Chapter 13. Interest Groups


Interest groups and lobbying are an inevitable and essential component of democratic politics. Though political thinkers like James Madison feared the corrosive effects of factions, interest groups do provide several benefits. In giving testifying before deliberative bodies, interest groups supply technical information about the activities that governments seek to regulate. In mobilizing protests and participating in election campaigns, interest groups help elected officials discover how voters are responding to government initiatives.

Many interest groups formed in the early years of the Republic, including the American Slavery Society (1833), National Trades Union (1834), and American Temperance Union (1836). These groups were able to overcome the free-rider problem and other barriers to collective action. Unfortunately, the resources—money, information, access to authority, bargaining skills—needed for effective organization are distributed unequally, meaning that some political interests will be better represented than others.

The primary goal of all interest groups is survival. Group leaders often spend as much time recruiting supporters and obtaining resources as they do lobbying public officials. Lobbying strategies include both "insider" tactics—cultivating relationships with existing government officials—and "outsider" tactics—grassroots lobbying and demonstrations designed to pressure officials. Many interest groups have also formed political action committees to influence elections. What lobbying strategies a group chooses will depend on the nature of the interests it represents and the resources at its disposal.

The expansion of the interest group universe in recent years has been driven by the expanding scope of government activity. The proliferation of interest groups has actually strengthened the hand of elected officials. Politicians control access and are well-positioned to know when particular interests at stake. With many interest groups on both sides of contentious issues, elected officials can pick and choose according to their own beliefs. Nonetheless, as the number of active groups has increased, it has become more difficult to initiate changes that impose significant costs, even when these are far outweighed by the benefits to the general public.


After reading this chapter, you should understand...

  • the ways in which politicians and interest groups can benefit each other
  • why pluralism has been defended as fostering democracy and attacked as being undemocratic
  • the factors that make it easier or harder to form groups, according to Mancur Olson
  • the scope of lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., and the types of organizations involved
  • why public interest groups have proliferated over the past three decades
  • how government policy has fostered the rise of interest groups
  • the most common and important activities of interest groups
  • how lobbyists responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001
  • the difference between "insider" and "outsider" lobbying tactics
  • how contributions by political action committees (PACs) have affected modern election campaigns
  • the strategies PACs use in making campaign donations

Review Questions

  1. What sorts of benefits do politicians receive from lobbyists? If these groups are so beneficial, why do citizens view them with such suspicion?

  2. Why was Prohibition passed despite lacking widespread support in many areas of the country? Why was it later repealed?

  3. According to David Truman, does pluralism work? Why or why not? On what basis do critics disagree with Truman?

  4. What actions has the government taken to foster interest groups? How do governmental policies themselves create potential interest groups?

  5. Why have interest groups become increasingly fragmented and specialized?

  6. How do "insider" and "outsider" lobbying tactics differ? What situations favor the use of each? When might an interest group choose to enlist litigation as it tries to influence policy?

  7. What do PACs get in return for their donations to candidates? What evidence exists that such contributions are corrupting our political system?

  8. How did the collapse of Enron illustrate the limits of the power of lobbying?

  9. Overall, how does PAC activity affect public policy? Has the proliferation of interest groups strengthened or weakened the influence of elected officials? Why?

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