Pluralism contends that the modern liberal state is too complex for any single group, class or organization to dominate society. It regards the political system to be all inclusive and consensual taking into account everyone’s interests and ensuring their satisfaction as a part of a larger group or association.
It affirms the separation of state and civil society and distinguishes economic from political power. It differs from the elite theory that establishes a dichotomy between the ruler and the ruled. It differs also from the classical democratic theory with regard to two crucial aspects: (1) unlike classical democratic theory that perceives individuals as isolated and discrete persons pluralism views individuals as members of a group that overlaps and accepts that a person in a modern society has multiple identities; (2) It accepts that groups have particular interests and these do not necessarily indicate the absence of general interest. Classical democratic theory assumes the existence of common good thrown up by the democratic system.
Pluralism, like Madison’s theory is preoccupied with factions and pressure groups, for it considers society to be essentially heterogeneous and divergent with diverse aspirations, interests and wills. It accepts Madison’s concern for factions and its modern counterpart – interest groups and pressure groups as a natural counterpart of free association in a world where most desired goods are scarce and where the complex industrial system fragments social interests and creates a multiplicity of demands.
Like Madison, the pluralists accept that the basic function of government is to protect the freedom of factions to advance their political interests, while preventing any individual faction from encroaching on the freedom of others. However, they differ from Madison in not regarding factions as a major threat to democratic associations or as a source of instability or as undemocratic in nature.
They consider the existence of diverse competitive interests as the basis of democratic equilibrium and for a favourable development of public policy. Other than Madison the pluralists combine Locke’s individualism and Dewey’s participatory ethic with Burke’s concern for continuity and stability.
The pluralists view politics as an arena of resolving conflict between different groups who represent all the dominant interests in a society.
They see conflict, as pointed by Lipset, to be ‘democracy’s lifeblood” and, as stated by Dahl, to be one of the prime facts of all communities. By accepting conflict as given they prescribe democratic forums to accommodate it. They concede that some marginal groups might be left out, but assert that all the major streams usually get represented.
They also argue that certain groups try to establish close links with particular departments in the government which may lead to a neglect of other interests.
However, Wilson points to the existence of Whitehall pluralism, meaning that even if one department ignores the interest of a particular group, it is not necessary that others would ignore them as well. Their views could be taken up ‘by the fact that other departments have checks and have different departmental views accordingly’.
The pluralists perceive the state as a balancing factor between departments that represent a range of interest groups.
Thus, interest groups are accepted as the basic building blocks of the theory. Interest for the pluralists means ‘subjective interests’ or ‘attitudes’ according to Truman. Authority is distributed within government meaning that the state is not controlled and dominated by any single interest.
Yet the state is seldom neutral but mirrors the range of group pressures it faces as ‘policy arises from the interaction of various social elements’ observes Easton. The state attempts to make policy by bargaining between a range of conflicting interests and the government takes into consideration the interests of ‘unorganised and potential groups’ and, therefore, they do not need according to Truman ‘organized expression except when these needs are flagrantly violated’. Politics, says Dahl, is a constant process of negotiation with new issues emerging all the time that ensures resolution of conflicts peacefully.
It is thus contended that an explanation of the actual process of politics is an analysis of groups. Policy emerges as a result of constant method of conflict and exchange between different groups with the government being regarded as just another group. Only by organising themselves into groups could individuals get their interests represented in government.
The state is a distinct organisation that makes policies in response to the innumerable groups exerting pressure on the government. It is accepted that conflict between groups is persuasive within liberal democracy and this conflict rarely threatens the stability of the system. Consensus defining the limits of political action and the framework of policy outcomes ensures political stability.
The pluralists believe that their view has been actualized by the post-Second World War consensual politics both in the USA and Great Britain endorsing Dicey who had pointed out that the two countries had begun to evolve a similar political culture as mass democracy began to consolidate.
The essential assumptions of the pluralists are the primacy of economics over politics, and that the major contradictions of capitalism have been resolved by accommodating all the mainstream players within the political arena. Therefore, politics has become dull as observed by Lipset with a nickel more or less. But this tranquillity of AngloSaxon fundamentalism received a rude shock first with Brexit followed by Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 and impressive increase in his support base extending it to Hispanics and blacks retaining 45 per cent of the Republican Party voters after the chaos created by his supporters on Capitol Hill last Wednesday.
In contrast, the liberals have a support base of 26 per cent which is extremely shallow as 3/4th of the voters are illiberal or at best lukewarm liberal in a democracy whose fundamentals rest on Lockean liberalism.
According to the World Value survey, 78 per cent of Trump voters feel that Trump should not concede; 88 per cent of voters believe in the possibility of electoral fraud to change the outcome, 45 per cent approve of the attack while 27 per cent don’t think that the attack was a threat to democracy.
The Republican voters consider the protestants as patriots, while the Democrats view the protesters as extremists and as domestic terrorists. In 2017, 38 per cent of Americans compared to 25 per cent in 1995 considered it is a good idea to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with elections and the Congress.
Democracy’s success story had always been reflected by two essential factors: (1) politics of accommodation wherein political parties try to incorporate different groups that were not part of the decision-making process and (2) by a logical assertion that democracy is as much a necessity for economics as for politics. The fact that pluralist democracy had developed fault lines became evident when Clinton defeated George Bush in 1992 mainly because 20 per cent of the vote was captured by a third-party candidate Ross Perot.
The latter was the first public figure to caution against the ill effects of globalisation and NAFTA’s unviability as it had accommodated an unequal Mexico into a larger grouping which led to the inevitable shift of capital to Mexico leaving thousands of steel workers unemployed in the US.
These marginalised groups became the major ones in 2016 to cause the upheaval in the presidential elections that saw Trump emerge victorious. The other issues which propelled Trump to power were fear and anxieties of evangelical Christians and their overwhelming support in 2016 and 2020, immigration issues, relative decline of the US as an economic power and the rise of nonWestern powers in general and China in particular.
It is an astonishing fact that the US primarily and Great Britain secondarily have transformed themselves from being nations with minor contradictions to those with major ones disproving predictions of political culture theorists like Verba. This unprecedented change was accomplished by the incapacity of the US political system to comprehend the deeprooted alienation experienced by a large number of people who feel cheated by the political establishment.
For the many, the hope of a better future seems bleak and they long for what their parents had. For many the increasing corporatization of political life has made the US a false democracy. A major reason for this perception was the Supreme Court decision to treat corporations as individuals and allow unlimited contribution for campaigns and political activities.
A new kind of New Deal for the next decade is also necessary to restore the faith of ordinary citizens in the political system. A democracy has to continually renew itself in this rapidly changing world with periodic political and economic reforms and well-established democracies like the US is no exception to this rule. To build consensus and maintain social cohesion democracies would have to extend the politics of accommodation to losers as well. This is imperative in the world of quick change with life and profession has become increasingly uncertain.
The writer is a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi.