The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 5: Interest Groups

Read or download the textbook here.


by Carl D. Cavalli and Barry D. Friedman

A protester holsd a sign that says, 'Smash the Oligarchy'The framers’ hostility to “factions” was addressed not by restrictions, but by encouraging proliferation, creating what today is referred to as a pluralist system. While groups offer potential members many social and economic reasons for joining, obtaining active support is often difficult because of the “free-rider” problem. Modern literature challenges the popular myth of benevolent groups alleviating inequities in society. Instead, Roberto Michels speaks of an “iron law of oligarchy” and E.E. Schattschneider warns of a strong upper-class bias. Data on federal spending by lobbyists support this theory about bias. Groups use many methods to influence public policy. These methods include lobbying, direct access through “iron triangles,” litigation, direct grants of power from governments, “going public,” and electoral activity. Government regulation of groups’ electoral activity has resulted in the formation of many types of organizations including political action committees, “527” organizations, and, most recently, “SuperPACs.”

'The Assemblyman is perplexed' by Charles W. Saalburg [Public domain]. From The Wasp (San Francisco) Vol. 26, 1891.


Chapter 5: Interest Groups

I. European Feudal Systems
A. Individuals had automatic, life-long affiliations with their peers to “watch each others back”
1. Formation of the earliest interest groups
B. Due to the large tracts of land in the Americas, the automatic affiliations became out of the question
1. Conscious organization of associations for collective benefit formed
a. Example: Volunteer Fire Departments
II. Attitudes toward interest groups
A. Federalist #10: Reflects the distaste of the framers toward “factions”
B. Shay’s Rebellion
C. Alexis de Tocqueville
D. Pluralism
III. Factions generally understood to encompass:
A. Interest groups
B. Political parties
C. Other instruments whose purpose is to cultivate political influence
IV. Should factions be destroyed?
A. No
1. "...Destroying the liberty which is essential to [their] existence"
B. At the Constitution Convention:
1. They decided to "extend the sphere"—i.e., they transformed the system of 13 separate political systems into one large, national system. And then they set the stage for factions to proliferate
2. There would be so many factions in this one national system that they would cancel each other out, rather than creating the conditions under which one faction would eventually prevail
V. What are interest groups?
A. Interest groups organize to influence government
B. Focus on a single area, remaining uninterested in others
C. Different from political parties, which seek to mold policy in all areas and get their members elected to run the government
D. Interest groups are focused on influencing government—largely from the outside
VI. Why do interest groups exist?
A. Democracy
1. Democratic governments are set up to listen to public input, and an organized group is more easily heard than a scattered collection of individuals
B. Diversity
1.There would be little reason for groups to form if the entire population possessed the same beliefs, desires, and needs
C. Division
1. Our government is fragmented—divided in many ways
2. This fragmented structure allows for numerous access points for interest groups to contact
VII. Rationale for Forming and Joining Groups
A. Material benefit
1. Gaining something for membership - discounts
B. Personal satisfaction
1. Join an organization in order to feel good about themselves
C. Employment
D. Common Interests
E. Ideology/ Policy preferences
VIII. Organization of Interest Groups
A. Structure
1. Leadership
a. Provides direction
B. Staff
1. Accounts for much of the group’s activities
C. Membership
1. Account for some activity (e.g., picketing, protesting, writing to or calling government officials)
2. Most instances provides mainly financing and popular support
IX. Financial Structure
A. Membership Dues
B. Contributions from Supporters
C. Charitable Foundations
D. Think Tanks
E. Other groups
F. Benefits from Federal and State Funding
1. Not supposed to be used to support their attempts to influence government
2. Funding for research or project grants that has findings that support a group’s aim
X. What about "Free-Riders"?
A. Any gain goes to everyone in the group, those who contribute nothing to the effort will get just as much as those who made a contribution
B. More likely with large groups
C. More likely with broad interests
D. Collective Goods
1. Cannot limit them only to those who contribute time and resources to the cause
2. Private Goods can have those limits but the regulations regarding the manufacture of those goods can be collective
XI. Selective Incentives
A. Benefits that can be limited in their distribution
B. Free T-Shirt if you join
C. Discounts only if you are registered with that group
XII. Realities of Interest Groups
A. "Iron law of oligarchy" – Robert Michael
B. In any organization, a clique of some sort will inevitably rise to the top and assume control
C. Grant McConnell stated "If private associations themselves should be undemocratic [because of the iron law of oligarchy], … how can they be essential to democracy?"
1. Solidify the dominant position of those who are already affluent and influential
2. Interest groups insatiable appetite for funds causes them to solicit dues and Donations from people of modest means
3. Send desperate solicitations to the masses to send money lest their political opponents inflict irreversible damage on the United States
4. Solicitations contain shrill, disingenuous messages to alarm and inflame the recipients, who proceed to write checks as donations to the organizations
XIII. Lobbying
A. Major part of Interest Group Activities
B. K Street
C. Very expense to start up
D. Upper class is disproportionately represented in this competition to influence policymaking
E. Lnowing how to play the "game"
F. Lobbying helps “lobbyists”!
XIV. Iron Triangle
A. Subgovernment model states that, in each area of public policy, there is a subgovernment that dominates policymaking in that policy area
B. Participating in an iron-triangle partnership can be extraordinarily beneficial for the partners, while those who are not involved in these mutually beneficial arrangements are condemned to pay the taxes that finance the benefits that the iron-triangle partners are enjoying
C. No enterprising individual or group will be content for very long to be left out of the process by which the pie is divided and the pieces are distributed to those who are actively playing the game
XV. Use of the Courts
A. Many groups set out to influence policy by going ‘‘over the heads’’ of the president and Congress, and filing lawsuits in the judiciary
1. Nader v. Allegheny Airlines, Inc.
XVI. Going Public, Grassroots, and "Astroturf"
A. Many groups attempt to influence public opinion in addition to trying to directly influence government
B. Advertising
C. Letters, Phone Calls and Emails
D. Rallies and protests
E. Grassroots
F. "Astroturf": what look like grassroots letter-writing campaigns or spontaneous protests actually are carefully planned and orchestrated by interest groups

Figure 5.1: The Iron Triangle

An example of how the iron triangle works.


Watch the following video to learn more about interest groups.

The following video examines a specific American interest group, the NRA (National Rifle Association).

See what a former lobbyist has to say about what it means to be a lobbyist.

The following video examines the reaction of lobbying groups to elections.

Test Your Knowledge

How well do you understand Interest Groups? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!




Examine The Revolving Door for Yourself!

Examine the data on the “revolving door” by going to the website. Under the “Influence & Lobbying” menu, click on “Revolving Door.” On the left-hand menu, click on “Lobbying Firms” and select one of the firms. You will see a list of its lobbyists. Examine the lobbyists’ employment timeline and history. In addition, there are tabs for information on the industries they represent and their expertise. Examine several current lobbyists’ profiles.

What do you see? Did they spend time in government service before their current employment as a lobbyist? If so, explore their time in government. Does it appear related to their expertise and/or their clients? Can you make the case that their past government work constitutes a current asset to their lobbying work!

Visit page to learn more about The Revolving Door.

For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 5 References on pages 131-134 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

The Road to Riches Is Called K Street by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum.