I. What is an Interest Group?. (What are its basic characteristics?)
A. Formal Membership-They have annual registration. Members pay dues. The group has rules and bylaws to govern the organization.
B. Narrow Policy Focus-Interest groups are based on a narrow agenda. They specialize on a single narrow goal such as civil rights, women's rights, workers (unions), environmentalism, etc.
C. Highly Cohesive Membership-Many interest groups have a small yet highly dedicated membership. People do not join a group and contribute time and money to it without developing a strong attachment to the group.
D. They seek to influence policy, not gain control of government through the electoral process. They influence policy by using various lobbying methods. They endorse candidates, they sponsor legislation, they raise public awareness of issues they are concerned with.
II. Reason for Interest Group Proliferation
A. Pluralism-Ours is a pluralistic society made up of various people with different beliefs, values, and opinions. James Madison recognized the diverse nature of our society in Federalist #10. Alexis DeTocqueville also commented on the US as a Nation of Joiners (people free to pursue their interests by creating organizations to realize their goals) when he wrote "Democracy in America."
B. The First Amendment to the Constitution grants people the fundamental rights of free speech and press and the rights of assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances. Given these rights it is only natural for people with the guarantees of free speech and assembly to organize into groups to pursue their goals.
C. Interest groups being more narrowly focused and with a highly dedicated membership are more likely to achieve their goals than a political party that is more diffuse and likely to splinter into factions.
D. Since the 1960s, the political gridlock between both major political parties (Democrats and Republicans) over the civil rights movement, over the Vietnam War, over the Watergate Scandal, and many other events since then has left the American public bitter and cynical about the party system being able to work for the benefit of all, not just for the benefit of a party. As a result people turn to interest groups as a positive way to achieve political goals without becoming mired in party gridlock.
III. Why Do People Join Interest Groups? The answer is they want something in return. The following describes interest group benefits.
A. Solidary Incentives-These benefits (incentives to join) are social in nature. People join groups to be around and socialize and interact with like-minded people. people with the same likes and dislikes and attitudes and beliefs tend to migrate to each other naturally. Solidary incentives provide people with the chance for social companionship. For example joining a bicycle club, or a bowling league, or other type of social endeavor.
B. Material Incentives-These incentives or benefits of membership are economic in nature. They are used to lure people to join a group because the the economic benefits they can reap simply by being members. Examples of groups that offer incentives include The AAA (American Automobile Association) which offers discounts on hotel and motel rentals, free towing services if a member is stuck in traffic, hot shot services for dead batteries, discounts on auto insurance, etc.
C. Purposive Incentives-These incentives are benefits derived from political activism by members in pursuit of a policy goal. The collective voices of highly dedicated members can succeed in pushing legislation when political parties become stuck in gridlock. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) has been one of the more successful interest groups in securing its policy goals to eliminate or at least minimize drunk driving.