs and values. For instance, the Christian Coalition of America protests actions or policies that the group thinks are anti-Christian or antifaith but also takes stands it believes are pro-family and opposes abortion. Likewise, following Jewish values, the National Council of Jewish Women works on issues of social justice and works to help families, particularly women and children, have better lives.

Civil rights groups work to advance and protect the civil rights of all people or the rights of members of a particular minority group, such as women, African Americans, or the LGBTQ community. These groups advocate equal opportunity for their constituents and push to end perceived injustices against or unfair treatment of the people they represent. Founded originally to work for the civil rights of African Americans, the Southern Poverty Law Center has expanded its focus to include turning a spotlight on hate groups and promoting tolerance among all peoples. The Human Rights Campaign works to secure equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community.

Single-issue groups focus on a narrow issue or related cluster of issues. Some focus on advocacy of a particular cause and are often very forceful in their advocacy. One of the most well-known single-issue groups is the National Rifle Association (NRA), a nonprofit organization that focuses on protecting rights identified in the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On the other side of that debate, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence works to promote gun control legislation.

Types and Representative Examples of Interest Groups

Type of Group Examples Focus
     Business National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Helping manufacturers compete in the global economy
U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce Representing the interests of women in business and working to help them succeed
     Labor American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Promoting safety, job growth, job security, and wages and benefits for workers in many industries
National Education Association (NEA) Representing teachers and many other public school employees
     Professional American Bar Association (ABA) Encouraging improvements in the legal profession
National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Promoting ethical practices and adequate pay for licensed engineers
     Consumer National Consumers League Working to protect and promote consumers' economic interests
Public Interest League of Women Voters (LWV) Engaging all citizens in the decision process by working for voter education
The Nature Conservancy Working to protect environmentally important lands and waterways
Government National Governors Association (NGA) Representing the concerns and bipartisan positions of state governors on policy issues
United States Conference of Mayors Representing the concerns and issues of mayors of cities with populations of 30,000 or more
Ideological Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) Advocating progressive policies including social and economic justice
American Conservative Union (ACU) Working to protect national security, guide foreign policy, and promote the protection of rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution
Religious National Council of Churches (NCC) Pursuing goals that range from promoting peace and interreligious understanding to helping prisoners reenter society
American Jewish Congress Fighting for equal rights for all regardless of race, religion, or national ancestry
Civil Rights National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Working to fight prejudice against, improve the lives of, and protect the rights of African Americans
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Protecting the civil rights of all Americans
Single Issue National Rifle Association (NRA) Working to preserve the rights guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment and to advocate for the rights of gun owners
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Preventing underage drinking, reducing the incidence of drunk driving, and helping those suffering due to drunk-driving accidents

Many interest groups were not initially formed for political purposes. For example, when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was established in 1913, its founder wanted to ensure that the United States would be a country where those who are different could live without suffering discrimination. The initial focus was on fighting anti-Semitism, but the founders hoped to ensure justice and fair treatment for all Americans.

For almost any interest group, there is an organization that has a different viewpoint. For example, the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) is a powerful interest organization that works to influence policies related to aging while also offering members (who must be age 50 or older) information, discounts, and other benefits. The Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC) is an organization that, like the AARP, focuses on age-related policies and offers benefits to members, but it was created as an alternative for those who did not agree with AARP policies. Both work to protect and help people age 50 and older, but they have different political outlooks.

Group Organization

The structure of interest groups includes leadership, staff, members, and lobbyists. The size of membership can affect a group's impact, but some individuals can benefit from the work of interest groups even though they are not members.

The size of a group will often dictate the formality of its structure. All groups have leaders and general members, but national groups usually have more layers of organization and may have offices in multiple locations across the country. The larger groups generally have at least one lobbyist, an individual who formally registers as an agent of a corporation or interest group and who will attempt to influence governmental policy. Lobbyists may be permanently located in Washington, D.C., or a state capital, where they can both watch and meet with elected officials. A group pays its lobbyists to represent the group's interests in the political arena and promote its goals. Lobbyists might be in-house staff working for one group only or independent operatives who lobby on behalf of more than one group. By law, lobbyists must follow strict rules regarding their expenditures.

Leadership in interest groups may be permanent, paid positions or may be voluntary. The leader may be a president or chair but typically reports to a board of directors that determines the organization's policies. Many interest groups also have legal counsel, a lawyer or law firm that recognizes the group's interests and offers guidance about issues pertaining to state or federal law. Often an interest group will have a charter or bylaws that explain the group's mission, goals, and ideology.

Groups work hard to increase membership and retain existing members. The larger the size of the group, the greater reach the group can claim when promoting the group's policies. Generally, members have to pay annual dues to belong to the group. Membership may or may not provide specific benefits to members.

Interest groups may also seek donations or gifts. They may mount fundraising campaigns with a target, planning to use the funds to work toward a particular goal or carry out an activity.

Not everyone who benefits from an interest group joins the group. A free rider is someone who benefits from the actions of others without contributing or paying for membership. For example, a free rider might be an elderly person who gains from the AARP's lobbying on behalf of older Americans but who does not belong to the AARP.