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An interest group (also called an advocacy group, lobbying group, pressure group or special interest) is a group, however loosely or tightly organized, doing advocacy: those determined to encourage or prevent changes in public policy without trying to be elected.
A pressure group can be described as an organized group that does not put up individuals for election, but seeks to influence government policy or legislation. They can also be described as ‘interest groups’, ‘lobby groups’ or ‘protest groups’. Some people avoid using the term ‘pressure group’ as it can inadvertently be interpreted as meaning the groups use actual pressure to achieve their aims, which does not necessarily happen. In Britain, the number of political parties is very small, whereas the number of pressure groups runs into thousands; as the membership of political parties has fallen, that of pressure groups has increased.
A person acting on their own or with corporate backing to achieve the goals of an interest group is called a lobbyist. In many countries, however, the term lobbyist has an official definition and lobbyists are required to register and disclose information about such efforts. The term advocacy group or interest group can be used even for groups that are not officially registered as lobbying concerns.
Interest groups are called by many different names, most of them intended to detract. One might be called
- a pressure group if it uses particularly strong tactics, especially in the UK
- a private interest if it is seen as having a particular financial interest in the outcome, or a vested interest if it is already gaining from some status.
The term special interest
The slogan special interest is used for all of these variants, but never to describe political allies. Use of that term, especially in the United States, implies that the "special" interest is not the "public" interest. Many scholars dislike the term special interest, since it carries this loaded, negative connotation. Among other things, it presumes that we know exactly what the general interest (or public interest) is. Some use vested interests or particularistic groups, but in academic literature, these have been replaced by "interest group".
Because of the strongly negative connotation of the phrase, in politics the label "special interest" is often used by politicians against opposing groups. Recently, for instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger often used these terms in his successful 2003 campaign for Governor of California. He waved a broom promising to "sweep clean" the government of special interests, implying that these "interests" were dirty.
Types of groups
Interest groups are political organizations established to influence governmental action in a specific area of policy. This could be done by persuading legislators, working through a regulatory bureaucracy, engaging in legal proceedings, or other means.
- a corporation lobbying to win a specific government contract will almost always use a front group to do its advocacy, typically pretending to represent an industry;
- a trade association representing the interests of an entire industry seeking favorable tax policies or government regulations;
- groups representing various demographic sectors of society, such as:
- groups specifically set up to engage in single-issue politics on one issue only;
- think tanks with a particular ideological or economic theory guiding their analysis.
There is a lively debate amongst political scientists as to what exactly constitutes a legitimate interest group. Some hold that only groups with members (for instance, Common Cause or the National Rifle Association) are interest groups.
Others feel that interest groups are any non-government groups that try to affect policy, such as the National Space Society or the Planetary Society. Some people define it even more broadly, to include individual corporations, or even government agencies.
Sometimes "interest groups" are used to refer to groups within society, especially those who are believed to have similar political opinions on an issue or group of issues (e.g. seniors, the poor, etc.) who are not necessarily part of an organized group.
Goals of groups
Most groups tend to have either human-protective or promotional goals, but not both.
Human-protective groups represent only one segment of society, such as professional bodies, veterans' organizations and trade unions. Membership in such groups is often restricted to members of the represented social segment.
Promotional groups promote some cause greater than protection of specific humans. They claim to represent the common interests of mankind, non-specific rights of all humans, or potentially even all life on Earth. Such groups include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Worldwide Fund for Nature. These ecological groups believe that their cause is for the mutual benefit of all the people on the planet, or all life, period. Their membership is open for people of all ages, so that they are much larger than protective groups. In the case of groups set up to promote specifically non-human causes, they can become extremely large: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is the largest advocacy group in Europe with nearly one million members—more than the number of members in all three UK national political parties together.
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish these two classes, because the actions of a group of one class may be characteristic of the other class. For example, the British Medical Association (BMA) supports the action against smoking, which is of general benefit to the wider population, not just medics. Similarly, the British Dental Association (BDA) supports fluoridation of water, which is again, a mutual benefit, not just for dentists.
Sometimes, special interests become political parties. In some European nations a national ecological society became a Green Party. Similarly, small political parties can promote or resemble special interests more closely than larger parties. Ultimately, however, the distinction between lobbying/advocacy and political parties lies in the means by which they seek to achieve their objectives: political parties seek to become part of government or directly punish government with vote losses for not doing what they say; "special interests", "lobbyists" and "advocates" seek to influence government decisions without being elected.
Effectiveness compared to direct action
One study by Jon Agnone, a sociologist at the University of Washington, in 2004 compared the number of bills passed between 1960 and 1994 by the U.S. Congress with tactics used by "green" groups within the same year. The study showed that each protest raised the number of pro-environment bills passed by 2.2%, but that neither efforts at conventional lobbying on Capitol Hill nor the state of public opinion made any difference.
The study concluded that direct action, like chaining oneself to a bulldozer or throwing paint over company executives, is more likely to influence environmental policy than talking to politicians. Agnone presented his results to the American Sociological Association on August 17, 2004 at their meeting in San Francisco.
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