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II. Pluralism Model
III. The Purpose of Interest Groups
V. Political Action Committees
VI. How Do Interest Groups Form?
VII. Political Culture
VIII. The Free Rider
An interest group can be defined as an organized group sharing common objectives that actively attempts to influence government (Janda, Berry, & Goldman, 1997). Interest groups are private organizations that try to affect public policy and try to influence the behavior of political decision makers. As a result, interest groups are often called pressure groups because of their effort to exert pressure in an effort to promote their agenda. The term interest group covers just about any group of people attempting to influence government. David Truman (1951) defines an interest group as “a shared-attitude group that makes certain claims on other groups in society” (p. 37) by acting through the institutions of government. Some interest groups are temporary; others are permanent. Some focus on influencing a particular policy, others on broad changes. Some work through the executive or administrative agencies, others through the judicial or legislative sectors, still others through public opinion.
Membership in interest groups is linked to socioeconomic status and is greatest among professional, college-educated, and high-income persons. Those who are the most disadvantaged economically cannot afford to join interest groups, and many may not have the time or expertise to find out what group might represent them. Even a small contribution to an interest group may be seen as a luxury they cannot afford. Nor do they have the expertise to be interest-group entrepreneurs by creating and marketing their own special interest. As reported in 1993, although 25% of social security recipients were members of an interest group that supported the needs of social security members, less than 1% of the food stamp recipients and only 2% of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children were members of groups that supported their interests (Verba, Schlozman, Brady, & Nie, 1993).
Where do interest groups fit in the policy cycle? Government is defined as the official policymakers. Official policymakers have the legal authority to make policy. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government make up the body of official policymakers. Interest groups are considered part of the nongovernmental participants. Nongovernmental participants have no legal authority to make policy; they can only influence policy. Interest groups, political parties, and the media are examples of nongovernmental participants that can affect policy but not make policy. Political parties and the media can be included as interest groups. Political parties, like interest groups, try to influence public policy. However, interest groups can support candidates for public office, while political parties sponsor candidates for public office. Interest groups may influence the nomination of candidates. However, political parties must win elections. Candidates do not run for office under the banner of the interest group. However, they do run under the banner of the political party.
There are many types of interest groups that can affect policy as nongovernment players. They include corporations, trade associations, professional associations, labor unions, citizen groups (interest groups open to anyone), think tanks (Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Rand Corporation), universities and colleges, churches, charities, media outlets, and political parties. These groups are part of the agenda-setting, policy formulation, and evaluation process. Their power and authority come from their membership and financial status. The goal of the interest group is good public policy, but individual members may have self-interests.
The First Amendment to the Constitution gives every citizen the right to assemble and petition the government for the resolution of grievances. Alexis de Tocqueville (1834–1840) wrote, “In no country of the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America” (p. 197). He was amazed at the degree to which Americans formed groups to solve social and political problems and suggested that the ease with which Americans form organizations is a reflection of a strong democratic culture.
James Madison (1787) viewed interest groups, which he called factions, as a necessary evil. He believed that interest groups not only conflict with each other but also conflict with the common good. However, Madison thought that abolishing interest groups would destroy liberty—a remedy “worse than the disease.” In “Federalist No. 10,” published in 1787, he explained that liberty promotes factions, and in a large republic such as the United States, there would be many different factions held together by regional or local special interests so that no single one of them would dominate national politics.
Use of the term special interest implies that it is not in the public interest. Many scholars dislike the term, since it can carry a negative implication. When politicians want to garner support from constituents, they may refer to the opposition as being friendly to special interests. This suggests that the special interest does not have the public interest at heart. Public interest groups are citizen groups that have no economic self-interest in the policies they pursue (Berry, 1996). Groups such as Common Cause and the Consumer Federation of America see themselves as public interest groups, interested in the public welfare and not the interests of business organizations, trade associations, unions, or other special interests. They want government to take a largely regulatory role. As a result, public interest groups are popular with environmental and civil rights groups, both of which serve special interests.
Government growth and regulation over the last few decades account for a good portion of the proliferation of special interests. The more areas in which the federal and state governments have become involved, the more special interests have developed to attempt to influence policy. Veterans’ benefits create veterans’ groups; professional license requirements by state governments have given rise to groups such the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and other groups that lobby government for their own special interests. Interest groups have also increased over the last few decades as government becomes more active in civil rights, social welfare, and consumer rights.
