I do not want to compare and contrast analytically precise definitions that answer the question in the post title. (Socrates, as reported by Plato, always asked for a definition after being given examples.) Instead, I give two lists, where I trust the reader to see family resemblances among the items on each list:
- Ethnic groups like African-Americans; women; the poor; organized labor; and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders.
- Corporations, especially those operating in specific industries (e.g., big oil); Corporate Executive Officers; and owners of small businesses.
I suggest that the policies and culture of a country would be quite different, when the dominant understanding of the phrase, "special interests" was consistent with one or another list.
I think somewhere or other Noam Chomsky has asserted that the second understanding reflects the true meaning or the term, or at least a meaning consistent with what the Founding Fathers of the United States wrote. This quote does not have the look back to classical liberals:
"...these questions have been asked for a long time in polls, a little differently worded so you get some different numbers, but for a long time about half the population was saying, when asked a bunch of open questions - like, Who do you think the government is run for? would say something like that: the few, the special interests, not the people. Now it's 82%, which is unprecedented. It means that 82% of the population don't even think we have a political system, not a small number.
What do they mean by special interests? Here you've got to start looking a little more closely. Chances are, judging by other polls and other sources of information, that if people are asked, Who are the special interests? they will probably say, welfare mothers, government bureaucrats, elitists professionals, liberals who run the media, unions. These things would be listed. How many would say, Fortune 500, I don't know. Probably not too many. We have a fantastic propaganda system in this country. There's been nothing like it in history. It's the whole public relations industry and the entertainment industry. The media, which everybody talks about, including me, are a small part of it. I talk about mostly that sector of the media that goes to a small part of the population, the educated sector. But if you look at the whole system, it's just vast. And it is dedicated to certain principles. It wants to destroy democracy. That's its main goal. That means destroy every form of organization and association that might lead to democracy. So you have to demonize unions. And you have to isolate people and atomize them and separate them and make them hate and fear one another and create illusions about where power is. A major goal of this whole doctrinal system for fifty years has been to create the mood of what is now called anti-politics." -- Noam Chomsky, Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian Common Courage Press (1966): p. 138.
But there is another literature, a post modern literature, that also looks at how people come to associate examples with words. People generally do not think logically, following the rules of predicate calculus. One trying to understand culture should realize this. One might talk about the The politics of the signifier. How does one or another definition, or set of examples, become hegemonic? (For what it is worth, I think Slavoj Zizek is a very intelligent, very well-read, self-aware clown.)