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Democracy Papers
The Role of Interest Groups

By R. Allen Hays

"An interest group is an organized body of individuals who share some goals and who try to influence public policy."
                                               -- Jeffrey Berry,
                                                  The Interest Group Society

Democracy Papers

Interest groups are one important mechanism through which citizens in the United States make their ideas, needs, and views known to elected officials. Citizens can usually find an interest group that focuses on their concerns, no matter how specialized they may be. Directories of American voluntary associations reveal the incredible variety of reasons why citizens band together. The Gale Research, Inc., Encyclopedia of Associations is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive lists. Not all of these groups are politically active, but a great many try to influence public policy.

Both the formal structure and the informal traditions of American politics provide fertile ground for interest groups. One feature of the American system that enhances their influence is the relative weakness of U.S. political parties, which stems, in part, from the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. In a parliamentary system such as Great Britain, where the prime minister's hold on office depends on majority support in Parliament, parties exert considerable control over legislators and, as a consequence, over policy making. In contrast, elections of the U.S. president and Congress are politically separate events, even when held at the same time. Each legislator must construct a winning coalition in his or her state or district, and the nature of these coalitions is quite different from the majority coalition that the successful presidential candidate assembles. Clear evidence for this is the fact that Congress and the presidency have been in the control of opposing parties most of the time since World War II. As a consequence, neither Democrats nor Republicans are invariably bound to support the positions of their party's president or their party's electoral platform. Weak party loyalty enhances interest-group influence, both during elections, when their financial support can be critical, and afterwards, when groups that supported the winning candidate become closely involved in policy making.

A second feature of the system that encourages interest groups is the decentralization of political power to states and localities, known as the federal system, or "federalism." Citizen associations often get started at the state and local levels, later combining into national organizations. Decentralization thus encourages a greater variety of interest groups. It also further weakens the party system, because the social and economic diversity of the 50 states make strict party discipline difficult.

In addition, a strong, independent judiciary in the American system enhances the power of interest groups. U.S. courts often rule on issues that, in other democratic polities, would be under the control of the legislature or bureaucracy. Thus, interest groups can utilize litigation to achieve policy objectives that they cannot obtain through legislative action. For example, in the early 1950s, court victories by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) created the first cracks in American racial segregation, years before a Congress dominated by Southerners in key positions was willing to act.

Finally, the American tradition of virtually unlimited freedom of speech, press, and assembly means that nearly any point of view expressed by an interest group, no matter how radical, is permitted a public airing. To be sure, the increasing centralization of the media since World War II has made it more difficult for groups with fringe views to gain a serious hearing. However, this centralizing trend has been partially counteracted by the open access granted to groups on the Internet. On the whole, the American free speech and free press traditions, which offer numerous opportunities to publicize societal problems and lay out positions on public policy, encourage group formation.

The universe of interest groups

Before 1970, the typical American textbook on interest groups devoted most of its pages to three categories: business, labor, and agriculture. Since then, the interest-group universe has become much more complicated. Agricultural groups have lost influence due to the declining number of farmers in the United States. In addition, many new groups that fit none of these categories have emerged.


Most scholars would agree that business plays a central role in American politics. Major corporations carry the prestige of being important players in the U.S. economy. Because elected officials are held accountable for the nation's economic performance, they often fear anti-business policies will harm that performance.

Yet, business also utilizes direct levers of influence. Large multinational corporations bring vast resources to bear on their political goals. They are usually members of multiple trade associations, which represent an entire industry's views in the political process. Corporations also support "umbrella" groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that speak for the whole business community. Finally, individual companies directly lobby legislators, and they funnel millions of dollars in campaign contributions to the candidates they favor.

Labor unions

Labor unions grew slowly in the early part of the 20th century, but they gained a significant place in the American political system in the 1930s. The National Labor Relations Act protected collective bargaining and enabled unions to grow much faster. They reached a peak membership of 35 percent of the labor force in the 1950s. However, in the 1960s, union membership began to decline toward its current level of approximately 15 percent of the working population, and the political power of unions declined along with their economic power. The reasons for this decline in union membership, too complex to discuss in detail here, lie in the changing nature of the global economy, and the shift in the United States from a manufacturing-based economy to one more service-oriented. Unions, however, still exert considerable clout when they focus their energies on an election or an issue.

