Interest Groups

Interest group, also called special interest group or pressure group, any association of individuals or organizations, usually formally organized, that, on the basis of one or more shared concerns, attempts to influence public policy in its favour. All interest groups share a desire to affect government policy to benefit themselves or their causes. Their goal could be a policy that exclusively benefits group members or one segment of society (e.g., government subsidies for farmers) or a policy that advances a broader public purpose (e.g., improving air quality). They attempt to achieve their goals by lobbying—that is, by attempting to bring pressure to bear on policy makers to gain policy outcomes in their favour.
The common goals and sources of interest groups obscure, however, the fact that they vary widely in their form and lobbying strategies both within and across political systems. This article provides a broad overview that explains these differences and the role that interest groups play in society.
Definition
As defined above, an interest group is usually a formally organized association that seeks to influence public policy. This broad definition, increasingly used by scholars, contrasts with older, narrower ones that include only private associations that have a distinct, formal organization, such as Italy’s Confindustria (General Confederation of Industry), the United States’s National Education Association, and Guatemala’s Mutual Support Group (human rights organization). One problem with such a narrow definition is that many formally organized entities are not private. The most important lobbying forces in any society are the various entities of government: national, regional, and local government agencies and institutions such as the military. Another reason to opt for a broad definition is that in all societies there are many informal groups that are, in effect, interest groups but would not be covered by the narrower definition. For example, in all political systems there are influential groups of political and professional elites that may not be recognized as formal groups but are nonetheless crucial in informally influencing public policy.
Types Of Interests And Interest Groups
Interests and interest groups in all types of political systems can be placed broadly in five categories: economic interests, cause groups, public interests, private and public institutional interests, and non-associational groups and interests.
Cause groups are those that represent a segment of society but whose primary purpose is noneconomic and usually focused on promoting a particular cause or value. This category is wide-ranging, including churches and religious organizations (e.g., Catholic Action in Italy), veterans’ groups (e.g., the Union Française des Associations d’Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre [French Union of Associations of Combatants and Victims of War]), and groups supporting the rights of people with disabilities (e.g., the Spanish National Organisation for the Blind (ONCE) and Cure Autism Now in the United States). Some cause groups are single-issue groups, focusing very narrowly on their issue to the exclusion of all others—such as those favouring or opposing abortion rights or foxhunting—though most cause groups are more broadly based.
Common Characteristics And The Importance Of Interest Groups
Most interest groups are not formed for political purposes. They usually develop to promote programs and disseminate information to enhance the professional, business, social, or avocational interests of their members. Much of this activity is nonpolitical, as when the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) provides low-cost life insurance for its members or when the American Automobile Association negotiates discounts with service providers for its members. But many such interest groups enter the political arena when they believe there is no other way to protect their interests or because they want to secure government funding.
Interest groups in most democracies are also a source of financial support for election campaigns. In the United States the development of political action committees (PACs) after World War II was geared to providing money to candidates running for public office. In western Europe, campaign funding is provided by many interest groups, particularly trade unions for social democratic parties as in Sweden and Germany. Mass parties in authoritarian regimes also often rely on interest groups for support. For example, in Argentina Juan Perón used the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the trade union peak association, to gain and maintain the presidency of that country from 1946 to 1955. In addition to financial resources, members of interest groups are important resources for grassroots campaigning, such as operating telephone banks to call prospective voters, canvassing neighbourhoods door-to-door, and organizing get-out-the-vote efforts on election day.
Factors Shaping Interest Group Systems
Various factors shape the environment in which interest groups operate and provide a foundation for understanding similarities and differences in types of interest group systems around the world.
The level of socioeconomic development within a society usually can inform observers about how highly developed and represented society’s interests are. In more economically prosperous societies, the number of interest groups and the people belonging to them is usually quite extensive. By contrast, in less affluent countries, the number of interest groups is usually quite limited, and their level of sophistication is usually lower. In democracies, lobbying is more formalized and wide-ranging than in authoritarian and developing countries, where it is largely informal, with only a small segment of society having access to government.
