Interest Groups are those aggregates that represent the individuals belonging to a particular cohort or a group of organisations. According to Professor Scot Schraufnagel, interest groups exist to perform a variety of functions including representing members’ interest and issue positions, participating in policy debates, educating the public about issues, influencing policymakers and monitoring relevant government programs. Interest groups also called special interest groups, advocacy groups, or pressure groups.
Definition: An interest group is a group that organises itself according to the desires of its members to influence policy and ensure that it benefits their interests. People in interest groups might organise on the basis of common work interests: teachers, agriculturists/ farmers or factory workers, or even by common traits such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity. Members can organize to support an ideology- neoliberal market policies, or because of common concern such as environmental issues. Interest groups may work to impact one segment of society for example to get subsidies for farmers or to impact society as a whole, in which these groups will attempt to influence policy with a broader public purpose such as improving air quality.
These groups influence public policy through advocacy, public campaigns, protesting laws that directly threaten their interests, and lobbying as well.
Interest Groups: Types and Their Examples
These groups are divided into six broad categories, namely:
- Economic Interest groups:
As the name suggest, Economic groups seek to conserve and satisfy the economic interests of their members. Most economic interest groups can be further categorized into Business, labour, professional and consumer interest groups.
Business interest groups seek to secure corporate or employer interests. An example of a business / economic interest group would be the US Chambers of Commerce (USCC) which represents a variety of business and trade organizations and was formed to counteract the growing power of the labour movement in the early 1910’s. USCC often uses partisanship to its advantage and achieves its goals by endorsing specific candidates at both the local and national level.
Labour interest groups represent the economic interests of individuals in the workforce instead of corporations. Labour unions like The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) are a perfect example of this type of economic interest group.
- Public Interest groups:
Public interest groups, as the name suggests, are associations of individuals who organise to advance a cause with no economic interests. These groups most often work to absolve issues that concern society as a whole, rather than a particular group. These groups operate on the common ideal of common good and community well-being as they seek to address policies pertaining to health, the environment and local systems of governance which influence the whole community. Environmental interest groups often fall under public-interest groups, for their work aims to benefit a larger audience which includes both members but non-members as well. Environmental groups seek to ensure that policy prioritizes conservation of biodiversity, the health of the community as well as mitigating the climate crisis. Greenpeace in the U.S and Extinction Rebellion in the U.K are two environmental organisations although they both take different approaches to solving the ecological crisis. Greenpeace is an interest group that seeks to influence policy through lobbying, advertisement, and meeting with policymakers while Extinction Rebellion is an interest group which engages in protest and advocacy to ensure that their concerns are dealt with through policy.
- Ideological groups:
Ideological groups function on ideological principles which prescribe a certain perspective on current affairs and issues, they seek to ensure that public policy reflects their ideology. Religious interest groups fall under this category, for they cite their unique ideology on the issues they are concerned with. The Christian Coalition in the U.S, serves as an example, favouring conservative Christian policy and the abolition of the separation between church and state. The Christian coalition works to ban abortions, ensure ‘traditional value’ inculcation in the educational institutions and lowering taxes.
- Government Interest groups:
Government interest groups are those which represent the interests of governments to other governments or from local bodies of government to state and national forms of government. City and State governments in the U.S lobby in Washington D.C to pursue their interests, demand that their concerns be treated and to ensure the needs of their constituents are satisfied. Some examples of government interest groups in the United States include the National Governors Association and the National Conference of Mayors.
- Civil-Rights Interest groups:
Civil rights interest groups those that seek to protect the human rights of all people or select vulnerable communities. Examples of these in the U.S include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Organisation for Women (NOW) and Human Rights Watch etc. These groups focus on Civil rights and liberties and aim to abolish systemic and isolated discrimination of vulnerable individuals and marginalized communities.
- Single issue Interest groups:
Single issue interest groups are those which aim to influence policy pertaining to a narrow and specific issue. A prime example of a single-issue interest group would be the National Rifle Associate (NRA) which is perhaps the most notoriously influential interest group in the United States. The NRA seeks to ensure the right of all individuals to have easy access to and own and use firearms. It endorses political candidates and spends millions of dollars lobbying every year, not only in favour of its interests but also against any laws, organisations or representatives who they perceive as threats to this right. The NRA spent more than $30 million in support of Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 and a total of $56 million on the 2016 presidential election, according to federal election commission data.
- Representation: It represent their members’ political, social, ideological or economic interests and concerns.
- Participating in policy debates: Itmeet with policy makers to influence legislation and engage in socio-political discourse.
- Education: Besides influencing policy, interest groups spend a majority of their time communicating with and informing both members and general public about their concerns.
- Policy influence: It influence legislation and members of the executive branch both directly and indirectly by having members contact lawmakers and other public officials.
- Monitoring government: It also pay careful attention to pending legislation pertaining to their concerns and interests, executive branch action as well as the implementation of policy. Several promises are made by governments who have no intention of utilizing funds for change and interest groups act as eyes to hold the government accountable in their pledges.
How Interest Groups Influence the Government
- Inside Lobbying
- Meet with policymakers to make their voices heard
- Directly contact executive agencies to discuss potential bills/ amendments and policy proposals
- Outside Lobbying
- Educate members on relevant key issues
- Increase general public awareness on these key issues through media efforts
- Organise and coordinate grassroots lobbying by contacting policymakers to influence decisions making
- Engage in political processes to elect supportive candidates and donate to their campaign
- Monitoring Government Programs
- These groups monitor and protest government programs that threaten their cause
- Evaluate the effectiveness of government programs
- Suggest changes to policymakers
- These groups use their media platforms to critique government programs and advocate for change.
Interest Groups are arguably the most important mediums for democratic participation. Their importance lies in the channels and avenues that interest groups open up through their influence, advocacy and action, which consequently allow for participation of the masses in political process. Interest groups are actively mobilizing and organising citizens in order to introduce social change through public policy.
These groups are integral in ensuring democratic participation however as the influence and power of groups such as the NRA begin to allow them to monopolize systems and ‘lobby’ to have their demands met, democracy begins to waiver. Private interests and specific communities begin to reap the benefits at the cost of others for examples Conservative Christians who manage to influence state policy and impose a ban on abortions will experience ideological satisfaction while women in that state will lose bodily autonomy. Similarly, the NRA will continue to see an increase in their profits while thousands of people (many school children) will lose their lives to gun violence.
These groups are important as they solidify the foundation of democracy and political participation, they give voices to marginalised communities and oppressed people who may begin to see systemic political change. However, the power of these groups may begin to the corrupt political process as monopoly interest groups will be able to pull the strings in parliament and lobbying laws allow them to ‘fund’ policymakers that will represent their ideas and interests.
Lumen Learning. “Boundless Political Science.” Lumen, 2021, courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-politicalscience/chapter/