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Democracy in America

Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

Investigate how interest groups both complicate and enhance our representative, linking citizens and public officials.


Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Define the term interest group and distinguish these groups from other political organizations.
  • Describe the different types of interest groups.
  • Describe the resources and principal tactics used by interest groups to influence public policy.
  • Analyze the role that interest groups play in the policy-making process.

This penultimate unit delves into the role of interest groups in American political life. America has, as Tocqueville noted, long been a nation of joiners. We have a long history of joining together for common purposes, and thus it no surprise that organized groups prevail throughout the political system. As the unit shows, however, interest groups are not easily categorized. There is a wide variety of interests represented in the political system and they use an equally wide array of tactics and strategies. Part of this unit demonstrates the vibrancy of strategies and tactics employed by groups attempting to influence public policy.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that organized interests would always attempt to exert influence on policy. They developed a constitutional system of republican government that takes organized interests as a given, and thus allows interests to weigh in on policy-making in various ways. In making the case for the Constitution’s ratification, James Madison placed the problem of organized interests at the center of his theory of republican democracy. In “Federalist No. 10,” he warns of the “mischief of factions” (i.e., organized interests) that could threaten individual or other groups’ liberties. The remedy for the problem of factions lies not in trying to eliminate them, but in controlling their effects. One solution is to encourage the proliferation of various groups of different shapes, sizes, and motives so that no one group dominates the others in ways that undercut basic rights and liberties.

Interest groups are any organization of people with policy goals who work within the political process to promote such goals. Groups attempt to influence policy in various ways including:

  • Lobbying government. Organized interests hire representatives to advocate on behalf of the group’s interests. Lobbying activities include contacting members of Congress and the executive branch to disseminate information about the positive or adverse effects of proposed legislation.
  • Engaging in election activities. Interests may attempt to influence elections in order to help get people who support their issues elected or reelected. Electioneering techniques include giving money to candidates, endorsing candidates or issues, and conducting grassroots activities such as get-out-the-vote drives.
  • Educating various publics. Interest groups work hard to educate the public at large, government officials, their own members, and potential interest group members.
  • Mobilizing various publics. To influence policy-making, many groups rely on the efforts of people who are motivated to act on behalf of their issues and causes. So-called grassroots activities might include writing letters, making phone calls, contacting policy-makers, and demonstrating.

Many interest groups in society are those focused on advancing their members’ economic interests. Some have a large membership base, while others represent only a few members.

Trade associations, for example, represent one segment of the economy (e.g., defense contractors, trial lawyers) but often take a stand on a variety of policy matters. Because their members have a direct economic incentive to support the group’s actions, economic interest groups tend to be well funded and very professional.

Economic interest groups often combine the services of professional lobbyists with other efforts to help their members. They may help write letters, place phone calls, meet with decision-makers, and, in the case of large membership organizations such as unions, engage in demonstrations directed at decision-makers.

Citizen action groups, also known as public interest groups, are another type of enduring interest group. Some are generally concerned with a broad range of issues that affect the public at large, such as social or environmental issues. Examples include Common Cause or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Others, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) or the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) may be committed to one or a small cluster of issues. Those groups that focus on one issue are also known as single-issue groups. Most citizen action groups are relatively well funded, and many employ the same tactics (e.g., hiring lobbyists, electioneering, litigation, etc.) used by economic interest groups. But because they have large memberships, mobilizing their members to promote the group’s causes is also an important tactic.

Non-membership groups are a fast-growing segment of the organized interest universe. These groups include corporations that maintain offices in Washington and many state capitals. Other non-membership groups include universities and state and local governments. Non-membership groups may hire their own lobbyists or employ outside consultants to track and influence legislation.

Even without large-scale permanent organizations, citizens often organize themselves into ad hoc associations aimed at influencing public policy decisions. These organizations are often directed at a single cause such as neighborhood beautification or school reform. Because of their narrower focus, they tend not to outlive the issue that originally spurred their creation. Lacking financial resources and organizations, these grassroots associations depend on membership mobilization through letters, phone calls, personal contacts, and demonstrations to pursue their causes. Because they lack permanence and economic motivation, size and members’ unity may constitute the greatest strength of ad hoc associations.

