An Interest Group Walks into a Comp. Exam

The Big Normative Question:



Political scientists have long been concerned whether interest groups distort the public will. For example, Schattschneider argued that interest groups were biased toward the upper class, that they spoke with a “strong upper class accent.” The central concern is whether interest groups are able to bias public policy away from, say, that most-preferred by the median voter. This raises a number of interesting questions about interest group formation, maintenance, and how those interest groups that do manage to form effective organizations influence the policy process. This essay addresses the former question. I will argue that although the pluralist and transaction costs models both make valuable contributions to the study of interest groups, the more nuanced and conditional treatment of interest group formation and maintenance of the neo-pluralist model best explains the success or failure of interest groups’ organizational efforts. Let us begin by clarifying the three perspectives.

3 Perspectives

Lowery and Brasher’s “Three Perspectives on the Influence Production Process” (2006, 18) captures about 70 years of research that helps to explain organized interests and American government. In this typology, pluralism was the first perspective, followed by the transactions perspective, and then by the neopluralist perspective. Each of these perspectives demonstrate traits during four stages. The four stages are (1) mobilization and maintenance, (2) interest community, (3) exercise of influence and (4) political and policy outcome. The table looks like:

Three Perspectives on the Influence Production Process (Lowery and   Brasher, 2004, 18)


Mobilization and Maintenance Stage

Interest Community Stage

Exercise of Influence        Stage

Political and Policy Outcome Stage


Natural product of shared concerns:   Truman, 1951, The Governmental Process

All salient interests are   represented in community: Truman ibid.

Organizations provide only   information, Bauer et al, 1963, American   Business and Public Policy

Pluralist Heaven: Dahl, Who Governs, 1961


Biased by collective action   problems: Olson, 1965, The Logic of   Collective Action

Biased in favor of elites: E.E.   Schattschneider, 1960. The   Semisovereign People

Public policy is bought and sold   like any other commodity: McChesney, 1997. Money for Nothing

Pluralist Hell: Olson, 1982, The Rise and Decline of Nations


Collective Action can be solved, Walker   Jr., 1991, Mobilizing interest groups   in America

Community is a complex organization   ecology. Gray and Lowery, 1996, The   population ecology of interest representation.

Influence is contingent and most   often limited. Salisbury et al. 1993, The   Hollow Core

Pluralist Purgatory, Baumgartner   and Jones, 1993, Agendas and   instability in American politics.



The pluralist perspective affirms that interest groups reflect the public will (though not perfectly), so I shall not spend much analysis upon a perspective that does not distort the public will—the median voter. However, before pluralism, political scientists’ inquiry found that the citizens were poorly informed; indeed they still are, and they used pluralism to solve this paradox of democracy. Surely, you can’t have a democracy if and when the people know nothing about that government. The will of the people [democracy] would amount to the will of nothing—a will of ignorance. Thus, pluralism determines that political “parties aggregate preferences; interest organizations provide specificity” (Lowery and Brasher, 2004, 20). At the risk of a generalization, interest groups [and parties] under pluralism “articulate and organize the inchoate preferences of citizens and communicate those preferences to government” (Ibid).

Pluralism theorists argue that interest groups are an important mechanism between the people and the government to make democracy work. First, interest groups form as a natural product of shared concerns (Truman, 1951). If people in a democracy feel threatened by problems, and, they believe that government has a role in solving those problems; then, the people form an interest group to seek redress. Further, interest groups would mobilize when a disturbance in society arose, known as disturbance theory. Baumgartner and Jones, for example, showed that the Three Mile Island Disaster caused many interest groups to simultaneously mobilize. Eventually, the interest groups caused change to reflect the public will—safer nuclear energy and environment standards.

