Special Interest Groups
SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS
Toward the end of the twentieth century, special interest groups exhibited several defining characteristics. First, special interest groups are associations joined voluntarily by individuals sharing at least one common interest or belief that defines the group's purpose. The National Education Association's (NEA) members teach. Members of the Sierra Club are interested in environmental issues. Members work together to focus and articulate issue positions and strategies designed to actively influence public policy.
A special interest group's key element is purposely influencing government policy, whereas Elks Clubs, university alumni associations, and Boy Scouts of America are apolitical groups primarily interested in service and social activities. Second, special interest groups have organizational structure whether formal or informal where persons routinely gather to assist their group. The NEA and Sierra Club are formal organizations with dues paying members. A neighborhood group may not have dues, officers, or bylaws, but meets regularly to support or oppose issues of local concern. Third, special interest groups are non-governmental, neither agencies nor political parties. Though interest groups often endorse candidates, they do not nominate candidates. Groups generally fall into one of two categories: trade associations or unions seeking economic betterment for their members; or, cause-related groups promoting some issue such as clean environment, gun control, or ban on abortions.
Although the pervasiveness of interest groups influencing politics is clearly a twentieth century phenomenon, discussion on the role of groups in the United States appeared in James Madison's Federalist 10 (1787). Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville described the United States as a nation of frequent joiners in his book Democracy in America (1835–1840). One of the earliest interest groups in the United States was the National Grange, founded in 1867, which advocated government railroad regulation. Interest group formation has occurred in a series of waves in U.S. history. The first arrived between 1830 and 1860 with groups such as the Grange and Abolitionist organizations. Next, in 1880 with intense industrialization, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Knights of Labor, and various manufacturing associations sprang up. Between 1900 and 1920, many new organizations formed, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Medical Association, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The 1960's and 1970's witnessed a proliferation of cause-oriented and economic organizations including Common Cause and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen.
Near synonymous terms are pressure groups, public interest groups, lobbies, and vested groups.