Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 22 January 2020

Interest Group Theory

Abstract and Keywords

This article considers the four steps of interest group theory as it applies to American politics: group theory; Robert Dahl's pluralism; multiple elitist theory; and neopluralism. Participation in interest groups is seen to be one of four standard modes of participation in American politics. The interest group in niche theory is viewed in the context of other similar interest groups and its competition with them for resources of money and membership for group maintenance. It also pertains to group resource mobilization and group maintenance. The theory of internal democracy is also elaborated upon. Political scientists should keep remembering that attention must be paid to the role of interest groups in the theory and practice of democracy in America.

Keywords: group theory, pluralism, multiple elitist theory, neopluralism, Robert Dahl, American politics, niche theory, internal democracy, resource mobilization

in this chapter, following the book's emphasis on American politics, I focus on interest group theory as it applies to American politics and deemphasize topics of greater relevance to other political systems or to international relations. This emphasis is represented in the four‐step framework describing interest‐group theory building stated below. After the four‐step framework, I consider various developing themes in interest group theory, especially as it applies to American politics.

The Four‐Step Theoretical Framework

The Federalist Papers, particularly contributions by James Madison, set forth a theory of the constitutional order which has influenced Americans ever since. In particular the Federalist Papers set forth a type of theory of interest groups later known as “countervailing power,” or that could be referenced with the term “balance of interests.” Madison was concerned with the problem that in a republic, personal liberty allowed citizens to band together to pursue rash passions or special interests which might be opposed to the general good. Repressing the liberty to pursue selfish interests is authoritarian, but the constitutional order can be constructed to balance the adverse effects of selfishness if one expands the political (p. 38) order from the particular local unit to a more general government, encompassing the local units. Within the more general unit, different interests will offset the ill effects of a locally dominant interest opposed to the general good. This was not, however, a modern consideration of special‐interest politics, because Madison was concerned with the problem of “majority tyranny,” that is, the ill effects of a temporary, rash local majority opposed to the long‐run, general good in both the local and the hypothetical general constituency. After adopting the concept of judicial review, Madison's developing constitutional order left it to the US Supreme Court and the federal judicial system to restrict the effects of majority tyranny. Not substantially treated by Madison, the problem of minority tyranny, the question of minority interests triumphing over the general good, was not so clearly dealt with by the courts. Nevertheless, Madison's model of countervailing power constitutes an interest group theory applying to both majority and minority tyranny (J. Berry and Wilcox 2007).

Madison's view about ordinary politics involving the pursuit of interests is reflected in the first step in the evolving framework of interest group theory. This first step has been termed group theory (not interest group theory) by American political science. Political science recognizes Arthur F. Bentley as the original proponent of group theory with the publication of The Process of Government in 1908, although, strictly speaking, Bentley was not widely read until revived by the chief proponent of group theory, David Truman, in 1951. American graduate education in the social sciences was heavily influenced by the German graduate school model and German social theory in the period 1885–1905. German social theory regarded “the state” as an entity above the behavior of individuals; the state was seen as sovereign, embodying the law as an idealized cultural statement, and certainly the state and law were autonomous from influence from everyday political factors. Bentley reacted strongly against such Germanic ideals, and stated an interest group theory that went to the other extreme. He viewed all politics and government as based on group actions seeking interests, with interest defined as economic interest. The governmental process, then, was a process of interaction and power among economic interests, while the state and the law were ultimately reducible to representations of interest. This was, however, different from Marx, as such interests were group economic interests, not class interests. In any event, Bentley's fundamental political reality was the process of group interaction in the pursuit of evolving, often conflicting, economic interests (Bentley 1908, 1967; Truman 1951).

Group theory reached its apogee in 1951–61 after the publication of David Truman's The Governmental Process. Like Bentley, Truman stated that the process of interaction among political groups is the fundamental basis for understanding American politics. Truman backed off somewhat from Bentley's extreme emphasis on economic interests, as Truman preferred to state that political groups are organizations of social and political attitudes, opinion predispositions that might (p. 39) not be economic in nature. Truman did not make definite statements as to whether the structure of political institutions and the law is solely epiphenomenal to the group struggle, although The Governmental Process leaves the impression that the balance of power among groups is usually much more important than legal or institutional structure factors. Thus, Truman was often taken to mean that the law and political institutions simply acted as referees, adjudicating the rules of the process of the group struggle for power, with the balance of power among groups as the fundamental political factor. Truman based his study on numbers of empirical studies, particularly in the period 1945–50, describing political reality as a process of interaction among political groups, as in describing “how a bill becomes a law.” Accordingly, during the 1950s, Truman's group theory was taken to be the cutting edge of realistic political science, and for a while “group theory” was “interest group theory” and the idea that political groups are the fundamental variable of politics and government was widely accepted.