Second, all salient interests are represented in the community. Every interest may not be represented (e.g., gays in 1950, the poor today), but real social and economic concerns would be relayed to the pertinent people in government. In [niche] theory, interest groups will specialize in a niche and exclude competitors; however, this does not mean that numerous interest groups will not occupy under one issue umbrella. For example, under the environmental umbrella, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) typically caters to older and wealthier environmentalists focusing on animal protection, and it depends on corporate sponsors. Their political tactics revolve around professional lobbying. On the other hand, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) attracts young people espousing animal rights, and it depends on membership dues. PETA’s political tactics focus on publicity stunts.

Third, interest groups exercise influence by providing only information to policy makers. In theory, the interest groups would not be capable of dramatically altering the preferences of citizens or of politicians (i.e. cannot distort the public will). Interest groups are informing politicians about a proposed public policy so that they truly have the opportunity to wisely govern (i.e. help materialize the public will). Finally, the political and policy outcomes resemble the pluralist heaven. This pluralist heaven was not harmonic, rather, full of controversy and conflict, “the essence of politics” (Truman, 1951). Interest groups compete in the political sphere; the government is the mediator between the interest groups (Dahl, 1961).

Pluralism is the first perspective that explains interest groups. In sum, pluralism denotes that (Part 1) interest groups form due to common interests among citizens. (Part 2) Group policies are a direct result of the group’s common interest(s). (Part 3) Group policies enable continuous support because the people support those policies. However, shortly after pluralism’s debut, academics found problems with pluralism. Perhaps the most famous line questioning the legitimacy of pluralism was, “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (E.E. Schattschneider, 1960).


Transactions is the second perspective of pluralism and it caused a dramatic setback to the pluralist tradition, particularly with the debut of The Logic of Collective Action (Olson, 1965). Once Olson applied a simple rational model to interest groups, he uncovered the foundations of group activity, which contradicted the tenets of pluralism. For example, take this finding from Olson:

If the members of a large group rationally seek to maximize their personal welfare, they will not act to advance their common or group objectives unless there is coercion to force them to do so, or unless some separate incentive, distinct from the achievement of the common or group interest, is offered to the members of the group individually on the condition that they help bear the costs or burdens involved in the achievement of the group objectives (2).

According to Moe (1980), Olson “flatly discounts the core pluralist belief that interest groups arise on the basis of common interests…”

Two components comprise the structure of Olson’s analysis: (1) when individuals have a common interest in accomplishing a political goal, the latter characteristics take the form of the collective good; and, (2) these individuals are rational, perfectly informed, and economically self-interested. Respectively, once the political goal is achieved, everyone benefits regardless of their contribution. This means that the collective good is a tool for manipulating collective behavior, but rationally, there is an inhibiting effect upon individuals to pursue their common interests. Second, rational and informed individuals will desire to achieve their common political goal, but how much and under what conditions will members contribute?

Political goals alone are not enough to get people to join an interest group. The rational individual must receive inducements-benefits-perks (i.e. selective incentives), which non-members do not have access to whatsoever. These incentives are non-political, such as reduced rates on auto-insurance, news publications; thus, members may like or dislike the political goal, but are actually interested in the incentives. Thus, Olson creates an economic theory of interest groups, and, shakes the foundation of pluralism by insisting that members of interest groups don’t even need to care about the purpose—the common interest—to join.

According to Olson’s research, rational people would not join an interest group simply because of its goal (pluralism); rather, because of a collective good. A collective good happens for a set of individuals once those individuals supply the good for collective consumption. Think of a bike path. There are some people that pay for it, but then anyone can use [consume] it. Or think of national defense—the median voter could not afford an army, navy, and an air force. But if everyone puts in a little bit of money, then collectively the country can pay for a strong military—and the median voter will’s this. Importantly, all citizens benefit from the strength and presence of the military, since the people no longer fear external invasion.

The Olson Model explains that: (1) each individual is rational, perfectly informed, motivated by economic gain, and independent; (2) the collective good is infinitely divisible; (3) the marginal costs of providing the collective good are positive and increasing; and (4) the marginal benefits of obtaining the good are positive and decreasing.

