Aside from national security, national interest and overall economic capacity of the American nation in both national and international affairs, the federal government also takes into consideration special interests that would aid the country prosper domestically to add to the powerful image the US has already possesses. Things such as labor unions, human rights, civil regulations and the like are just some of the other points of interest for the government to improve on in terms of programs and policies. However, unknown to many, unions and organizations assist and pressure the federal government and its policymakers in making policies and decisions for specific sectors of the country. Some people would call these groups as “labor unions” or “parties”, but collectively, they are known as “interest groups”. Despite their knowledge and expertise, some see interest groups to be unhelpful in aiding the government due to their rallies and protests against their programs. Although the opinions pertaining these groups are different, interest groups are still seen by many, both by the government and the people, as the actual voice of the people from specific sectors of American society that the government should take seriously.
Heywood (2007) and Wilson (2009) identified that interest groups are a collective of people or societies with the same objective and interest. Heywood had stated that interest groups are similar to political parties to the very extent that they connect the government and the societies it controls and assists. They were created to represent the people and become their voice of the sector they represent. In a slight extent, both political parties and interest groups share the same range of influence and pressure, depending on the size and capacity of the group or party. They also share network, platform and agenda as noted by Magstadt (2008) and Maisel and Berry (2010). Maisel and Berry stated in their study that both interest groups and political parties complement each other as they, with their similar platform and agenda, sustain the other’s development. Both groups also sustain the harmony within politics, changing their platforms to match the other. Both groups, according to Maisel and Berry, also act as the buffer when it comes to ensuring the other’s actions benefit the public and their own groups, especially as to who would represent their ideals. Their relationship is also considered as a give and take relationship since they need to give information to each other and take the other’s support to sustain their advocacies. Their similarities also show in their similar identities despite the instances of arguments and influential capacity between groups . In this end, it is understood that despite their differences and political standpoint, both political parties and interest groups play a vital role for each other and for the country’s development.
However, Magstadt (2008) and Dautrich and Yalof (2011), stated that while there are indeed similarities between political parties and interest groups, both parties still differ in several aspects such as influence and capacity. Political parties directly influence the government as they elect their members into high positions within the federal government and influence policy-making from that angle. Political parties also use their reach to gain access to various institutions and organizations that are related to the government, aiding their fellow party members in the government to advocate their policies. On the other hand, interest groups were mostly varied on their approach to the government. Some would directly pressure the government as lobbyists, others would act separately from the government despite the possible reluctance of the government to support their advocacies, while a few would prefer to utilize other means to get the people’s attention and have the people pressure the government themselves. However, with the varied means of influence of interest groups, the tendency happens that the government would not consider the interest groups’ opinion and disregard them completely. Once this happens, the government would only listen to the political parties and their corresponding affiliations should they wish to have changes in the government and its policies. In some instances wherein interest groups could influence the government directly or work with the public directly, there is a high possibility that the same neglect could persist since interest groups do not have a strong control over the government and its leaders as compared to political parties .
Dautrich and Yalof had also added that despite their similarities in goals and information sharing to support the other’s agenda and proposals, interest groups and political parties tend to develop arguments within its ranks over their control over the public’s movements and support. In some cases, both parties would concede to aid the other in terms of elections and other national sorties. This is visible when conservative interest groups would support the equally conservative Republicans for its policies and programs, and the reformist or liberal interest groups would support the liberal Democrats. Elections often show the same support to one another, as seen in the Club for Growth’s support to the Republicans and the AFL-CIO’s support to the Democrats in the past election. However, once the elections are over and are now vying for support for their proposals, both the interest groups and political parties square off as the interest groups are mostly inclined to listen to the people rather than to the political parties. Studies have explained that the reason for the public to support interest groups is the fact that they know more about the plight of the public as compared to the political parties. Interest groups could sway the people to support them since interest group’s proposals are more believable and aligned to the needs of the American public. Political parties tend to promise reform and policies that would benefit the people, but in most cases, they tend to disregard these policies for their party’s own interest. Arguments are also raised between both groups in instances wherein political parties are forced to succumb to the request of interest groups to nominate candidates of their choice even if they won’t make an impact in the polls or in the public .
Regardless of the differences between political parties and interest groups, interest groups are unique in its own means as expressed by Welch, Gruhl, Rigdon and Thomas (2009). In their narration, interest groups vary from their purpose, duration and concentration, depending on the sector of their choice and their members. Some interest groups are transient or those who only appear once or twice, depending on the situation. Others are permanent given their political capacity, affiliation and membership; or if they represent an entirety of members for their chosen sector. Some interest groups would be located in the streets in several instances, such as in influencing or calling for the national government to change their policies and programs. Interest groups could influence and work with the executive and legislative branches, however, some groups would concentrate on one branch or more depending on the issue they wish to address. Nonetheless, many opt to utilize the public arena to gain the support of the public and the freedom to discuss methods and steps to call for change in the country.
