An interest group is a group that seeks a collective good, the achievement of which will not selectively and materially benefit the membership or activists of the organization. These organizations try to achieve at least some of their goals with government assistance. The difference between interest groups and political parties is that political parties seek to constitute the government, whereas interest groups try only to influence it.
Some of the things that interests groups seek from government are information that affects the interests of the interest group, influence of the overnment policy, goodwill of the administrators who carry out the policy, and symbolic status. Some of the sources of interest group strength are the size of the interest group, cohesion between the members, geographical distribution, wealth of the members, status of the group, leadership of the group, and program compatibility. Some of the direct techniques for gaining influence are lobbying, private meetings, legislative committees, and bureaucracy.
Some indirect techniques are grass roots lobbying, molding public and elite opinion, and coalition building. Grass roots lobbying is when the constituency of an interest group-a groups members, those whom the group serves, friends and allies of the group, or simply those who can be mobilized whether or not they have a connection to the group-can help in promoting the groups position to public officials. Groups use public relations techniques to shape public opinion as well as the opinions of policymakers. Ads in newspapers and magazines and on the radio and television supply information, foster an image, and promote a particular policy.
A tactic ommonly used by interest groups to influence public opinion is rating members of Congress. Groups choose a number of votes crucial to their concerns such as abortion, conservation, or consumer affairs. They then publicize the votes to their members with the ultimate objective of trying to defeat candidates who vote against their positions. Coalition building is another form of an indirect lobbying technique. Coalitions are networks or groups with similar concerns which help individual groups press their demands.
Coalitions demonstrate broad support for an issue and also take advantage of he different strengths of groups. The most important function of public interest groups is, to represent the policy preferences of their constituents. Public interest lobbies form a linkage element between citizens and governmental elites. In lobbying they articulate what they perceive to be the issue positions of certain sectors of society. Public interest groups also play an important role in facilitating the political participation of their members and related attentive publics.
By helping to bring new issues to the table, interest groups influence the shape of political agendas. There are three basic reasons why government officials and their staffers will take the first step in contacting an interest group. First, interest groups may be the target of efforts to enlist them as supporters of a particular policy position. A member of Congress or an agency head may feel that a policy he is pushing is not receiving the backing it should from the private sector. He may try to persuade representatives of interest groups to become more active on behalf of the cause.
Second, interest groups are valuable sources of political intelligence. They can provide information concerning the lobbying ctivities of all other interest groups, pros and cons, on the issue at hand. They can also act as eyes and ears for their friends in government. Third, people in government may come to interest groups for the purpose of obtaining substantive data with regard to an issue. Congressional and agency staffs rarely have time to gather all the information they need on their own. Interest groups can be useful in situations where information is needed right away.
Not only can interest groups offer documentation of the facts on an issue, but they can also offer the facts that support a particular point of view. One of the largest general farm organizations is The American Farm Bureau Federation. The AFBF has over 2 million members in every state but Alaska. The AFBF is the only organization with a represented claim to speak for all of American agriculture. Many farmers join the AFBF to take advantage of services such as cheap insurance. A large number of people who are not farmers also join the AFBF, people who want the individualized benefits but have no interest in agriculture or agricultural policy.
Critics of the Farm Bureau argue that the membership figures it claims do not reflect accurately the trength of the Farm Bureau amongst farmers because they include large numbers of non- farmers who join merely to obtain the cheap insurance and other concession available only to members. The AFBF use their position to push extremely conservative policies which often have little to do with agriculture. For example, the AFBF has called for the expulsion of the United Nations on the grounds that it is a base for espionage, subversion, and for ridicule and vindictiveness against our free enterprise system and constitutional governments.
The AFBF campaigned against an amnesty for draft dodgers, measures to educe the power of unions, and against the child-labor laws because they encourage idleness and juvenile delinquency. Long after American involvement in Vietnam had become unpopular in the USA, the AFBF supported aid for the people of Vietnam in their defense of freedom. The AFBF has always advocated sharp reductions in farm-price supports, arguing that farm-subsidy programs should be ended as rapidly as possible. The AFBF produces reasoned arguments to support its policies. It contends that artificially high prices kill demand.
When the AFBF has secured a shift in government olicy in the direction it usually favors, of fewer controls and no subsidies, it succeeds not because of its own power or persuasiveness but because of the congruence between its views and those of Republican Secretaries of Agriculture. In my opinion I think that interest groups detract from the democratic process. If a Congressman grants whatever the interest group wants, they will most of the time be doing it for publicity. They will not be doing it because they really care they will only take the initiative to do it because they know thats what people want to see.