There are many interest groups looking to influence government to benefit their special interest. They include business and trade organizations, professional associations, organized labor, women’s organizations, religious groups, single-issue groups, and environmental organizations, among others.
Business and trade organizations include groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufactures. Professional associations include groups such as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association. The Teamsters and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are examples of organized labor. Women’s organizations date back to the pre–Civil War period when women were active in the antislavery campaigns. In the early 20th century, women’s organizations were active in the suffrage movement. Today, the largest feminist organization is the National Organization for Women. Religious groups have a long history of involvement in politics. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference took an active role lobbying for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Other politically active groups include the Christian Coalition and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Single-issue groups, such as the National Rifle Association or Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), attract support from people with a strong commitment to a single cause. Groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, and the National Audubon Society lobby to protect the environment.
James Madison’s solution to the problems posed by interest groups was to create a wide-open system in which many groups would be able to participate so that groups with opposing interests would counterbalance one another. He succeeded in his efforts. Today, some scholars argue that the increase in interest group representation has resulted in less power for interest groups and better democracy.
Gabriel Almond (1958) identified four types of interest groups: anomic, nonassociational, institutional, and associational. Anomic groups are generally spontaneous groups with a collective response to a particular frustration. Anomic groups tend to generally have poor political communication skills. Nonassociational groups are rarely well organized, and their activity is dependent on the specific issue. They differ from anomic groups in that members are usually similar to one another and have a common identity. Institutional groups are mostly formal and have some other political or social function in addition to the particular interest. Associational groups are formed specifically to represent an issue of a particular group. The institutional category includes legislatures, political executives, bureaucracies, armies, and churches. These groups articulate their own interests or represent the interests of other groups in the society. The nonassociational interest groups include lineage, ethnic, regional, religious, status, and class groups. The anomic category is concerned with spontaneous breakthrough into the political system, such as riots and demonstrations. The associational interest groups include specialized groups such as trade unions, business organizations, professional organizations, civic organizations, and educational organizations. They form to represent the interest of a group.
Public interests are interests that are connected to the general welfare of the community, while private interests are associated with benefits for part of the community. Political parties offer people the best chance to participate in the decision-making process (Schattschneider, 1960).
Private interest groups include producers, professional groups, and unions. Producers represent goods or services, such as business and agriculture. Professional groups represent the interests of professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and dentists; they are very influential in the policy- making process because of their importance in local communities and because of their ability to make substantial campaign contributions. The unions’ primary role has been to protect the jobs of their members and work for maximum wage and benefit levels, such as pensions; political power of private-employee unions has eroded, possibly due to declining membership. In general, labor union membership has always been low in the United States compared with other Western nations, and it has been steadily declining in recent years; most observers believe that the political power of private labor unions has eroded in dramatic ways over the past several decades.
Public interest groups try to get government to do things that will benefit the general public rather than the direct material interests of their own members. The number and influence of public interest groups has grown markedly since the late 1960s; many were initiated by social movements, including some that were created by social movements for consumers, the environment, and women.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that private-sector union membership has steadily declined since 1973. At the same time, public-employee union membership has steadily increased. The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2009 the number of unionized workers who worked for the government surpassed those in the private sector for the first time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 51.4% of the 15.4 million union members in the United States were employed by government in 2009 (Stern, 2010). In 1962, President Kennedy signed executive order 10988, allowing the federal work force to unionize. This led to the rise of the unionized public work force, and it effectively changed the political environment. Unions such as AFSCME, the Service Employees International Union, and the National Education Association had incredible growth (Henninger, 2010). Since public-sector salaries come from taxpayers, these public-sector unions are representing the interests of their members when they advocate for higher taxes.
Mancur Olson (1965) focused on the logical basis of interest group membership and participation. He theorized that only a benefit reserved strictly for group members will motivate one to join and contribute to the group. This means that individuals will act collectively to provide private goods but not to provide public goods. In 1982, he expanded the scope and suggested that that small coalitions tend to form over time in countries. Groups and unions will have incentives to form political lobbies and influence policies in their favor. These policies will tend to be protectionist and anti-technology and will therefore hurt economic growth. It can be argued that protectionist and anti-technology policies help maintain the status quo, thereby protecting jobs. This generally does not work and can lead to economic decline (Olson, 1982).
