9.3 Interest Groups and the Political System

Learning Objectives

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

  1. What factors determine an interest group’s success?
  2. What are the levels of influence that interest groups can possess in their relations with policymakers?
  3. What is pluralism?
  4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of business interest groups?

In the book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt argue that the activities of interest groups, notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are one reason why, since World War II, the United States has provided more direct economic and military support to Israel than any other ally and pursues a policy of preserving and enhancing Israel’s security (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2007; Mearsheimer & Walt, 2009; Lieberman, 2009). This raises the question of why interest groups succeed or fail to achieve their policy objectives.

Why Interest Groups Are (or Are Not) Successful

The main factors determining an interest group’s effectiveness are its assets, objectives, alliances, the visibility of its involvement in policy decisions, and its responses to political change and crises, plus, of course, the media’s depiction of it.


Successful interest groups have prestige, respected leadership, political skills, and ample finances. The Business Roundtable, composed of the chief executives of the two hundred leading corporations, has them all and thus has access to and influence on policymakers. Monetary assets allow groups to contribute to political campaigns through their political action committees (PACs).

The status and distribution of an interest group’s members also contribute to its success. Automobile dealers are influential and live, as do their employees, in congressional districts across the country. After President Barack Obama proposed putting automobile loans under the oversight of a new federal consumer authority aimed at protecting borrowers from abusive lender, the dealers’ lobbying arm, the National Automobile Dealers Association, organized opposition, including trips to Washington for some of the eighteen thousand dealers to meet and plead their case with their legislators (Lichtblau, 2011). Congress exempted auto dealers from the regulation.


The ease or difficulty of achieving a group’s goals can determine its success. Preventing legislation from being enacted is usually easier than passing it. In a comprehensive study of interest group activities during the last two years of the Clinton administration and the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, researchers found that although some advocates succeed eventually in changing policy, “[t]he vast bulk of lobbying in Washington has to do not with the creation of new programs, but rather with the adjustment of existing programs or with the maintenance of programs just as they are” (Baumgartner et al., 2009; Godwin & Seldon, 2002).

Moreover, legislation enacted over the opposition of powerful interest groups, tends to be watered down. Or the political costs of its passage are so heavy that its proponents in the presidential administration and Congress are discouraged from challenging the groups again.


Interest groups sometimes cooperate with other groups to help them achieve a policy objective they could not accomplish alone. A coalition expands resources, broadens expertise, and adds to the credibility of the policy objectives. Alliances are often of natural allies such as the National Restaurant Association, the American Nursery and Landscape Association, and the National Council of Agricultural Employers, who united to oppose restrictions on immigration and penalties on businesses that employ illegal immigrants. But they can be made up of strange bedfellows, as when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) allied to oppose the US Department of Justice putting raw, unsubstantiated data into a national computer network. For the ACLU, it was a violation of people’s right to privacy; for the NRA, it was a move toward denying people the right to bear arms (Berry & Wilcox, 2008).

Visibility of Policy Involvement

Interest groups are often most successful when their activities are unreported by the media, unscrutinized by most policymakers, and hidden from the public. Opposition to a group’s activities is difficult when they are not visible. As one lobbyist observed, “A lobby is like a night flower, it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun” (Goldberg, 2011).

In what are called iron triangles, or subgovernments, policy on a subject is often made by a relatively few people from Congress, the bureaucracy, and interest groups. A classic iron triangle has been veterans’ affairs policy. Members of Congress chairing the relevant committees and subcommittees and their aides, key agency administrators from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and representatives from interest groups such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) have interacted and dominated policymaking (Freeman, 1965). This policymaking has taken place with low visibility and very little opposition to the benefits provided for veterans. In general, the news media pay little attention to iron triangles in the absence of conflict and controversy, and interest groups are likely to achieve many of their objectives.

Political Change and Crises

Whether interest groups defend what they have or go on the offense to gain new benefits often depends on who is in control of the government. Some interest groups’ goals are supported or opposed far more by one political party than another. A new president or a change in party control of Congress usually benefits some groups while putting others at a disadvantage. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election put a brake on new regulation of business by Congress, reduced funds for regulators to hire staff and enforce regulation, and limited investigations of industry practices.

Crises, especially ones extensively depicted by the media, often involve politicians and interest groups trying to achieve or prevent policy changes. Looking to exploit the horrific BP (British Petroleum) oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico (which was widely covered in the media and replete with images of the oil-infested waters and oil-coated beaches and wildlife), environmentalists and their congressional allies worked for “measures to extend bans on new offshore drilling, strengthen safety and environmental safeguards, and raise to $10 billion or more the cap on civil liability for an oil producer in a spill” (Lichtblau & Mouaward, 2011). Opposing them were the oil and gas industry, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spent $174.8 million on lobbying in 2009, and its allies in Congress from such oil states as Texas and Louisiana.

Relations between Interest Groups and Policymakers

When viewed overall, there is a hierarchy in the influence of relations between interest groups and policymakers (Eldersveld, 1958).

