Special interest groups are organizations whose members are organized, mobilized and share specific agendas and objectives (Dincer, 2012). They work to gain favor with politicians and legislative officials in order to influence governmental policy. Interest groups are very common in the United States (Thurber, 2010). They operate very differently from political parties that ultimately try to gain control of the government (Naoi & Krauss, 2009). They use a variety of tactics, including employing lobbyists, to push their interests.
Special interest groups tend to be an outgrowth of periods of transformation in the country (Ben-Bassat, 2011). For instance, in the 1770s special interest groups were basically independence groups who advocated fiercely for liberation from the British. In the 1830s and 1840s, there were many religious and anti-slavery interest groups such as the Quakers. The 1860s saw the rise of craft unions, with business association groups following soon after in the 1880s and 1890s. The modern day version of special interest groups gained prominence in the early 1900s when mass production and cash crops became common. As the American economy and society in general has evolved so to have new interests and special interest groups.
Special interest groups in the United States are active at all levels -- local, state and national. They tend to be very homogeneous groups with clearly defined goals and objectives (Dincer, 2012). Economic interest groups such as business interests, labor organizations and agricultural interests are among the most active and prevalent (Nicholson-Crotty & Nicholson-Crotty, 2004). Their purpose is to influence policy that favors the business community and helps to advance very specific fiscal agendas.
Some interest groups function much like business conglomerates. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) operates with a staff of over 60 representatives from a number of large corporations within the manufacturing industry (Julian, Ofori-Dankwa & Justis, 2008). They focus on issues related to wages, taxes, trade regulations, labor laws and other areas that impact their businesses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is another example. It is a national organization working on behalf of nearly 4,000 local chambers of commerce across the nation.
Agricultural interest groups serve farmers or agricultural-related businesses. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers' Union are examples. Labor interest groups, such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, are primarily concerned with issues related to organized labor such as working conditions and standards, wages, benefits, issues of discrimination, and foreign trade (Thurber, 2010).
Public union groups such as the National Education Association or state and city police, fire, sanitation and school unions represent employees of various governmental entities. Similar to the aforementioned economic interest groups, they are concerned with working conditions, salaries, benefits, and long-term public policy related to these areas. Other categories include professional interest groups that represent individuals with specific credentials, such as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association. At times, special interest groups may be more grassroots and altruistic in nature such as churches, charities, liberal organizations and social advocacy groups for abused and neglected children, battered women, the elderly or the poor (Julian, Ofori-Dankwa, & Justis, 2008).
Some membership interests tend to be more social in nature. Individuals holding certain religious or civic values are more likely to join these groups as they are guided by ideological perspectives (Dincer, 2012). Many focus on more controversial topics such as gay rights, abortion and the legalization of certain popular drugs. Some may use more blatant and aggressive tactics to advance their agenda such as angry protests, filing lawsuits or engaging in-depth research or studies.
Some interest groups are focused on movements for social justice, social change and various policy reforms (Ben-Bassat, 2011). Mass movements, such as those for civil or women's rights, have resulted in the establishment of organizations. For instance, the National Organization for Women (NOW) exerts pressure on Congress to protect and pass laws that they feel are beneficial to American women. Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or Greenpeace are considered public-interest groups -- their mission is to serve and protect others, namely the defenseless and voiceless such as animals or the environment (Ball, 2012). For all types of special interest groups incentives to join vary and may include a need to feel a sense of solidarity (i.e., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP), material incentives (i.e., farm organizations or veterans), or a connection to the general purpose and mission of the organization itself (i.e., the National Rifle Association or NRA).
Interest groups are often criticized for having undue power and influence in government. Business and institutional interests in particular are often accused of being able to secure favor for their clients who are already benefitting from wealth and power (Berger, 2009). For instance, the oil and tobacco industries have interest groups who engage in promotional activities for their agendas amongst political and legislative groups (Naoi & Krauss, 2009). The relative size and financial resources of a group impact its power. Power is also a function of the charisma of individual leaders. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one such example. It has been a primary actor and influencer in establishing harmonious relations between the United States and Israel.
Special interests groups that lack cohesiveness among members or the power to sway officials are often ineffective. In order to influence politicians and Congress, interests groups must take either direct or indirect action to push their agenda (Dincer, 2012). Direct tactics usually take the form or lobbying -- engaging in very direct discussion with policy decision-makers to convey the needs, aspirations and position of a particular group. Congress members as well as officials in the executive branch are usually targeted.
Lobbying itself takes myriad forms. Lobbyists who are truly effective are full-time professionals who may represent a number of causes and clients. Today, there are more than 82,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. (Thurber, 2010). Many are former government officials. They are paid very well and valued for their excellent connections with members of Congress. The most popular strategies they employ are private meetings with public officials, testifying before congressional committees or executive decision-makers, conceiving and submitting proposed legislation to officials for consideration, arranging social gatherings to promote a cause or interest, raising money, and providing data and other relevant information to legislators (Naoi & Krauss, 2009).
Beyond seeking the assistance of well-connected lobbyists, some special interest groups publish voting records to illustrate support on issues salient to the group (Nicholson-Crotty & Nicholson-Crotty, 2004). Others unite with like-minded interest groups to form alliances, create a more powerful presence and streamline their efforts to get more accomplished. Still others assist in the campaigns of officials to garner favor. This can include giving public endorsements and volunteering during elections.
More covert and indirect strategies used to promote special interests are generating public awareness and pressure about specific issues to influence policy (Ball, 2012). This is where the media and advertising outlets can play a critical role. Newspapers, radio, television, and in more recent times, social media and the web are all indirect vehicles employed by special interest groups to create favorable or unfavorable public opinion. Other tactics may include public demonstrations such as boycotts, marches, and rallies to promote change. For example, non-violent boycotts were used to desegregate buses in Montgomery, Alabama during the civil rights era played a key role in social change during that time. The boycotts negatively impacted revenue for the bus system and raised a great deal of public awareness about issues of discrimination. It made the country more aware of the issues at hand. Conversely, violent demonstrations can backfire by alienating both the general public and policy-makers alike.
Interest groups and their lobbyists and advocates have grown in popularity and influence in American elections by shaping the way issues and problems are framed and implemented in Washington (Julian, Ofori-Dankwa & Justis, 2008). They offer support for important issues, promote their candidates of choice, carry out fund raising, and persuade voters. Many also provide critical campaign services such as advertising, polling, offering advice about media strategy, and making other nonmonetary contributions. They regularly send representatives to state capitals and to Washington, D.C. To put pressure on members of Congress, the President and other policymakers.
Their ultimate goal is to support and assist candidates who favor their position. Political action committees (PACs) serve as special political arms for interest groups. They grew in power and popularity after the 1970s when campaign finance reform laws were enacted to restrict individual contributions to campaigns (Dincer, 2012). PACs are quite powerful. For example, if a person wants to support a candidate who opposes gun control, he or she can contribute to the PAC that represents the National Rifle Association. The PAC, in turn, will make a direct contribution to the individual campaign of the selected political candidate whose views harmonize with their own.