Essentially, every rational person will figure out what s/he will gain from the good, how much it will cost, and how to divvy up the cost. In earnest, many people will not have money to contribute, or, even if they do, they will choose not to contribute. This is the free rider problem, the “exploitation of the great by the small.” People simply choose not to contribute since they figure that they will benefit from everyone else’s work without doing anything themselves.

Of course, if the whole group does not have discretionary income, then no one will contribute. The collective good will go unrealized. Now, I don’t know many people with a lot of extra money looking for collective action problems to solve. So, if I wanted to get people to contribute money towards a collective good, then what should I do?

The Olson Model provides two answers that would initiate interest groups based on collective action theory. First, bargaining, though it doesn’t solve the free rider problem, will enable rational individuals to form agreement on the costs/benefits/payments. Bargaining works better in smaller groups rather than larger groups. Second, selective incentives are private benefits that members of the group earn through contribution(s), and, these private benefits are withheld from people that do not contribute. This usually solves the free rider problem.

For example, all elderly people benefit from AARP, but since members receive countless discounts and perceive that the benefits of joining AARP outweigh the costs of membership—they join. Finally, some AARP members may not agree with the political goals of the interest group, but since the perks of formal membership outweigh the costs of joining—who cares. In this case, the mechanisms of collection action destroy the assumptions of pluralism. But if Olson showed that goal attainment isn’t enough to get people to join an interest group, has anyone commented on Olson’s strategies?

According to Moe, rational choice assumes (1) that each individual is rational, (2) that s/he makes a decision based on specific types of information, and (3) that s/he evaluates his/her decision alternatives based upon specific types of values. The former points create constraints on the process of choice and thus force choice to be predictable. Meaning, based on the given values of the individual, a rational actor will assess the information at hand and “order preferences” in a rational manner. Rationality does not assume that the actor only looks at economic gain, has perfect information, or selfish motives. Moe contends, “Rational individuals may be grossly ignorant of the objective context, and they may be motivated by the most altruistic of values.” So why join an interest group?

Moe alters Olson’s rational actor assumptions and thus changes the theory. Moe argues that individuals may be “imperfectly informed” and so ponders what “perceptual conditions” must arise for a person to believe that there is an incentive to contribute. Under The Moe Model, anyone can perceive that they have an incentive to contribute. The higher the marginal benefits, the lower the marginal costs and the lower the total level of supply, the more likely that the individual will decide to contribute. This is because the individual will think that s/he is making a difference regarding net personal gains. Meaning, the individual will thus perceive personal efficacy, which does provide a rational incentive to contribute.

This is not unimportant. Under The Moe Model (my term), group leaders may purposefully manipulate information in order to attract members and contributions. Efficacy is a key determinant of interest group membership. Efficacy may matter more than goals, because an individual may believe in a goal, but perceiving that they actually matter to the accomplishment of that goal matters much, much more. Efficacy may also matter more than selective incentives, poking holes on Olson’s argument. A high level of personal efficacy is the tipping point for collection action contribution at times, instead of an individual’s strong belief in the interest group’s goal or selective benefits (pluralism). But who makes Person A think that they matter to the success of Group RNC or DNC?

The Political Entrepreneur organizes and controls the interest group. S/he administers the profit, services, support, communication, selective incentives, administration of collective goods, member bargaining, and environmental relationships. The Political Entrepreneur is selling the interest group to the public, offering a package of incentives, either through direct contact (e.g., media or personal contact) or indirect contact (e.g., middlemen). The entrepreneur must be wise regarding the selective incentives and focus on net surplus (even though a temporary loss of revenue might be justified by a large increase in membership). In order to increase efficacy endogenously and exogenously, the political entrepreneur may ask members to participate, such as writing letters, making phone calls, and signing petitions—all of which are virtually cost free. Finally, rival entrepreneurs may arise, and the political entrepreneur must influence market demand through the advantage of prior establishment (e.g., call meetings, conferences, and committees to initiate nonsupport pacts against rivals).

