“the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, United State Constitution, Amendment 1
When most Americans read those words in the 1st Amendment to our constitution, they think about a rally – for a candidate, for a cause, or to protest some injustice. But our right of free assembly extends far beyond physically assembling, and other types of assembly inarguably influence our politics far more deeply. Interest groups form in many of the same ways that protests or demonstrations form: by citizens organizing around a grievance or shared sense of purpose. What are broadly referred to as interest groups vary in size, purpose and organization, and they exercise influence and power quite differently than a mass demonstration. Indeed mass demonstrations are but one tool in the toolbox of an effective interest group.
In addition to assembly, another common tool is education. Educating legislators, government officials and bureaucrats, the general public, their own members, and the media on pressing issues the group is facing helps drive their agenda as well. Legislators and government officials often look toward members of different interest groups to get more information – usually seeking input from both sides of an issue – before making important policy decisions. Effectively providing these decision makers with good, thorough information can make a huge difference in moving that policy forward.
The three most common types of organized interest groups are non-profits, trade associations, and labor unions. While there is a great deal of variation within and between these three categories, they all share one basic characteristic: they are associations of people seeking power. That may be the power to protect their business interests, the power to create social change, the power to change laws, or the power to negotiate conditions of employment. The right to organize to seek power belongs to each of us. These three types of interest groups are the most common ways that we do so.
If people make money doing it, then there’s probably an organized interest group that seeks power for the people making the money. Often there are even multiple associations that seek power for different factions, specialties or other subdivisions of a profit making enterprise or industry. These groups seek to influence government, certainly, but they also seek to influence economic behavior, culture and public discourse. Power is diverse, and these groups seek it in diverse and novel ways in accordance with the needs of the enterprises that make up their membership.
Perceptions of trade associations can vary a great deal depending on how the members make the money, what type of power the association seeks, and how they go about seeking it. They can also vary quite a bit based on the political perspective of the beholder.
Organized historically around the premise of fighting for the rights of workers in a workplace, labor unions have grown and evolved over time to include taking positions on legislation, ballot initiatives, and governmental regulations, in addition to traditional workplace organizing. With thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of dues paying members, unions have become a powerful force for change in areas they seek to influence.
The organizing and political strategies of labor unions can vary quite a bit, depending on the interests of the membership, the industry that organized workers operate in, and the type of employer by which those workers are employed. Workplace organizing and the pursuit of power look very different for a union of public sector employees than for private sector manufacturing or service employees. Adding even further complexity, many labor unions represent workers in multiple industries. In many ways, labor unions are a sort of mirror image of trade associations, focused on the preferences and needs of workers, just as trade associations represent the enterprises that employ those workers.
These institutions are tax exempt charities and social welfare organizations that are formed to provide a public benefit, broadly defined. Obviously, that definition is a matter of individual opinion. Broadly speaking, many non-profit organizations are the charitable arm of a business that assist other community organizations to drive economic development, education, community health, religion, cultural awareness, and nearly any other issues that affect our lives.
In modern America, where political polarization has in many instances handicapped government from providing the funding and services necessary to meet the needs of a community, non-profits help fill the gaps. They also provide cover for corporate and business organizations. It is not uncommon for corporations to include a line item in their yearly budget dedicated to funding local charities. Not only does this provide an important community function, but it also creates goodwill with the general public.
In addition to charitable and community development activities, non-profits can, and often do, participate in political activity and seek to influence politics, culture and society. They educate, provide information, and allow citizens and companies to influence the public debate and the making of public policy. Controversially, certain types of non-profits (501c4 organizations) allow individuals and entities to engage in anonymous paid political speech. While this infuriates many Americans, especially when the anonymous paid speech conflicts with their own views, these organizations also afford Americans the opportunity to wield influence on important and controversial issues without suffering retaliation for expressing views with which others may disagree quite strongly.