Interest Groups: Who or what are they?

Photos of protesters on both sides of the border wall issue.

A Trump supporter with a sign reading “Pres. Trump Build That Wall.” (Credit: modification of work–Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images and Paul Waldman, Special to the Washington Post Commentary: “Sorry, Trump voters, you got scammed. You’re never getting your wall.” at and Members of the League of United Latin American Citizens, respected Hispanic civil rights interest group protesting the border wall. (Credit: modification of work–LULAC at

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how interest groups differ from political parties.
  • Evaluate the different types of interests and what they do.
  • Compare public and private interest groups.

An interest group is a group of people working together through an organization and advocating on behalf of shared interests. Interest groups abound in the United States. In recent years, many groups spoke out on behalf of both sides of the argument over government healthcare. The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), also known as Obamacare, represented a substantial overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system.[1] Given its potential impact, interest group representatives (lobbyists) from the insurance industry, hospitals, medical device manufacturers, and organizations representing doctors, patients, and employers all tried to influence what the law would look like and the way it would operate. Moreover, besides paid representatives of many interest groups, many ordinary citizens got involved in “grassroots” lobbying efforts to attempt to influence lawmakers to support or oppose the legislation. Even after the legislation became law, interest groups remained involved, some seeking to influence the rules and regulations issued to implement the law, while others sought to challenge the law in court. In fact, throughout its entire existence, the controversial law continued to engage interest groups seeking to either protect and expand the law or to repeal and replace it. In 2017, the Republican dominated Congress and the Trump administration initiated an effort to substantially change U.S. healthcare law and many interest groups were once again working on behalf of their members.

Interest groups like those for and against the PPACA play a fundamental role in representing individuals, corporate interests, and the public before the government. They help inform the public and lawmakers about issues, monitor government actions, and promote policies that benefit their interests, using all three branches of government at the federal, state, and local levels. The multi-layered federal structure in the US allows for more points of access or linkages to the government.

While the term interest group is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the framers were aware that individuals would band together in an attempt to use government in their favor. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned of the dangers of “factions,” minorities who would organize around issues they felt strongly about, possibly to the detriment of the majority. But Madison believed limiting these factions was worse than facing the evils they might produce, because such limitations would violate individual freedoms. Instead, the natural way to control factions was to let them flourish and compete against each other. The sheer number of interests in the United States suggests that many have, indeed, flourished. They compete with similar groups for membership, and with opponents for access to decision-makers. Some people suggest there may be too many interests in the United States. Others argue that some have gained a disproportionate amount of influence over public policy, whereas many others are underrepresented.

Madison’s definition of “factions” can apply to both interest groups and political parties. But unlike political parties, interest groups do not necessarily function primarily to elect candidates under a certain party label or to directly control the operation of the government. That is, interest groups do not officially nominate or sponsor candidates for public office, although they may very well support or oppose candidates.

Political parties in the United States are generally much broader coalitions that represent a significant proportion of citizens. In the American two-party system, the Democratic and Republican Parties spread relatively wide nets to try to encompass large segments of the population.  Interest groups may support or oppose political candidates, however, their goals are usually more issue-specific and narrowly focused on areas like taxes, the environment, and gun rights or gun control, or their membership is limited to specific professions. They may represent interests ranging from well-known organizations, such as the Sierra Club, IBM, or the American Lung Association, to obscure ones, such as the North Carolina Gamefowl Breeders Association.

Political parties and interest groups both work together and compete for influence. While interest group activity often transcends party lines, many interest groups are perceived as being more supportive of one party over another. The National Rifle Association, the National Right to Life organization, and conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation are more likely to have relationships with the Republican Party. The National Organization for Women (NOW), teachers’ unions, and organizations such as Americans for Democratic Action all have strong relationships with the Democratic Party. Within each party, there is a competition for influence among the groups generally aligned with a party. Moreover, activists from many of these interest groups become activists with the political parties.

Consider the Original

Excerpts from || Federalist No. 10 || 

The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection
From the New York Packet.
Friday, November 23, 1787.

Author: James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. […] Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. […]

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. […]

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.

[…] From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

[…] Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,–is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.[2]

Exerpt from the Library of Congress, The Federalist Papers, Federalist 10, James Madison at
William T. Hornaday Conservation Award Winner and Eagle Scout delivering informative speech about the importance of nest-boxes and promoting the interests of the Texas Bluebird Society at their 10th Annual Meeting and Convention in Glen Rose, Texas on August 20, 2011. TBS is an active interest group advocating on behalf of the protection of Eastern Bluebirds and their habitat.

