Interest groups play a critical role in all democratic systems of government. Yet, the basic definition of an interest group - a group of individuals organized to seek public policy influence, usually though not exclusively by attempting to influence government actors - masks an enormous amount of diversity among interests and interest groups.
These groups vary considerably in every imaginable way - in age, size, sophistication, resources, tactics, policy focus, geographic focus, and ideological orientation. Some groups focus on only a single issue, while others focus on broader areas of public policy. Some groups are born and disappear over the period of a single election, while others have a long tradition of influencing elections and public policy choices. Some choose to focus not only on government, but on persuading the public or other non-governmental organizations to support their objectives.
Representative government is designed to encourage the representation of competing interests while moderating the conflict that inevitably accompanies group competition. In the classic formulation of representative government known as pluralism, competing interests balance each other by bringing resources and arguments to bear on different sides of important public policy decisions. Institutions are designed to accommodate the inevitability of diverse and competing interests, as well as the need to prevent any one group, either a numerical majority or minority, from becoming powerful enough to undermine the rights of others. Groups compete on a more or less level playing field created by the national and state constitutions as well as by laws. As a result, multiple competing interests are believed to create a stable political environment that allows those interests to be represented before the government.
The pluralist vision of politics is an ideal vision of interest group politics and political institutions. In practice, both in the United States and in Texas, interest groups do not enjoy uniform capabilities or effectiveness, despite having equal rights to attempt to influence government. Inevitably, not all Texans are represented in an equally effective fashion because groups bring different levels of resources and intensity to bear on their efforts. Supporters of Texans for Enhanced Recovery and Conservation are probably less well represented than members of the Texas Association of Business, for instance.
Institutional arrangements, such as the design of the Legislature and the laws regulating interest group activities, also shape both the capabilities of interest groups to affect policy making and the distribution of influence among groups. As the table Interest Group Influence in the States illustrates, interest groups in Texas are relatively powerful actors in the political process compared to groups in many other states.