Professional associations

Another important type of interest group is the association of professionals. Groups like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association focus on the collective interests, values, and status of their profession. Less powerful, but nonetheless well organized, are professionals in the public sector. Virtually every specialty within state and local governments has its own national organization. In housing policy, for example, groups include the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the National Council of State Housing Agencies, and the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. Such groups are restricted from partisan activities by state and federal laws. However, they testify before Congress on issues affecting their programs, and they organize their members to speak with representatives from their own states or districts. Since low-income clients of public programs rarely organize themselves into interest groups that are influential at the national level, these associations of service providers are an important voice for the poor in the American political process.

Intergovernmental groups

A related category consists of interest groups representing units of state and local government, lobbying for their interests on the national level. While these groups have no official role in the U.S. federal system that divides authority among national, state, and local governments, they function much as other interest groups do. That is, they present the views of their members to Congress and the administration and make the case for their positions in the media. The National Governors' Association (NGA) and the National Conference of State Legislatures represent state officials, for example. Since state governors have direct administrative and political responsibility for carrying out social welfare programs mandated by the federal government, the NGA in particular has been influential in helping members of Congress draft social welfare legislation. The general institutional interests of counties are represented by the National Association of Counties, and those of cities by the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Public interest groups

The type of interest group experiencing the most rapid growth since 1970 is the "public interest group." Political scientist Jeffrey Berry defines a public interest group as one that supports goals that are not of direct material benefit to its members but rather express their values pertaining to society as a whole. The first public interest groups were spawned by the civil rights, women's rights, and environmental movements of the 1960s. Supporters of these causes often went through an evolution over time that transferred the expression of their views from street protest to organized action within the political system. Later, public interest groups mobilized on new issues, such as the rights of the disabled, prevention of child abuse or domestic violence, and gay/lesbian rights. These groups have also been major advocates for programs benefiting the poor. Some leading groups of this type include the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Children's Defense Fund, and Public Citizen (the group led by consumer activist Ralph Nader).

Public interest groups generally lack the financial resources of business groups. While the issues they champion often enjoy considerable public support according to opinion polls, few have mass memberships. One reason for this is that the intangible nature of their goals contributes to the "free rider" problem -- that is, an individual can benefit from an interest group's efforts without being a member, or at least without being heavily involved. Nevertheless, they use their expertise and information-gathering efforts to raise issues that no other groups are addressing. Initially, most public interest groups were on the left of the political spectrum. However, in recent years conservatives have organized their own groups, largely in response to the perceived liberal shift of public policy in the 1960s and 1970s. Among leading public interest groups in this category are the National Taxpayer's Union and Concerned Women for America. Conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation may also function as interest groups, as their research tends to support the conservative world-view. The same could, perhaps, be said about the Urban Institute on the liberal side.

These domestic public interest groups resemble the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that have sprung up on the international scene since the 1980s. In fact, some American groups have close ties with international NGOs. In both cases, support comes from citizens concerned about a general social issue, rather than immediate economic interests.

Limits on interest-group effectiveness

As this brief survey suggests, there are a great variety of interest groups on the American political scene; a large body of research indicates that their effectiveness in making the views of their members heard varies considerably. The reasons for this disparity lie in how a group employs its chief political resources: membership, cohesion/intensity, money, and information.

Number and cohesion of members

It would seem logical to assume that interest groups with a large base of support in the population would be the most influential. Elected officials champion the policies advocated by significant majorities in opinion polling, because they want to add the large number of potential voters supporting these positions to their winning coalitions. However, several factors complicate this picture.

It is true that millions of citizens belong to interest groups and that some, such as the environmentalist Sierra Club and the AFL/CIO, the labor organization, are quite large. However, a closer look shows that most mass-membership groups enroll only a small fraction of their potential supporters. For example, polls show substantial majorities of Americans in favor of strong environmental regulations. These supporters constitute a pool of millions of potential members for environmental interest groups. However, even the largest environmental groups claim memberships of under one million. This relatively small number of members is in keeping with the overall principle that the number of citizens who join interest groups is a small fraction of the U.S. population.

The late economist Mancur Olson advanced the most plausible explanation for this phenomenon. He argued that the achievement of a policy goal by an interest group is, in economic terms, a "public good." That is, the benefits of a group's success are enjoyed by those who agree with a group's position, whether or not they actually join the group. Thus, if whales are saved from extinction, one can derive satisfaction from their existence, even if one never paid dues to a "save the whales" interest group. It is true, of course, that if no one contributes, the group won't exist. However, in large groups the marginal contribution of each new member is small. Therefore, while thousands of supporters will join, many others will not join the group or make a full commitment; they will become "free riders", i.e., enjoying the benefits while others actively participate and pay.