William T. Hornaday Conservation Award Winner and Eagle Scout delivering informative speech about the importance of nest-boxes and promoting the interests of the Texas Bluebird Society at their 10th Annual Meeting and Convention in Glen Rose, Texas on August 20, 2011. TBS is an active interest group advocating on behalf of the protection of Eastern Bluebirds and their habitat. (Credit: Jeff Hoag at 290 Photo)

What Are Interest Groups and What Do They Want?

Definitions abound when it comes to interest groups, which are sometimes referred to as special interests, interest organizations, pressure groups, or just interests. Most definitions specify that interest group indicates any formal association of individuals or organizations that attempt to influence government decision-making and/or the making of public policy. This influence is advocacy. People translate opinion into advocacy. They may speak to a friend or co-worker and eventually form a group with this shared interest in influencing others. If advocacy attempts are successful, other individuals, groups, legislators, etc. may be co-opted into the same opinion, shared interest, or common policy agenda. Often, this influence is exercised by a lobbyist or a lobbying firm.

Formally, a lobbyist is someone who represents the interest organization before government, is usually compensated for doing so, and is required to register with the government in which he or she lobbies, whether state or federal. The lobbyist’s primary goal is usually to influence policy. Most interest organizations engage in lobbying activity to achieve their objectives. As you might expect, the interest hires a lobbyist, employs one internally, or has a member volunteer to lobby on its behalf. For present purposes, we might restrict our definition to the relatively broad one in the Lobbying Disclosure Act.[3] This act requires the registration of lobbyists representing any interest group and devoting more than 20 percent of their time to it.[4] Clients and lobbying firms must also register with the federal government based on similar requirements. Moreover, campaign finance laws require disclosure of campaign contributions given to political candidates by organizations.

link to learningVisit this site to research donations and campaign contributions given to political candidates by organizations.


Lobbying is not limited to Washington, DC, however, and many interests lobby there as well as in one or more states. Each state has its own laws describing which individuals and entities must register, so the definitions of lobbyists and interests, and of what lobbying is and who must register to do it, also vary from state to state. Therefore, while a citizen contacting a lawmaker to discuss an issue is generally not viewed as lobbying, an organization that devotes a certain amount of time and resources to contacting lawmakers may be classified as lobbying, depending on local, state, or federal law.

Largely for this reason, there is no comprehensive list of all interest groups to tell us how many there are in the United States. Estimates of the number vary widely, suggesting that if we use a broad definition and include all interests at all levels of government, there may be more than 200,000.[5] Following the passage of the Lobbying Disclosure Act in 1995, we had a much better understanding of the number of interests registered in Washington, DC; however, it was not until several years later that we had a complete count and categorization of the interests registered in each of the fifty states.[6]

Political scientists have categorized interest groups in a number of ways.[7] First, interest groups may take the form of membership organizations, which individuals join voluntarily and to which they usually pay dues. Membership groups often consist of people who have common issues or concerns, or who want to be with others who share their views. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a membership group consisting of members who promote gun rights. For those who advocate greater regulation of access to firearms, such as background checks prior to gun purchases, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is a membership organization that weighs in on the other side of the issue.[8]

In addition to membership organizations, companies and corporate entities and governments may themselves have a compelling interest to be represented in front of one or more branches of government. For example, Verizon and Coca-Cola will register to lobby in order to influence policy in a way that benefits them. These corporations will either have one or more in-house lobbyists, who work for one interest group or firm and represent their organization in a lobbying capacity, and/or will hire a contract lobbyist, individuals who work for firms that represent a multitude of clients and are often hired because of their resources and their ability to contact and lobby lawmakers, to represent them before the legislature. A governmental institution, such as a state government, a county, or a municipality may also be represented by a legislative liaison, whose job it is to present issues to other governmental decision makers.

Interest groups also include associations, which are typically groups of institutions that join with others, often within the same trade or industry (trade associations), and have similar concerns. The American Beverage Association includes Coca-Cola, Red Bull North America, ROCKSTAR, and Kraft Foods.[9] Despite the fact that these companies are competitors, they have common interests related to the manufacturing, bottling, and distribution of beverages, as well as the regulation of their business activities. The logic is that there is strength in numbers, and if members can lobby for tax breaks or eased regulations for an entire industry, they may all benefit. These common goals do not, however, prevent individual association members from employing in-house lobbyists or contract lobbying firms to represent their own business or organization as well. Indeed, many members of associations are competitors who also seek representation individually before the legislature.

