What are Factions? What are Special Interests?
Special interests describe interests that are not purely public interests. Factions (special interest groups) are groups formed around shared interests (special interests). Typically this describes formal or informal political groups and corporate interests, but in a general sense it can describe most any type of group with a unique interest.
The following points will help define special interests and factions more specifically:
- A faction is any group within a group.
- A special interest is any group or individual with a specific interest AKA specific will (AKA an individual or corporate will) different from the general will of the overarching group (where the general interest is the best interest of the overarching group; not to be confused with popular consensus of its members).
- Thus, a special interest group (or faction) is a group formed around a shared interest that is not purely the public interest.
- The term “special interest” often implies political activity outside of formal governmental institutions and an intent that is not fully in-line with the public interest of the citizens of the nation. However, it can also simply describe official factions like ALEC, the Democratic Party, the RNC, or a lobbying firm on K street. Thus, all political parties, coalitions within parties or between parties, politically active groups, committees, and movements are factions (for example the Anti-Federalists were America’s first political faction, the Radical Republicans were a popular faction within the third party Republicans, BlackLivesMatter is a faction and movement, and the New Deal Coalition was a coalition, or “faction”, of progressives).
- The term special interest can denote the specific interests of a well-coordinated faction, or the shared individual interests of those not in coordination. Although many factions are well-coordinated official groups, some special interest factions are often not formal or coordinated entities, for example (lobbyists and key players aside) special interests like Big Oil and Big Pharma are unspoken alliances based on shared self-interest with no physical group, charter, or specific members (which we can call “incorporeal corporations” or “invisible governments”).
- Because factions are as necessary to liberty as the freedom to speak and assemble, the threat of powerful factions has historically been a complexity of politics and economics (as James Madison, George Washington, and more explain below).
TIP: Political parties are well-organized factions that consist of groups of factions. If we read V.O. Key’s Southern Politics, we are treating factions like rag-tag groups based around key voter issues and parties like well-oiled organized machines. If we are speaking generally, we can just say a party is a type of political faction, as any sub-group of a large group is a faction.Interest Groups: Crash Course Government and Politics #42. PBS explains political factions in a centered way.
“By a faction, I mean a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” – James Madison the Federalist #10 (1788) (some see this short essay as a call for pluralism, where commonly centered ground is found between dissenting views, others see it as a warning of the danger of factions and party politics. I’d say it is both).
FACT: America’s first voter based party was the Federalists, they were opposed by the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists were America’s first two political factions and the precursors to the modern American political parties. The first point of contention, whether we should remain a Confederacy under the Articles of Confederation like the Anti-Federalists wanted or favor a stronger central Federal Government like the Federalists wanted. Can you guess which faction was favored by the North and which was favored by the South?
Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs; it leads to the corruption of the legislator, which is an even worse evil than the abuse of the laws by the government; it makes a substantial change in the state, and all reformation becomes impossible, A people that would never misuse governmental powers would never misuse independence; a people that would always govern well wouldn’t need to be governed. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau the Social Contract (1762) p. 34 (see social contract theory for a comprehensive opinion on Rousseau’s theory of government)
How to Understand Special Interests Groups and Factions
The term faction is typically meant to mean political coalition (including political parties), but special interest groups aren’t always political, and the term often is used in modern times to denote a informal network that influences policy.
In a loose sense, the terms special interest or faction can be used to describe any group formed around any ideology, and for any purpose. The interest and group can be mundane, corporate, grassroots, radical, good, or bad, or it can be secretive, overt, registered, or covert, and it can be a large or small group. The term is typically meant to imply the group is working against public interest either as a goal, or as a side-effect of their own interests, but technically a faction can have altruistic intentions.
In the Federalist #10, Madison talks about religion, class, money, rights, ethics, morality, and the general favoring of politicians as the causes of political factions. He also addresses the dangers of factions in a “pure” democracy. He suggests a “Federal” Republic is the remedy for this, specifically the views of the Federalists who favor central power, and not the anti-Federalists who favor a more direct democratic form of government and weaker central government.
During the time of the Nixon establishment, groups formed around Civil Rights and the anti-war movement as special interests and factions. The trust-busters saw the anti-Union and pro-business groups coalescing around the industrialists as special interests and factions. When a political party splits or an official group is formed in America, this too is a special interest or faction. Loosely all groups are factions, and the Amended Constitution allows these groups the right to assemble, associate, and petition the government.Interest Group Formation: Crash Course Government and Politics #43. The centered discussion on interests groups continued, see next “the media” as a mouthpiece for public and private interest helping to shape public opinion (and sell advertisments).