However, in the 1960s group theory was displaced on the mantelpiece of theory by “pluralism,” or more appropriately “Robert A. Dahl's pluralism” (Dahl 1961). Group theory was the first stage of American interest group theory; pluralism was the second stage. Dahl developed pluralist theory in distinction to C. Wright Mills's power elite theory (1956), widely circulated throughout academia. Essentially Mills argued that a national power elite dominated America; this elite consisted of a generally allied group of perhaps a thousand top national government officials, executives of the biggest corporations, and leading military officers. Mills described this power elite as having the money, the power in the federal government, and the control over force to have the most power in America. Dahl argued that one needed to do case studies to show that an elite actually controlled decisions. A widely read study by Floyd Hunter (1953) argued that a power elite ruled the city of Atlanta; in Who Governs? Dahl showed there was no power elite in New Haven. In this oft‐reprinted book, Dahl put forth a theory of power, focusing on the role of competitive elections in controlling social and political elites. He argued that citizens had variable motivations to use resources such as money and time to pursue political power, and that sometimes these resources might be contributed to the organizing of interest groups. Dahl's pluralism was not foremost a theory of interest groups; instead, it was an overall theory of power. But because Dahl's pluralism was the dominant theory in the American politics research during the 1960s, it was also the dominant interest group theory during that time. Dahl's perspective was that group theory overstated the role of political groups, and his emphasis on political parties and elections implied that these factors were more important than interest groups. Nonetheless, Who Governs? indicates that interest groups have significant influence in politics, as was the case of teachers in New Haven school policy. Dahl also showed that in the pluralist process, citizens could readily mobilize into interest groups which had the potential to wield power over policy. Essentially Dahl found the American political process to have decentralized political power, (p. 40) and a significant amount of this power was wielded by interest groups, representing the interests of citizens motivated to contribute political resources to the groups (Dahl 1961, 192–9).

Dahl's pluralism stresses the role of competitive elections, and he did not state that public policy is solely determined by the balance of power among interest groups, a misreading common in the political science literature, especially during 1975–85 (noted by Krasner 1984). This was a semantic error as Bentley and Truman were sometimes called “pluralists,” meaning they affirmed the influence of groups as opposed to doctrines and observations of state sovereignty and dominance. It was Bentley and Truman who came close to saying that public policy was solely determined by the interaction of groups. Dahl was called a “pluralist” as opposed to Mills' power elite theory, but Dahl's pluralism was a different theory than Truman's pluralism. In Who Governs? political parties, politicians, government agencies, and interest groups are all seen as influencing public policy (Dahl 1961, 153–5, 192–9, 120–30).

A more trenchant criticism of Dahl's pluralist theory and its attendant interest group theory is that it does not provide for an unequal capacity to organize interest groups. This is the third step in the theoretical framework of interest group theory which I term “multiple‐elitism,” the position that multiple special interests tend to rule American politics. Dahl's pluralist theory leaves the impression that individuals are free to contribute their political resources to interest groups, which will then give contributing individuals some form of satisfactory representation in the policymaking process. Dahl's pluralist theory indicates that a plurality of interests are satisfactorily represented (another reason for the use of “pluralism” in reference to this theory). However, Dahl's theory of interest groups was undermined by a fundamental critique by Mancur Olson, Jr., known as “the logic of collective action” (M. Olson 1965). Olson noted that public policy frequently produces “public goods,” benefits such that if one person in an area receives the benefit, then, by its very nature, all persons in that area receive the benefit. The archetypical case is clean air.

If an interest group lobby succeeds in influencing policy to obtain a public good, then it will go to everyone in the area, regardless of whether they contributed to the lobby (e.g., getting an amendment to air pollution regulations). Then if we model individuals as economically rational, it does not pay the individual to contribute to the lobby, because the individual will get the benefit anyway. As a consequence, only lobbies with a few beneficiaries (such as a few corporations) will organize, because this is the case in which the individuals or contributing groups get a positive payoff for contributing. On the other hand, groups with perhaps a hundred or more potential beneficiaries will not organize, as individuals will not get a positive payoff if they contribute, since either they will get the public good anyway, or else the benefit is smaller than the contribution (a consumer supporting a lobby to eliminate sugar import quotas to reduce the price of sugar). It follows (p. 41) that groups representing a few businesses or professional associations will organize, but diffused groups of millions of consumers, taxpayers, residents of the environment, and so forth will not organize. Thus, in the world of interest group politics, according to the logic of collective action, the few defeat the many. And thus, the plurality of satisfactory representation in Dahl's pluralism cannot be expected to exist. Instead, Olson's interest group theory posits rule by the few, or rule by “special interests,” each in its own particular area of public policy. This is not Mills's elitism, nor Dahl's pluralism, but rule by multiple elites, each in its own policy area (M. Olson 1965).

During the 1970s, the dominant interest group theory of American politics was Theodore Lowi, Jr.'s, “interest group liberalism,” a form of multiple‐elite theory congruent with Olson's collective action theory of groups (Lowi 1969, 1979). Lowi used the term “liberalism” in its European sense, meaning a political philosophy stressing the privacy of individuals, individual rights, and free markets and thus opposed to doctrines of state sovereignty and expansion of governmental power. Lowi argued that since the 1930s, American jurisprudence and legislation had become dominated by the interest group liberal theory of a weak state and vague, flexible legislation, delegating policymaking to administrators, who, not constrained by specific legislative language in the process of policy implementation, form coalitions with like‐minded interest groups and interested legislators. According to Lowi, organized special interests are thus able to control specific areas of policymaking of concern to themselves, and deflect policy implementation to reflect their own particular goals, rather than those of a much larger public.

Lowi has been extraordinarily influential (Roettger 1978) in stating a concept of distributive politics, a type of interest group theory. Lowi stated a well‐known threefold typology of public policy: regulatory (business versus labor), redistributive (upper class versus lower class), and “distributive politics,” in which specific, tangible benefits are distributed by government, such as construction projects, subsidies, and grants. Lowi argued that distributive politics is characterized by special‐interest rule in which coalitions of interests, government agencies, and friendly legislators work together to distribute benefits to particular constituencies, such as specific local areas or economic producer groups. Interest group behavior in distributive politics is different from group behavior in the regulatory policy area, in which there is a greater tendency to have policy battles among broad coalitions of groups, rather than logrolling among special interests as in distributive politics (Lowi 1964).

