Interest Groups as Political Participation


Joining interest groups can help facilitate civic engagement, which allows people to feel more connected to the political and social community. Some interest groups develop as grassroots movements, which often begin from the bottom up among a small number of people at the local level. Interest groups can amplify the voices of such individuals through proper organization and allow them to participate in ways that would be less effective or even impossible alone or in small numbers. The Tea Party is an example of a so-called astroturf movement, because it is not, strictly speaking, a grassroots movement. Many trace the party’s origins to groups that champion the interests of the wealthy such as Americans for Prosperity and Citizens for a Sound Economy. Although many ordinary citizens support the Tea Party because of its opposition to tax increases, it attracts a great deal of support from elite and wealthy sponsors, some of whom are active in lobbying. The FreedomWorks political action committee (PAC), for example, is a conservative advocacy group that has supported the Tea Party movement. FreedomWorks is an offshoot of the interest group Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded by billionaire industrialists David H. and Charles G. Koch in 1984.

According to political scientists Jeffrey Berry and Clyde Wilcox, interest groups provide a means of representing people and serve as a link between them and government.See in general Jeffrey M. Berry and Clyde Wilcox. 2008. The Interest Group Society. 5th ed. New York: Routledge. Interest groups also allow people to actively work on an issue in an effort to influence public policy. Another function of interest groups is to help educate the public. Someone concerned about the environment may not need to know what an acceptable level of sulfur dioxide is in the air, but by joining an environmental interest group, he or she can remain informed when air quality is poor or threatened by legislative action. A number of education-related interests have been very active following cuts to education spending in many states, including North Carolina, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, to name a few.

Interest groups also help frame issues, usually in a way that best benefits their cause. Abortion rights advocates often use the term “pro-choice” to frame abortion as an individual’s private choice to be made free of government interference, while an anti-abortion group might use the term “pro-life” to frame its position as protecting the life of the unborn. “Pro-life” groups often label their opponents as “pro-abortion,” rather than “pro-choice,” a distinction that can affect the way the public perceives the issue. Similarly, scientists and others who believe that human activity has had a negative effect on the earth’s temperature and weather patterns attribute such phenomena as the increasing frequency and severity of storms to “climate change.” Industrialists and their supporters refer to alterations in the earth’s climate as “global warming.” Those who dispute that such a change is taking place can thus point to blizzards and low temperatures as evidence that the earth is not becoming warmer.

Interest groups also try to get issues on the government agenda and to monitor a variety of government programs. Following the passage of the ACA, numerous interest groups have been monitoring the implementation of the law, hoping to use successes and failures to justify their positions for and against the legislation. Those opposed have utilized the court system to try to alter or eliminate the law, or have lobbied executive agencies or departments that have a role in the law’s implementation. Similarly, teachers’ unions, parent-teacher organizations, and other education-related interests have monitored implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act promoted and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Interest Groups as a Response to Riots

The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) movement owes a great deal to the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and in particular to the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village. These were a series of violent responses to a police raid on the bar, a popular gathering place for members of the LGBT community. The riots culminated in a number of arrests but also raised awareness of the struggles faced by members of the gay and lesbian community.David Carter. 2010. Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. The Stonewall Inn has recently been granted landmark status by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (Figure).

An image of a group of people standing in front of a brick building. A sign in the window of the building reads “The Stonewall”. A multicolored flag is held by a person to the right.
The Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village was the site of arrests and riots in 1969 that, like the building itself, became an important landmark in the LGBT movement. (credit: Steven Damron)

The Castro district in San Francisco, California, was also home to a significant LGBT community during the same time period. In 1978, the community was shocked when Harvey Milk, a gay local activist and sitting member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, was assassinated by a former city supervisor due to political differences. (November 8, 2015). This resulted in protests in San Francisco and other cities across the country and the mobilization of interests concerned about gay and lesbian rights.

Today, advocacy interest organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Council are at the forefront in supporting members of the LGBT community and popularizing a number of relevant issues. They played an active role in the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in individual states and later nationwide. Now that same-sex marriage is legal, these organizations and others are dealing with issues related to continuing discrimination against members of this community. One current debate centers around whether an individual’s religious freedom allows him or her to deny services to members of the LGBT community.

What do you feel are lingering issues for the LGBT community? What approaches could you take to help increase attention and support for gay and lesbian rights? Do you think someone’s religious beliefs should allow them the freedom to discriminate against members of the LGBT community? Why or why not?

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