9.1 The Interest Group System

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What are interest groups?
  2. What are the main types of interest groups?
  3. What are the most important elements of interest groups?
  4. What incentives encourage interest group membership?
  5. How do interest groups recruit members?
  6. How do the media portray unions and union activity?
  7. How do interest groups influence elections?

Interest groups are intermediaries linking people to government, and lobbyists work for them. These groups make demands on government and try to influence public policies in their favor. Their most important difference from political parties is that they do not seek elective office. Interest groups can be single entities, join associations, and have individual members. The University of Texas at Austin is an educational institution. Its main purposes are teaching and research. Like other educational institutions, it is an interest group when it tries to influence government policies. These policies include government funding for facilities and student grants, loans, and work study. It may also try to influence laws and court decisions applying to research, admissions, gender equality in intercollegiate sports, and student records. It may ask members of Congress to earmark funds for some of its projects, thereby bypassing the normal competition with other universities for funds based on merit (Savage, 1999; Brainard & Hermes, 2008).

Figure 9.1 University of Texas Logo (“Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis,” translated as “The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy”)

University of Texas Logo

Devoted to education (and sports), universities try to influence government policies that affect their interests.

Single entities often join forces in associations. Associations represent their interests and make demands on government on their behalf. The University of Texas belongs to the Association of American Universities. General Electric (GE) belongs to over eighty trade associations, each representing a different industry such as mining, aerospace, and home appliances (Schlozman & Tierney, 1986).

Many interest groups have individuals as members. People join labor unions and professional organizations (e.g., associations for lawyers or political scientists) that claim to represent their interests.

Types of Interest Groups

Interest groups can be divided into five types: economic, societal, ideological, public interest, and governmental.

Economic Interest Groups

The major economic interest groups represent businesses, labor unions, and professions. Business interest groups consist of industries, corporations, and trade associations. Unions usually represent individual trades, such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Most unions belong to an association, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

Economic interest groups represent every aspect of our economy, including agriculture, the arts, automobiles, banking, beverages, construction, defense, education, energy, finance, food, health, housing, insurance, law, media, medicine, pharmaceuticals, sports, telecommunications, transportation, travel, and utilities. These groups cover from head (i.e., the Headwear Institute of America) to toe (i.e., the American Podiatric Medical Association) and from soup (i.e., the Campbell Soup Company) to nuts (i.e., the Peanut Butter and Nut Processors Association) (Birnbaum, 1993).

Societal Interest Groups

Societal interest groups focus on interests based on people’s characteristics, such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as religion and sexual preference. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is one of the oldest societal interest groups in the United States.

Ideological Interest Groups

Ideological interest groups promote a reactionary, conservative, liberal, or radical political philosophy through research and advocacy. Interest groups that take stands on such controversial issues as abortion and gun control are considered ideological, although some might argue that they are actually public interest groups.

Public Interest Groups

Public interest groups work for widely accepted concepts of the common good, such as the family, human rights, and consumers. Although their goals are usually popular, some of their specific positions (e.g., environmental groups opposing offshore drilling for oil) may be controversial and challenged.

Government Interest Groups

Government interest groups consist of local, state, and foreign governments. They seek to influence the relevant policies and expenditures of the federal government.

Life Stages of Interest Groups

Interest groups commonly experience a life cycle of creation (or birth), growth and change (or evolution), and sometimes death.


As the United States has become more complex with new technologies, products, services, businesses, and professions, the US government has become more involved in the economy and society. People with common interests organize to solicit support and solutions to their problems from government. Policies enacted in response to the efforts of these groups affect other people, who then form groups to seek government intervention for themselves. These groups may give rise to additional groups.[1]

Some interest groups are created in reaction to an event or a perceived grievance. The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) was founded in 1973 in response to the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision earlier that year legalizing abortion. However, groups may form long after the reasons for establishing them are obvious. The NAACP was not founded until 1909 even though segregation of and discrimination against black people had existed for many years.


Oral Arguments in Roe v. Wade

Listen to oral arguments in the Roe v. Wade at http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_18/arguments.

Interest group entrepreneurs usually are important in the creation of groups. Often they are responding to events in their lives. After a drunk driver killed one of her daughters, Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980. She thereby identified latent interests: people who could be grouped together and organized to pursue what she made them realize was a shared goal, punishing and getting drunk drivers off the road. She was helped by widespread media coverage that brought public attention to her loss and cause.