Moe (1980) provides insight regarding interest groups—updating Olson’s theory regarding: (1) why individual’s choose to join, (2) how organizations form and maintain themselves, and (3) the internal politics. Respectfully, individuals do not join a group based on perfect information. Indubitably, they may join an interest group because they truly perceive that they will make a political difference. Thus, analysis must incorporate the political inducements and political collective good conceptions. Second, organizations are formed and maintained by a “political entrepreneur”—as a business. Finally, internal politics are predicated on the fact that the policy entrepreneur adjudicates all internal decisions. So, the interest group is not democratic, where members would have a vote—a voice—in the decision-making process. Rather, very few members make decisions for the entire group.

Thus, an understanding of the transactions perspective enables us to see that interest groups may distort the public will. Mobilization of people is not natural; rather, latent groups with small numbers are more able to overcome organization barriers because the free rider problem is more limited and because they provide selective incentives. The selective incentives, and perhaps interest groups efficacy, may not be of any interest to the group member. Consequently, smaller groups with a specific interest, not larger groups with a common interest, are overrepresented and wield more power than their pluralist counterpart.

More so, within the transactions perspective, organized interests manipulate the preferences of the public and of public officials. According to McChesney (1997), “The essential insight of the economic model is that legislation and regulation are sold to the highest bidder in political markets, just as other goods and services are sold in more familiar commercial markets.” Thus, Lowery and Brasher deem transactions the “pluralist vision of hell” (2004, 22). This does undermine the confidence citizens have in their government and distorts the control that they have over it. Lobbyists who represent interest groups may advocate ill-considered public policy, due to a biased set of organized interests, and the policy-makers may use their recommendations. We need only think of Jack Abramoff. Elements within the transaction perspective clearly distort the public will. This why I colored in the transaction table boxes yellow—it’s the distortion gold standard.


The neopluralist perspective integrates pluralism and transactions, and also utilizes variation and contingency. Variation allows the researcher to reveal exactly where the analysis is in the middle ground (see purgatory), because sometimes interest groups matter and other times not. Contingency accounts for the circumstances that account for the research results. Thus, researchers within neo pluralism use variation and contingency to explain why “otherwise similar latent interests experience quite different mobilization outcomes, why some interest communities are more crowded and diverse than others, why certain influence tools are used by some organizations and not others, and why the given use of a tool is only occasionally effective” (Lowery and Brasher, 23). Thus, an identification of the variation and contingency would more likely reveal the conditions that enable an interest group to distort the public will, and, by how much they did so.

Neopluralists’ focus on the influence production process finds entrepreneurs may map clever ways to overcome barriers to collective action—that they may even be solved. Interest communities are more than selective incentives and mobilization events; rather, complex ecologies with dynamic properties. Neopluralists may understand interest groups by “mapping” the circumstances surround the group. This mapping will reveal the linkage strength between citizen preferences and government action. Neopluralists, importantly, articulate more specifically the conditions when interest groups weaken or distort the public will, though they tend to view such distortions as rare once the public cares about an issue.

Do Interest Groups to Distort to Public Will

I have formerly described when interest groups distort [and do not distort] the public will within the three perspectives [accounting for many of the subsidiary questions]. However, there are some other manners that apply to all organized interests which may distort the public will. For instance, all interest groups may engage framing—defining an issue as an image that will represent their prerogative (e.g. NRA sees gun rights as liberty, not as contributing to Columbine… a restriction on gun rights is restricting liberty, which is un-American—so it’s framed). Interest groups may then engage issue advocacy, therefore attempting to distort the public will towards a public embrace of their issue framing (e.g. cutting down old growth forests kills the earth’s lungs vs. the creation of local jobs—save the Earth). Think tanks may be “advocacy tanks” and examine data that fits partisan or ideological research (e.g. Heritage Foundation produces conservative recommendations to public policy issues).

