Interest Groups in the United States

Overview

Description

Interest groups are organizations of like-minded citizens or organizations who join together to protect or promote their interest or to advocate for a cause. These groups are outside political parties or government officials but try to influence both parties and officeholders. Interest groups range in size and scope from small and local to massive and international. The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects "the right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Citizens have the right to let the government know when they think issues need to be addressed or policies are wrong and ask for laws to be instituted or changed. Interest groups are one way that Americans exercise that right. Interest groups use such tactics as lobbying (either direct or indirect), litigation, advocacy advertisements, and campaign contributions and other election activities. Some groups may engage in public protests or similar activities to try to raise public and official awareness of their concerns to influence policy makers, and they often do research or create programs to educate their members and others about the topics or issues that concern them.

At A Glance

  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Tactics used by interest groups include lobbying (either direct or indirect), litigation, advocacy advertisements, and campaign contributions and other election activities. Some groups may engage in public protests or similar activities to try to raise public and official awareness of their concerns; these tactics are also carried out by social movements, which are broader actions to assert rights, protest conditions, or call for change.
  • Certain interest groups, particularly those representing business interests, have significant influence over government decision-making, but the extent of a group's influence depends on its membership size, financial resources, and access to policy makers.