Evolution and Demise

Interest groups can change over time. The National Rifle Association (NRA) started out as a sports organization in the late nineteenth century dedicated to improving its members’ marksmanship. It became an advocate for law and order in the 1960s, until its official support for the 1968 Gun Control Act brought dissension in its ranks. Since the election of new leaders in 1977, the NRA has focused on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, opposing legislation restricting the sale or distribution of guns and ammunition (Ainsworth, 2002).

Interest groups can also die. They may run out of funds. Their issues may lose popularity or become irrelevant. Slavery no longer exists in the United States and thus neither does the American Anti-Slavery Society.

How Interest Groups Are Organized

Interest groups have leaders and staff. They control the group, decide its policy objectives, and recruit and represent members.

Leaders and Staff

Leaders and top staff usually run the interest group. They do so because they command its resources and information flow and have the experience and expertise to deal with public policies that are often complex and technical. Almost a century ago, Robert Michels identified this control by an organization’s leaders and staff and called it “the iron law of oligarchy” (Michels, 1959).

This oligarchy, or rule by the few, applies to single-entity interest groups and to most associations. Their leaders are appointed or elected and select the staff. Even in many membership organizations, the people who belong do not elect the leaders and have little input when the leaders decide policy objectives (Ainsworth, 2002). Their participation is limited to sending in dues, expressing opinions and, if membership is voluntary, leaving when dissatisfied.

Voluntary Membership

People join membership interest groups voluntarily or because they have no choice.

When membership is voluntary, interest groups must recruit and try to retain members. Members help fund the group’s activities, legitimize its objectives, and add credibility with the media.

Some people may not realize or accept that they have shared interests with others on a particular issue. For example, many young adults download music from the Internet, but few of them have joined the Future of Music Coalition, which is developing ways to do this legally. Others may be unwilling to court conflict by joining a group representing oppressed minorities or espousing controversial or unpopular views even when they agree with the group’s views (Gartner & Segura, 1977).

People do not need to join an interest group voluntarily when they can benefit from its activities without becoming a member. This is the problem of collective goods. Laws successfully lobbied for by environmental organizations that lead to cleaner air and water benefit members and nonmembers alike. However, the latter get a free ride (Olson Jr., 1965).

There are three types of incentives that, alone or in combination, may overcome this free-rider problem. A purposive incentive leads people voluntarily to join and contribute money to a group because they want to help the group achieve its goals. Membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) increased by one hundred thousand in the eighteen months following the 9/11 attacks as the group raised concerns that the government’s antiterrorism campaign was harming civil liberties (Lichtblau, 2003). In addition, people may join groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, because of a solidary incentive. The motivation to join the group stems from the pleasure of interacting with like-minded individuals and the gratification of publicly expressing one’s beliefs.

People may also join groups to obtain material incentives available only to members. AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, has around thirty-five million members. It obtains this huge number by charging a nominal annual membership fee and offering such material incentives as health insurance and reduced prices for prescription drugs. The group’s magazine is sent to members and includes tax advice, travel and vacation information, and discounts.


One way interest groups recruit members is through media coverage. The appealingly named Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a consumer organization that focuses on food and nutrition issues, produces quality research, and has media savvy. It is a valuable source of expertise and information for journalists. The frequent and favorable news coverage it receives brings the group and its activities to the public’s attention and encourages people to support and join it.

News coverage of an interest group does not always have to be favorable to attract members. Oftentimes, stories about the NRA in major newspapers are negative. Presenting this negative coverage as bias and hostility against and attacks on gun owners, the group’s leaders transform it into purposive and solidary incentives. They use e-mail “to power membership mobilization, fund raising, single-issue voting and the other actions-in-solidarity that contribute to [their] success” (Patrick, 2002).

Groups also make personalized appeals to recruit members and solicit financial contributions. Names of people who might be sympathetic to a group are obtained by purchasing mailing lists from magazines, other groups, and political parties. Recruitment letters and e-mails often feature scare statements, such as a claim that Social Security is in jeopardy.

Interest groups recruit members, publicize their activities, and pursue their policy objectives through the new media. The Save Our Environment Action Center consists of twenty national environmental groups pooling their databases of supporters and establishing a website. Through this network, people can receive informational newsletters via e-mail, sign petitions, and contact their representatives.

