Describe the different types of interest groups (single issue groups and public interest groups) and the goals that each type pursues.
Single-issue interest groups are exactly that: groups concerned with one issue, and one issue only. Although the single interest might overlap with broader issues or related interests, the main goal of a single-interest group is to promote legislation related to the target area. For example, the National Rifle Association (NRA) can be considered a single-interest group. Its concerns range within the rubric of gun rights, but the NRA lobbying effort remains solely concerned with Second Amendment issues. Although the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) does not use political lobbying as aggressively as does the NRA, it can also be considered a single-issue interest group. PETA is concerned primarily about the humane treatment of animals and advocates policies that prohibit animal testing and slaughterhouses, for example. Other examples of single-interest groups include Planned Parenthood, which promotes women's health issues related to reproductive freedom. On the other side of that particular debate, groups like Americans United for Life (AUL) seeks to ban abortions, and would lobby politicians in order to achieve this primary goal. Labor rights organizations like the AFL-CIO can also be considered single interest groups, but are also commonly afforded their own category as being labor unions ("Interest Groups").
Public interest groups are more comprehensive in their scope. The range of specific issues a public interest groups deal with can be large, complex, and expansive. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) addresses issues ranging from internet censorship to gay rights. The members comprising a public interest group like the ACLU could come from any political party or end of the political spectrum. However, often a public interest group will end up taking firm stances on issues that matter to single-issue voters, thereby isolating (or including) those voting blocks. For example, an anti-abortion voter would not support the ACLU, which advocates the right for a woman to have an abortion.
Another huge public interest group is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Although AARP serves a specific demographic (seniors), the organization addresses a number of issues that ultimately impact, or serve the needs of, the general population. This is especially true given the fact that all persons who do not die young will certainly grow old. Goals of public interest groups will depend on specific hot topics, but generally their mission statements should clarify stances on specific political topics.
Do interest groups serve a positive or negative purpose in the policy process? Why?
Interest groups probably have a net-neutral effect on the policy process. On the one hand, interest groups can be classified as advocacy organizations and are crucial for the effective functioning of a large democracy. Interest groups represent individual voters in ways that are more direct, and in some ways more meaningful, than politicians' relationships with their constituents. It would be nearly impossible for a single voter to get his or her voice heard on issues such as abortion rights. Yet when joining forces with a special interest group, the person's concerns may be voiced among likeminded voters. With resources pooled together, a group of women concerned about reproductive freedom can lobby Washington. The interest group therefore facilitates the democratic process.
For example, an individual who is kicked out of school for wearing a shirt that says "We're here, We're Queer, Get Used to It!" might find legal assistance with the ACLU. Otherwise, that student would probably not be able to afford legal council. After using the services of the ACLU, the individual also makes a difference by getting publicity for the issue of gay rights and freedom of speech. The special interest group facilitates the democratic process by drawing attention to political issues using the tools of the media and public relations.
A voter concerned about their gun rights might join the National Rifle Association, so that they can contribute to the protection of Second Amendment rights. This also allows the pro-gun voter to know which candidates support gun rights, and which do not. With issues like gun laws, it is often straightforward party lines that determine politicians' stances on the issues. However, some issues tend to be party-neutral.
Joining a special interest groups ensures that specific political issues are recognized as valid issues by politicians. For example, the interest group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is an association of former law enforcement officials who lobby for the reform of drug prohibition laws. The organization has a relatively low profile, which underscores the need for its existence. If LEAP did not exist, then politicians would not know that law enforcement officers are gravely concerned with the failure of the war on drugs to keep streets safer and reduce crime. Interest groups also help the public process political issues in ways that are easily digestible and understandable. In other words, the interest group knows what it's doing. Therefore, interest groups can reveal the best of the democratic process by helping voters have a direct influence on the issues that matter most to them. Interest groups can take the personality out of politics too, by showing that it is not just politicians but issues that voters support.
By the same token, special interest groups can be accused of oversimplifying issues when they represent a large and diverse group of voters. The political process in the United States is woefully opaque, and interest groups do not necessarily make the political process more transparent. Interest groups represent the worst of political wheeling and dealing in Washington, for many cynical voters.
Furthermore, special interest groups put a great deal of pressure on politicians. That pressure is often legitimate. However, it sometimes results in political corruption. Large interest group organizations amass a great deal of money, which can be used to woo weak politicians. One of the problems with interest groups is that "groups are usually more concerned with their own self-interest than with the needs of society as a whole," (Edwards, Wattenberg, & Lineberry, 2006, Chapter 11).
Have interest groups become too powerful over time? Why or why not?
Interest groups have proliferated over the past several decades (Edwards, Wattenberg & Lineberry, 2006). They have also become more powerful and influential via the creation of political action committees (PACs). The increase in number of special interest groups of all types is a positive development in American politics because it reveals the ways individual voters can become mobilized to participate in the political process in ways meaningful to them. The increased power of interest groups attests to the political empowerment of the individual. Increased influence and political power among interest groups can also be considered a positive development, given the ways interest groups hasten the democratic process. The perceived problems with interest groups, such as disproportionate representation of lobbyists from interest groups with more money than others, point to some of the potential power struggles that play out on the American political landscape. Some of the reasons why interest groups have become more powerful over time is that they tend to proliferate. If an interest group pops up that is against euthanasia, then it is highly likely an alternative organization representing the pro-euthanasia voter will crop up. Therefore, interest groups in general gain attention and garner support from voters.
Are some interest groups better than others?
The best interest group is the one that represents the voter honestly and effectively. No one interest group is necessarily better than any other, because it depends on the issues that are meaningful to the individual. For a political conservative, the NRA and NARAL reign supreme, and are much better than the ACLU and PFLAG. The reverse might be true for a social liberal.