The phrase "special interest", which ostensibly is synonymous with "advocacy group", is primarily used politically as a label to imply one or more of the following about a particular group, by way of discrediting that group's arguments and actions:
- that it is motivated by self-interest
- that it is inimical to the public good
- that it has gained or used, or is attempting to gain or use, political power in some illegitimate way.
These implications are typically slipped in without being stated overtly, making this phrase a form of rhetorical manipulation.
It is most commonly used in the plural -- "special interests" -- in order to minimize accountability on the part of the speaker. Listeners will mentally "fill in" their preferred targets of convenience, making it possible to give the appearance of agreement where none would exist had the speaker's position been expressed more clearly.
To the extent that discussions about "special interests" have a real issue at their core, that issue generally involves questions about what constitutes legitimate acquisition and use of power and whether or not a particular action would benefit the public.
- "Special interest" should not be confused with "Special Interest Group" [W], although there is some overlap.
- A special interest is more properly referred to as an advocacy group.