Required Membership

Employment in most automobile plants requires that workers are members of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). Workers fought to establish unions to improve their wages, working conditions, and job opportunities. One way of achieving these objectives was to require all workers at a plant to be union members. But union membership has plummeted as the United States has moved from a manufacturing to a service economy and employers have effectively discouraged unionization. Many jobs do not have unions for workers to join whether they want to or not. Today only about 12 percent of workers belong to a union compared to a high of 35.5 percent in 1945. Only 7 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. A majority of union members now work for the government.

Media Depictions of Unions

One reason for the decline of unions is their mainly negative portrayal in the mass media (Puette, 1992). There are hardly any labor-beat reporters in the news media, so union officials are infrequently used as sources and are consequently unable to frame union news to their advantage.

Strikes are the union action most often shown in the news. These are usually framed not as legitimate collective tactics to improve wages and working conditions, but as hurting or inconveniencing consumers by disrupting services (e.g., suspending classes in elementary and high schools) and causing the cancellation of events (e.g., professional sporting games) (Kumar, 2007).

Unions are rare in movies. Norma Rae (1979), Matewan (1987), and the documentary Harlan County, USA (1977), favorably portray workers’ struggles to organize and strike for better working conditions, wages, and security, against exploiting employers. But in the classic union film, the Academy Award–winning On the Waterfront (1954), the union is corrupt, violent, and linked to organized crime; the union leaders exploit members to enrich themselves.


Groups claim to represent the interests of their members or constituents, but these interests may conflict. In an extensive study, Dara Z. Strolovitch found that civil rights organizations prioritized the interests of their middle-class members over the interests of the poor and working class. For example, they pushed for affirmative action rather than welfare and antipoverty policies.[2]

A problem for AARP is that, aside from being fifty or over, its members may have little in common. In 1988, AARP supported legislation setting up a catastrophic health insurance plan in Medicare to provide insurance for elderly people faced with huge medical bills for major illnesses. After the plan went into effect, many seniors objected to the increase in their Medicare premiums and an annual surtax of as high as $800. Their complaints were widely covered in the media. Congress repealed the program the next year.

Even when members share a group’s general goals they may reject some of its policy proposals or tactics. In 2009, Apple quit the US Chamber of Commerce because the chamber opposed global-warming legislation.

Interest Groups and Elections

Interest groups become involved in elections to influence policymakers. They may contribute funds, make independent expenditures, advocate issues, and mobilize voters. Wealthy groups help pay for the presidential nominating conventions and the presidential inauguration. They give funds to political parties because “by helping party leaders retain or regain control of the House or Senate, policymaking rewards…follow” (Franz, 2008).

Endorsing Candidates

Interest groups may endorse candidates for office and, if they have the resources, mobilize members and sympathizers to work and vote for them. President Bill Clinton blamed the NRA for Al Gore losing the 2000 presidential election because it influenced voters in several states, including Arkansas, West Virginia, and Gore’s home state of Tennessee. Had any of these states gone for Gore, he would have won the election.

Interest groups can promote candidates through television and radio advertisements. During the 2004 presidential election, the NRA ran a thirty-minute infomercial in battleground states favoring President George W. Bush and calling his opponent “the most anti-gun presidential nominee in United States history.” In 2008, the NRA issued ads endorsing Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

Endorsements do carry risks. If the endorsed candidate loses, the unendorsed winner is likely to be unsympathetic to the group. Thus relatively few interest groups endorse presidential candidates and most endorsements are based on ideology.

Funding Candidates

Made possible by the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), political action committees (PACs) are a means for organizations, including interest groups, to raise funds and contribute to candidates in federal elections. Approximately one-third of the funds received by candidates for the House of Representatives and one-fifth of funds for Senate candidates come from PACs. The details of election funding are discussed further in Chapter 11 “Campaigns and Elections”.

However, in January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. The court majority justified the decision on the grounds of the First Amendment’s free speech clause. The dissenters argued that allowing unlimited spending by corporations on political advertising would corrupt democracy.[3]

Many interest groups value candidates’ power above their ideology or voting record. Most PAC funds, especially from corporations, go to incumbents. Chairs and members of congressional committees and subcommittees who make policies relevant to the group are particularly favored. The case of Enron, although extreme, graphically reveals such funding. Of the 248 members of Congress on committees that investigated the 2002 accounting scandals and collapse of the giant corporation, 212 had received campaign contributions from Enron or its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen (Natta Jr., 2011).