Another influential contributor to multiple‐elite theory was E. E. Schattschneider, the author of a study of the Smoot–Hawley tariff of 1930, the textbook example of a policymaking disaster in which legislators submitted to the influence of hundreds of particular economic interest groups, each seeking its own tariff protection (Schattschneider 1935). The aggregate import policy, derived from a huge logroll among interest groups, led to retaliation by foreign countries against US exports, making the Great Depression even worse. Schattschneider (1960) (p. 42) subsequently argued that interest groups are unrepresentative, reflecting the interests of an upper class, and that strong political parties are needed to represent the general public to countervail the power of unrepresentative interest groups.

A compendium of the theories of Olson, Lowi, and Schattschneider can be called “multiple‐elite theory,” as their general theory of interest group politics is that separate coalitions, based on interest groups, separately dominate numerous different areas of public policy. The theories of interest group liberalism, distributive politics, the logic of collective action, and class dominance in groups contributed to multiple‐elite theory, the third theoretical step after group theory and Dahl's pluralism. Other writers had contributed to multiple‐elite theory (e.g. Cater 1964; Edelman 1964;McConnell 1966; Selznick 1953; Stigler 1975), which was the leading interest group theory in the 1970s.

However, in the 1980s and 1990s, a fourth step in interest group theory appeared: neopluralism. Case studies of public policymaking often did not reveal the pattern of some special‐interest coalition dominating an area of policy, but instead showed a plurality of interests influencing policy, with none of such interests being dominant (J. Berry 1985; Bosso 1987; C. Jones 1975; J. Wilson 1980). Observations of such a plurality of interests differed from the observations of group theory and Dahl's pluralism, however, in that the neopluralist scholars did not come close to saying that the observed plurality fairly represented all of the interests. The new case studies did indicate a special difficulty in organizing widely diffuse interests, even if public interest groups and citizens' groups did have some countervailing power against business groups and professional associations. The neopluralists admitted the possibility that elitist group coalitions might dominate numbers of public policy areas, even while a plurality of groups appeared in most such areas. The neopluralists all observed that the state was not just a dependent variable in a power struggle among groups, and all neopluralists observed that the state and its component institutions often acted autonomously, initiating components of public policy on their own, although such initiatives might be challenged by groups (J. Wilson 1980).

Neopluralist research findings may be defined as accepting Dahl's pluralism in finding power and interest groups in American politics to be held by multiple groups and individuals. But neopluralism is further defined as giving priority emphasis (unlike Dahl) to the existence of hundreds of policy issue areas, and to the finding that while many issue areas are characterized by a plurality of groups, some issue areas are elitist, ruled by a single coalition or perhaps having just a handful of influential groups. Concomitant to definition, neopluralists stress the coincident autonomy of many governmental agencies, and also stress that the plurality of separate issue areas is not equivalent to a system of fair representation.

In addition to case studies of policymaking processes, a number of scholars studied the various environmental groups, Common Cause, and other citizens' groups that were organized or surged in membership particularly during 1968–75. Political scientists concluded that such newly mobilized “public interest groups” (p. 43) did indeed exercise significant influence over public policy and wielded a degree of countervailing power to special‐interest coalitions (J. Berry 1999; Bosso 2005; McFarland 1984; Rothenberg 1992).

Neopluralists had to deal with a major question: why did public interest groups, citizens' groups, and other large membership groups exist in spite of the logic of collective action? They derived at least three theoretical answers. The first of these was Hugh Heclo's observations about “issue networks” (Heclo 1978). He observed the existence of communication networks among public policy elites acting in the same area of policymaking; such elites include interest group leaders, concerned legislators, administrators of public agencies, business executives, scholars researching that area of policy, journalists, social movement activists, and so forth. Such individuals are concerned on a full‐time basis about a type of public policy. Issue area activists have the resources to form interest coalitions which can exercise countervailing power against the special‐interest coalitions described by Olson and Lowi. Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins‐Smith extended the concept of issue network activists with the observation that much public policy is influenced by the struggle of relatively permanent (say ten years) “advocacy coalitions” of activists, such as environmentalists versus developers in many areas of the West (Sabatier and Jenkins‐Smith 1993).

Neopluralists observe that social movements have spun off interest groups seeking to represent widely diffused interests, such as representing the environment, women, and so forth (see below).

Jack Walker, Jr.'s, major neopluralist contribution was the observation that “patrons” often exist to provide money and other resources to organize interest groups. Walker's concept of patron applied not only to wealthy individuals, but also to government agencies, foundations, and previous groups spinning off new groups. In fact, Walker argued, in the United States a surprising number of major interest groups spring from original organizational efforts by the federal government including the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the Farm Bureau, the National Organization of Women, and the National Rifle Association. The Ford Foundation played a prominent role in organizing environmental lobbies around 1970 (Walker 1991). The National Retired Teachers' Association and the Colonial Penn Life Insurance Company founded the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP); Common Cause developed from the previous Urban Coalition and the entrepreneurial efforts of John W. Gardner; the Sierra Club spun off Friends of the Earth, etc. (Bosso 2005; McFarland 1984; Pratt 1976). Patrons may provide money to the political entrepreneur who actually organizes a group; however, political entrepreneurs might be forced to provide most of their own group organizing resources, in order someday to reap the reward of heading an influential group (Salisbury 1969; J. Berry 1978).