Another serious problem faced by a mass-membership group is translating citizen support for the group into votes for candidates that support its goals. Voting is a complex act, involving multiple motivations and influences: the candidate's personality, party loyalty, and a range of issues. Voting studies show that many voters are not fully aware of the policy positions taken by candidates they support. As a result, it is often difficult for a group to show that the voting choices of its supporters are primarily motivated by its particular issues. Groups that can convince candidates of their voting power become feared and respected. For example, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which opposes gun control laws, has convinced legislators that its members will vote for or against them solely on this issue. Therefore, the NRA wields influence far out of proportion to its numbers, even though most Americans favor stronger gun control laws.

Because of the difficulties of mobilizing mass memberships, it is not surprising that smaller cohesive groups with more intensity of feeling often exercise influence far greater than their numbers might suggest. First, the smaller the group, the larger the marginal contribution of each member, so that "free riders" are reduced. Secondly, until the advent of the Internet, communication among members was much easier in smaller groups, thus making mobilization much easier. If these advantages of smaller size are reinforced by its members having a large stake in policy outcomes, then even a small group may become very powerful.


The importance of money in American politics has increased in recent years, due to the escalating costs of political campaigns. Existing laws limiting campaign contributions have gaps in them, and, many elected officials from both parties are reluctant to support changes in the current system that might give some advantage to their opponents. Interest groups that are most influential in national elections generally make voluntary contributions to candidates totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition, considerable financial resources are needed to maintain a presence in Washington between elections. A group needs a professional staff to influence legislation affecting its interests, in addition to the staff needed to communicate with its members and to offer them services. Groups without a steady Washington presence cannot exert the behind-the-scenes influence on the details of legislation that is the hallmark of a successful interest group.

Money also interacts with the factors of membership and cohesion. In order to overcome the free rider problem, groups must attract "policy entrepreneurs" -- that is, individuals who seek material, professional, or ideological rewards from organizing a successful group. To do so, the group's potential membership must have sufficient surplus resources to provide a promising organizational base. This need for a surplus creates an income floor, below which potential groups are unlikely to be organized. For this reason, relatively few groups directly represent the poor.

Above this floor, however, the role of resources becomes more complex. In the abstract, one might argue that a group with 1,000,000 members who each contribute $5 could raise as much money ($5,000,000) as a group with 10,000 members who can contribute $500 each. It is only when one considers the free rider problem, plus the high costs of communicating with a large membership, that the true disadvantage of the larger group becomes apparent.

Another factor affecting a group's mobilization of resources is whether its membership consists of individual citizens or of other organizations. Many powerful interest groups are, in fact, organizations of organizations. This includes trade associations, professional associations, and groups representing public and nonprofit service providers. A group composed of other organizations has fewer entities to mobilize, yet it can still claim to represent the thousands of people affiliated with those entities. In addition, its members can use organizational resources, rather than personal financial resources, to support it.


Next to a committed membership and money, information is the most powerful resource that an interest group can possess. Information is exchanged in several ways. First, information passes from interest groups to decision-makers. Groups often have technical knowledge that legislators lack, and they are eager to educate lawmakers on the issues they care about. It's true that the information they provide generally comes with a bias that reinforces the group's interests. Legislators are well aware of the bias, but may still find this information useful. One of the main advantages of a continuous presence in Washington is the opportunity to provide information to lawmakers at key points in the decision-making process.

Second, information flows from the legislative and executive branches to interest groups. Their staffers track legislative proposals, thus becoming aware of the most propitious times to try to influence the legislative process. Their informal contacts with congressional staff provide opportunities to testify at hearings and to mobilize their group's members when a crucial vote is near. Through this process, they learn which actors are most powerful and what strategies will gain their support. On occasion, they can obtain a modification to the detailed language of a bill in Congress that will affect its impact.

Finally, interest groups exchange information with members and with other citizens. They may conduct an investigation or commission a study that dramatizes a problem. If they attract sufficient media attention, legislators feel pressure to respond. They also solicit information from their members, and inform them about upcoming decisions. On most legislation, only a small number of private citizens contact their legislators. Therefore, 200 letters orchestrated by a group can seem like a blizzard of mail.

