The Role of Organized Interest Groups in American Politics


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

Organized interest groups fall into seven categories. The number of organized groups participating in politics has grown dramatically over the past 50 years or so. In the 1960s, an era strongly associated with organized political movements, there were around 5,000 groups operating in the Washington, DC area. Today, that number is well over 25,000.

Capitol Building in Washington DC during sunrise.
A large number of organized interest groups operate in Washington DC. (Image: f11photo/Shutterstock)

Seven Categories of Organized Interest Groups

By far, the most common type of group working in politics is businesses and corporations, like Google or AT&T. Then you have a whole bunch of trade associations, which are umbrella organizations that are made up of other groups to support an industry. Trade associations are distinct from professional associations because professional associations are made up of individual members, not groups. There are professional associations for just about any profession you can think of. 

Then there are citizen groups that work toward general public goods. This might include organizations like the National Organization for Women. Related to citizen groups, there are also issue groups, which are organizations that advocate for specific issues. One of the largest interest groups in the category is the National Rifle Association. Labor unions are another category of organized interests that work for the rights and benefits of laborers in specific industries. 

Finally, there are a variety of think tanks, foundations, and institutes that are sometimes considered associations. Think tanks and institutes are pseudo-academic institutions in that they often produce reports, research, and publications related to specific topics, but they do not generally offer courses or degree programs. Foundations are non-profit centers engaged in philanthropic and charitable missions and are often associated with some other advocacy or for-profit entity.

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Most Common Types of Associations

The logo of Facebook.
One good example of a corporation is Facebook. (Image: Facebook, Inc. CC BY SA/1.0/Public domain)

Of the types of associations, corporations are the most common. Corporations are profit-seeking organizations, and they make up about a third of all organized interests in Washington politics. In fact, most advocacy and lobbying that is done in Washington, DC, is done by corporations. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, corporate America figured out that lobbying the government for public policies that favored their industry or business was a good investment.

Take a big company like Facebook, for example. In 2018, Facebook’s revenue was a whopping $55 billion. That same year, Facebook spent just under $13 million in lobbying on internet-related policies. In other words, Facebook spent a tiny fraction of its revenue on lobbying, but that still amounted to a lot of lobbying. As a business proposition, Facebook calculates that money is well spent, as long as it’s going toward advocating for federal, state, and local policies that benefit its business. And Facebook isn’t even close to the biggest player.

Learn more about the changing state of American democracy.

Features of Organizations

As much as organized interests are common fodder for political criticism, most organizations are not overly political. Among the population of all associations, about 10% of their revenues are spent on political activities. 

Mostly, groups pursue goals related to the mission of the organization, including fundraising, professional development, publishing, and developing codes of ethics and professional standards. Almost all organizations offer educational courses that provide technical or substantive expertise to their members or the general public. 

And most Americans are members of organizations. Nine out of 10 Americans are a member of at least one organization, and one out of four belongs to four or more, including charitable organizations, religious groups, and community associations. Joining and participating in groups is a part of the fabric of American life and is usually not a political activity.

Relationship between Political Parties and Organized Interests

Let’s be clear about the relationship between political parties and organized interests. Parties and interest groups have fundamentally different but related objectives. A political party is primarily interested in winning elections. An interest group is primarily interested in winning policies. Typically, one has to win elections to win policies, so there is a fair amount of overlap in the goals of parties and groups, but where the goals diverge, we see important differences.

For example, when corporations get involved in electoral politics through their PACs or Super PACs, they will frequently contribute to Republicans and Democrats in elections. Corporations care more about having access to the people who hold office than they do about the ideological positions of the people holding that office. Corporations fall under a category of political donor called access seeking, and they tend to be relatively bipartisan. 

On the other hand, some organizations that are oriented toward specific policy goals care very much about the identity of the people being elected to office. For example, anti-abortion groups tend to give exclusively to Republican candidates, and pro-choice groups tend to give exclusively to Democratic candidates. These groups are influence-seeking and follow a different strategy for advocacy and campaign contributions than groups that primarily want access to policymakers.

Learn more about how does American democracy work?

Political Party as a Complex Network

Democrat-Republican signs next to the American flag.
From the academic point of view, political parties are a kind of complex network. (Image: eurobanks/Shutterstock)

These days, scholars tend to think of a political party as a complex network rather than a single unit. A political party is made up of candidates, officeholders, affiliated interest groups, activists, and so forth. Together, this collection of people forms the party, and they help to shape a party’s direction, message, nominees, and priorities over the course of each election cycle. 

The groups associated with the Republican Party tend to be more ideological in nature, with commitments such as upholding the free-market and civil liberties; whereas the groups associated with the Democratic Party tend to be more focused on particular identities, like race, gender, and sexual orientation. However, we think about parties and groups; they play important roles in our political process in ways that are both positive and negative.

Common Questions about the Role of Organized Interest Groups in American Politics

Q: What are the different categories of organized interest groups?

There are different categories of organized interest groups. These categories are businesses and corporations, umbrella organizations, professional associations, citizen groups, issue groups, labor unions, think tanks, institutes, and foundations.

Q: What are corporations?

Corporations are the most common types of associations. They make up almost one-third of all organized interest groups in Washington DC. Most lobbying in Washington, D.C. is conducted by or on behalf of large corporations. 

Q: What is the main feature of organized interest groups?

The main feature of organized interest groups is that they pursue the goals related to the organization’s mission, such as raising funds, publishing, and compiling ethical codes. Almost all of them offer training courses to their members or the general public.

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