This, then, is the neopluralist theory of interest groups, the fourth step in the succession of theories. The logic of collective action, special‐interest control over particular policy areas, and distributive politics are important theoretical factors, (p. 44) but countervailing power results from issue networks, advocacy coalitions, social movements, political patrons, and group entrepreneurs. Usually one observes a plurality of interest groups in American politics, but this should not be confused as observing fair representation in the political process. Political parties, the electoral process, autonomous actions of state agencies and public institutions are areas of public action each about equal in influence to that of interest groups, in neopluralist theory. The four steps of interest group theory leading to neopluralism are considered to be mainstream political science, and David Truman, Robert Dahl, Theodore Lowi, and E. E. Schattschneider all were elected presidents of the American Political Science Association. (Mancur Olson was an economist.)

Let us consider a few theoretical contributions from other disciplines.

Sociology and Economics

One basis of neopluralist theory is the observation that social movements lead to the formation of interest groups. Before 1985 (approximately), there was a disciplinary hiatus between political science and the political sociology of social movements (but see Jo Freeman 1975). However, (Jack Walker 1983, 1991) began to put forth an argument influenced by the resource mobilization theory of social movements—the need to focus on the resources for political mobilization derived from patrons, such as governments, foundations, and the wealthy. After a landmark work by (Doug McAdam 1982, 1999), political sociologists developed a synthesis of social movement theory focusing on four variables: (1) resource mobilization, (2) the existence of political opportunities, (3) issue framing, identity, and cultural variables, (4) the general context of grievances (Tarrow 1994). This “political opportunities” theory of social movements bolsters the neopluralist theory of a plurality of groups. “Political opportunities” refers to the observation that movements are partially induced by conditions in the political system, such as the favorability of the US Supreme Court and the presidency to the civil rights movement after 1946.

A second contribution of sociology to neopluralism is network theory. The network analysis eschews the framework of resources and goals, most common among interest group scholars, and substitutes the graphics of communication patterns among principal actors. Data are gathered about who communicates with whom, and such data are displayed graphically, usually in terms of lines among dots, whose density and arrangement display a social structure. For instance, among Washington lobbies we normally observe lobbies communicating with like lobbies, similarly acting in a specialized area of public policy. On the other hand, almost no lobbies communicate in a general way through a general area of (p. 45) policy, such as agriculture or health. The data rich network study The Hollow Core displayed this pattern, with general area networks shown as a wheel, with similar groups networked together at the periphery, but with almost no groups located at the center of the network, communicating in a general way, as spokes around a hub. At first such data might seem to support multiple‐elite theory, as it shows multiple clusters of interaction among similar groups, but such a cluster may be checked in political influence by some other cluster on the other side of the general‐area network (Heinz et al. 1993).

A further contribution of network theory is usefulness in indicating the structure of lobbying coalitions, because we can say intuitively about half of the action in Washington lobbying is conducted by coalitions of interest groups, not by groups acting alone. A network analysis of coalitions is indicative of their overall strength in mobilizing groups into the coalition, as well as indicating their potential for selecting different paths of action as related to the various strength of internal clusters within the whole (Heaney 2004a; Shapiro 2004).

The main contribution of economics to neopluralist theory is Olson's logic of collective action. Olson's perspectives on political groups were derived from the theory of oligopoly, in which a few firms collude to restrict production to raise the price of their product, thereby increasing profits. (OPEC is the famous example.) A few firms may succeed in such collaboration, but as the number of firms increases, there is an increasing incentive to become a “free‐rider,” that is, a firm which increases its production, rather than decreases it, but still benefits from the price increase. Olson observed that a similar pattern applies to political groups.

A second contribution of economics is simply the language of basic economic concepts. In general, political science research uses such language in discussing interest groups: resources, patron, entrepreneur, rational decision making in pursuit of goals, and so forth. Basic economic terminology is used in preference to physics vector terminology, in which action is modeled in terms of interacting force vectors, a mode preferred by Bentley (although his vectors represented economic interests), and by David Truman, who preferred the social‐psychological analog of interacting individual attitudes. Dahl's pluralism, on the other hand, was based on individuals expending political resources in the course of strategies to achieve political goals. His language came in general use among interest group scholars in the political science field. Interest groups came to be described in terms of mobilized political resources, and group survival depicted in terms of the efficient mobilization and use of resources (Dahl 1961). Another type of economic language is decision‐making incentives. (James Q. Wilson 1980) based his observations about group behavior in terms of the incentives of group members, whether they were material or ideological. More elaborate than the use of basic concepts in language, some interest group scholars state economic equations of group behavior (see Ainsworth, Chapter 5 in this volume).

The Chicago School of Economics put forth a special‐interest theory of groups analogous to multiple‐elite theory in political science. In particular George Stigler, (p. 46) and as a secondary effort, Milton Friedman, described the tendencies of those regulated by government agencies to capture the agencies themselves, and then to enact special interest policies. To economists, such policies included the promotion of monopolistic behavior, in particular governmental price setting, subsidies to existing producers, tariffs and import quotas, and setting forth barriers to entry and to competition by new producers. The Chicago School described this as done through the organization of interest groups, which then influence legislative bodies and administrative agencies. The conclusion of the Chicago School is, of course, to get government out of markets, thereby decreasing the influence of interest groups over prices and production (Stigler 1975; M. Friedman 1962).

Theoretical Developments

In the rest of this chapter I discuss ways in which interest group theory might be developed, especially in considering American politics. In considering scholarly development, I tend to be more theoretical than other chapters, emphasizing trends in research programs.

