In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interest Groups and Inequality in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals

Political Science Interest Groups and Inequality in the United States
Matthew Dean Hindman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0215


Many scholars once described American politics as a system of “pluralism,” in which manifold and diffuse interest groups govern through competition, cooperation, and compromise. According to pluralism’s most sanguine ideals, an inclusive and robust interest group system fosters social stability, egalitarianism, and civic-mindedness. Yet even as the United States’ interest group system expanded amid an “advocacy explosion” that began in the 1960s, the country also entered a “New Gilded Age” marked by the intensification of economic inequality and what many argue is the growing symbiosis between corporate and political elites. It would appear that the proliferation of organized interests has not remedied inequalities, then, and scholars have begun to explore the possibility that interest groups may, at least in some cases, serve as conduits through which inequalities intensify. While no clearly defined link between the advocacy explosion and the New Gilded Age has been established, scholars concerned with widening inequalities increasingly view the nation’s interest group system with suspicion. Critiques of the interest group system are numerous and diverse in scope. These critiques serve as the basis for this essay. In this article, I outline the major works that, whether directly or indirectly, explore and explain the ways in which some interest group organizations—defined here to encompass corporations, political advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations, unions, political action committees, and more—have contributed to growing inequalities even as (in some cases) they attempt to confront them. Readers should note that this essay does not impugn or dismiss interest group politics in toto, as most scholars would likely agree that interest groups do, in fact, have the potential to enrich American democracy. As the works cited here suggest, however, organized interests also have the potential to subvert democracy in favor of wealthy, elite, or privileged interests.

General Overviews

While a detailed summary of the group-centered, “pluralist” tradition of political research lies beyond the scope of this article, pluralism’s critics have laid perhaps the richest theoretical foundations for how interest group politics enhance inequality in the United States. Olson 1965 and Schattschneider 1960 serve as perhaps the most prominent of the early critiques of American pluralism. Olson approaches interest group participation from a “rational choice” perspective, arguing that many potential groups are unlikely to form in the absence of strong incentives for individual participation. Schattschneider, by contrast, views the nonparticipation of disadvantaged groups in terms of political power and conflict, as privileged groups are better positioned to manage conflicts (and potential conflicts) to their own advantage. Similarly and perhaps more pessimistically, Mills 1956 asserts that only a small stratum of the population—which he terms the “power elite”—dominates politics. Recent scholarship has added nuance to these accounts of interest group politics. Berry and Wilcox 2008 and Baumgartner and Leech 1998 provide overviews of the many roles that citizen groups play within the political process. The latter of these two works, in particular, provides a useful review of scholarly approaches to pluralism, paying particular attention to how biases and imbalances in the interest group system challenge many optimistic assumptions about how the interest group system operates. To date, Schlozman, et al. 2012 provides perhaps the most extensive account of the link between interest group organizations and entrenched inequalities, focusing in particular upon inequalities of political voice.

  • Baumgartner, Frank R., and Beth L. Leech. Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    Broad review of the literature pertaining to organized interest groups. Includes chapters exploring “Bias and Diversity in the Interest-Group System” and “The Dynamics of Bias,” as well as a useful appendix of articles about interest groups published in the American Political Science Review from 1950 to 1995.

  • Berry, Jeffrey M., and Clyde Wilcox. The Interest Group Society. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Relatively optimistic account of the foundational dilemmas of American pluralism. Includes a chapter on the widely cited “advocacy explosion” as well as a chapter on bias and representation within the advocacy system.

  • Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

    Asserts that military, corporate, and political elites govern American society, leaving little-to-no role for voluntary associations, citizens, or even those in the middle or lower rungs of public life.

  • Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

    Introduces the “free rider problem,” which suggests that rational individuals will not sacrifice their time or money to support a lobbying organization because of the marginal impact of their own individual contributions. Thus, most potential interests remain unorganized.

  • Schattschneider, E. E. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s Approach to Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

    Penned the famous and ubiquitous line that “the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.” Also noted for an extensive theoretical discussion of how privileged groups maintain their privilege, and discusses how disadvantaged groups can most effectively counteract them.

  • Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

    Analyzes political participation on the part of citizens and organized interests, revealing disparities of political voice and political organization. Part 3 in particular documents the many disparities in the interest group system that, despite the system’s rapid growth, give rise to enduring inequalities.

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