Finally, sometimes individuals volunteer to represent an organization. They are called amateur or volunteer lobbyists, and are typically not compensated for their lobbying efforts. In some cases, citizens may lobby for pet projects because they care about some issue or cause. They may or may not be members of an interest group, but if they register to lobby, they are sometimes nicknamed “hobbyists.”

Image A is of the back window of a truck. A sign visible through the back window reads

A Florida member of the NRA proudly displays his support of gun rights (a). In December 2012, CREDO, a San Francisco telecommunications company that supports progressive causes, called on the NRA to stop blocking Congress from passing gun control legislation (b). (Credit a: modification of work by Daniel Oines; Credit b: modification of work by Josh Lopez)

Interest groups serve as a means of political participation for their members. The primary goal of interest groups is to influence decision-makers and public policy through advocacy on behalf of members.

According to political scientists Jeffrey Berry and Clyde Wilcox, interest groups provide a means of representing people and serve as a link between them and government.[10] Interest groups also allow people to actively work on an issue in an effort to influence public policy. Another function of interest groups is to help educate the public. Someone concerned about the environment may not need to know what an acceptable level of sulfur dioxide is in the air, but by joining an environmental interest group, he or she can remain informed when air quality is poor or threatened by legislative action. Interest groups also try to get issues on the government agenda and to monitor a variety of government programs.

Lobbyists representing a variety of organizations employ different techniques to achieve their objectives. One method is inside lobbying or direct lobbying, which takes the interest group’s message directly to a government official such as a lawmaker.[11] Inside lobbying tactics include testifying in legislative hearings and helping to draft legislation. Numerous surveys of lobbyists have confirmed that the vast majority rely on these inside strategies. For example, nearly all report that they contact lawmakers, testify before the legislature, help draft legislation, and contact executive agencies. Trying to influence government appointments or providing favors to members of government are somewhat less common insider tactics.

Many lobbyists also use outside lobbying or indirect lobbying tactics, whereby the interest attempts to get its message out to the public.[12] These tactics include issuing press releases, placing stories and articles in the media, entering coalitions with other groups, and contacting interest group members, hoping that they will individually pressure lawmakers to support or oppose legislation. An environmental interest group like the Sierra Club, for example, might issue a press release or encourage its members to contact their representatives in Congress about legislation of concern to the group. It might also use outside tactics if there is a potential threat to the environment and the group wants to raise awareness among its members and the public. Members of Congress are likely to pay attention when many constituents contact them about an issue or proposed bill. Many interest groups, including the Sierra Club, will use a combination of inside and outside tactics in their lobbying efforts, choosing whatever strategy is most likely to help them achieve their goals.

An image of a person speaking through a bullhorn on the left, and a crowd of people marching down a street on the right. Several marchers are holding a large banner that reads

In February 2013, members of the Sierra Club joined a march on Los Angeles City Hall to demand action on climate change and protest the development of the Keystone pipeline. (Credit: Charlie Kaijo)

While influencing policy is the primary goal, interest groups also monitor government programs and activity and provide information to the public and to lawmakers about effectiveness or ineffectiveness of governmental programs from their point of view. Thus, a member of an interest group or a citizen concerned about the issues or the governmental activities that the interest group monitors, need not be an expert on the legislative process or the technical or legal details of a proposed bill to be kept informed and to know when to politically participate on issues of interest. Interest groups regularly inform members, the general public, and governmental decision-makers of their evaluations of issues and governmental activities of concern, and they suggest changes to programs and services.

Interest groups facilitate political participation in a number of ways. Some members become active within a group, working on behalf of the organization to promote its agenda. Some interests work to increase membership, inform the public about issues the group deems important, or organize rallies and promote get-out-the-vote efforts. Sometimes groups will utilize events to mobilize existing members or encourage new members to join.

Chart illustrating functions of interest groups including inside lobbying, outside lobbying, and monitoring of government programs.

Interest Group Types: Economic Issue Groups v. Citizen-Public Issue Interest Groups

Interest groups and organizations represent both economic and non-economic issues in the United States. Economic interest groups usually seek particularized benefits from government that favor a work-related single interest or a narrow set of economically related interests focused on some industry sector, occupational group, or employee union.[13] For example, The American Dairy Association may lobby government for tax exemptions, fewer regulations, or favorable laws that benefit individual companies or an industry more generally.