If we have arrived at the point of neopluralist theory, what has been accomplished? Political writers, journalists, and other citizens will continue to state observations of a single power elite (i.e., the only interests that really count are large corporations), pluralism, and the general power of special interests, but neopluralism places these in useful perspective. Political scientists might explore how other models of power in this family of ideas apply to the United States. In particular, the corporatist model of power and interest groups (Schmitter 1974; Katzenstein 1985), usually applied to certain European societies but not to the United States, might be useful in certain limited areas of American politics. In the corporatist model (contrasted to the atomistic model of pluralism), policies are negotiated among centralized segments of groups and government, e.g., a centralized business group, a centralized labor group, and centralized government. Corporatism might be an alternative to neopluralism in some cities, or particular areas of state government policymaking (McFarland 1984). Similarly Arend Lijphart's model of consociationism, applied to certain foreign societies, might be a better means to describe interest politics in some local governments. In consociationism, interest groups are organized in centralized segments, but unlike corporatism, one or more such segments are based on ethnic or religious affiliation (Lijphart 1969). In US local government, it might be that interest politics is negotiated among centralized African American, Latino, and predominately white upper‐middle‐class segments. This might be true of local schools policy. Another one of this family of ideas is “statism.” This occurs when relatively autonomous government (p. 47) agencies dominate interest groups, as opposed to groups tending to dominate the state in multiple elitism. Statism, however, has been well covered theoretically, as it was a priority research topic in the 1980s, especially if one refers to the wealth of writing on institutionalism (P. Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985). Probably little new about interest groups can be said from this perspective.

Neopluralism, aside from being a theory of interest groups and political power, is also a theory of the political process, meaning the complex interaction of various political factors, acting in systems and subsystems over time (McFarland 2004). In other words, neopluralism pertains to the theory of complex political systems, and the two theories might interact, in mutual development. A particularly promising theory of complex political and policymaking systems is termed “the politics of attention” (B. Jones and Baumgartner 2005), which overlaps with other theoretical notions of policy change, the political agenda, and issue framing. The theory of political attention depicts public policy in its particular areas as ordinarily not changing much, while sometimes the technical and political context of a policy changes rapidly. In an onrush of political attention, a particular public policy suddenly changes in adaptation to the changed context, an event known as “policy punctuation” (F. Baumgartner and Jones 1993). It would seem that interest groups both act to maintain an equilibrium in a policy area (as in multiple‐elite theory), but at times are one of several factors acting to bring about a policy punctuation. How can this be stated theoretically? Interest groups have an issue‐framing function, setting forth an interpretation of events in some situation and the meaning of such events to individuals, together with action proposals to deal with problems posed by the issue frame (F. Baumgartner et al. 2009; Snow et al. 1986; Goffman 1974). For instance, a public health group might frame the issue of public smoking as having secondary effects on non‐smokers and propose a ban on such public smoking. The interaction of policy punctuation, political attention, groups, and issue framing in complex systems is an important theoretical topic. Surprisingly, empirical research has found that issue framing by interest groups in the Washington lobbying process seldom occurs, even though we might have the expectation that effective issue framing is at the core of the lobbying process (F. Baumgartner et al. 2009).

Theory of Interest Groups and Elections

Theoretical attention is needed to bring together neopluralism and other contemporary interest group concepts together with research about political parties and elections in the United States. Interest group theory and election theory in political science have had different histories. Interest group theory started with the work of (p. 48) Bentley and Truman, proceeded with contributions from Dahl and Schattschneider, and in the main went in the direction of Olson and Lowi. Bentley and Truman had little to say about elections; Dahl and Schattschneider give more emphasis to elections and interest groups; while Olson and Lowi said little about elections. Neopluralist interest group theorists, such as Heclo and Walker, have little to say about elections. In the generation of the 1940s and 1950s, the leading scholar of American politics, V. O. Key, Jr., wrote mostly about parties and elections, but included a major section about interest groups into his advanced introduction to political science research, Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups (Key 1964).

The preceding paragraph can imply that the discipline should emulate Schattschneider in considering both parties and elections, and interest groups as having somewhat equal treatment in a discussion of American democracy. This needs to go beyond the listing of factors and partial theories. Students of campaign finance have produced a great deal of research indicating the effects of interest groups acting in campaign finance, and even the causation going in the other direction. Stating a definitive pattern about groups and campaign finance is difficult due to the complexity of the variables (see Chapter 28). We have information about donations, which groups give, what types of groups give, relations to political incumbents, relations to congressional committees, different mechanisms of giving (political action committees, independently organized fundraising committees, etc.), relations to role call voting in different areas, relations to distributive politics. Elected politicians may induce contributions from groups through the threat of paying no attention to non‐contributors. Campaign contributions from groups appear to reinforce special‐interest politics in some areas of national policymaking, enhancing multiple‐elitism, although the effect is limited by factors producing neopluralism (e.g., contributions from both business and labor to the same politician).