The bulk of citizen involvement in government may be involvement in elections—determining which politician will represent their community. And there are numerous manners by which interest groups attempt to distort the public will [and politicians] before the election. For example: interest organizations may require public assurances that they support their group before providing a public endorsement (e.g. AFL-CIO required candidates to oppose fast-track trade legislation). Indeed, political candidates may change their policy stances in order to gain the support of certain interest groups (e.g. Bush Sr. and Dole changed their positions on abortion in order to win the Christian Coalition’s support). Moreover, interest groups may distribute “voter guides” to their members, and these guides may implicitly show who the members should vote for (e.g. Christian Coalition distributed about 45 million voter guides in the 1996 presidential election).

PAC contributions fund candidates, and those candidates may feel responsible to those PAC contributors—not the median voter. Gary Jacobson, for instance, found that more than 72 percent of total PAC contributions went to the top 10 percent of House challengers (Dodd, Congress Reconsidered). If these challengers are elected, they may not remain responsible to the median voter in light of their PAC contributions.

There is evidence that certain interest groups desire to completely distort the public will. Americashowcases interest groups which are exclusively on each side of the median voter. Club for Growth, for example, is on the right of the median voter, giving $13 million to Republicans and $0 for Democrats from 1989 to 2012 ( On the other hand, The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is left of the median voter, and provided more than $31million to Democrats and $0 to Republicans during the same time period. Although some interest groups, like CitiGroup or J.P. Morgan Chase, split their contributions to both political parties, there is evidence that some interest groups would advocate public policy which would distort the public will if left alone.

However, some scholars are critical of the actual impact of interest groups. Schattschneider was not impressed with the impact of interest groups, which he found to be extensions of upper class biases.  Schattschneider thus rewritesMadison’s “Federalist 10”:

The parties are superior [to the interest groups] because they must consider the problems of government broadly, they submit their fate to an election and are responsible to the public. By every democratic principle the parties, as mobilizers of majorities, have claims on the public more valid and superior to those asserted by pressure groups which merely mobilize majorities. Government by interest groups who have never dealt successfully with the majority and never have submitted themselves to the judgment of the public in an election is undemocratic and dangerous (1942).

Schattschneider explicitly states that political parties are not interest groups. Over and again, the impetus for the greatest possible distortion upon the public will is from political parties—not interest groups.

The metaphor of the Iron Triangle also shed on possible distortions of the public will as a response of corporate interests—not the people. According to the Iron Triangle, public policy is (1) formed by congress, (2) implemented by the bureaucracy, and (3) accepted or rejected by corporate interest groups. Thus, policy is a circular continuance of conversations between these groups. The public—the median voter—is excluded. At its root, for instance, the nuclear energy interest groups believe that new regulation will unfairly regulate safely standards—they will fight to remove those stipulations. They will threaten to expand the scope of conflict (Schattschneider) through venue shopping, imagery, mass media, etc. until they get their way. In short, nuclear energy public policy is a result of the nuclear energy interest groups upon the congress and bureaucracy.

The Iron Triangle represents a dominant subsystem, and dominant subsystems rarely allow outsiders to influence the public agenda. However, major events may “disintegrate” a dominant subsystem overnight and enable the people to influence the agenda. For example, theThree Mile Islanddisaster instantly destroyed the nuclear energy interest group’s stranglehold on the public policy agenda. The discussion was available to all citizens and political entrepreneurs (Baumgartner and Jones). This most resembles Truman’s belief in the positive role of interest groups to reflect the public will.

In conclusion

Pluralism advocates that more interest groups will form as necessary to combat new challenges in a democracy. Pluralism is least likely to distort the public will because interest groups are most active and engaged once an event triggers them into the service of the people. As the people mobilize, the public will is made clear to the Congress. Transaction theorists plot the free riders, and employ a political entrepreneur to increase membership—assuming that the members will have little say in the interest group, and that the members own interests may be at odds with the policy goals of the interest group. Neopluralists map the adventure, the variation, and the deviations from the public will. Thus, the neopluralists are the most useful in exploring when, and by how much, interest groups distort the public will.


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