The Role of Organized Interest Groups in American Politics

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Through Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

Organized interest groups fall into seven categories. The number of organized groups participating in politics has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. In the 1960s, a time strongly associated with organized political movements, there were approximately 5,000 groups operating in the Washington, DC area. Today, that number is well over 25,000.

A large number of organized interest groups operate in Washington DC. (Image: f11photo / Shutterstock)

Seven categories of organized interest groups

By far the most common type of group in politics is corporations and corporations, such as Google or AT&T. Then there are a whole bunch of trade associations, which are umbrella organizations made up of other groups to support an industry. Trade associations are distinct from trade associations because trade associations are made up of individual members, not groups. There are professional associations for just about any profession you can think of.

Then there are the groups of citizens who work for general public goods. This could include organizations like the National Women’s Organization. Linked to citizens’ groups, there are also thematic groups, which are organizations that advocate for specific issues. One of the largest interest groups in the category is the National Rifle Association. Trade unions are another category of organized interests that work for the rights and benefits of workers in specific industries.

Finally, there are a variety of think tanks, foundations and institutes which are sometimes considered associations. Think tanks and institutes are pseudo-academic institutions in that they often produce reports, research, and publications related to specific topics, but generally do not offer courses or degree programs. . Foundations are non-profit centers engaged in philanthropic and charitable missions and are often associated with another advocacy or for-profit entity.

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Most common types of associations

The Facebook logo.
Facebook is a good example of a business. (Image: Facebook, Inc. CC BY SA / 1.0 / Public domain)

Among the types of associations, corporations are the most common. Businesses are for-profit organizations, and they represent about a third of all organized interests in Washington politics. In fact, most of the advocacy and lobbying activity in Washington, DC is carried out by businesses. During the 1980s and 1990s, American businesses realized that lobbying the government for public policies that favored their industry or business was a good investment.

Take a big business like Facebook, for example. In 2018, Facebook’s revenue was $ 55 billion. That same year, Facebook spent just under $ 13 million lobbying Internet policies. In other words, Facebook spent a tiny fraction of its revenue on lobbying, but it still amounted to a lot of lobbying. As a business proposition, Facebook calculates that the money is well spent, as long as it is used to defend federal, state, and local policies that benefit its business. And Facebook isn’t even close to the biggest player.

Learn more about the changing state of American democracy.

Characteristics of organizations

As much as organized interests are a common fodder for political criticism, organizations are not too political. Among the population of all associations, about 10% of their income is spent on political activities.

Most often, groups pursue goals related to the organization’s mission, including fundraising, professional development, publication, and the development of codes of ethics and professional standards. Almost all organizations offer educational courses that provide technical or substantive expertise to their members or the general public.

And most Americans are members of organizations. Nine in 10 Americans are members of at least one organization, and one in four belongs to four or more, including charities, church groups, and community associations. Joining and participating in groups is part of the fabric of American life and is generally not a political activity.

Relationship between political parties and organized interests

Let us be clear about the relationship between political parties and organized interests. Parties and interest groups have fundamentally different but related goals. A political party is primarily interested in winning elections. An interest group is primarily interested in winning policies. Typically, you have to win elections to win policies, so there is a fair amount of overlap in party and group goals, but when goals diverge we see significant differences.

For example, when companies get involved in electoral politics through their PACs or Super PACs, they will frequently contribute to Republicans and Democrats in elections. Businesses care more about having access to people in office than they are about the ideological positions of people in office. Businesses fall into a category of political donors called access research, and they tend to be relatively bipartisan.

On the other hand, some organizations that are oriented towards specific political objectives care a lot about the identity of the people elected. For example, anti-abortion groups tend to donate exclusively to Republican candidates, and pro-choice groups tend to donate exclusively to Democratic candidates. These groups seek influence and follow a strategy of advocacy and campaign contributions that is different from that of groups that primarily want access to policy makers.

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Political party as a complex network

Democratic-Republican signs next to the American flag.
Academically, political parties are a kind of complex network. (Image: eurobanks / Shutterstock)

Today academics tend to view a political party as a complex web rather than a single unit. A political party is made up of candidates, officials, affiliated interest groups, activists, etc. Together, this set of people forms the party and helps shape the direction, message, candidates and priorities of a party during each election cycle.

Groups associated with the Republican Party tend to be more ideological in nature, with commitments such as respect for the free market and civil liberties; while groups associated with the Democratic Party tend to focus more on particular identities, such as race, gender and sexual orientation. However, we are thinking of parties and groups; they play an important role in our political process in both positive and negative ways.

Common Questions About the Role of Organized Interest Groups in American Politics

Q: What are the different categories of organized interest groups?

There are different categories of organized interest groups. These categories are businesses and corporations, umbrella organizations, professional associations, citizens’ groups, thematic groups, trade unions, think tanks, institutes and foundations.

Q: What are corporations?

Corporations are the most common types of associations. They represent almost a third of all organized interest groups in Washington DC. Most lobbying activity in Washington, DC is carried out by or on behalf of large corporations.

Q: What is the main characteristic of organized interest groups?

The main feature of organized interest groups is that they pursue objectives related to the mission of the organization, such as fundraising, publication and compilation of ethical codes. Almost all of them offer training to their members or to the general public.

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