Political science theory might be advised to follow further in the footsteps of E. E. Schattschneider, who closely combined political parties, elections, and interest groups in his work (Schattschneider 1960). However, some scholars might regard Schattschneider as too negative in his treatment of interest groups in America. He was not impressed by the democratic potential of interest groups, which he saw as having “an upper class bias,” as prone to special‐interest logrolling, and as blocking the will of the majority in the US Congress. Schattschneider was famous for his advocacy of a reordering of American political institutions along the lines of a “responsible party system,” in which nationally centralized political parties would give the voters clear‐cut choices between alternative platforms, which could be enacted by the president and Congress in the manner of disciplined parties as seen from an idealized perspective on the British political system (American Political Science Association 1950). Such proposals have been debated among political scientists, but are generally seen as not realistic within the context of an American political culture stressing individualism and local control (Ranney 1962). The Schattschneider tradition continues, however, in influential writings about (p. 49) political participation by Kay Lehman Schlozman and Sidney Verba and their associates (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). Political participation scholars gathered data to show more active voting and participation in interest groups by the better‐off citizens in income and education stratification. This leads to a perspective on the need to mobilize working‐class citizens, and those of low or average income, to greater activity in electoral campaigning and voting to counter the upper‐class bias of interest groups. For a generation many looked to American labor unions, and the New Deal Democratic Party to so mobilize average‐income citizens, but in the last generation unions have declined in membership and influence, and are less significant within the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, Schattschneider stressed the power of corporate business within the realm of interest groups in America as part of the picture of political inequality and upper‐income rule. Political scientists have produced a good number of useful studies of public interest groups, citizens' groups, and transnational advocacy networks—organizations having a reform outlook and often criticizing business (J. Berry 1999; Walker 1991; Keck and Sikkink 1998). In addition to the overall goal of explaining interest group politics, to deal with a Schattschneider‐type argument political science needs to conduct more research into business lobbying in Washington (Schlozman and Tierney 1986; Schlozman et al. 2008; Vogel 1989).

Interest group theory need not be a Pollyanna‐ish defender of the group status quo to argue that we might take a look at pessimistic conclusions about the fairness of group representation in light of neopluralist findings. The critical heaven of a responsible two‐party system, with a powerful labor‐oriented party, competing with a capitalist party oriented to elimination of wasteful distributive politics, is subject to the politics of attention. Power must be delegated to administrators, legislative staff, and to courts who may not always be dedicated to serving the original intent of responsible‐party legislation, even if such intent were always clear. In policy implementation, of course, interest groups reassert their influence, and owing to the politics of attention, voters and leaders of centralized parties cannot pay attention to everything at once. This is one theoretical reason to support public interest lobbies to continue to represent the interests of the general public during the implementation process.

However, Theda Skocpol argues that such public interest groups are also not representative, in that such Washington lobbies are managed by professional, upper‐middle‐class elites (Skocpol 2004). The neopluralist position might be that this is empirically true, but that such elites are still making the policy system more representative of widely diffused interests. Further, the neopluralist can argue that the great disparity of interest organization in some policy areas may reflect the control of higher‐income managers, but a disparity of interest representation is at least fairer than control by a special‐interest coalition of a single group and its administrative and legislative allies. In any case, interest group theory might draw on data and theory from neopluralism to deal with questions regarding the (p. 50) representative role of interest groups in the context of parties, elections, public administration, and the enforcement of law by the courts.

A similar theoretical development, relying on a greater degree of description and empirical analysis, might deal with the question of trends of interest group power within the overall American political system. It is reasonable for the undergraduate or for the journalist to ask, are interest groups gaining or losing power in American politics? Perhaps this is too difficult to answer, but a few scholars might try. There are two conflicting observations of trends. Neopluralist researchers have apparently shown that many of the policy areas controlled by special‐interest coalitions in the 1950s now contain a greater diversity of influential interest groups and thus exhibit neopluralism (Walker 1991; Heclo 1978). It can be argued that one reason neopluralism now seems to be a more useful theory than multiple‐elitism is simply that the reality of group politics has changed in the last fifty years. On the other hand, some might argue that the increasing role of campaign finance is playing into the hands of interest groups as politicians become more reliant on funding from groups. Interest group theory might take steps to deal with such issues of historical change within the framework of representative processes.

Political Participation

Participation in interest groups is seen to be one of four standard modes of participation in American politics—the others being voting, electoral campaigning, and direct contacting of government officials (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). A concept which has attracted enormous attention in recent years, civic engagement might be viewed as another mode of participation, both social and political. Civic engagement refers to face‐to‐face participation in social groups by which individuals learn social trust, an important foundation for cooperation needed in a democracy. Discussion of interest group theory and civic engagement theory is largely parallel to the discussion of the role of groups and political parties (Putnam 2000). At least one disciplinary leader, Theda Skocpol, describes a decline in engagement in social groups crossing social classes (such as lodges or the PTA), while the decline in labor unions enhances the relative influence of public interest groups managed by professional elites (Skocpol 2004). On the other hand, the leading engagement theorist Robert Putnam calls for a revival of Theodore Roosevelt era Progressivism to revive civic engagement, even though historians usually describe Progressivism as activism by middle‐class professionals (Putnam 2000; Wiebe 1967). Interest group theory in America must take some note of the classic Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, whose outlook directly preceded (p. 51) current civic engagement theory, even if written in the early 1830s (Tocqueville 1969). Tocqueville anteceded work by political sociologists such as William Kornhauser, who argued the necessity of a rich organization of groups in civil society to protect democratic institutions against authoritarian social movements (Kornhauser 1959). This Tocquevillean observation became dated in light of the African American civil rights movement, but Tocqueville is now particularly relevant as the antecedent of the civic engagement discussion.

Interest group theory now implies an important role for participation in social movements, as one of the mobilizers of groups necessary to represent diffuse interests. There may be little to say that is new about this idea (McAdam 1999; Walker 1991; Bosso 2005; Costain and McFarland 1998).

