What Are Interest Groups?

Interest groups are associations or organizations of individuals who share a common interest and assert their collective strength in the political process to protect — and in some cases, expand — that interest. These groups may form for many reasons: to celebrate a common heritage, pursue a political or social agenda, shape a policy debate, or strengthen a profession or avocation. Some interest groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), are well known; others, like the National Anti-Vivisection Society, are obscure.

Often, mass social movements such as the fight for racial equality or the effort to outlaw alcohol consumption spawn the formation of interest groups. It's not unusual for countergroups to appear in response. For instance, Putting People First (PPF), a 35,000-person organization, mobilized to counteract the efforts of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

By making charitable donations to nonprofit organizations tax deductible, and by exempting nonprofit organizations from paying federal taxes, the federal government actually encourages the formation of interest groups. The government also gives nonprofit organizations special discounted mailing rates. Many critics of the tax code contend that it should not be used for this type of “social engineering.”

Every year, thousands of interest groups are formed, each with its own distinct purpose and agenda. With the proliferation of communication technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones, it's easier than ever for individuals to form groups, communicate with each other, and act in unison. Who knows how civil rights or women's suffrage organizations would have benefited from the information superhighway!

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