In the News

Pressure group theory and the case of Extinction Rebellion

Mike McCartney

6th October 2020

A recent article in the Guardian argues that Extinction Rebellion represents a sort of template of how a new form of participatory politics might serve citizens better. This puts a new spin on the role of pressure groups in society.

The question of whether pressure groups strengthen or weaken democracy is an old chestnut.

These are typical arguments for and against.

The following points could be seen as ways in which pressure groups enhance democracy.

  • Pressure groups could be seen as a way in which power is dispersed rather than being concentrated in the hands of a small elite.
  • Pressure groups are a vital part of ‘civil society’, that section of society that creates a ‘buffer’ between citizens and the state and ensures democratic controls over the power of government.
  • Pressure groups act as crucial channels of communication between people and government. They express public opinion, transmit public demands and express public attitudes to issues.
  • Many pressure groups represent minority groups in society.
  • The decline in the importance and status of parties in recent times has made the representative role of pressure groups especially significant.

The following points could be seen as ways in which pressure groups can be seen as undemocratic.

  • Pressure groups are not accountable, unlike Parliament and governments.
  • Many pressure groups may have political influence which is well beyond their significance in society, e.g. because of wealth (industry groups).
  • Related to the last factor, some wealthy groups may gain undemocratic influence by funding political parties.
  • Some pressure groups may not be internally democratic so their political demands may not represent accurately the views of their members.
  • Groups which temporarily capture the public imagination may create a climate for policy making which may not be democratically determined and may not be rational.
  • Ultimately pressure group activity may have raised awareness amongst the public and possibly affected public policy at the margins, but “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (Schattschneider).

 George Monbiot, here in the Guardian, argues the case for XR...

Questions/areas for discussion

Explain what is meant by the term 'pressure group'

Outline the methods these organisations use in pursuit of their goals.

Looking at the article and considering the arguments for and pressure groups, discuss whether XR is a key part of a healthy democracy?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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