On the other hand, citizen-public issue interest groups represent individuals who have organized to advocate on behalf of a cause or purpose they consider important that is not directly related to their employment or work situation.[14] These groups may focus on single issues, such as the environment, gun rights, gun control, abortion, or a broader set of ideologically consistent issues. For example, citizen groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council have primarily focused on environmental issues. These citizen public issue groups often call themselves public interest groups.[15] They argue that what they do is in the public interest. They would argue that if the Sierra Club encourages Congress to pass legislation that improves national air quality, citizens receive the benefit regardless of whether they are members of the organization or even support the legislation. Many environmental groups lobby for and raise awareness of issues that affect large segments of the population.[16]

Of course, many citizen-public issue groups claim to work in the public interest.[17] Some liberal ideological groups such as or the Americans for Democratic Action or conservative ideological groups such as the Heritage Foundation or Christian Coalition have much broader range of issues they address. Of course, all claim to be working in the public interest. However, some citizens-public issue groups seek to advance the economic and political interest of a particular demographic such as the NAACP or La Raza.

While it is true that some citizen-public issue groups are seeking some economic benefits or at least a change in economic conditions in society, they differ from economic interest groups in that any citizen is open to join the group. In contrast, economic interest groups have closed membership based upon an individual’s employment, work situation, or professional status.[18]

Questions to Consider

  1. What are interest groups?

  2. How do they provide avenues for political participation?

  3. Why are some groups advantaged by the lobbying of government representatives, while others are disadvantaged?

  4. How do interest groups try to achieve their objectives?

  5. What benefits do interest groups bring to society?

  6. What are some of the disadvantages of interest groups?

Terms to Remember

advocacy–influence; individuals or interest groups speak out in an attempt to influence others

association–groups of companies or institutions that organize around a common set of concerns, often within a given industry or trade

citizen (public issue) interest groups–representing individuals who have organized to advocate on behalf of a cause or purpose they consider important that is not directly related to their employment or work situation; membership is open to all who support and wish to advocate for the cause or some public issue

contract lobbyist–lobbyist who works for a contract lobbying firm that represents clients before government

cooptation/co-opt–successful influence/advocacy for a policy position, agenda, opinion

economic (private issue) interest groups–representing individuals who seek particularized benefits from government that favor a work-related interest or narrow set of economically related interests focus on some industry sector, occupational group, or employee union; membership is based upon an individual’s employment, work situation, or professional status

in-house lobbyist–an employee or executive within an organization who works as a lobbyist on behalf of the organization

interest group–people working through an organization with a common interest often work together advocating on behalf of this shared interest

legislative liaison–a person employed by a governmental entity such as a local government, executive department, or university to represent the organization before the legislature

lobbyist–a person who represents an organization before government in an attempt to influence policy


  1. Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol 2010. Health Care Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Library of Congress, The Federalist Papers, Federalist 10, James Madison Author,
  3. Anthony J. Nownes. 2013. Interest Groups in American Politics. Routledge: New York.
  4. Nownes, Interest Groups in American Politics.
  5. Nownes, Interest Groups in American Politics.
  6. Jennifer Wolak, Adam J. Newmark, Todd McNoldy, David Lowery, and Virginia Gray, "Much of Politics is Still Local: Multistate Representation in State Interest Communities," Legislative Studies Quarterly 27 (2002): 527–555.
  7. Anthony J. Nownes and Adam J. Newmark. 2013. "Interest Groups in the States." In Politics in the American States. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 105–131.
  8. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was founded by James and Sarah Brady, after James Brady was permanently disabled by a gunshot following an assassination attempt on then-president Ronald Reagan. At the time of the shooting, Brady was Reagan’s press secretary. (March 1, 2016).
  9. (March 1, 2016).
  10. See in general Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2008. The Interest Group Society. 5th ed. New York: Routledge.
  11. Nownes and Newmark, "Interest Groups in the States."
  12. Ken Kollman. 1998. Outside Lobbying: Public Opinion and Interest Groups Strategies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  13. Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2009. The Interest Group Society. New York: Pearson.
  14. Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2009. The Interest Group Society. New York: Pearson.
  15. Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2009. The Interest Group Society. New York: Pearson.
  16. Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2009. The Interest Group Society. New York: Pearson.
  17. Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2009. The Interest Group Society. New York: Pearson.
  18. Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2009. The Interest Group Society. New York: Pearson.