Special Interest Groups and Political Parties

Though political parties and special interest groups both pursue their agendas through government action, they remain separate entities rather than versions of one another. Their differences are emphasized not only through definition and organization, but even in the way they interact to achieve similar goals. However, their interactions are not always beneficial and lack of separation can often threaten the Democratic process itself.

Political parties form along ideological lines and primarily exist to identify candidates for governmental positions, train them, raise money for their campaigns, assemble volunteers, and reach out to the electorate with the intention of winning political power at local, state, and federal levels. Parties also help to moderate conflict by working out internal differences and coming together against opposition. Separating ideologies along party lines helps voters identify who may represent their personal ideology and also helps those in power fill government positions with people who can help them achieve political objectives. By contrast, special interest groups are varying collections of people simply trying to further their specific interests by exerting influence on the government, from single issues such as abortion and gun control, to the economic policies that affect a specific industry. Whether their agenda is narrow or broad, interest groups are concerned with governmental decisions in regards to only their interests and not positions of power within government, unlike political parties. Any similarities between their actions and those of political parties are only a symptom of furthering their interests.

            Distinction between political parties and special interest groups can also be found in their interactions with one another. While special interest groups raise money for and donate money towards candidates, they do so for the candidates who best support their interests rather than political affiliation, which makes them largely nonpartisan, unlike political parties. Special interests can also fill a void, such as providing research and information, often through lobbying. A great example of this is when an interest group, such as the AFL-CIO, provides research to congressional representatives on the impact specific legislation, such as the impact the North American Free Trade Agreement would have on American labor. Since the AFL-CIO is concerned with furthering the interests of American labor, in many ways they can be considered the experts on the consequences the agreement would have towards their members. Through in-depth research they can provide a more comprehensive and thorough analysis of the impact than the often generalist politicians may have otherwise had access to. Providing research in this way can be mutually beneficial, making sure special interests have the opportunity to voice their perspective and that politicians and political parties are well informed on issues. Interest groups in this very same way can expose a concern or perspective not yet represented by either of the two major political parties. Such previous examples are anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, and environment. Through building awareness and lobbying, special interest groups can influence changes over time in party agendas, as seen with the strong environmental focus in the 2008 presidential election, an interest that barely existed a few decades ago.

            Though frequently beneficial, interactions between political parties and special interest groups can sometimes have questionable and even harmful impact on the Democratic process. Misinformation can be chronic. For example, how can research provided by an oil company claiming that a proposed drilling project will not harm the environment be considered unbiased? Special interest groups have every incentive to provide only the information and research that furthers their goals. Money can also be a substantial factor, ensuring that wealthy industries can drown out smaller voices and interests who lack the resources to exert similar influence. In some cases, such as the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1921 and the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff in 2006, interest groups can further political corruption through bribes and fraud. James Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution, warned against such influence of special interest groups, suggesting that the “most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property”, and thus sought separation of powers and checks and balances to reduce the influence such special interests may have. And while many efforts have taken place to reduce corruption and slow the revolving door in which those who yielded political power move from political parties to special interest groups and vice versa, both remain a significant problem.

            Although both political parties and special interest groups work towards achieving their agendas through government, the difference in pursuing power and furthering interests sets them apart from one another. Their interactions only further this distinction through the roles they place in the political process. If we’re not careful though, the combination of the two and lack of separation can undermine Democracy itself.