What Are Interest Groups in the United States? - History & Types

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  • 0:03 Interest Groups in the U.S.
  • 1:05 History of Interest Groups
  • 2:45 Interest Groups Today
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

Expert Contributor
Steven Scalia

Steven completed a Graduate Degree is Chartered Accountancy at Concordia University. He has performed as Teacher's Assistant and Assistant Lecturer in University.

The following lesson will discuss the history and types of interest groups that exist in the American political system. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.

Interest Groups in the U.S.

Flip on any television today and you'll be bombarded with ads to buy any number of products. Companies spend millions of dollars to hire marketing and advertising firms to produce materials to persuade you to do what they want, which is to buy their product.

Our government is also subjected to marketing and advertising campaigns in the form of lobbying by interest groups. Interest groups are organized groups of individuals sharing common objectives who actively attempt to influence policy makers. Furthermore, interest groups usually rally around one central issue, such as gun control, labor rights, marriage equality, etc. and use lobbyists, or people who attempt to influence legislation and the administrative decisions of government to try and get laws passed that are favorable to their central agendas. So, just like the ads persuade us to go and buy something, interest groups try and persuade the government to pass laws that are favorable to their group's objectives.

History of Interest Groups

Interest groups are a logical phenomenon in part because we as human beings always find ourselves wanting or needing something. It can be something as simple as needing food to survive or as complex as wanting laws that protect marriage equality for all. For more complex wants, people form interest groups to help see them fulfilled.

Since the formation of interest groups is somewhat natural, you can imagine that they have also been around for some time. In fact, James Madison wrote in his 'Federalist Paper No. 10' that he supported the creation of a large republic with many states to encourage the formation of multiple interests. The multitude of interests, in Madison's view, would work to discourage the formation of an oppressive majority interest.

The U.S. Constitution has also helped the formation of interest groups in that it protects a person's right to peacefully assemble with others and also protects the right of people to petition the government so that it may address the problems of the people. Both of these protections are found in the First Amendment.

The history of interest groups in the United States can ultimately be traced back to the 1770s with the formation of pro-independence groups, and since then have continued to spring up in response to things like:

  • Government-sponsored activities, such as the increase of anti-slavery groups of the 1830s and 1840s
  • Broad economic developments, including the formation of trade, labor, and business organizations in the 1860s through the 1890s
  • Social and reform movements, which included the environmental, consumer, and political-reform organizations of the 1960s and '70s

Types of Interest Groups Today

We mentioned that we all have wants and needs that need to be fulfilled. Some are simple and don't require organized groups, whereas others are more complex but equally as numerous that may need the help of a formally organized group. Because of these many complex needs, there are thousands of organized interest groups that exist to influence the government. The major types of interest groups are:

  1. Economic interest groups
  2. Public interest groups
  3. Foreign government interest groups

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Additional Activities

Interest Groups in the United States - An Essay Prompt:

The following exercise is designed to help students apply their knowledge of interest groups in the United States.

Background Information

As you have learned in the lesson, the United States is known globally for interest groups that try to influence the government's policy decisions through negotiation, discussion, and demonstrations. In the era of social media that we now live in, interest groups have a louder voice than ever in our communities. For instance, Greta Thunberg famously used social media channels in 2019 to mobilize millions of people around the world to voice their concern for climate change. This assignment will allow you to explore the various interest groups today and assess their impact.

Essay Prompt

Perform online research for a topic that you are personally fond of. Find an influential interest group that is fond of this topic and answer the following in a short essay (minimum 100 words):

  1. What type of interest group does it fall under (i.e., economic, public, or foreign government)?
  2. What are the demands made by the interest group to local, state, or federal governments? Have they been successful in doing so?
  3. How does the interest group spread its message? (e.g., lobbyists, social media, petitions, etc.)

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