Elements of Successful Interest Groups

Size and Resources

Interest groups, comprised of members with shared knowledge, status, or goals, frequently advocate on behalf of particular political issues.

Learning Objectives

Explain the purpose, composition, and functioning of interest groups.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Interest groups may attempt to influence policy through lobbying, political contributions, or media campaigns.
  • Access to financial resources is generally necessary in order for lobbying efforts to be successful.
  • The greater the size of an interest group, the more likely it is to have the ability to influence policy.

Key Terms

  • interest group: Collections of members with shared knowledge, status, or goals. In many cases, these groups advocate for particular political or social issues.
  • lobbying: Lobbying (also lobby) is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in the government, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies.
  • media campaign: An attempt to influence public opinion using television, radio, internet, and print advertisements.

Introduction

Interest groups are comprised of individuals with shared knowledge, status, or goals, and in many cases these groups advocate for particular political or social issues. In the United States, interest groups are often associated with lobbying groups, who seek to influence government officials to act favorably towards them. Interest groups, however, are not always involved in lobbying. They may not be politically active, or else they may use indirect tactics such as media campaigns, research, and public opinion polls in order to advance their cause.

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The Iron Triangle: In United States politics, the iron triangle comprises the policy-making relationship among the congressional committees, the bureaucracy, and interest groups.

Interest groups that are politically active with regards to one or more issues are called advocacy groups. In liberal democracies, advocacy groups tend to treat bureaucracy as their main channel of influence, because that is where the decision-making power lies. The aim of advocacy groups is to influence a member of the legislature to support their cause by voting a certain way. The practice of attempting to influence lawmakers is called lobbying, and the effectiveness of a group’s lobbying efforts is usually tied to its access to resources (almost always financial).

Interest Groups and Resources

Interest groups may gain influence because of their access to money. Indeed, financial resources are often critical in influencing governmental policy. In some cases, money is used directly to influence politicians — for example, a lobbyist may treat a legislator to an expensive dinner. These instances are almost always considered corrupt, and are often outlawed as bribery. Money can also be used in more subtle ways to pressure lawmakers into voting in a particular way. For example, because they play a large role in the national economy, large corporations have an advantage in influencing lawmakers. If these large corporations were to suddenly become less successful, it might create economic trouble, which could turn public opinion against elected officials. Thus, the wealthier a corporation is, the more political clout it tends to have. Likewise, large corporations have greater access to politicians than other groups, because corporate leaders often have insider status in powerful groups. Moreover, an interest group might also make use of financial resources in order to donate to a political campaign. In this instance, the donation is not explicitly tied to a policy vote, and is therefore a legal contribution. That being said, the expectation is that interest groups will use their wealth to elect candidates that support their issues. In all of these ways, interest groups use money to gain success and influence on many levels.

Issue Campaigns

Apart from using money to directly influence bureaucrats, interest groups may also use their wealth to launch issue campaigns. In this case, organizations try to gain popular support among American voters for a particular issue. Ultimately, the goal of this tactic is to pressure legislators into acting a certain way in response to a perceived public mandate. Since legislators are elected, there is a strong incentive for them to vote for issues that are popular with the current public opinion. Media campaigns can be very effective at marshaling public opinion, but they are very expensive, because campaigns need to buy television and radio air time, as well as print advertisements. Money is also required to hire and fund the professionals who will run these campaigns. Thus, interest groups with greater funds are far more likely to successfully influence policy than those groups with fewer financial resources.

Size of Interest Groups

As organizations attempting to influence politics through public opinion, interest groups with larger memberships have an advantage over smaller ones. Since legislators are accountable to voters, the more public support there is for an issue, the more likely it is to receive support and governmental attention. Larger interest groups necessarily have influence because of how many voters participate in them. They are also effective because the core group membership is able to more effectively campaign on behalf of an issue than a group with a smaller membership. Additionally, larger interest groups are able to stage large demonstrations that make visible the widespread support for an issue.

Leadership

Interest groups often rely on leaders to organize their fundraising and make their advocacy efforts successful.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the different kinds of leadership structures in interest groups and social movements.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Corporate interest groups usually choose professional lobbyists to lead their advocacy.
  • Interest groups that use public campaigns to influence opinion tend to rely on campaign strategists.
  • Interest groups that form social movements may not have a clear leader, though a figurehead may become an informal spokesperson for the group.

Key Terms

  • lobbyist: A person remunerated to persuade (to lobby) politicians to vote in a certain way or otherwise use their office to effect a desired result.
  • political strategist: A consultant who advises and assists political campaigns.
  • social movement: A large, informal grouping of individuals or organizations which advocates for specific political or social issues.

The role of leadership varies based on the political orientation or goals of an interest group. Some interest groups, especially corporations, hire lobbyiststo lead their advocacy efforts. Interest groups with organized media campaigns may be led by political strategists. In contrast, more amorphous social movements that act as interest groups may coalesce around charismatic, but often unofficial, group leaders.

