But, as is typical, it's not often spelled out what a special interest group is, and why they are such a bad thing.
"Special" Interests Vs the Interests of All Americans
Sometimes, when people criticize special interest groups, they seem to be complaining about groups that seek to further the interests of a small group of people, rather than the interests of all Americans.
But this isn't a good reason to oppose a group. After all, the movement for the abolition of slavery was only seeking to further the interests of some Americans -- slaves -- not all Americans. (In fact, the abolition movement went directly against the interests of slave owners.) But that doesn't mean that its purpose or cause was illegitimate.
And the same can be said for other groups that are fighting for the interests of a select group of Americans: even if they're not working to overturn an injustice as extreme as slavery, they may still have a legitimate grievance that they want addressed. We can argue about whether or not a given special interest group is fighting for a legitimate cause, but the fact that it's fighting on behalf of only some Americans rather than all Americans is no reason to dismiss its cause.
Another thing to consider is that addressing the interests of a small group may wind up serving the interests of Americans as a whole.
For instance, it's sometimes argued that higher wages for a certain group (e.g., teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers, etc.) will yield a better quality of life for all Americans. Similarly, it's sometimes argued that tax incentives for certain industries (e.g., energy, transportation, small businesses, etc.) will benefit everyone. I'm not saying all such arguments are sound, but they're not necessarily flawed, either. Even though a group might not be directly working to serve the interests of all Americans, their call to help a small group might wind up indirectly benefiting everyone.
Another complaint that comes up regarding "special interest" groups is that they have bought the influence of politicians: "Group such-and-such has given politician so-and-so millions of dollars in campaign contributions, which is why politician so-and-so supports its cause."
This allegation can go wrong in a couple of ways. First, it could be false as a result of confusing cause and effect. It could be that the politician supports a certain cause as a result of getting money from a group that supports that cause (which would amount to corruption, which is both illegal and immoral).
But it could also be that the group gave the politician the money as a result of the politician supporting the group's cause, which is both legal and moral, and quite sensible. In order to prove that corruption is present, you have to do more than show that the politician supports a cause that is also supported by a group which gave the politician money. You must show that the politician didn't support the cause prior to receiving the money, but started supporting the cause as a result of receiving the money. And this is much more difficult to prove.
Second, even if you can prove that corruption is taking place, that doesn't make the cause itself illegitimate. For instance, if a group pays a politician to vote in favor of abolishing slavery, does that make abolishing slavery an unjust agenda? No. We may think less of the politician and the group that paid him off, but not the cause itself. The politician is still doing the right thing, albeit for the wrong reason. So, claiming that a politician is supporting a cause because he has been "bought by special interest groups" tells us nothing about whether the cause itself is a good or a bad one.
In fact, to argue otherwise is ad hominem reasoning.
Universal Interest Groups Aren't Necessarily Good
The paragraphs above essentially argue that the fact that a group or a politician is seeking to further the interests of a small group of Americans doesn't justify dismissing their cause as illegitimate.
But we have to beware of a contrary kind of reasoning, too. Just because a political group says that it's seeking to further the interests of all Americans -- and not just some -- doesn't make them above reproach.
For instance, many environmental groups seek to secure goods (e.g., clean air and water, etc.) for all Americans. But that doesn't mean that there is nothing arguable or debatable in their agenda. For instance, their program for securing these goods may be flawed or inefficient. Or, they may be giving these goods too much or too little priority in relation to other goods (e.g., jobs, economic growth).
As usual, the discussion of "special interests" in political debate suffers from a lack of clarity. We should insist that people clarify what people mean by the term. What groups are special interests: Corporations? Unions? Teachers? The elderly? The disabled?
And, once they've specified that, they should explain and justify their claim that it's bad to be a special interest. Maybe they could even offer suggestions regarding what it is that special interest groups could do to stop being special interest groups, or to stop being bad ones.
More than this, we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that being associated with the interests of the few is necessarily a bad thing, or that being associated with the interests of the many is necessarily a good thing.
EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS
SANDERS: Let's talk about super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, money which is completely undisclosed. Where does the money come from? Do we really feel confident about a candidate saying that she's going to bring change in America when she is so dependent on big money interests? I don't think so.-- Democratic presidential contenders Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY), April 14, 2016, during a Democratic primary debate.
CLINTON: Make no mistake about it, this is not just an attack on me, it's an attack on President Obama. President Obama – you know, let me tell you why. You may not like the answer, but I'll tell you why. President Obama had a super PAC when he ran. President Obama took tens of millions of dollars from contributors. And President Obama was not at all influenced when he made the decision to pass and sign Dodd-Frank, the toughest regulations on Wall Street in many a year.
Comment: Sanders is accusing Clinton of being beholden to special interests. Clinton is saying that it is hypocritical to criticize her without also criticizing President Barack Obama, who also took campaign money from super PACs.
"Now Secretary Clinton has said Medicare for all will never happen. … Medicare for all will never happen if we continue to elect corporate Democratic whores who are beholden to big pharma and the private insurance industry instead of us".-- Activist Paul Song, April 13, 2016, referring to Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY).
