An interest group is by definition a group of individuals that seek to influence public policy based on issues of common interest or concern. These people come together to work with one another to promote and protect their best interests by trying to influence their governing authorities.
There are several types of interest groups which are active within society at any given time. Economic groups want to find some type of monetary advantage for their members, and this is the most common type that you will find today. In capitalist societies, money often has the most significant influence on individual behavior.
Business groups combine their mutual best interests at a corporate level for the same purpose. They might form associations with in their industry to assist in their lobbying efforts as a way to encourage beneficial legislation that helps them to achieve their mission and vision cheaper and in easier ways.
Labor groups represent unions and work as an interest group to raise wages, improve benefits, and keep working conditions safe for skilled and unskilled workers. This category is sometimes split into public and private interest groups based on the type of jobs that they represent.
Although interest groups can inspire passionate conversations for or against their interests, these advantages and disadvantages show how they can be useful or harmful in specific ways to the overall society.
List of the Advantages of Interest Groups
1. Interest groups provide a collective voice that offers a genuine freedom of expression.
When you join an interest group, then you are becoming part of a like-minded set of individuals who want to pursue topics of interest that you are also passionate about right now. The structure of these groups makes it possible to express opinions that may be unfavorable, which could create difficulties if they were expressed individually. By coming together as a group, special interests make it possible to encourage a more diverse set of opinions while presenting facts that may fall outside of the mainstream media.
Interest groups give us the opportunity to explore new ideas or perspectives. This process gives the general population a chance to make an informed, empowered decisions that are based more on logic than emotion.
2. Interest groups provide an effective check on the government.
When a government (or a branch of government) does not receive an effective check and balance from other entities in society, then the amount of power it attempts to seek for itself can grow with every passing year. The United States has seen this happen since the 1930s when executive orders became more common place from Presidents. Even when political parties criticize one another for these EOs, each group still attempts to make policy changes through this method of governing.
Interest groups make it possible for the average citizen to provide a needed check and balance on the government, especially when the other branches of governing are not fulfilling their responsibilities.
3. Interest groups give individual voices a useable platform for change.
If you want to get involved with the changed that you’d like to see in society, then interest groups give you that opportunity. There is an opportunity to offer a meaningful voice for any legislation, policy, or regulations that run counter to what you think are beneficial to your community. When there is a group of voices saying the same thing, it is far more challenging to ignore what they have to say compared to a single person trying to express their opinion.
When there is an opportunity for people to form into an interest group, then there is a chance for them to put enough pressure on society to create the changes that may be necessary.
4. Interest groups help to create fairness in their communities.
It can be challenging to create a definition of fairness that applies across the entirety of a society. With such a range of household income, legacy wealth, employment opportunities, and educational access, most population demographics create their own definition of what they consider to be a fair approach to governing. Interest groups take that a step further by offering everyone the same opportunity at the beginning of the process to achieve their mission, vision, or goals.
Even if the work of special interest groups is not successful with its lobbying efforts in government, the ability to approach elected officials and state an opinion creates a structure where people can improve their circumstances by direct effort.
5. Interest groups allow for people to get involved with politics.
Getting involved with politics in past generations meant making sure that you voted in every election. Some people organized protest groups as a way to communicate a specific message that they wanted other people to hear. On an individual level, it is possible to speak with elected officials on social media by leaving a comment on one of their posts. Although all of these efforts can make a positive impact on society, interest groups allow people to take this effort to another level.
Instead of trying to find your elected official’s contact information on your own, interest groups can provide that to you immediately. They can teach you how to effectively run for office if you want to be directly involved in the changes that you want to see for your community. At their core, this advantage gives you the opportunity to be an advocate for yourself and other people.
6. Interest groups make activism affordable for individuals.
One of the primary reasons that businesses have been active in associations and interest groups more so than individuals is because of the cost that is associated with the activism. A business can hire someone specifically to lobby individuals in government or elsewhere in society to further their agenda. If the average person wants to do the same thing, then they must either take time off from work, sacrifice vacation time, or seek out sponsorships and donations as a way to stay active.
When like-minded people come together with one voice, it becomes much cheaper to express your opinion. Bernie Sanders liked to say during his 2016 Presidential campaign that the average donation was $27. It is much more affordable to get involved at that rate compared to the millions of dollars that businesses or wealthy individuals spend on a similar process.
7. Interest groups can inspire new legislation for almost any cause.
Interest groups make it possible for people to become aware of issues in society that may not normally impact their daily lives. When people are on the periphery of an issue, then they do not assign it with the same importance that they would a problem that impacts their life directly. This process is true for elected officials as well. Coming together as a group makes it possible to relay information that can become the foundation of new legislation which would otherwise be ignored because the general population was unaware of the problem in the first place.