  • At the top, the interest group makes policy. This is uncommon.
  • More common, the group maintains close political relations with policymakers.
  • The group has an unchallengeable veto status over some governmental decisions, for example, over a presidential appointment.
  • The group receives some attention from policymakers but mainly has a pressure relationship with them.
  • The group has only a potential reprisal relationship with policymakers; it can threaten to oppose a member of Congress at the next election.
  • At the bottom of the ladder, rejected by policymakers, the group is left to agitate and resist; its public demonstrations usually signify its inability to achieve its objectives by less visible means.

The relationships between interest groups and policymakers vary depending on the administration in power. Energy companies had a close political support and referral relationship with the George W. Bush administration but primarily a pressure relationship with the Obama administration. Relationships also vary by subject. For example, a Democratic president’s choice to head the US Department of Labor may have to be acceptable to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), but the union organization has little influence over other cabinet appointments.

Who Benefits from Interest Groups?

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison warns of the dangers of factions: “[A] number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (Madison, 1961; Library of Congress, 2011). Madison believed that factions were inevitable, because their causes were “sown in the nature of man” (Madison, 1965).

Madison’s factions are not exactly today’s interest groups. Indeed, interest groups, by representing diverse segments of society, offset one of Madison’s concerns—the domination of the majority. Nonetheless, his warning raises important questions about the effects of interest groups.

Pluralism: Competition among Groups

Briefly stated, pluralism is the theory that competition among interest groups produces compromise and balance among competing policy preferences. For pluralists, the abundance of interest groups, the competition between them, and their representation of interests in society are inherent in American democracy. Bargaining between groups and ever-changing group alliances achieve a desirable dispersion of power or at least an acceptable balancing of the various interests in society (Dahl, 1956; Bentley, 1908; Browne, 1998).

Pluralists acknowledge that some groups might dominate areas where their interests are paramount. But they believe two factors rectify this situation. In overlapping membership, people belonging to several interest groups encourage negotiation and compromise. And underrepresented people will in time establish groups to assert their interests.

The Advantage of Business

An argument against pluralism is that business has an advantage over other segments of society, particularly the poor and the working class. These Americans lack the disposable income and political skills to organize. The issues that concern them are often absent from the policy agenda (Baumgartner et al., 2009). Business sponsors political advertisements, gives campaign contributions through PACs, donates to political parties, hires law and public relations firms, and funds research advocacy groups promoting free-market economics. A corporation can deploy multiple lobbyists and obtain access to various policymakers by joining several trade groups, belonging to business associations such as the US Chamber of Commerce, and using its CEO and other personnel from headquarters to lobby (Berry & Wilcox, 2008).

Business and trade associations make up approximately 70 percent of the organizations with representation in Washington, DC (Schlozman & Tierney, 1986). Add interest groups representing professionals, and they account for approximately 85 percent of total spending on lobbying (Baumgartner & Leech, 2001).

Quite often a policy appears only to affect specific corporations or industries and therefore does not receive much media or public attention (Smith, 2000). The Walt Disney Company’s copyright on Mickey Mouse was due to expire in 2003 and those on Pluto, Goofy, and Donald Duck would expire soon after. In 2000, after lobbying and well-placed campaign contributions by Disney, Congress extended all copyrights for twenty more years (Surowiecki, 2011).

Business is not monolithic. Interests conflict between and among industries, individual corporations, and organizations representing professionals. Large businesses can have different objectives than small businesses. The interests of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers can clash. Moreover, even when business is united, its demands are not necessarily gratified immediately and absolutely, especially when the issue is visible and the demands provoke opposition.

Negative Depictions of Business

The media often depict business interest groups negatively, which can limit the groups’ influence. Witness, for example, stories about the dubious dealings and bankruptcy of corporations such as Enron, the trials of corporate leaders who have pillaged their companies, and the huge salaries and bonuses paid in financial and related business sectors.

Corporations and their executives are commonly the villains in popular films including RoboCop (1987), Wall Street (1987), The Naked Gun 2 and ½: The Smell of Fear (1991), and the documentaries of Michael Moore, particularly Roger and Me (1989). Television news stories oftentimes portray the big business sector as buying access and favors with lavish campaign contributions and other indulgences, wielding undue influence on the policy process, and pursuing its interests at the expense of the national interest (Danielian & Page, 1994). Newspapers similarly frame business interest groups and their lobbyists as involved in dubious activities and exercising power for private greed. Typical is the New York Times’ headline: “Vague Law and Hard Lobbying Add Up to Billions for Big Oil” (Andrews, 2006).

These stories could frame business interest groups more positively. They could point out that business lobbyists favor essential and deserving objectives, present information and valid arguments to policymakers, and make their proposals in a political arena (i.e., Congress) in competition with other groups. However, the negative view of business is incarnated in the enduring image of the chairman of the seven leading tobacco companies testifying before Congress (Note 9.27 “Enduring Image”).