Comment: In addition to using "sexual deviant" name-calling, Song is using "special interests" rhetoric.
MASON: Do you think it’s healthy for the system that so much money is coming out of a relatively small group of people?-- Billionaire activist Charles Koch, during interview released October 11, 2015, with Anthony Mason of CBS News.
KOCH: If I didn’t think it was healthy or fair, I wouldn’t do it. Because what we’re after is to fight against special interests.
MASON: Some people would look at you and say you’re a special interest.
KOCH: Yeah, but my interest is, just as it’s been in business, is what will help people improve their lives and to get rid of these special interests. That’s the whole thing that drives me.
Comment: This is "special interests" rhetoric.
OBAMA: The challenge on something like climate change is, there comes a point of no return. And you do have to make sure that we get at this thing quick enough and with enough force to be able to make a difference.-- President Barack Obama, posted March 17, 2015, during interview with Shane Smith of VICE News.
SMITH: Why is the resistance so strong?
OBAMA: Well, some of it's economic. If you poll folks, they're concerned about climate change, but they're even more concerned about gas prices. You can't fault somebody for being concerned about paying the bills or being able to fill up your tank to get to your job. In some cases, though, you have elected officials who are shills for the oil companies or the fossil fuel industry, and there's lot of money involved. Typically, in Congress the committees of jurisdiction, like the energy committees, are populated by folks from places that pump a lot of oil and pump a lot of gas.
Comment: At no point in this discussion of beliefs about global warming does Obama allow that someone might legitimately disagree with the science of climate change, or the cost-benefit analysis of fighting global warming, etc. Perhaps some climate change opponents are "shills" (i.e., "special interests"?), but it would be ad hominem to conclude that they are therefore wrong in their position. Plus, isn't there a lot of money to be made in the energy industry, regardless of whether that energy is made by oil, gas, wind, solar, etc.? Does that mean proponents of wind and solar power can be dismissed as "shills" on the same ad hominem basis?
Examples from 2012.
"All across America, families are tightening their belts and making hard choices. Now, Washington must show that same sense of responsibility. That is why we have identified two trillion dollars in deficit-reductions over the next decade, while taking on the special interest spending that doesn't advance the peoples' interests."-- President Barack Obama, April 25, 2009, weekly radio address [RCP Transcript: Obama's Weekly Address: Fiscal Discipline, April 25, 2009].
Comment: Is Obama saying that special interests never advance the interests of the people in general?
"Given the contributions I made in this race [i.e., the money given to his own campaign], I know I owe no one anything. I don't have some group there that I have a special obligation to that raised money for me. I'm by far the biggest contributor to my own campaign. And people can count on the fact that there's no nobody that can call me and say, 'Hey, look, you owe me,' because they [sic] don't."-- Former Governor Mitt Romney (MA), January 24, 2008, at the Florida Republican Debate.
Comment: Romney is arguing that he is more virtuous than the other candidates because he is not beholden to special interests. Like most people who denounce special interests, Romney assumes that they are always bad, but doesn't offer any good reason for why we should believe that.
"Today, once again, powerful special interests have established control over our democracy. But what we face today is not a monopoly of control over our economy -- it is a monopoly of influence over our government. We can fix this broken system, as generations before us fixed the problems they faced in their time. But we need a leader who won't accept the corruption in Washington. We need a leader strong enough to say "No" to money from lobbyists and special interests. We need a leader who will fight for the big change we need to see. To clean up our government, you have to do two things. You have to be committed to changing the system. And you have to run a campaign that does not take money from lobbyists or special interests -- so you are not beholden to the people who are corrupting our system by the time you get to Washington. You can't do one without the other. You have to do both. In this election, more than any other, the candidate who stands with the special interests will lose. I have fought the special interests my entire life. As a lawyer, I defended hard-working Americans during the toughest times of their lives against the big corporations that were trying to victimize them."-- Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, October 13, 2007.
Comment: Are there no special interest groups that he would accept money from? Would accepting money from an anti-slavery group corrupt him?
"We don't want to finance our campaign by people whose professional job it is to influence legislation in Washington...But the critical component for us is making sure that the American people understand it's less important what your health-care plan is than are you able to unify the country and overcome the special-interest-driven agendas in order to actually get something done? And I think that is where I've got the biggest advantage, because I've got a track record of bringing people together and fighting special interests on a whole host of issues."-- Senator (IL) and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, interview published September 12, 2007, on Slate.com.
Comment: Are the agendas of special interest groups always divisive and illegitimate? Obama engages in some unclarified "uniting the country" rhetoric here, as well.
"A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans, they actually do."-- Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (NY), August 4, 2007.
Comment: Clinton is rightly making the point that lobbyists do at least sometimes represent legitimate interests. Clinton drew boos and hisses when she made these comments at the second YearlyKos convention.
"If you give the Republicans complete control of this government, you might just as well turn it over to the special interests and we'll start on a boom and bust cycle and try to go through just what we did in the twenties. And end up with a crash which in the long run will do nobody any good but the Communists."-- U.S. President Harry Truman (D), 1948 presidential campaign.
Comment: The "special interests" complaint goes back decades. Truman's comment is also an exaggeration.
(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)