In democratic systems, interest groups are generally free to operate, though the acceptance of the scope of their activity by the general public and politicians may vary. Even in democracies, many may consider interest groups detrimental to the operation of society and government (in general, however, there is a broad consensus in most democracies that interest groups play a vital and necessary role in political and economic life). In postcommunist Lithuania, for example, there has been skepticism of interest groups both among the public (a hangover of the fear of belonging to banned groups in the former communist regime) and among some politicians who believe such groups acted as an impediment in the transition to democracy by promoting their special interests over that of society. In contrast to democracies, authoritarian regimes often restrict and may even ban group formation and lobbying.
The Role Of Interest Groups In Public Policy Making: Pluralist And Neo-Corporatist Theories
Pluralism and neo-corporatism are the two primary theories that have been put forward to explain interest group influence on public policy. Pluralists argue that the most realistic description of politics and policy making is a marketplace with more or less perfect competition. In theory, in this political marketplace many (or plural) perspectives—as represented by individuals, political parties, and interest groups and interests—compete to have their views heard by government and their favoured policies enacted. According to this conception, because of competition between the varied and diverse interests, no single interest is likely to have its views win consistently over others. The United States is invariably cited by scholars as the country coming closest to this model in practice, though other democracies also qualify, particularly those in the Anglo-American tradition such as Canada and Australia.
Neo-corporatism and state corporatism
Neo-corporatism is a much more structured theory of interest group activity than pluralism. It is a modern version of state corporatism, which emerged in the late 19th century in authoritarian systems and had several manifestations in the first half of the 20th century—for example, in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Francisco Franco’s Spain. In this system, society is seen as a corporate—that is, united and hierarchical—body in which the government dominates and all sectors of society (e.g., business, the military, and labour) are required to work for the public interest as defined by the government.
Theories of interest group activity in non-pluralist regimes are less all-embracing because of the wide variety of such regimes. State corporatism helps explain group activity in some countries (e.g., Cuba); in former communist countries (e.g., those in eastern Europe), the leaders of groups were simply tools of the party elite; in authoritarian countries in the developing world (e.g., the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Tonga), it is the elite cliques close to the royal family that hold the most sway.
Influence Of Interest Groups
Research conducted in the United States provides major insights into the factors that determine interest group influence. Money is important in explaining the influence (or lack thereof) of interest groups, but, contrary to what might be believed by the public, it is not simply money that determines political clout. Factors determining the influence of individual interest groups include the group’s financial resources, the managerial and political skills of its leaders, the size and cohesiveness of its membership, and political timing—presenting an issue when the political climate is right. Three factors appear to be of particular importance:
How much influence a group has depends on the extent to which government officials need the group. The more elected or appointed public officials who rely on an interest, business, or organization, the greater its leverage will be over government. Some corporations may have a presence in many districts throughout the country, and decisions that affect them will affect employment in those districts, thus making it likely that members of the legislature from those districts will be favourably predisposed to legislation that the group supports. Moreover, many interest groups provide major financial backing to political campaigns; the more widely dispersed its funds are in a country, state, or local jurisdiction, the more likely that legislators will listen to the concerns of that group.
Lobbyist–policy-maker relations are also important in explaining the relative power of an interest group, since it is at this point that the demands of the group are conveyed to government. The more skillful the lobbyists are in forging personal contact with government officials, the more successful the group is likely to be. As noted earlier, this is the case in both democratic and authoritarian systems alike. In the United States, political scientists have identified phenomena known as “iron triangles” and “policy niches” in regard to lobbyist–policy-maker relations. In such cases, lobbyists, members of the legislature, and, in particular, members of the key committees work together to get policy enacted. These arrangements typify a form of elitism with privileged access leading to established lobbyist–policy-maker relationships that gives “insiders” an upper hand in influencing public policy.

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