II. Pluralism Model
The political theory of pluralism holds that political power in society does not lie with the electorate, or with a small concentrated elite, but is distributed among wide numbers of groups. These groups may be trade unions, interest groups, business organizations, or any of a multitude of formal and informal coalitions.
Most political scientists in the United States believe that interest groups actually serve as important instruments to attain democracy and serve the public interest. Pluralists believe the interest group system is democratic because people are free to join or to organize groups that reflect their own interests. Generally, elections do not adequately communicate what the people want in terms of policy; the many groups and organizations to which people belong are better vehicles to convey what the people want to political leaders. Groups are easy to form. Most citizens are able to create them without too much difficulty. As a result, the interest group system serves the U.S. system well because people in the United States are free to join or to organize groups that reflect their interests, and it provides a vehicle for citizens to influence government. Government power is broadly dispersed because of federalism, checks and balances, and the separation of powers; because power is broadly dispersed, governmental institutions are open to the appeals of the broad variety of groups that exist in society.
Pluralist political scientists view interest groups as an additional tool of democratic representation (and not as a problem). The pluralist model is the prominent theory associated with interest groups. In this theory, democracy is viewed as a marketplace with more or less perfect competition. Various perspectives are represented by interest groups that compete for influence over policy issues. The pluralist model assumes equal access to the policy-making arena, fragmentation of the marketplace, a competitive process for determining policies, and the neutrality of government. These theoretical conditions form a system in which everyone is free to organize for political purposes and in which the policy-making process is not monopolized by powerful political forces.
All Western democracies exhibit some degree of pluralism, but the United States may be the closest to a realization of this model. However, the pluralist model has been criticized on several accounts. The predominant argument has been that in reality, political access and power are unevenly distributed in the democratic system as a result of varying levels in education, economic resources, and political constraints. Early criticism of pluralism led to the development of the elitist theory, which states that financially privileged individuals and groups have more impact on policy making than other groups.
Traditionally, interest groups have been seen as special interests that challenge the public good and make the pursuit of the public interest extremely difficult. By contrast, pluralists believe that interest groups are democratic because people are free to join or to organize groups that reflect their own interests. Pluralists see interest groups naturally forming when people are adversely affected. The pluralist model of democracy is based on the idea of pluralism, which assumes that people form groups along economic, religious, ethnic, or cultural lines and attempt to influence government policymakers. The pluralist model of democracy interprets government by the people to mean government by people operating through competing interest groups.
Pluralism views governmental conflict in terms not of a majority versus a minority but of many minorities in conflict with one another. Pluralism views society in terms of a conflicting struggle among different interests. Pluralist theory includes the belief that new interest groups form when the need arises. Truman (1951) stated that when individuals are confronted with change, they group together in an interest group. He viewed interest groups as a self-correcting market force. No government entity forces interest groups to form. They form to remedy some imbalance in society.
Under pluralism, democracy comes about through the openness of the system to group interests, but not necessarily as a result of mass citizen participation. Dahl (1989) stated that no modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is as a theoretical utopia. To reach the ideal requires meeting five criteria: (1) Effective participation— citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other; (2) voting equality at the decisive stage—each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weight to the judgments of others; (3) enlightened understanding—citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests; (4) control of the agenda—people must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are and what should be brought up for deliberation; and (5) inclusiveness—equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has a legitimate stake within the political process. Pluralists emphasize that power is not a physical entity that individuals either have or do not have but flows from a variety of different sources. Power comes from controlling various resources. However, because society has many interests, under pluralism, the common good is best served by a process that permits many interests to achieve their policy goals. If many interests are served, then the collective interests of society will have been served (Dahl, 1961).
Elite theory is a theory that tries to describe and explain the power relationship in the political environment. It argues that economic and policy-planning power is held by a small minority. Through positions in corporations, on corporate boards, or through financial support of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, members of the elite are able to exert significant power over policy decisions of corporations and governments. Although there are some objections to the elite model of pluralism, groups often need financial and political resources to effectively operate. “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (Schattschneider, 1960, p. 35). Essentially, money may be the single most important factor in interest group success. Money is especially important for elections, and groups help candidates who favor their cause.