8. Interest groups create awareness.
There have been several interest groups that formed over the years as a way to draw more attention to specific subjects. From the March for Our Lives movement to Occupy Wall Street, you do not need to be part of a formal lobbying effort to create a positive change for society. Your actions in standing up for what you believe in each day is just as powerful as a professional who networks throughout government to influence specific decisions. By creating awareness with one voice, it becomes possible to build a global network without a significant expense.
List of the Disadvantages of Interest Groups
1. Interest groups give the minority a stronger voice than the majority.
The National Rifle Association is an excellent example of this disadvantage in the United States. Although majority of people in the country want some type of meaningful gun control legislation to come out of Congress, the impact of the NRA on American policy through the ILA is profound. They spend millions each year to counter the arguments through their lobbying efforts as a way to maintain the status quo. By doing so, they can also continue operating as they do as an association.
Additional examples include public labor union lobbying, Greenpeace, the ACLU, and the Traditional Values Coalition. It is not a process that is limited to either conservatives or liberals. Each group, along with each subgroup, has the opportunity to make their minority voice stronger than the majority.
2. Interest groups create political gridlock with their actions.
In the 1940s, the number of salient legislative issues in gridlock in the United States Congress hovered around 30%. In 2011, that number reached 70%, making it the second time it peaked that high. The only other time gridlock was this high was in the year 2000, right before the September 11 attacks occurred. As interest groups continue their lobbying efforts to create specific results for themselves at the expense of others, it creates political gridlock because elected officials feel bound to meet the needs of each group. Refusing to do so could create an opportunity for the interest group to vote them out of office in the next term.
3. Interest groups do not follow an elective process.
Interest groups operate more like a business then they do as individuals expressing a like-minded opinion. If you are the founder of the group, then there is an excellent chance that you will be the face of the association. Your levels of influence will be higher than others who decide to join later. Although some special interests do hold leadership elections, most operate by appointment. That means the voice is directed by the messages, people, or subgroups that are the most influential or popular.
4. Interest groups still play the money game for influence.
Although the formation of an interest group is intended to help provide equality for the average person in the expression of an opinion, the outcome tends to follow the same focus on wealth. The groups which have access to the most resources will typically have more influence over the legislative process than those who are operating on a shoestring budget. Getting together with other people for a combined voice might make your opinion become louder, but it is the money that usually gets people to start listening.
5. Interest groups can change our governing systems.
If enough interest groups are able to ban together, or there are enough individuals to form a significant association, then they can change the course of governing in ways that may not have been originally intended. This structure creates a decision for the average person of which there are only two directions to choose: join a group or risk being ignored as an individual. When several competing groups are operating simultaneously to create changes, then the emphasis on differing priorities can cause the government to fail in its basic “serve and protect” mandate.
6. Interest groups do not always conduct themselves appropriately.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $104 million on lobbying efforts in 2016, pushing for policies that are pro-business while encouraging legislation that promotes free-market ideas and deregulation. The National Association of Realtors spent approximately $65 million during the same year, which was double what Blue Cross Blue Shield as the third-highest lobbying spenders. When there is that much money involved, the temptation for greed can be too much for some people. It can even lead to direct donations to campaigns or the politicians themselves as a way to influence specific decisions.
7. Interest groups can lobby for ideas that are not in the best interest of society.
What do you think the cigarette and tobacco industry decided to form when they were being sued by the U.S. government over their products? If you guessed an interest group, then you’d be correct. People and businesses form groups to advocate for specific subjects that they are passionate about in that moment. Some strive for the common good of everyone, but it is more common to see these groups advocating a minority position for improved profits, increased market access, and other financial benefits that run counter to what the general population needs.
8. Interest groups usually focus on one specific subject.
Although some interest groups advocate for multiple subjects, most tend to focus on a specific area that they see as being problematic in society. Then the group makes a moral decision about people based on whether or not they agree with their decision. The pro-life anti-abortion interest groups will often create labels for people based on whether or not individuals agree with their stance. People on the pro-choice side of the debate do the same thing. When you only focus on one subject, then the rest of society can crumble without anyone caring as long as legislators focus on the one area in life that is important at the time.
The advantages and disadvantages of interest groups help to create a platform that can be used for the betterment of everyone or as a way to create benefits for one specific area of society. It is useful to have a way to organize peacefully to fight for a cause that you are passionate about without worrying about government retribution. What we must relearn through this process is the respect for a differing opinion. If we want to fight for what we believe is right, then we must allow others to have the same courtesy.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.