Interest Group Liberalism: Definition & Example

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Interest groups are a big part of American politics, but is that good or bad? In this lesson, we'll check out one of the most influential theories on this phenomenon and see how interest groups may have redefined American politics.

Interest Groups and American Politics

Do you feel very strongly about an issue, but you don't know how to make your political voice heard? Well then, you could join an interest group, a private organization dedicated to bringing a specific issue to policymakers' attention. Interest groups play a large role in American society, which is a good thing, at least in the pluralist camp of political science, which sees them as a necessary bridge between government and citizens.

But what if interest groups aren't all they're cracked up to be? What if interest groups are controlling too much of the political decision-making process, and taking away power from actual elected leaders? According to Theodore Lowi, that's exactly what has happened.

American political scientist Theodore Lowi

Lowi, an American political scientist, expounded this idea in his 1967 article ''The Public Philosophy: Interest-Group Liberalism,'' as well as the 1969 book The End of Liberalism. In these works, he promoted the concept of interest-group liberalism, which described the state of American politics as having a government that had grown over-dependent on interest groups. Interested in learning more? Welcome to the group.

Interest-Group Liberalism

In Lowi's philosophy, interest-group liberalism describes a situation of the 1960s (although the term remains relevant today), in which interest groups grew to hold a disproportionate amount of influence over American politics. According to Lowi, this had become the accepted norm, the way in which government was conducted. It's important to recognize that Lowi used the term ''liberalism'' in the traditional sense, not in the strict political binary of liberal/conservative. So, what exactly does all of this mean? According to Lowi, interest-group liberalism can be defined by three tenets.

First, Lowi's interest-group liberalism was defined by the fact that interest groups had grown to control nearly every domestic policy area in American politics by the 1960s. This is something that nearly everyone was aware of, but Lowi was one of the first to start labeling it as the new political norm in the USA.

Second was the assumption among many people that interest groups were essentially democratic, represented by elected leaders who served the will of the people within that organization. Therefore, interest groups were seen as natural extensions of established American political ideas, and fit easily into the system as a new form of representation.

Finally, interest-group liberalism redefined the role of government. Since interest groups had become such important means of perceived representation, the duty of the government was to grant equal political access to all organized groups and to formalize the decisions made among their leaders. In short, most politicking and bargaining over a policy was happening between interest groups, congressional members from special committees, and mid-level administrators who carried the policies out. The job of government leaders, therefore, was just to approve the measures agreed upon by this coalition.

American senator Luther Strange sits for an interview with the National Rifle Association, a prominent interest group

How Did It Happen?

The obvious question with interest-group liberalism is this: how did this happen? How did interest groups end up having so much influence in American politics? While there are many ways to answer this, Lowi traced the history primarily to the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) and Harry Truman (1945-1953).

FDR became president in the Great Depression, and represented the political idea that only an expanded government could combat the social evils and economic perils of the world. So, the federal government grew in order to tackle many of the domestic problems America faced at the time. In Congress, this meant that more special committees were needed to focus on specific topics, and in the executive branch this resulted in a number of new bureaucratic and administrative departments. In essence, the act of governing America was fragmented into distinct policy areas. Congressional and executive leaders couldn't oversee everything directly, there was too much, so they delegated to lower-level administrators who handled the negotiation and implementation of these policies.

A lot of American policymaking decisions are delegated to special committees, like the Senate Budget Committee

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account