Many interest groups employ the services of former government officials (e.g., former Congress members, cabinet officials, and military officers) as lobbyists because these former officials are able to use their personal contacts and intimate knowledge of policy-making processes on behalf of the interests they represent. The interaction of mutual interests among Congress members, executive agencies, and organized interests during political struggles over policy-making is sometimes referred to as an iron triangle. While members of an iron triangle are expected to fight on behalf of their interests, constituents, or governmental department, they often seek policy outcomes that produce benefits for all members of the “triangle.”

Using the Video: Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • According to Madison, how should factions be controlled?
  • What kinds of activities do interest groups use to influence policy-making?
  • The general impression of interest groups is that they are the domain of big business and organized labor. Is this true?
  • Think about your own interests. Are they represented by any organized group? What are they?

Using the Video: Watch the Video and Discuss

Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes) 

The video includes three segments:

1. The Battle Over Crusader

Most long-lasting interest groups focus on advancing the economic interests of their members. Because their members have a strong economic incentive to band together, they are likely to be well-funded professional organizations that can employ lobbyists and mount sophisticated public relations campaigns. The battle over the Crusader weapons system presents an example of how one economic interest used its resources to influence the policy process. In the end it was decided that Crusader would remain “canceled,” but United Defense would still retain a $475-million contract to continue the development of Crusader’s cannon. That contract would employ workers in several congressional districts, which was a major concern of Congress members. The Army gained progress toward a new weapons system, while the consultants, lobbyists, and public relations specialists who worked on behalf of United Defense got nice commissions for their work.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did members of Congress come to the defense of United Defense?
  • What kinds of tactics did United Defense use to fend off efforts to kill the Crusader?
  • In the end, was United Defense successful?
  • What is the iron triangle?

2. Organizing From the Heart: The Battle Over Reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law

Citizen action groups advocate on a wide range of social and environmental issues, and use many of the same tactics as economic groups to reach decision-makers. But often they must rely more on mobilizing their membership to act in an organized and concerted way. The battle over reauthorization of the Welfare Reform Act illustrates the mobilization efforts of one citizen action group.

Discussion Questions

  • Who does the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support represent?
  • What motivated Ladon James to become involved in the campaign?
  • Since this is a citizen action without large cash reserves, what tactics did the group utilize to influence policy-makers?

3. David and Goliath Go at It Again: The South Pasadena Freeway Fight

Sometimes the most effective groups are local grassroots organizations dedicated to a single cause. Lacking financial resources and permanent organizations, these groups rely on committed citizens to write letters, make phone calls, and sometimes to demonstrate, all in pursuit of their cause. The fight over a freeway plan in the Los Angeles suburb of South Pasadena is a good example of a grassroots organization in action.

Discussion Questions

  • How is the grassroots organization in this story different from a citizen action group?
  • What kinds of tactics did the Anti-Meridan group use to fight the freeway?
  • What do you think has motivated these people to keep up the fight over a couple of generations?

Using the Video: Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (10 minutes) [

1. What Exactly Is a “Special” Interest? (10 minutes)

In “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison developed a theory of interest groups that he believed supported the cause of constitutional ratification. Responding to past political philosophers who contended that a democratic republic could only thrive on a small scale in societies with few competing interests, Madison advanced a new and radical conception of organized interests. According to Madison, the causes of faction are “sown in the nature of man.” Thus, to try to prevent factions from expressing themselves would be against human nature, and ultimately would undermine the basic liberty that we value as free people. Instead of removing the causes of factions, Madison proposed that we control their negative effects. One way to do this is to encourage the formation of many types of interests, so that by opposing each other they prevent one or more factions from violating the rights of all others, and ultimately the public interest. Madison wrote, “Extend the sphere [of interests], and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”

One frequently hears complaints about “special interests” that seek unfair influence in the democratic process to promote their particular agenda. Such complaints are not new, but instead can be found in all periods of American history. In many cases it is clear that one person’s special interest is another’s public interest. Try to develop a definition of a “special” versus “public” interest, and include real examples. What factors can we use to determine the difference between special and public interests?

