Interest groups and lobbying are inevitable and essential components of democratic politics. Although political thinkers like James Madison feared the corrosive effects of factions, interest groups do provide several benefits. Many interest groups formed in the early years of the Republic, including the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833 and American Temperance Union (1836). Groups such as these were able to overcome the free-rider problem and other barriers to collective action. Through these and other interest groups, concerned citizens can work together to influence public policy. When testifying before deliberative bodies, interest groups supply technical information about the activities that governments seek to regulate. Through mobilizing protests and participating in election campaigns, interest groups help elected officials discover how voters are responding to government initiatives.
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. 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 expansion of the interest group universe in recent years has been driven by the expanding scope of government activity. Fragmentation of old interests and the growing specialization of groups have also contributed. 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 are 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.
- What sorts of benefits do politicians receive from lobbyists? If interest groups are so beneficial, why do citizens view them with such suspicion?
- Why was Prohibition passed despite lacking widespread support in many areas of the country? Why was it later repealed?
- According to David Truman, does pluralism work? Why or why not? On what basis do critics disagree with Truman?
- What actions has the government taken to foster interest groups? How do governmental policies themselves create potential interest groups?
- Why have interest groups become increasingly fragmented and specialized?
- 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?
- What do political action committees get in return for their donations to candidates? What evidence exists that such contributions are corrupting our political system?
- Overall, how does political action committee activity affect public policy? Has the proliferation of interest groups strengthened or weakened the influence of elected officials? Why?
- How will the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision shape the role of interest groups in federal elections? Are there ways to reconcile the protection of First Amendment rights of interest groups with concerns about their influence over elections and policy?