TIP: When people say the invisible government or shadow hand, they typically mean the powerful impact that a coalition can have on society when it unites around self-interest. When small groups control a government, it is called an oligarchy as it is ruled by the few. Types of oligarchies include corporatocracies, where corporations make the laws, and aristocracies, where old-money and elite classes make the laws. Another type of Democratic style of oligarchy is a Republic, like America. This is where we choose to let everyone vote and are ruled by the many, but elected officials make the laws. Learn more about government types and America.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” – George Washington’s farewell address; neither Jefferson the Anti-Federalist or Hamilton the Federalist (the other author of the Federalist Papers) listened.
Liberty and Factions – The Historical Dangers of Factions and Special Interests
As James Madison famously said in the Federalist #10, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” He, like some other founding fathers including Washington, understood that factions were a relic of liberty, but he also feared their corrosive effect on Democracy and the Republic.
Factions are well-known in our history. We know that the history of Human Rights is full of stories of groups of citizens, barons, aristocrats, kings, and churches vying for power. Factions are mentioned in the Federalist Papers as noted above, and factions are described in seminal works like Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ where we are warned of political factions and monopolistic conclaves of merchants and bankers. In all these works and stories from history, factions coalesce around their shared self-interest, and this is why they are often dangerous to a broader public interest.
Powerful groups such as politicians, merchants, and bankers will always form monopolies and pressure groups, and operate as invisible governments despite their differences. They will operate as loose allies pursuing power. What they lack in agreement or coordination, they overlook to ensure self-interest, usually related to money and power. Business owners may get together to ensure low wages and benefits, preventing workers from going to the other guy for a better shake, or likewise Unions form to offset this advent of liberty. When either group is restricted by law, a balance may occur, or it may be offset. This is one reason the founders were wary of both over-regulation (Anti-Federalists) and under-regulation (Federalists). Apply this logic to every group from a political one to a grassroots one, and you’ll see the danger of factions, but you’ll also find their utility in a free society that values the human rights of all its citizens.
The Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Assembly
Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, but liberty is not reserved for the powerful. Rather, all citizens are protected equally under the Constitution and every citizen may organize over self-interest, public interest, or any other interest within the bounds of the law.
Edward Bernays taught people how to use Public Relations, and years earlier Aristotle taught people how to use Rhetoric and Politics. Until recent years, only a select few understood the power of this. Bernays, Madison, and even Aristotle, expected informed citizens with good intentions to be partners to a just government. They expected the people to organize and counterbalance the special interests using rhetoric and the Democratic process. This would combat the cycle of oppression and ensure and defend human rights. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association would be used to push for that which is more “morally virtuous.” The peoples’ freedom would moderate those who wanted money and power at the expense of others, whether out of malice or out of the self-interest that drives men and women toward charity on a good day.Freedom of the Press: Crash Course Government and Politics #26. Freedom of Speech: Crash Course Government and Politics #25. Freedom of Association.
FACT: The terms freedom of assembly and freedom of association may be used to distinguish between the freedom to assemble in public places and the freedom to join a group. Freedom of assembly is often used in the context of the right to protest, while freedom of association, as used in the context of labor rights and the Constitution of the United States, is interpreted to mean both the freedom to assemble and the freedom to join an association. The United States Constitution explicitly provides for ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances’ in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Common constraints on the right to assemble are regulations concerning time, place and manner. The second type of constraint is the requirement to obtain a permit, where coordination may be needed to ensure public safety.
The Art of the Deal, The Politics of Factions
Factions describe groups that can and will exist, and “can and will form an invisible government” (as Bernays points out). Thus, these groups can and will have power. The art of the deal is the art of finding common ground between groups. In other words, political skill is largely the art of placating and responding to special interest groups, as much is it is to the voice and needs of the people. In fact, factions are often needed to enact change.
There is little room for destroying coalitions in a society that values liberty. Instead, it is the duty of those who care about common welfare to organize to ensure that the balance of power promotes social justice.
President Obama is sometimes called Organizer in Chief for a reason. In the following video, he gives some great advice on the mindset behind enacting change through organizing.President Obama Delivers the Commencement Address at Howard University. This speech works as a metaphor for hope, change, and what grassroots factions can accomplish if united under the right values. It suggests learning from and working with those we don’t agree with. The section starting around 25:00 or 35:00 will net you some amazingly powerful and honest messages from the President.
“Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people. From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day. The deliberate betrayal of its trust by the Republican party, the fatal incapacity of the Democratic party to deal with the new issues of the new time, have compelled the people to forge a new instrument of government through which to give effect to their will in laws and institutions. Unhampered by tradition, uncorrupted by power, undismayed by the magnitude of the task, the new party offers itself as the instrument of the people to sweep away old abuses, to build a new and nobler commonwealth.” – The Progressive “Bull Moose” Platform 1912 Led by former Republican Teddy Roosevelt