III. The Purpose of Interest Groups
Interest groups serve at least five purposes in American government. Interest groups represent their constituents in an effort to affect the political agenda. Interest groups make it possible for citizens to participate in the political process. They educate group members, the general public, and politicians. They help bring attention to the specific issues, and they help oversee and evaluate current programs. As program evaluators, they act in an unofficial capacity, making sure their interests are served. Although the federal government has the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and other official evaluators, interest groups also evaluate programs. Interest groups may help to get an issue on the legislative agenda, they may help an agency write a rule, and they may bring a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, interest groups will do unofficial evaluations to determine success of a policy and determine if the group needs to lobby for more change.
Membership in interest groups generally requires dues. Many interest groups have strong member bases and huge financial resources, giving them frequent access to public officials. Business and professional organizations tend to have little problem maintaining a membership. Members of these groups gain a substantial benefit by joining. The American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are examples of business and professional organizations with a strong membership. As a result, they employ very powerful lobbyists and have little problem-gaining access to government.
Other groups serve an ideological purpose. These interest groups tend to have members who drop in and drop out of the group. Large citizens’ groups, such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), MADD, and the NAACP, have huge financial resources because of their extensive membership. Although members may drop out, others are always joining. As a result, they can hire very effective lobbyists. Smaller interest groups, with limited financial resources, may not be able to afford an effective lobbyist.
In addition to membership, interest groups employ lobbyists. Lobbyists represent the interest group and promote the group’s interest to the official policymakers. Lobbyists can devote their efforts to one organization or interest, or they can be part of a law or consulting firm. The term originated at a time when interest groups tried to contact members of Congress in the lobby of the Capitol building.
Many lobbyists are lawyers and former government officials who are familiar with the political environment. The growth of the professional lobbyist has meant a concentration of power over government within an elite group of people, with personal and professional connections that help gain them access to policymakers and legislators.
The two main lobbying strategies are labeled inside lobbying and outside lobbying. These strategies include communication between public officials and group lobbyists. Inside lobbying is based on developing close contacts with policymakers. Outside lobbying uses public pressure to influence officials (Ornstein & Elder, 1978).
There are two broad categories of lobbying: direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying requires direct contact with the policymaker (legislative, executive, or judicial). Traditionally, lobbyists participate in direct lobbying. A survey of Washington lobbyists showed that 98% use direct lobbying with government officials when promoting their groups’ interests (Schlozman & Tierney, 1986). Grassroots lobbying requires lobbying interest group members and others outside the organization. When lobbyists do not make sufficient progress with policymakers, they may ask group members and others to write letters and participate in other methods to attract the interest of policymakers.
Lobbying legislators is the strategy that receives the most attention. If an interest group’s goal is new legislation, lobbyists will meet with lawmakers in an effort to promote the interest group agenda. They meet with legislators in an effort to garner support for the group’s position and to provide expert information, advice, and language when the lawmakers write proposed legislation. However, most interest groups do not have sufficient money to give to reelection campaigns and effectively sway a legislator’s vote, so they tend to be just providers of information. Lobbyists also participate in coalition building. They see an advantage in having a diverse coalition. If many organizations and associations join together, they can send a strong message to the policymakers.
Interest groups do not always look to make new laws. Often, they lobby for a favorable interpretation of existing regulations. For example, an environmental interest group may lobby the Environmental Protection Agency for stricter interpretation of existing law. Interest groups lobby the executive departments and agencies in much the same ways they lobby legislators, including through personal contacts, offering research, and general public relations.
Although interest groups primarily affect change through lobbying legislators and administrators, sometimes they may need to take their cause to the judiciary. Through class-action lawsuits and amicus curiae (friend of the court briefs), interest groups can affect the judiciary. Education, women’s rights, the death penalty and criminal justice issues, abortion, and prayer in public schools are some of the social issues brought to the U.S. Supreme Court by interest groups. The NAACP is a classic example of how an interest group used the courts to affect change. Thurgood Marshall, who later served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, served as the chief attorney for the NAACP (an interest group) in its challenge to the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). After successfully challenging this issue, the NAACP went on to successfully challenge other venues of segregation, such as public transportation, restaurants, hotel accommodations, and others. Like the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has represented the interests of many smaller groups and individuals who otherwise would not have the funds to bring a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. For example, in 1967, the Lovings did not have the funds to fight the anti-miscegenation statute of Virginia. The ACLU represented the Lovings’ interests, resulting in the overturning of all anti-miscegenation laws in the United States (Loving v. Virginia, 1967).