Membership to interest groups vary, although the common rule remains that if one has the same goal or is a part of the sector being represented, one may join an interest group. However, their membership and influence would depend on the group in question as some groups may have a specific time frame or goal. In the United States, many of its interest groups are led by businessmen, members of the academe or those from the higher classes. The reason for this trend is the fact that these people are well-versed with the ins and outs of policy-making and negotiations. They also capable of determining the life of their interest groups as they could sustain its finances and maintain contact with its members. What is interesting with interest groups is that despite their scope and capacity, most of these groups do not get the chance to maximize their power as an interest group . Heywood identified that interest groups appear in a verity of shapes and sizes depending on their concentration and tactics utilized to influence the government. Structure also varies within interest groups, especially on the aspect of their control. There are at least two classifications of interest groups: sectional/promotional groups and insider/outsider groups. Sectional groups or protective/functional groups are interest groups who concentrate on improving or protecting the interest of its group and its members. Trade unions, trade associations and professional organizations fall under this category. In the US, sectional groups are considered ‘private interest groups’ as they only concentrate on the benefits policies would have for its members and not for the collective society. Some notable examples of sectional interest groups are the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce. Promotional groups on the other hand or ‘public interest groups’ are groups which concentrates on improving and supporting policies that concentrate on values, ideals and beliefs, which would often cover multiple issues and causes. Groups such as the National Organization for Women and the Lambda Defense Fund are notable examples of promotional groups as they promote the rights of women and the LGBTs. These promotional groups also encompass a collective benefit for the groups they support. Amnesty International is another notable example of promotional groups as it supports the rights of political prisoners and exiles.
On the other hand, the insider/outsider interest group classification pertains to the groups’ overall relationship with the government and the strategies they utilize to pressure the government. Insider groups are those who could directly speak and organize talks with the government pertaining policies and programs, the interest group would serve as a consultant or representative of each sector in government institutions. Business groups, trade organizations, and even trade unions often enter in this category, becoming the government’s key to understand policies and methods within a sector. It is most often, Heywood added, that these groups could exert sanctions if the government ignores their opinion or plight. Outsider groups, on the other hand, are either not consulted or spoken to by the government in a serious discussion over their arguments and policies. In this end, it is stated that these groups are “Weak” in influencing or pressuring the government to change its policies, pulling more “public” means to cause pressure. Heywood stated that most interest groups often stay as outsider groups because they show an “untainted” image to the public that shows they are not puppets of the government and to remain logically pure and independent .
Geer, Schiller, and Segal (2010) and Wilson identified several methods wherein interest groups utilize to gain the attention of the federal/state/local government as well as policymakers to pay attention to their plight and policy proposals. One of the methods utilized by interest groups is through direct or indirect lobbying. In lobbying, interest groups would seek out officials or policymakers who are supporting the group’s advocacy and try to persuade them to continue their action or support a policy being passed in the Congress or in the Senate. The number of lobbyists in the country may reach to thousands, depending on the issue at hand or the policy that is being reviewed. Direct lobbyists would often need to concentrate on a small group of policymakers for their persuasion to work. The presence of lobbyists in the Congress and in the Senate provides a benefit for policymakers as they could discuss policies regarding the group’s concentration and ask the professional opinion of these lobbyists on how to approach the issue. Lobbyists are often selected for their expertise in the interest they support, enabling them to think of suitable solutions and policies for the country. Aside from lobbying, interest groups could influence policy-making by utilizing media campaigns, grassroots organizing, rating systems and even litigation. In media campaigns and grassroots organizing, interest groups would utilize the media to rally the people and discuss the pros and cons of a proposed policy or program. A notable movement of an interest group utilizing this method is the American Medical Association and the US Chamber of Commerce response to the 2009 Health Care Reform Bill wherein they used media and rallies to educate the people to the issues that covers the reform bill . In the case of rating systems, interest groups would rate each politician for the public to discern whether or not they should support a politician or program based on their track record or position in several policies and programs. Finally, some interest groups would utilize litigation or courts to get their message across, defending their rights and calling for the reforms they wish to initiate for the country. The American Civil Liberties Union is a prominent example of an interest group utilizing the court to file lawsuits to call for the government to act on issues regarding civil liberties .
The opinions of the public and of the federal government to interest groups may indeed vary, depending on the aspects they are evaluated. They may be unhelpful in aiding the government, but, they can be the government’s link to the American public. It is likely that without the presence of these groups, the American public and the various sectors that sustain the country would not be properly represented in the government. As a result, policies would not reach their optimum capacity in giving huge benefits for the sectors it covers. It is also likely that without interest groups, policies would not encompass the entire sector it sustains and the public would not be given a voice within policy-making in the country.
Dautrich, K., & Yalof, D. (2011). American Government: Historical, Popular, and Global Perspectives. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Geer, J., Schiller, W., & Segal, J. (2011). Gateways to Democracy: An Introduction to American Government. Boston: Wadsworth.
Heywood, A. (2007). Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
Magstadt, T. (2008). Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions and Issues. Belmont: Cengage Learning.
Maisel, L. S., & Berry, J. (2010). The Oxford Handbook of American Political Parties and Interest Groups. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Welch, S., Gruhl, J., Rigdon, S., & Thomas, S. (2011). Understanding American Government. Boston: Wadsworth.
Wilson, J. (2009). American Government: Brief Version. Boston: Cengage Learning.