Democracy and Social Movements Essay

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POL107 ESSAY
Laura Teo
2894503

10. Critically evaluate whether interest groups and/or social movements strengthen or threaten democracy. Illustrate your answer with examples.

Social movements have consistently been an integral influencing factor in modern politics, from the historic dominance of interest groups and unions to the waves of social movements that shape policy and society today. Aside from the fact that the reason they exist in the first place is an important signifier of democracy, these movements serve to bring light upon and effect much-needed change to groups who need it, bringing issues that affect different facets of society to the national debate scene. This essay seeks to prove that social movements, when in line with the interests of the population and organized in a rational capacity, act to strengthen nations and democracy.
The term “social movement” emerged in the late 19 century to describe politically motivated movements fighting for social and welfare rights (Tarrow and Meyer 1998). Tarrow goes on to define social movements as “collective challenges by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities.” (1998) The rise of such movements represented a significant leap in the ways in which the common man might influence policy in a democratic society; where exclusive interest groups and private economic organisations were once the political heavyweights, now unrelated individuals from any place and station could now rally behind a mutual cause and by virtue of numbers, have their opinions heard on a nation-wide scale.
The presence of these efforts are indicative of a population’s moral inclination to fix or aid a problem in society, whether a reactionary response to a pre-existing issue (for instance, the fight to close wage gaps) or as a preventative measure (as seen in several western democracies’ anti-homosexual marriage protests). Piven and Cloward name the main foundation of social movements as “an effort in community improvement”. (1977) The moral righteousness of each movement is of course a contentious and relative issue, but quite unlike the exclusive and member-centric interests of special interest groups, participants of social movements seek to influence policy or attitudes in ways that they see would benefit society as a whole, whether their views are fueled by religion, economic interests, or the nation’s future.
It follows to presume that this utilitarian premise for advocacy movements is encouraged and enabled by a culture of democratic opinion-sharing. As democracy is based on the right of all eligible citizens to have an equal say in political direction, the nature of social movements would suggest that countries with a largely visible presence of these movements are exercising the branch of democracy that relates to freedom of speech and opinion quite well.
Urbanisation and proletarianisation in democracies have also contributed to the development and rapid uptake of social movements (Tarrow and Meyer 1998). The introduction of communications technology for and readily accessible to the masses drastically increased the ability of individuals to educate themselves about social problems and be able to speak their views to an audience of their peers. The growing urban belief that one person can make a difference, and often do, catalysed many social movements and encouraged individual members of society to believe that every voice counts.
To determine whether this benefits democracy and democratic societies, we must examine what makes a good democracy. John Markoff posits that a good democracy should be able to “maintain a functional society”, be instrumental in “preserving…avenues of free speech” and ensure that “every member of society has the right to participate meaningfully in policy discussions” (1996). Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith also emphasise the importance of circulating awareness of societal problems…