When interest groups attempt to influence policymakers through lobbying, they usually rely on professional lobbyists. Lobbyists are often well-connected professionals, such as lawyers, whose role is to argue for specific legislation. Successful lobbyists achieve insider status in legislative bodies, meaning they can talk directly to lawmakers. Once they gain access to legislators, the lobbyist’s job is to persuade them to act on behalf of their client. Recent estimates put the number of registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. at about 13,700, though there are likely thousands more unregistered lobbyists working to influence policymakers.

Interest groups that attempt to influence policy by changing public opinion may be led by political strategists, who are often consultants familiar with public relations, advertising, and the political process. Political strategists are responsible for determining a campaign plan. The campaign plan usually involves deciding on a central message the interest group hopes to use for persuading voters to support their position. Additionally, the strategist determines where advertisements will be placed, where grassroots organizing efforts will be focused, and how fundraising will be structured. In issue-based campaigns, successful political strategists create public awareness and support for an issue, which can then pressure legislators to act in favor of the interest group.

Interest groups may be broader than one formal organization, in which case advocacy may form a social movement. A social movement is group action aimed at social change. Social movements may have some formal hierarchy, but they are often disorganized, with funding and support coming from a range of decentralized sources. Because of these factors, social movements do not always have a clear leader the way corporate lobbying efforts and media campaigns do. Instead, social movements may either rely on a network of local leaders, or may be led informally by a charismatic or influential participant. For example, the Civil Rights Movement was a diffuse and widespread effort toward social change, involving many formal organizations and informal groups. Still, many consider Martin Luther King, Jr. to be the leader of the Civil Rights Movement because of the highly influential and public role he played in influencing policies and opinions. Interest groups with a de facto leader may be more successful at sustained political advocacy than those with no clear hierarchy, because a clearly defined leader allows for more efficient organization of fundraising efforts, demonstrations, and campaigns. That being said, social scientists often disagree when defining social movements and the most effective forms of advocacy, finding that leadership plays an ambiguous role in terms of the overall success of many interest groups.

Cohesiveness

Advocacy groups that form along ideological, ethnic, or foreign policy objectives tend to have higher levels of internal cohesion.

Learning Objectives

Describe the key characteristics and aims of advocacy groups

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the social sciences, a social group has been defined as two or more humans who interact with one another, share similar characteristics, and collectively have a sense of unity. A social group exhibits degrees of social cohesion and is more than a simple collection or aggregate of individuals.
  • Advocacy groups use various forms of advocacy to influence public opinion and/or policy; they have played and continue to play an important part in the development of political and social systems.
  • An ethnic interest group, according to the political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, is an advocacy group established along cultural, ethnic, religious, or racial lines by an ethnic group for the purposes of directly or indirectly influencing the foreign policy.
  • While many formal organizations established by ethnic identity groups are apolitical, others are created explicitly for political purposes.
  • Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.
  • Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the loosening of self-awareness in groups, although this is a matter of contention.

Key Terms

  • social cohesion: The bonds or “glue” that maintain stability in society.
  • groupthink: A process of reasoning or decision-making by a group, especially one characterized by uncritical acceptance or conformity to a perceived majority view.
  • ethnic interest group: An ethnic interest group, according to the political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, is an advocacy group established along cultural, ethnic, religious or racial lines by an ethnic group for the purposes of directly or indirectly influencing the foreign policy of their resident country in support of the homeland and/or ethnic kin abroad with which they identify.

Introduction

In the social sciences a social group has been defined as two or more humans who interact with one another, share similar characteristics, and collectively have a sense of unity. Other theorists, however, are a wary of definitions which stress the importance of interdependence or objective similarity. Instead, for researchers in the social identity tradition, “a group is defined in terms of those who identify themselves as members of the group. ” Regardless, social groups come in a myriad of sizes and varieties.

A social group exhibits some degree of social cohesion and is more than a simple collection or aggregate of individuals, such as people waiting at a bus stop or people waiting in a line. Characteristics shared by members of a group may include interests, values, representations, ethnic or social background, and kinship ties. Kinship ties being a social bond based on common ancestry, marriage, or adoption. In a similar vein, some researchers consider the defining characteristic of a group as social interaction.

Advocacy Groups

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AIPAC Protest DC 2005: The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee is an example of an ethnic interest group. This is a photograph of a group of protesters outside the AIPAC conference at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center.

Advocacy groups use various forms of advocacy to influence public opinion and/or policy; they have played and continue to play an important part in the development of political and social systems. Groups vary considerably in size, influence, and motive; some have wide-ranging, long-term social purposes, others are focused and are a response to an immediate issue or concern. Motives for action may be based on a shared political, faith, moral, or commercial position. Groups use varied methods to try to achieve their aims including lobbying, media campaigns, publicity stunts, polls, research, and policy briefings. Some groups are supported by powerful business or political interests and exert considerable influence on the political process, others have few such resources.

