Discussion on interest groups

Interest Groups

From partisanship to voting to political participation, there is another set of actors that is intrinsic to the political act: political parties and interest groups. Ironically, however, this was not the original plan of the Framers of the Constitution. Perhaps most famously, James Madison in Federalist No. 10 rails against the evils of factions: groups of people formed around special interests. Madison feared that the multiplication of factions would lead to the multiplication of conflict, tearing at the foundations of the new country. George Washington also warned against parties and factions in his Farewell Address, writing, “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” And yet everywhere we turn today, political parties are in the news, and interest groups are actively representing the interests of a wide variety of people in Washington, D.C., and state capitals everywhere.

Let’s start with the difference between interest groups and political parties. Both represent groups of citizens but in different ways. Political parties, as discussed in Chapter 5, bring together large and diverse groups of people under a general umbrella of what they believe government is for and should look like. They have positions on a wide range of issues, and above all, they run people for office. Parties want to effect change from inside government, by passing laws and making policy. Interest groups, on the other hand, do not run for office; they seek to change policy and law through extra-electoral means like lobbying, issue ads, and mobilizing. They also tend to be more singular in the issues they speak about; for instance, the National Rifle Association is focused on gun rights, whereas the AARP focuses on issues related to retirement, Social Security, and health care.

Are you a member of an interest group? What about any of your friends? If you took a survey in your class, most likely, not many of your classmates are part of an interest group. This is due to a well-known phenomenon often studied by political scientists: the collective action problem. The collective action problem, introduced in Chapter 1, is what often happens when you work on a group project with classmates; if everybody receives the same grade, why should I do much of anything when the others will do it? The people who think like this are called free riders; they benefit from the work of others without having to do it themselves. The collective action problem afflicts interest groups of all kind. If we all benefit from the policies that interest groups espouse, why pay the money or give the time to participate in the group?

Olson was the first political scientist to tackle this issue head-on. In 1965, he published The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, which describes collective action, the free rider problem, and how to overcome it. He postulated that in small groups, the problem of collective action is more likely to be overcome because members can utilize peer pressure to ensure that everyone participates. In larger groups, however, the costs of solving the collective action problem are much higher, and often, groups must offer selective benefits to entice people to join.55 If you’ve seen the Wounded Warrior Project commercial asking you to donate money to the organization and receive a blanket in return, you know what a selective incentive is. It’s something you get only if you join the group.

Other political science research has examined the role that interest groups play in government. One prominent theory has been advocated by Dahl, who published Who Governs? in 1961. Dahl argues that interest group pluralism, or a diverse array of interest groups, tends to balance each other out so that no one group or sector of society gains too much power. As different groups try to gain autonomy or power over others, when these “struggles are successful, as they often are, they result in turn in tendencies toward pluralism.”56 In many senses, this is a neo-Madisonian view of society. Just as Madison believed government needed to be structured to balance out the evils of factions, for Dahl, interest groups balance themselves out so that no one gains too much power.

 

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