The rapid growth of the Internet during the last five years has radically reduced the cost of communication among large numbers of citizens. Most interest groups now have Web pages, and many use e-mail both to communicate with members and as a means for their members to communicate with decision-makers. However, the medium is so new that groups are still learning how best to utilize it, and it is too early to tell exactly how much influence it will have on the process of interest-group influence.

One recent example of such influence was the use of certain conservative Web sites to circulate negative information about former President Bill Clinton, some of it accurate and some of it grossly distorted or fabricated. This probably helped keep the momentum for Clinton's impeachment going, although a majority of Americans still opposed it. Unless large economic actors figure out a way to control Internet access, and thus increase its cost, the new medium is likely to have a democratizing influence on political dialogue. Conversely, it is possible that the Internet may also encourage the fragmentation of citizens into small, electronically linked groups who isolate themselves within increasingly bizarre world views.

Toward more effective public interest groups

For these reasons the preferences of smaller, more cohesive, better financed groups win out, more often than not, over the preferences of groups representing larger numbers of citizens. And particularistic interests frequently prevail over the more general interests of what one might call the larger public. The proliferation of public interest groups in recent years does, however, make the interest-group system as a whole more representative of the diversity of opinions among Americans. And public interest groups are often able to score victories over seemingly more powerful, better-financed opponents. At the end of the day, though, elected officials know that it takes money to win votes. Many times mass-based interest groups cannot reliably deliver the votes of their members, but trade associations and individual corporations can reliably deliver the dollars that candidates need to buy television advertising.

A crucial missing element in many public interest groups is the lack of genuine grassroots political organization. These groups typically consist of a small staff, supported by thousands of members whose only link to the group is periodic financial contributions. This structure is in contrast to earlier forms of mass political organization, in which national movements were built from smaller, face-to-face local organizations. With the exception of a small number of activists, members of modern groups rarely meet face to face.

Recent observers of American society have become increasingly concerned with a decline in community involvement by citizens. This decline applies to nonpolitical, as well as political organizations. Many causes have been advanced for this phenomenon: the isolating effects of television; the increase in dual-career and single-parent families where adults have little leisure time; and the cynicism generated by media-dominated campaigns that focus on personalities and scandals, rather than meaningful issues.

Whatever the causes of this decline, an interest group that could effectively mobilize people through local, grassroots chapters would be in a powerful position politically. It would develop a steady membership base that would be less expensive to reach because of established channels of communication. By supplementing national lobbying with direct local contacts with candidates and office holders, it could convincingly argue that its members will vote based on group issues. It would truly be a mass movement, rather than a small elite, funded by passive supporters.

However, the obstacles to creating such a group are formidable. A large initial infusion of money would be necessary to support local organizing campaigns. It would also have to overcome the American tendency to separate local from national issues. Finally, many citizens would have to be wooed from their tendency to focus on issues raised by the national media at the expense of face-to-face exchange with their neighbors.

A hallmark of a democratic society is that it allows citizens to create alternative political resources that they can mobilize when they believe private economic actors or government officials violate their interests. In that sense, organized interest groups play a fundamental role; they help citizens more effectively utilize the resources they have: voting, free speech, assembly, and the judicial process.

For Additional Reading

Frank R. Baumgartner and Beth Leech, Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and Political Science (Princeton University Press, 1998)

Jeffrey Berry, Lobbying for the People: The Political Behavior of Public Interest Groups (Princeton University Press, 1977)

Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis, Interest Group Politics (4th ed., Congressional Quarterly Press, 1995)

Michael T. Hayes, Lobbyists and Legislators: A Theory of Political Markets (Rutgers University Press, 1981)

R. Allen Hays, Who Speaks for the Poor? National Interest Groups and Social Policy (Garland Press [forthcoming, 2001])

Charles Lindblom, Politics and Markets: The World's Political-Economic Systems (Basic Books, 1977)

Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Schocken Books, 1970)

Mark P. Petracca, ed. The Politics of Interests (Westview Press, 1992)

About the Author:
R. Allen Hays is director of the Graduate Program in Public Policy and a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. His book, The Federal Government and Urban Housing, is a widely utilized source on the history of housing policy. More recently, his research has broadened to encompass the interest-group process surrounding the making of social policy. His book, Who Speaks for the Poor?, published by Routledge in 2001, documents and compares interest-group activity in three U.S. social policy areas: housing, food, and cash assistance. Prior to teaching at the University of Northern Iowa, Professor Hays worked as a local government housing administrator.


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