Lobbying is the process of petitioning government to influence public policy and is an important part of the democratic process. The right to form groups and to present the groups’ ideas is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Today, because of the size and complexity of government, individual citizens cannot effectively petition the government for redress of grievances. Federal and state governments deal with large numbers of complex economic and political issues, allowing little time for direct constituency contact. Just as few people would think of appealing to the courts without the benefit of counsel, few people would consider dealing with government without the benefit of a lobbyist. This has given rise to professional lobbyists. A lobbyist is a person who attempts to influence government policies and actions. Interest groups, such as business, professional, ideological, and trade associations may employ lobbyists.
Since Americans who are disadvantaged economically cannot afford to join interest groups and may not have the time or expertise to find out what group might represent them, some scholars suggest that interest groups and lobbyists are the privilege of the upper and middle class and those who belong to unions and special interests. The poor depend largely on indirect representation. Issue-oriented interests may represent lower-income groups if the policy positions involve the problems of the poor but are not limited to the poor, such as health care, affordable housing, social security, and education. Although they may not join a group, they reap the benefits. Additionally, efforts on behalf of the poor come from public housing officials, welfare workers, public interest groups, and other groups that speak indirectly for the poor. The poor remain outside the interest group network and have little direct voice of their own.
Lobbying is a difficult job, demanding hard work and long hours. It is demanding not simply because it is difficult to get government to do what you want it to do, but because there are usually other lobbyists working on the same issue asking government to do something else. To stand out from the competition, lobbyists must be seen as reliable sources of information. Optimally, they want to be seen as the real policy experts. Lobbyists perform useful functions by providing information to government, educating the public, and preparing legislation. There are those that suggest lobbyists are a third house of Congress. However, there is no doubt that lobbyists are a powerful force in the American political system. Many interest groups have Washington, D.C., offices and employ full-time lobbyists. Others are lawyers, public relations specialists, or Washington insiders and are hired on a fee-for-service basis.
V. Political Action Committees
Following Watergate in the early 1970s, Congress limited the amount of money that individuals and corporations could contribute directly to candidates, in an effort to limit the influence of big money in politics. But there was no prohibition on individuals and businesses to organizing committees and donating money in ways that favor one candidate over another. This was the beginning of the enormous growth of political action committees (PACs). This rise in PACs illustrates how interest groups were able to work around the reforms so important to Congress. Although PACs grew out of this reform, congressional members benefit from PACs. Generally, the major portion of PAC contributions go to incumbents, effectively securing reelection.
The primary way to gain access to legislators is the campaign contribution. Interest group contributions not only help lobbyists gain access, but also help elect people friendly to the group’s goals. As the cost of campaigns continues to rise, legislators must depend more heavily on the contributions of organized interest groups. PACs are created to raise and distribute funds for campaign and election purposes. Critics of PACs state that the money contributed to finance campaigns leads to influence, and influence in a democracy should not be tied to money.
VI. How Do Interest Groups Form?
The proliferation of interest groups began after World War II, and they continue to grow. As government expands, so do interest groups. President Franklin Roosevelt, through his New Deal policies, expanded the reach of government, effectively creating an atmosphere that has created the enormous number of interest groups we have today. The role of interest groups is to influence government and affect change. As government expands, interest groups grow in an effort to influence a larger government.
In recent decades, the growth of interest groups can be largely attributed to the creation of public interest, citizens’ groups, or single-issue groups. Interest groups will form when the political environment supports private interests and when the rules make it easy to organize. Diversity of interests, such as race, religion, and ethnicity, has contributed to the growth of interest groups. As we become a more global society, interest groups will form to accommodate the global interests.
The number of interest groups began to escalate in the late 1960s and has continued to grow steadily. Interest groups seem to flourish in a society with diverse interests, a political culture that supports the pursuit of private interests, rules that make it easy to organize, and government that is sufficiently active for its policies to have consequences for private parties. All of these conditions are present in the United States. Additionally, the First Amendment guarantees citizens basic rights that are essential to the ability of citizens to form organizations.
