Interest Groups in America

Shannon Scotece, Jason Nowaczyk, Steven Scalia
  • Author
    Shannon Scotece

    Shannon has taught at the college level for over 13 years. They have a PhD in Political Science from the University at Albany- State University of New York and a Masters in Instructional Design from Western Governors University.

  • Instructor
    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.

Learn what is an interest group? Learn about what is meant by an interest group, types of interest groups, and examples of different interest groups in America. Updated: 11/25/2021

Table of Contents


What Is An Interest Group?

An interest group is a group of people with common objectives who want to influence public policy. They are also called special interest groups, advocacy groups, or pressure groups. The primary purpose of forming interest groups is for individuals, corporations, or other organizations to band together and increase their ability to shape government decisions. A large group is more likely to achieve their goals and change policy than one person acting alone (think of the saying "strength in numbers").

Interest groups are not a new phenomenon. James Madison talked about organized interests during the debate to ratify the Constitution, calling them "factions" in Federalist Paper #10. He argued that a government could not take away the people's liberty to have different opinions and form factions, but there are ways to keep these groups in check. He argued that the Constitution would "break and control the violence of factions" by establishing a large, diverse republic where power would be in the hands of elected representatives. A nation with many competing interests means that no one interest will dominate government, and representatives, "whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country," would rise above the influence of special interests and pursue the public good.

Madison's prediction that America would be a country divided by different interests was accurate. There are thousands of interest groups operating on the federal, state, and local levels today, representing various interests from broad issues and ideologies to specific professions and industries.

Interest groups are often associated with lobbyists, who persuade government officials to support policies beneficial to their organization. Individuals who contact their elected officials on behalf of a group can be called "citizen lobbyists." Whether they use professional or citizen lobbyists (or both), interest organizations are involved in the decision-making of all three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) to shape how laws are made, implemented, and interpreted.

While interest groups are often seen as having a negative reputation in the political system, given their role in pressuring lawmakers to advance certain interests, they serve several important functions. They provide opportunities for people to get involved in politics, and they educate their members and the public on what the government is doing. A criticism of the interest group system is that they provide additional advantages to entities that already have significant influence in politics, such as business interests, rather than expanding the representation of individuals that need a bigger voice in government.

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Types of Interest Groups or Popular Interest Groups

One way to classify interest groups is based on the benefits they seek from the government or the interests they pursue. Two broad categories include Economic Interest Groups and Non-Economic Interest Groups. Economic Interest Groups want to influence the economic interests of their members, such as reducing government regulations or increasing members' pay and benefits. Examples of Economic Interest Groups are organizations that represent industries or corporations such as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, labor and workers like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), and professions including the National Association of Realtors. Economic Interest Groups are also private interest groups, meaning they seek policies that primarily benefit their members or a specific group rather than the public at large.

Non-Economic Interest Groups are focused on policies that do not improve members' economic interests but instead seek collective goods. Also called Citizen-Public Issue Groups, they benefit the public as a whole and advocate for issues such as consumer rights, public safety, and government accountability. Examples of these groups include the Sierra Club, which works for environmental protections, and Consumer Reports Advocacy that has initiatives focused on product safety or protecting consumer data.

Economic interest groups represent the economic or business interests of their members.

New York Stock Exchange

Different Interest Groups

Organized interests have existed since the early days of our nation. As America grows and becomes more diverse, the number and types of groups to represent all these interests has also increased. Under the broad umbrella of Economic and Non-Economic Groups, we can further divide interest groups based on the specific issues they represent.

  • Business and Economic Interest Groups- pursue the private, economic interests of industries and corporations.
  • Religious Interest Groups- advance the interests of religious denominations or faith perspectives.
  • Civil Rights Interest Groups- work for the protection of civil rights and enhancing equality
  • Ideological Interest Groups- cover a range of issues with a clear ideological position (liberal or conservative)
  • Single Issue Interest Groups- focus on one issue, such as abortion or immigration
  • Government Interest Groups- allow one part of the government to lobby another part (e.g., local governments lobbying for more federal funding)
  • Professional Interest Groups- represent the interests of a particular profession, such as teachers, lawyers, or doctors
  • Consumer Interest Groups- want increased consumer protections, fair financial markets, and safe products
  • Agricultural Interest Groups- benefit the agricultural industry, including farmers/growers and food companies
  • Foreign Government Interest Groups- influence American policy to achieve goals like reducing tariffs or increasing aid.

What are some interest groups?

While the list above shows examples of different types of interest groups, it can be helpful to take a closer look at how some of these organizations operate. Even within a single category, there is a range of interests that seek to affect the political system.

Business and Economic Interest Group

Business interests play an important role in shaping government policy, given their influence on the economy and people's job prospects. Examples would be the American Beverage Association, which represents food and beverage manufacturers; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which fosters business growth and innovation; and the National Association of Manufacturers, which advocates for developing the manufacturing industry. These groups help large corporations or small businesses band together to protect common interests such as favorable tax policies or trade agreements. Another example of an Economic Interest Group is the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), which is the largest collective of labor unions in the United States. Economic groups do not only represent companies but can also serve workers to make sure they receive fair wages and have safe working conditions.

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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.)

What are economic groups?

Economic groups seek to advance the economic interests of their members, such as reducing government regulations or passing favorable tax policies.

What is the best definition of an interest group?

An interest group is a group of people with a common interest that want to influence government policies to benefit their members.

What are the four interest group clusters?

Interest groups can be divided into four clusters based on the issues they represent. Groups can be organized around economic, environmental, equality, and consumer/public interest issues.

What are the three main functions of interest groups?

The three main functions of interest groups are to represent different interests to the government, educate members and the public about government decisions, and provide a venue for political participation to link citizens with their elected officials.

What is an example of an economic interest group?

Examples of economic interest groups include organizations representing business interests, such as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO).

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