An ethnic interest group, according to the political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, is an advocacy group established along cultural, ethnic, religious, or racial lines by an ethnic group for the purposes of directly or indirectly influencing the foreign policy of their resident country in support of the homeland and/or ethnic kin abroad with which they identify. According to Ambrosio, “like other societal interest groups, ethnic identity groups establish formal organizations devoted to promoting group cohesiveness and addressing group concerns. ” While many formal organizations, established by ethnic identity groups, are apolitical, others are created explicitly for political purposes. In general, groups who seek to influence government policy on domestic or foreign issues are referred to as “advocacy groups. ” Those interest groups, established by ethnic identity groups, are referred to as ethnic interest groups. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee is an example of an ethnic interest group in the United States – its mission is to influence American foreign policy and maintain a robust alliance with Israel.

Groupthink

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people, in which the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. Antecedent factors, such as group cohesiveness, structural faults, and situational context, play into the likelihood of whether or not groupthink will impact the decision-making process.

Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the loosening of self-awareness in groups, although this is a matter of contention. Sociologists also study the phenomenon of deindividuation, but the level of analysis is somewhat different. For the social psychologist, the level of analysis is the individual in the context of a social situation. As such, social psychologists emphasize the role of internal psychological processes. Other social sciences, such as sociology, are more concerned with broad social, economic, political, and historical factors that influence events in a given society.

Members

Members join interest groups because of common concerns and to unite under one cause.

Learning Objectives

Describe the activities of interest groups and the challenges they face

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An interest group is a group of individuals who share common objectives and whose aim is to influence policymakers.
  • Membership interests represent individuals for social, business, labor, or charitable purposes in order to achieve civil or political goals. Institutional interests represent other organizations, with agendas that fit the needs of the organizations they serve.
  • A general theory is that individuals must be enticed with some type of benefit to join an interest group.
  • People who join an interest group may not have shared opinions on other issues. With the membership united under one cause, the staff has the ability to pursue other issues that the membership may disagree on because members will remain united by the primary cause.

Key Terms

  • interest group: Collections of members with shared knowledge, status, or goals. In many cases, these groups advocate for particular political or social issues.
  • incentive: Something that motivates, rouses, or encourages.
  • solidary: Having shared community interests and responsibilities.

Introduction

An interest group is a group of individuals who share common objectives, and whose aim is to influence policymakers. Institutional interest groups represent other organizations, with agendas that fit the needs of the organizations they serve. Examples include the American Cotton Manufacturers (which represents the generally congruous southern textile mills) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which represents the multitude of wants of American businesses).

Membership interest groups are organizations that represent individuals for social, business, labor, or charitable purposes in order to achieve civil or political goals. Examples include the NAACP (African-American interests), the Sierra Club (environmental interests), the NRA (Second Amendment interests), and Common Cause (interests in an increase in voter turnout and knowledge). Membership includes a group of people that join an interest group and unite under one cause. Members may or may not have an opinion on some of the issues the staff pursues. Similarly, staff are the leaders. With the membership united under one cause, the staff has the ability to pursue other issues that the membership may disagree on because members will remain in the group because they are united by the primary cause.

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NRA Headquarters: The headquarters of the NRA, an interest group, located in Fairfax Virginia, USA.

Benefits and Incentives

A general theory is that individuals must be enticed with some type of benefit to join an interest group. Known as the free rider problem, it refers to the difficulty of obtaining members when the benefits are reaped without membership. For instance, an interest group dedicated to improving farming standards will fight for the general goal of improving farming for all farmers, even those who are not members of the particular interest group. Thus, there is no real incentive to join an interest group and pay dues if the farmer will still receive that benefit even if they do not become a member. Interest groups must receive dues and contributions from members in order to accomplish their agendas. While every individual in the world would benefit from a cleaner environment, an environmental protection interest group does not, in turn, receive financial help from every individual in the world.

Selective material benefits are sometimes given in order to address the free rider problem. Interest groups give material benefits like travel discounts, free meals at certain restaurants, or free subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, or journals. Many trade and professional interest groups give these benefits to members.

A selective solidary benefit is another type of benefit offered to members of an interest group. These incentives involve benefits like socializing, congeniality, the sense of group membership and identification, the status resulting from membership, fun and conviviality, the maintenance of social distinctions, and so on. A solidary incentive is one in which the rewards for participation are social and created out of the act of association.

An expressive incentive can be another basic benefit to members of an interest group. People who join an interest group because of expressive benefits join to express an ideological or moral value they believe in. Such values include free speech, civil rights, economic justice, or political equality. To obtain these types of benefits, members simply pay dues or donate time or money to get a feeling of satisfaction from expressing a political value. Even if the interest group does not achieve its goals, members merely want to be able to say they helped out in the process of trying to obtain the goals, which is the expressive incentive. Interest groups that rely on expressive benefits include environmental groups and groups who claim to lobby for the public interest.

Collective Action

Mancur Lloyd Olson, a leading American economist, sought to understand the logical basis of interest group membership and participation. The reigning political theories of his day granted groups an almost primordial status. Some appealed to a natural human instinct for herding, others ascribed the formation of groups to kinship rooted in the process of modernization. Olson offered a radically different account of the logical basis of organized collective action. In his first book, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965), he theorized that “only a separate and ‘selective’ incentive will stimulate a rational individual in a latent group to act in a group-oriented way.” Olsen’s work laid the foundation for understanding how members of a large group will not act in the group’s common interest unless motivated by personal gains.