VII. Political Culture
Almond and Verba (1965) differentiate among parochial, subject, and participant political cultures. In a parochial political culture, citizens have little awareness of or orientation toward either the political system as a whole or the citizen as a political participant. In a subject political culture, such as Germany, citizens are oriented toward the political system, but they are essentially passive. The participant political culture has a high level of political awareness along with significant citizen participation. The United States serves as a good example of participant political culture. Through citizen participation and awareness, individuals and groups can influence decision making. There is an assumption that more demands will be made on government in a participant political culture.
Daniel Elazar (1984) stated that there are three identifiable political cultures. Individualistic political culture emphasizes private concerns and views government as a utilitarian tool to be used to accomplish what the citizens want. Moralistic political culture views government as a mechanism for advancing the public interest; governmental intervention in the economy is accepted, and there is more public concern about policy issues. The traditionalist political culture takes a paternalistic and elitist view of government and looks to maintain the existing social order; citizens are expected to be relatively inactive in politics.
For interest groups to survive, they must attract paying members. For example, the AARP, the largest membership organization for people 50 years of age and older, continues to grow because of the growing number of people reaching that age. As baby boomers continue to age and join the organization, the AARP will continue to grow. Interest groups such as the AARP attract resources by giving people something of value. In this case, the AARP represents its members in an effort to promote the interests of older Americans. In exchange, the group members give financial support by paying membership fees.
James Q. Wilson (1973) noted three different kinds of benefits. Purposive benefits are those that are ideological in nature. Material benefits are those that promise some kind of financial benefit to participants—for example, the AARP offers health insurance benefits. Solidarity benefits are those that are derived from directly participating with others in a group endeavor—for example, a local chapter of the AARP may ask members to canvas the community to promote the organization’s agenda, or they may get together to stuff envelopes.
VIII. The Free Rider
Those who get the benefit without having to join the organization are referred to as free riders. Free riders often make it difficult for interest groups to raise the necessary funds to function as needed. For example, public television depends on contributions from viewers to support its programs and budget. However, if one does not donate money to public television, one still gets the benefit of its programming.
If a trade union negotiates a pay increase for industry workers, all employees will benefit even if they are not members of the union. However, there is still a benefit to paying dues to a group. Although all employees may benefit from a pay increase, there are selective benefits for members. Members of a union may enjoy strike benefits, insurance benefits, or the ability to go to union meetings or conventions for professional-growth purposes.
Olson (1965) wrote that if everyone in a group has interests in common, then all will act collectively to achieve them, and in a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannize and exploit the minority. He argued that individuals in any group attempting collective action will have incentives to free ride on the efforts of others if the group is working to provide public goods. Individuals will not free ride in groups that provide benefits only to active participants.
Many interest groups are ideological in purpose and are not so dependent on membership. In these groups, members drop in and drop out. For example, in recessionary times, if one needed to choose between joining a professional group (trade union, bar association, teachers union, etc.) or an ideological group such as the Sierra Club or a politically motivated organization, it is likely that one would choose a professional group. Citizens are less likely to drop out of professional associations.
The First Amendment right to assembly implies a fundamental right to form organizations. Interest groups coupled with federalism make government more accessible to citizens. Although the Constitution established one government, it recognizes state governments. This is the foundation of federalism. Americans’ access to government is easier at the state, county, and local levels. Arguably, federalism fosters individual participation in the political process. Those interested in entering the political arena often start with an interest group at the local level. This environment shapes the political culture.
Interest groups are an integral part of the political landscape of the United States. James Madison (1787) viewed interest groups as a necessary evil. He believed that interest groups not only conflict with each other but also conflict with the common good. However, Madison thought that abolishing interest groups would destroy liberty—a remedy “worse than the disease.”
As stated in a previous section, the socioeconomic status of group membership plays a key role in its ability to influence and promote its agenda. The AARP has a very large membership of educated and committed members. As a result, when the AARP speaks, Congress listens. Those who complain that their interests are not represented, or that one group has too much access to lawmakers, can form groups. As Madison implies, we are best served by having multiple groups, so that one group does not dominate. Nevertheless, socioeconomic status is an important part of interest group influence. “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (Schattschneider, 1960, p. 35).
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