Enduring Image

Big Tobacco Testifies Before Congress

On April 14, 1994, the chief executives of the leading tobacco companies stood up, raised their right hands, and swore before members of the subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce that nicotine was not addictive. The photograph of this moment, prominently featured in the US and foreign media, has become an enduring image of business executives who place the interests and profits of their corporations above the public interest even if it requires them to engage in self-deception, defy common sense about the dangers of their products, and give deceptive testimony under oath.

Chairmen of seven leading tobacco companies swear that nicotine is not addictive on the Bible

The chairmen of the seven leading tobacco companies swear that nicotine is not addictive.

Had one sat through the several hours of hearings, watched them on television, or read the transcript, the executives would have come across as less defiant and more reasonable. They agreed to give Congress unpublished research documents, acknowledged that cigarettes may cause various health problems including cancer and heart disease, and admitted that they would prefer that their children not smoke (Hilts, 1994). But the photo and its brief explanatory caption, not the complicated hearings, are the enduring image.

Why does this image of venal, almost criminal, tobacco executives endure? Simply put, television news’ continuing coverage of the litigation by state attorneys general against the tobacco companies required vivid video to illustrate and dramatize an otherwise bland story. What better choice than the footage of the seven tobacco executives? Thus the image circulated over and over again on the nightly news and is widely available on the Internet years later.

Key Takeaways

Numerous factors determine the success or failure of interest groups in achieving their policy objectives. These include their assets, objectives, alliances, visibility of their involvement in policy decisions, responses to political change and crises, and depictions in the media. Relatedly, there is a hierarchy of interest groups’ relations with policymakers. Pluralists regard interest groups as essential to American democracy; critics, however, believe that business interest groups are too dominant. Business interest groups have several advantages enabling them to achieve their policy objectives but also several disadvantages, including negative media depictions.


  1. What makes an interest group effective? What do you think are the most effective interest groups in the United States?
  2. Why might interest groups be more effective when their activities are not widely known? Why might publicity make lobbying less effective?
  3. What advantages do business interest groups have in influencing politics? What factors limit the effectiveness of business interest lobbying?


Andrews, E. L., “Vague Law and Hard Lobbying Add Up to Billions for Big Oil,” New York Times, March 27, 2006, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/27/business/27royalties.html.

Baumgartner, F. R. and Beth L. Leech, “Interest Niches and Policy Bandwagons: Patterns of Interest Group Involvement in National Politics,” Journal of Politics 63, no. 4 (November 2001): 1197. The figure is for 1996.

Baumgartner, F. R., Jeffrey M. Berry, Marje Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, and Beth L. Leech, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 240.

Bentley, A. F., The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908)

Berry, J. M. and Clyde Wilcox, The Interest Group Society, 3rd. ed. (New York: Longman, 2008), 188–190.

Browne, W. P., Groups, Interests, and U.S. Public Policy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1998).

Dahl, R. A., A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956)

Danielian, L. H. and Benjamin Page, “The Heavenly Chorus: Interest Group Voices on TV News,” American Journal of Political Science 38, no. 4 (November 1994): 1056.

Eldersveld, S. J., “American Interest Groups,” in Interest Groups on Four Continents, ed. Henry W. Ehrmann (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958), 187.

Freeman, J. L., The Political Process: Bureau-Legislative Committee Relations, rev. ed. (New York: Random House, 1965).

Godwin, R. K. and Barry J. Seldon, “What Corporations Really Want from Government: The Public Provision of Private Goods,” in Interest Group Politics, 6th ed., ed. Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2002), 205–224.

Goldberg, J., “Real Insiders,” New Yorker, July 4, 2005, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/07/04/050704fa_fact.

Hilts, P. J., “Tobacco Chiefs Say Cigarettes Aren’t Addictive,” New York Times, April 15, 1994, accessed on March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/15/us/tobacco-chiefs-say-cigarettes- aren-t-addictive.html.

Library of Congress, THOMAS, “Federalist No. 10,” accessed April 4, 2011, http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_10.html.

Lichtblau, E., “Auto Dealers Campaign to Fend Off Regulation,” New York Times, May 16, 2010, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/17/business/17dealers.html.

Lichtblau, E. and Jad Mouaward, “Oil Companies Weigh Strategies to Fend Off Tougher Regulations,” New York Times, June 2, 2010, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/us/03lobby.html.

Lieberman, R., “Rejoinder to Mearsheimer and Walt,” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 2 (June 2009): 275–81.

Madison, J., “Federalist #10,” in Clinton Rossiter, ed., The Federalist Papers (New York: New American Library, 1961), 78

Mearsheimer, J. J. and Stephen M. Walt, “The Blind and the Elephant in the Room: Robert Lieberman and the Israel Lobby,” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 2 (June 2009): 259–73

Mearsheimer, J. J. and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007). See also the critique by Robert C. Lieberman, “The ‘Israel Lobby’ and American Politics,” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 2 (June 2009): 235–57

Schlozman, K. L. and John T. Tierney, Organized Interests and American Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 67.

Smith, M. A., American Business and Political Power: Public Opinion, Elections, and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Surowiecki, J., “Righting Copywrongs,” New Yorker, January 21, 2002, accessed March 23, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/01/21/020121ta_talk_surowiecki.


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