Some interest groups do fund candidates on the basis of ideology and policy preference. Ideological and public interest groups base support on candidates’ views even if their defeat is likely. Pro-life organizations mainly support Republicans; pro-choice organizations mainly support Democrats.

The interest group–candidate relationship is a two-way street. Many candidates actively solicit support from interest groups on the basis of an existing or the promise of a future relationship. Candidates obtain some of the funds necessary for their campaigns from interest groups; the groups who give them money get the opportunity to make their case to sympathetic legislators. A businessman defending his company’s PAC is quoted as saying, “Talking to politicians is fine, but with a little money they hear you better” (Green, 1982).

Much better. The Center for Responsive Politics shows correlations between campaign contributions and congressional voting. After the House of Representatives voted 220–215 in 2003 to pass the Medicare drug bill, the organization reported that “lawmakers who voted to approve the legislation have raised an average of roughly twice as much since 1999 from individuals and PACs associated with health insurers, HMOs [Health Maintenance Organizations] and pharmaceutical manufacturers as those who voted against the bill” (Center for Responsive Politics, 2003).

Key Takeaways

Interest groups are diverse in membership and purpose. They are created, may evolve in composition and goals, and sometimes die out. Interest group entrepreneurs may be integral to the creation of interest groups. Different types of incentives encourage interest group membership, and organizations use various methods to recruit new members. The media are particularly critical of labor unions. Interest groups try to influence elections in order to advance their policy objectives.


  1. Why do you think some interest groups have a bad reputation? What social purpose do interest groups serve?
  2. Do you support any interest groups? What made you decide to support them?
  3. What are the different ways interest groups can influence policies? Do you think interest groups should be allowed to contribute as much as they want to political campaigns?


Ainsworth, S. H., Analyzing Interest Groups: Group Influence on People and Policies (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 87–88.

Birnbaum, J. H., The Lobbyists: How Influence Peddlers Work Their Way in Washington (New York: Times Books, 1993), 36.

Brainard, J. and J. J. Hermes, “Colleges’ Earmarks Grow, Amid Criticism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28, 2008.

Center for Responsive Politics, “Money and Medicare: Campaign Contributions Correlate with Vote,” OpenSecrets Blog, November 24, 2003, http://www.opensecrets.org/capital_eye/inside.php?ID=113.

Franz, M. M., Choices and Changes: Interest Groups in the Electoral Process (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2008), 7.

Gartner, S. S. and Gary M. Segura, “Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Self Selection, Social Group Identification, and Political Mobilization,” Rationality and Society 9 (1977): 132–33.

Green, M., “Political PAC-Man,” New Republic 187, no. 24 (December 13, 1982): 18.

Kumar, D., Outside The Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

Lichtblau, E., “F.B.I. Leader Wins a Few at Meeting of A.C.L.U.,” New York Times, June 14, 2003, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/14/us/fbi-leader-wins-a-few-at-meeting-of-aclu.html?ref=ericlichtblau.

Michels, R., Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: Dover Publications, 1959; first published 1915 by Free Press).

Natta Jr., D. V., “Enron’s Collapse: Campaign Finance; Enron or Andersen Made Donations to Almost All Their Congressional Investigators,” New York Times, January 25, 2002, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/25/business/enron-s-collapse-campaign-finance-enron-andersen-made-donations-almost-all- their.html.

Olson Jr., M., The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

Patrick, B. A., The National Rifle Association and the Media: The Motivating Force of Negative Coverage (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), 9.

Puette, W. J., Through Jaundiced Eyes: How the Media View Organized Labor (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1992).

Savage, J. D., Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Schlozman, K. L. and John T. Tierney, Organized Interests and American Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 72–73.

  1. This is known as disturbance theory. It was developed by David B. Truman in The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), chap. 4; and it was amplified by Robert H. Salisbury in “An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 13 (1969): 1–32.
  2. Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  3. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08–205. See also Adam Liptak, “Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit,” New York Times, January 21, 2010, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/us/politics/22scotus.html.

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