Using the Video: Homework

Read the following Readings from Unit 15 to prepare for next week’s session.

  • Introduction-Global Politics: USA and the World
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Indian Tribes That Inhabit the Territory Possessed by the Union” and “Why Democratic Nations Naturally Desire Peace, and Democratic Armies, War”
  • The Monroe Doctrine
  • The Marshall Plan
  • Twain, “The War Prayer”

Read next week’s Topic Overview.

Using the Video: Classroom Applications

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: Tocqueville Would Be Proud: Today’s Interest Group Universe and What Exactly Is a Special Interest? They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.


The Readings for Democracy in America unit 14 are available here for download as a PDF file. You’ll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from

Download Unit 14 Readings, Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

  • Introduction—Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “That the Americans Combat the Effects of Individualism by Free Institutions” and
  • Of the Use Which the Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life”
  • “The Whole World’s Temperance Convention Held at Metropolitan Hall in the City of New York”
  • “An Appeal to the Women of the United States by National Woman Suffrage and Educational Committee”
  • I.W.W. Song: “Long-Haired Preachers”



  1. What did Tocqueville suggest was the consequence of a free government for individual relationships?
  2. What were the relationships between the rich and the poor in a democracy, according to Tocqueville?
  3. According to the National Woman Suffrage and Educational Committee, what did the Constitution provide concerning the political participation of women?

Introduction—Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

In any acceptable version of democratic government, people organize to influence public policy—well-organized groups are called interest groups. Tocqueville explained that above the government’s institutions, “and beyond all these characteristic forms, there is a sovereign power, that of the people, which may destroy or modify them at its pleasure.” The many ways that the sovereign people influenced the government was a central concern for Tocqueville. “It remains to be shown in what manner this power, superior to the laws, acts; what are its instincts and its passions, what the secret springs that retard, accelerate, or direct its irresistible course, what the effects of its unbounded authority, and what the destiny that is reserved for it” (179). Interest groups perform a wide range of functions in American politics including acting as a conduit for the power of the people. The destiny of the government of the United States is directed and resisted by citizens acting in accordance with each other. Interest groups perform an important representative function—they speak for their members. Not only do these institutions speak for people, they give people a way to be politically involved in their society. Interest groups, furthermore, educate people—they send members magazines, email, and notices; keeping them abreast of the latest events and problems in their area of interest. They teach people to be involved in their world and ways to participate. Interest groups also educate non-members and the larger political community in such a way that they help to set the concerns and issues faced by the larger community.

Within political science, the study of interest groups was a way to critically engage with sociological studies that succeeded in demonstrating that politics was often highly influenced by a very small group of people. Sociologists argued that these people move between business and government, always retaining their positions of privilege and power. Their families, furthermore, retain their wealth for generations. Studies of this powerful elite criticized American society as maintaining a surprising degree of privilege for the very wealthy. America, they reported, was not quite the land of opportunity it often pretended to be. Political scientists responded with attempts to define the United States as a pluralist or interest group society. They maintained that society in the United States was so plural that no group could sustain cohesion over a very wide range of issues for very long. Citizens had too many interests, too many issues and to many ways to make their opinions heard for any one group to dominate for very long.

The previous and following units explore many of the issues of how and who influences government—questions of the media, political parties, and political participation. This unit explores some documents generated by interest groups—pamphlets, leaflets, fliers, songs, and membership appeals—in order to flesh out the day-to-day functioning of interest groups that were involved in grand questions of voting rights and imperialism.

Web-based Resources

http://www.alldc.orgThe American League of Lobbyists is a membership organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the lobbying profession. The group’s Web site provides an overview of the interest advocacy profession and updated information on issues that affect lobbyists.

http://www.commoncause.orgCommon Cause bills itself as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen’s lobbying organization promoting open, honest, and accountable government.” Common Cause members investigate the role of interest group money in political campaigns.