American writers about interest groups need to consider the theory of political consumerism, which has been of interest to at least a score of European researchers (Micheletti, Føllesdal, and Stolle 2003). Political consumerism occurs when segments of the public protest policies of business corporations, but such publics do not act through standard political institutions, but attempt to act directly against the corporate business, especially through boycotts, switching shopping to politically correct businesses, through protest communication on the Internet, and so forth. Political consumerism can be considered to be one type of “creative political participation,” when scattered individuals act to pursue general‐interest goals through creating new forms of political participation, believing that established political institutions do not provide effective means for such action. Other forms of creative political participation include the formation of transnational advocacy networks in which citizens of one country attempt to pressure the government of a country not their own, and types of protest against government corruption when existing modes of participation are seen as the issue of the protest (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Micheletti and McFarland 2009).

Coalitions, Lobbying, and Power

Recently interest group researchers have generally realized that groups form coalitions to influence Congress, as well as at other decision‐making sites. Some coalitions are actually institutions, and could be understood within some type of institutional theory—for instance, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights was founded in 1950, has 190 member interest groups, and has a staff and offices. Another mode of studying coalitions is network theory, which might be combined with institutional theory. The general prediction is that dense portions of networks are correlated with the existence of lobbying coalitions. In turn, network theory can (p. 52) be used to predict cooperation and divisiveness within coalitions, and overall coalitional stability (Shapiro 2004).

A direct way to understand coalitions is in terms of models of rational decision making, which might include straightforward observations that groups with like goals form coalitions. Such straightforward observations of goals is useful in understanding the formation of ad hoc lobbying coalitions, when groups get together within a relatively limited time to lobby for one particular bill or legislative approach to an issue (J. Berry and Wilcox 2007; Bosso 1987). Accordingly, short‐term versus long‐term lobbying coalitions can be compared on the basis of whether agreement is over core values (long‐term) or just agreement as to the need to pass some particular bill (ad hoc) (Hula 1999). From a rational choice standpoint, a group may refuse to join a coalition in order to maintain its autonomy and organizational distinctiveness, seen to be useful in recruiting and retaining members and resources (Hojnacki 1997).

Coalitional activity outside of Washington probably can be largely explained using similar approaches and models to Washington lobbying. Local advocacy coalitions are based on shared values, networks, and rational decision making about similarity of goals and the need to share political resources. Writers on advocacy coalitions place more emphasis on coalition members who are government officials and others who are not interest group leaders than tends to be found in congressional lobbying studies. Studies of “getting to yes” among opposing local advocacy coalitions are particularly interesting. Here the main questions are why opposing coalitions, such as environmentalists and developers, might agree to negotiate their differences, and how such agreements can be enforced in light of incentives of some parties not to cooperate. If negotiation among opposing advocacy coalitions becomes frequent in some area, then elements of European‐style corporatism enter American policymaking (Sabatier 1999; McFarland 1993).

Not surprisingly, interest group scholars have been particularly interested in the variations in power of those seeking to influence the national Congress. Quite precise measurement of power is difficult to do, and often does not seem to be a wise allocation of scarce research resources. Precise measurement entails projecting an expected vote by congresspersons, likely based on constituency characteristics, political party affiliation, and past behavior. The scholar might then ascertain which congresspersons are lobbied by a group, and determine which of these departed from their expected vote (Rothenberg 1992). Normally this is just too much to do. However, case studies and contextual analysis usually gives a pretty good idea of relative power, especially if one is just concerned with three to five points on a scale. We can give convincing evidence that the National Rifle Association or the AARP have “a lot” of power in influencing Congress.

A theory of lobbying power must be joined to a theory of Congress and a theory of voting behavior. Powerful lobbies generally combine the lobbying skill of Washington insiders with a network of communications to members in a large number of districts (p. 53) and states, who in turn communicate with their congresspersons their support for a lobby on some measure (Kollman 1998). Intensity of preference of constituents as reflected in voting behavior (gun owners) leads to lobbying power. Lobbyists normally first approach members of Congress who agree with them to enhance the priority the member gives to the lobbyist's issue (the politics of attention). Usually in coalition with friendly congresspersons, the lobbyist then approaches the undecided, while normally not approaching congresspersons known to be “against,” except sometimes when that member has numerous contributors to the group in his or her district (F. Baumgartner and Leech 1996; Hojnacki and Kimball 1998). Lobbyists try to develop positive relationships with members having key roles on legislative committees or in the party leadership; they also pay more attention to senators having a pivotal vote (that is, numbers 58, 59, 60 possibly in favor) (Krehbiel 1998).

Such views of lobbying, with neopluralism and the politics of attention as a background, rely on straightforward rational choice theory. Lobbyists pursue goals using strategies to use effectively their potential power to persuade legislators. A major publication having this outlook is being published by researchers coordinated by Frank Baumgartner at Penn State University (F. Baumgartner et al. 2009). The Penn State group has drawn about a hundred issues at random and intensely studied the congressional policy process on each issue. This has never been done before. Findings include: that groups defending the status quo win more often; a great variation in the number of groups active on an issue (some issues have hundreds of groups active while other issues have only a few groups active); issue reframing seems hard to do and is rare. Others are not likely to conduct such a large study until 2020 or later.

