Check your References — Interest Groups

As part of Election 101, we are posting exclusive content from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History on subjects related to Election 2012.

“Factions” have held sway in American politics from the time of the Founding Fathers (“In Federalist Paper number 10, James Madison famously warned of the dangers of faction…”), but how have they insinuated themselves so thoroughly in American politics? Elisabeth S. Clemens gives us a short history lesson in this article.

The historical development of interest group politics may be traced by following each element of this threefold name: politics is modified by group, group by interest. By extension, group politics differ in some important way from other kinds of politics, just as interest groups are distinct from other sorts of social groups. The emergence of recognizably modern interest group politics required the mobilization of groups outside of electoral politics, the development of methods by which such groups could influence policy outcomes, and the legitimation of these interests as recognized elements of a political system that extended beyond the boundaries of the formal political institutions themselves. Although the presence of organized interests near to government has steadily expanded throughout American history, opinions differ over whether these groups support democracy by expanding citizens’ access to politics or undermine it by allowing representatives of narrow interests to control policy making.

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The preceding is an excerpt from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, edited by Michael Kazin, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman. To learn more about this book, please visit Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. No part of this text may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher.


  1. The diversity of organized interests, as well as the divergent assessments of their role in American de- mocracy, remains an obstacle to the development of either systematic evidence or theoretical consensus.