Interest Groups Today

Types of Interest Groups

Interest groups can be categorized in a variety of ways. They can be seen in terms of their organizational degree (peak associations vs. membership associations), their structure (traditional associations vs. spontaneous and unconventional initiatives and movements), their legal forms, or their motivational character.

One common way is to build categories according to the kind of interest that groups pursue. Generally, private and public interest groups can be distinguished (Truman, 63). While the former generally seek to achieve goals for their immediate members only, the latter seek benefits serving the society as a whole: for example, better consumer protection, improved environmental protection, lower taxes, etc.

Private interest groups are usually further differentiated according to the membership they represent. This leads to the following main categories:

1. Public Interest Groups

Public interest groups, as the name implies, share public concerns, such as pollution, consumer protection and other social issues. These groups claim to represent common democratic interests of the electorate against special lobbying interests (Mewes, 127). Mostly environmental groups and consumer organizations make up this category. Greenpeace is an organization that is active both in the United States and in Germany. Common Cause is an example of an American organization struggling to diminish the influence of powerful private interest groups and limit the funding of federal election campaigns. It helped to establish the Environmental Protection Agency, a government institution. The Nader organizations draw their membership among lawyers and journalists. Congress Watch, for instance, focuses upon consumer affairs, environmental issues, transportation and congressional reform, while the Center for Auto Safety handles issues of road safety. 

2. Groups in the Economic Sector

This field of conflict is central for organized interests in society. It is closely examined in the section about capital and labor groups.

3. Professional Groups

Professional associations in the United States include, among others, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Medical Association (AMA). The ABA has influence on the nomination of judges and provides legal advice on questions regarding the political system. The AMA is a political force that financially endorses conservative candidates. It is committed to the fight against Medicaid and Medicare programs.

The AMA's counterpart in Germany, the Hartmann Bund (German Medical Association) was founded in 1900 equally as a reaction against government health policy. Bismarck had introduced public health insurance in 1883, in order to ease social unrest and to restrict the growing popularity of social democracy. Doctors intended to counter the powerful health care organizations with an equally strong organization (Alemann, 105). From the beginning, however, the German Medical Association sought cooperation with government programs, rather than calling for privatization of the health sector.

4. One Issue Groups

These organizations represent a traditional form of interest groups, which already existed before the quantitative and qualitative increase of group activity at the beginning of the 1960s. They are more numerous in the United States than in Germany, representing specific, narrowly defined interests. The proliferation of this type of group can be explained with conditions of the political system of the United States.

5. Ideological Groups

Ideological Groups are often associated with extreme political currents. They rose as a reaction to the perceived moral decay of society. Issues such as abortion, homosexuality are on the agenda of these groups. The rise of these groups initiated the formation of counter-organizations.

Specific American Organizations

The scheme of the above listed types of groups applies to both the United States and Germany, but interest groups operate differently in both countries. However, there are considerable differences that can be observed among American and German organizations. The American system displays a wider range of interests that seek influence in Washington. The number of one-issue groups and ideological groups is smaller in Germany than in the United States, because political parties are a more integrative force in Germany, which prevented the process of fragmentation of interests that took place in the United States. As a result, sectional groups are an insignificant force in Germany. For example, demands articulated by the women's right movement were discussed and integrated into party platforms in the Federal Republic, instead of leading to formal organizations such as the National Women's Political Caucus and the National Organization for Women in the United States.

Political Actions Committees (PACs) constitute another peculiarity of the American system. They are among the most powerful tools of interest groups in the country. PACs are election committees, founded by interest groups, which serve to support election campaigns financially and organizationally. In Germany, their functions are fulfilled by the political parties. PACs help to train campaign managers and staff, they collect and distribute contributions, and provide services such as polling and advertising (Adams, 501).

The first PACs were established in 1935 as support of F. D. Roosevelt's presidential campaign. However, they became an essential part of the system in the early 1970s, when campaign finance acts between 1971 and 1979 provided them with a legal basis. According to these acts, PAC's can collect and distribute unlimited amounts of funding, if they support at least five different candidates from different parties. The amount per candidate is restricted to 5,000 US $. Furthermore, PACs can support candidates with unlimited funding if the cooperation between them is not officially coordinated (Mewes, 125). PACs are America's largest financial contributors to election campaigns. Their spending rose from $ 23 million in 1976 to $ 148 million in 1988, a large amount of money for "only" 4,000 PACs that make up a small fraction of electoral politics in the United States. In 1990, and again in 1998, there have been attempts to limit the influence of PACs. However, legislators failed to agree on laws to implement those changes.


Introduction -- Defining Terms -- Types of Interest Groups -- Techniques -- Developments