The anthropological study of the role of the lobbyist, conducted either figuratively or literally by following the lobbyist on his or her duties (Dexter 1969; Kersh 2002), is neglected in political science, because such studies are thought to be difficult to publish in journals and are thus avoided by the non‐tenured. Anthony Nownes indicates that the greater number of lobbyists do not work to influence the US Congress but work on such seemingly humdrum matters as influencing the contracting practices of state‐level and local governments, while many other lobbyists are dedicated to influencing land use and permitting policies of local government (Nownes 2006; Thomas and Hrebenar 2003). Interest group theorists need to pay more attention to this.

Niche Theory and Resource Mobilization

Niche theory was developed by political scientists Virginia Gray and David Lowery in their effort to apply ecological theory to communities of interest groups (1996a). Agricultural policy scholar William Browne independently came up with the term “ (p. 54) niche theory” in explaining why agricultural interest groups reflected the separate interests of scores of different agricultural commodities, from mohair to walnuts (Browne 1990). In ecology the species develop separately while interacting with other species, with each species tending to locate an ecological niche, in which a species can maintain itself effectively in its environment in its competition for sustenance with other species.

The ecological niche is a parallel concept to the economic niche of the firm, each firm competing with other firms for scarce resources, leading to firm specialization with firms locating a special production and sales activity in which it is most efficient and thereby manages to maintain itself. In niche theory, the interest group is viewed in the context of other similar interest groups and its competition with them for resources of money and membership for group maintenance. Gray and Lowery applied this idea to communities of groups attached to state‐level government; Browne so described agricultural lobbies; Christopher Bosso analyzes the competition for support among the variety of environmental lobbies (Gray and Lowery 1996a; Browne 1990; Bosso 2005). The basic observation of niche theory is a trend to group specialization in adaptation to its environment. Niche theory is related to coalition theory, in that the evolving specialized groups still maintain some similarities of interest in the group community (agriculture etc.), and niche groups are most likely to form lobbying coalitions in support of a community interest. Niche theory should be developed further with insights from ecology or from the theory of the firm.

Niche theory pertains to group resource mobilization and group maintenance. As noted, neopluralists also point to the resource concepts of the patron and the political entrepreneur which can be combined with niche observations. On the other hand, neopluralists refer to sociological concepts such as network theory, issue networks, and aspects of social movement theory to account for the mobilization of resources in groups, especially when we do not expect such mobilization in light of Olson's logic of collective action.

Internal Democracy

The theory of internal democracy in groups dates back a century to Italian sociologist Robert Michels, whose famous “iron law of oligarchy” stated that internal group democracy is nearly impossible. Michels argued that an initial elite within a group would pyramid its political resources within the group in a positive feedback process, while the non‐elites' capacity to challenge the initial elite would get progressively weaker (Michels 1959). Dahl made a similar point about (p. 55) power in New Haven, but pluralist Dahl saw that the elite would be controlled in the process of competitive elections (Dahl 1961, 102). Sociologists had observed that competitive elections are rare within unions and other civil society groups. A study of a printers' union having competitive elections showed that these were based on autonomous groups within the union, as printers spent an unusual amount of time networking with themselves, as opposed to immersion in outside society (Lipset, Trow, and Coleman 1956). This conclusion was extended to unions of miners and longshoremen (Lipset 1963). One might call the printers' union study an early version of civic engagement theory, as in face‐to‐face interactions the printers built up social capital in the form of interpersonal trust that facilitated a more democratic process in electing union leadership.

A theory of internal democracy thus has two poles. One is that such democracy is reliant upon face‐to‐face interaction with others within the group: the sociological civic engagement view. A second is that group leaders anticipate that followers will quit the organization, and take their resources out of the organization, if group leaders violate the preferences of the followers. Followers thus through anticipated reactions exercise a type of control through “the exit option,” in the terminology of economist Albert Hirschman (1970). The difference in perspective is indicated in civic engagement writer Theda Skocpol's criticism of public interest groups as often not having local chapters for face‐to‐face interaction and as controlled by Washington‐based elite professionals (Skocpol 2004).

The elite versus follower terminology omits an important segment in the middle—activists within an interest group. Within many mass membership groups, only 5 percent or less do anything more than contribute a check. But within that 5 percent, at any one time a few hundred or a few thousand members will be active within group affairs, meeting in a face‐to‐face manner with other group members, and contributing time and money resources to group activities, so that the central leadership becomes concerned about the activists' responses to group policies (Rothenberg 1992). There is more internal democracy from the standpoint of group activists than from that of the average contributor or member.


American political scientists have developed interest group theory in four steps: group theory, Dahl's pluralism, multiple‐elite theory, and neopluralism. The fourth step, neopluralism, basically indicates a variation in patterns of interest group action among scores of issue areas of politics, as well as among the numerous state‐level and local jurisdictions. The basic theoretical statement is one of complex (p. 56) political action. This is a useful finding, but political scientists want to develop interest group theory to make more specific statements about how such complexity operates and its meaning to citizens and political actors.

Perhaps a first priority to advance interest group theory is to view groups within the processes of policymaking; such a priority might be to cross‐fertilize policy theory with interest group theory. In this case groups would be viewed as acting within a process or flow of public policy events. Especially thought‐provoking is the new theory of the politics of attention (B. Jones and Baumgartner 2005). Within the processes of the politics of attention, interest groups can be seen as framing issues, having a causal role in policy punctuations, and a role in changing policy venues in changing patterns of political attention among branches of government and among levels of government. How do groups bring issues to the attention of politicians acting in electoral processes? Research into the politics of attention and the role of groups might be a first priority, but of course there are several other promising areas to develop interest group theory.

Political scientists should of course keep remembering that attention must be paid to the role of interest groups in the theory and practice of democracy in America.