The following lesson will cover the similarities and differences between political parties and interest groups. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.
Interest Groups and Political Parties
Just as in a family where everyone is related and shares common characteristics, there are still notable differences between members. I myself am a twin and while my brother and I share many of the same characteristics, we are still very much unique in our own ways. The same can be said of the relationship between political parties and interest groups. While both play prominent roles in our government, they differ slightly in some key ways. These similarities and differences can be seen in three main areas:
The internal politics of each group
The method for accomplishing their goals
As a reminder, a political party is a group of people who organize to win elections, operate the government, and determine public policy, whereas an interest group is a group of people who share common goals and who actively try to influence policymakers. So as you can see, both groups serve a purpose in our government, and an important one at that. Both are organized groups of people working toward specific goals in the government and both promote politicians and raise money to accomplish those goals.
Their specific purposes within the government, however, differ. Interest groups do not want to operate the government, and they do not put forth political candidates, even though they support candidates who will promote their interests if elected or reelected. Another difference in purpose is that a political party may blur their positions on issues or may have a wide array of opinions on issues so that they can seem attractive to the greatest number of voters. Interest groups, on the other hand, tend to sharpen issues in an attempt to promote a position on a specific issue, such as gun control or agriculture.
We can even make an analogy between a friend you may have that is a die-hard baseball fan and roots relentlessly for your town’s home team. You, on the other hand, enjoy baseball, but are more of the casual sports fan and don’t necessarily just limit yourself to liking only baseball. Thus, your friend is focused like an interest group would be, whereas you would be more similar to a political party that attempts to appeal to a wide group of people.
Political parties and interest groups also tend to differ in their internal composition. For example, political parties are more internally flexible than interest groups are able to be. Members of a political party generally all have similar views, but each member doesn’t have to agree on every issue. Think about you and your best friend again. You two may be best friends because you share a good deal in common, but chances are you don’t share everything in common. You may love science fiction movies and your best friend may not like them at all.
An actual example of this in politics happened in the Republican Party in 2013 over support for gay marriage, where younger republicans did not show such a strict opposition to the issue compared to the older, more established members. There is also a small coalition from within the Democratic Party called the ‘Blue Dog’ coalition who identify as fiscally conservative, which is not a traditional Democratic Party position.
Political parties, because of their nature and composition, must put forth their political viewpoints based on the majority and can afford to do so because they put forth opinions on such a wide variety of topics. Thus, a political party can have some differences of opinion from within the party without changing its identity. Because interest groups are formed around a single issue, they cannot change their official position without changing who they are.
Methods for Achieving Goals
The methods that political parties and interest groups use to accomplish their goals are often similar. Both groups rely on the method of raising money to achieve their goals of raising awareness for issues and getting candidates elected.
Political parties, however, use campaign finance committees, which are formal groups within the political party whose job it is to raise and donate money to get candidates elected or reelected, but these committees are limited in how they engage in their electioneering because they do not want to alienate supporters of their party. Thus, they may blur their positions on a number of issues so that they appeal to as many supporters as possible, but their main goal is to get that person elected to strengthen their control on the government.
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