Interest Groups in American Politics

Darren R. Halpin and Anthony J. Nownes

in Political Science

ISBN: 9780199756223
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Interest Groups in American Politics

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  • Politics
  • Comparative Politics
  • Political Institutions
  • Political Methodology
  • Political Theory



This article considers interest groups in American politics. Interest groups are variously defined. Traditionally, both textbooks and scholarly studies have used a definition like this one: “An interest group is an organized body of individuals who share some goals and who try to influence public policy” (Jeffrey M. Berry, The Interest Group Society. 2d ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1989, p. 4). In practice, much scholarship takes a looser view on what counts as an interest group. This is for several reasons. First, many interest groups (e.g., associations of business firms) do not comprise individuals. Second, many membership groups have members that do not share goals. For example, it is hard to argue that the tens of millions of members of the AARP—the Washington, DC, lobbying behemoth—share political goals. Rather, it appears that many join simply to get the variety of benefits the group offers. Finally, many groups do not try to affect public policy at all, but rather try to affect government procurement decisions (i.e., government decisions about which specific goods and services to purchase), government appointment decisions, and government land-use decisions (i.e., decisions about what a property owner can and cannot do with his/her/its land). In this broader usage the working definition would be something like: an interest group is any organization that attempts to affect government decisions. This very broad definition is expansive enough to include the numerous types of organizations that interface with government in the United States. These types of organizations include business firms, charities, churches, citizen groups (a.k.a. public interest groups), coalitions, labor unions, political action committees (PACs), professional associations, think tanks, trade associations, and others. It is important to note that interest groups are active at all three levels of American government—state, local, and federal. While this is undoubtedly the case, the research and scholarship on interest groups is heavily Washington-centric. Thus, this article lists more studies here concerning Washington interest group politics than either state or local interest group politics. Nonetheless, groups are active everywhere in the United States, and thus this article tries to include studies of subnational interest groups as well.

Article.  10220 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; Comparative Politics ; Political Institutions ; Political Methodology ; Political Theory

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