Basic Interests

Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science

Frank R. Baumgartner
Beth L. Leech
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Basic Interests
    Book Description:

    A generation ago, scholars saw interest groups as the single most important element in the American political system. Today, political scientists are more likely to see groups as a marginal influence compared to institutions such as Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary. Frank Baumgartner and Beth Leech show that scholars have veered from one extreme to another not because of changes in the political system, but because of changes in political science. They review hundreds of books and articles about interest groups from the 1940s to today; examine the methodological and conceptual problems that have beset the field; and suggest research strategies to return interest-group studies to a position of greater relevance.

    The authors begin by explaining how the group approach to politics became dominant forty years ago in reaction to the constitutional-legal approach that preceded it. They show how it fell into decline in the 1970s as scholars ignored the impact of groups on government to focus on more quantifiable but narrower subjects, such as collective-action dilemmas and the dynamics of recruitment. As a result, despite intense research activity, we still know very little about how groups influence day-to-day governing. Baumgartner and Leech argue that scholars need to develop a more coherent set of research questions, focus on large-scale studies, and pay more attention to the context of group behavior. Their book will give new impetus and direction to a field that has been in the academic wilderness too long.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2248-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-2)

    Throughout the twentieth century, political scientists, journalists, politicians, and popular commentators have recognized the central role that interest groups play in all areas of politics. Many have bemoaned the roles of groups as advocates and defenders of special privileges; some have celebrated their diversity; virtually all have recognized that organized interests in politics are a decidedly mixed blessing. Most who have looked seriously at the group system have agreed with James Madison, who argued inThe Federalist Papersthat groups are a necessary evil best controlled rather than eliminated. Groups at once represent the freedom to join with others to...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Progress and Confusion
    (pp. 3-21)

    Scholars working in the area of organized interests in politics have made tremendous strides in the past two generations. Comparing the state of our knowledge in 1998 with that in 1948, for example, makes clear that our collective understanding of the roles of groups in politics has become considerably more complete, sophisticated, and accurate. We know more about the nature of political mobilization, about the political activities of organized interests, and about the contours of the group system, to mention a few areas of advance. Probably the most prominent example of progress is how far we have come in understanding...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Barriers to Accumulation
    (pp. 22-43)

    Some literatures accumulate new knowledge and others merely grow larger. We saw in the previous chapter that some parts of the literature on interest groups have developed into relatively cumulative enterprises where scholars build on the works of others and collectively reach some important conclusions. In other areas, we noted a troubling tendency for the body of accumulated findings to grow larger and larger without generating a series of coherent and well-confirmed conclusions. One of the barriers to effective accumulation is the lack of a shared vocabulary. Interest-group studies benefit from the contributions of scholars in several disciplines operating from...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Rise and Decline of the Group Approach
    (pp. 44-63)

    The study of interest groups was once perhaps the most imperial of literatures, not only in American politics but in political science generally. Scholars of the generation of David Truman thought that a nation’s political system could best be understood by looking at how groups formed and interacted with each other and with the government. Studies of interest groups were studies of the entire political system, and students of politics were students of interest groups, virtually by definition. Interest-group research of the postwar years took on the major issues of politics: who wields power and influence and whose views are...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Collective Action and the New Literature on Interest Groups
    (pp. 64-82)

    The group theory of politics became increasingly discredited as a result of the trends described in chapter 3. Political scientists had two reactions to these developments. First, many turned away from the study of interest groups altogether, focusing instead on the workings of governmental institutions, voting and elections, and other topics not so liable to the problems that had plagued the group approach. Second, scholars developed new approaches to studying interest groups. The new literature that developed in the 1970s and 1980s was less grand than the older literature in that it aspired to answer much narrower questions, but to...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Bias and Diversity in the Interest-Group System
    (pp. 83-99)

    For as long as observers have focused their attention on the mobilization of interest groups, they have noted the vast numbers, the great variety, and the vitality of associations in American life. De Tocqueville, one of the first and most astute observers, saw the development of groups in the young American republic as an inspiration, noting the good works and public-minded orientations of many of the associations. Since his initial observations, popular observers have continued to note the vitality and growth of the group system, but rarely have they shared his enthusiasm. Many have noted the paradox inherent in the...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Dynamics of Bias
    (pp. 100-119)

    Whatever may be the biases stemming from differences in public involvement and the occupational bases of many interest groups in America, these biases are not the same at all times, for all issues, or in all areas of political life. The set of interest groups active in Washington is anything but stable: it has undergone dramatic transformations over time; it differs from area to area; and it varies from issue to issue.

    In a field where constants are few, it is reassuring to read the descriptions of the “explosion” of interest-group activity in Washington in almost every book on the...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Building a Literature on Lobbying, One Case Study at a Time
    (pp. 120-146)

    Scholars, journalists, and policymakers often conclude that interest groups are among the most important forces in American politics. Studies of policy subsystems have often depicted the cozy relationships between “captured” agencies and allied congressional committees. More polemical work has decried the negative effects of interest-group “pressure” on legislators. Quantitative analyses of the effects of political action committees have shown that campaign contributions are often related to the outcomes of congressional roll-call votes. Journalists often report on the activities and effectiveness of powerful lobbyists getting their way. Reformers often complain about the abuses of power by well-heeled lobbying organizations. Groups are...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Surveys of Interest-Group Activities
    (pp. 147-167)

    Lobbyists can generalize about their strategies of dealing with government officials if they are forced to, but they resist global statements. While we were preparing to write this book, one of us asked a friend who represents a public-interest group in Washington which type of lobbying tactics his group most often employed. Was it legislative lobbying with direct contacts of members of Congress and their staffs, dealings with executive and regulatory agencies, or a more indirect approach involving letter-writing and public-relations campaigns? The lobbyist paused for a moment. “Well,” he finally said, “it depends on what the issue is.”


  14. CHAPTER 9 Learning from Experience
    (pp. 168-188)

    In this book, we have reviewed a wide range of literature on the activities and importance of interest groups in American politics during the past century, with particular emphasis on the period since 1945. Interest groups have been a central feature of American politics since the founding of the republic. Since George Washington, political leaders and commentators of all types have consistently argued that no full understanding of the political system can be had without a full understanding of the roles, motivations, and effectiveness of organized interests. The framers of the Constitution expressly considered the problem of how to handle...

  15. Appendix. Articles on Interest Groups Published in the American Political Science Review, 1950–1995
    (pp. 189-196)
  16. References
    (pp. 197-216)
  17. Index
    (pp. 217-223)