Pluralism as an academic theory and as a political practice in Lawrence, Kansas: A new preface to an old book

When conducting the research for Critical Pluralism during the 1980s, I conceived it as my Lawrence Power Structure Study: an investigation into democratic performance in my hometown. For those readers interested in the politics of Lawrence, Kansas, I will conclude this new preface with my impressions of whether the fairly positive assessments I reached thirty years ago are still operative. But I will first address the academic audience for whom this book was primarily intended.

The working title of this book, as it was being written in 1989 and 1900, was Pluralism III, but that title was abandoned because it seemed both too vague (it did not adequately convey the sort of pluralism that was being addressed) and too trendy (it seemed to mimic sequels to popular movies like Superman, Aliens, and Back to the Future that had used roman numerals to designate where in the sequence of sequels the current version resided). Nevertheless, I thought—and still think—that Pluralism III did an admirable job of designating the themes of this book to those political scientists and sociologists studying community power.

From the early 1950s through the 1980s, the distribution of community power was the central concern of scholars who were interested in the politics of local communities, cities, and urban areas. Such scholars understood pluralism as an approach to studying communities that examined a wide variety of actors who sought to influence the public policies of municipal corporations, school districts, and other institutions that played roles in governing local communities. Inspired by Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (1961), Robert A. Dahl’s seminal study of New Haven, Connecticut, political scientists understood pluralism as a theory that held that policy decisions reflected the interests of these various actors and the power (and power resources) that such actors had and/or applied as they sought to advance their interests. Pluralists used a “decisional approach” that emphasized scientifically sound methods for measuring the attitudes and behaviors of various types of actors and related these inputs to the policy outputs of key issue areas in various local communities. Pluralists generally found that those involved in community politics were fairy representative of all citizens, that power resources were broadly distributed among various actors, and that local political processes were thus basically democratic. This theory, method, and set of conclusions became known as orthodox pluralism, and it was offered to political scientists studying not only local but also state, national, and even international politics as a possible paradigm for the academic study of politics.

Orthodox pluralism never attained paradigmatic status. Its most hostile opponents were elite theorists who claimed that the decisional approach could not detect the hidden power of capitalists, corporate CEOs, and other economic forces and agents but instead could only observe the involvements of those who were puppets of economic elites.

In response to such critics, Dahl and other scholars revised pluralism, and these revisions were collectively known as Pluralism II. This sequel was not as tidy as orthodox pluralism, and there is still no common understanding of its precise storyline, but for our purposes it is sufficient to say its many chapters continued to stress the involvement of many actors in community issues and to regard the interests and power of these actors as the most important causes of community policies. Those involved in producing the various chapters of Pluralism II doubted that some forms of power could remain hidden and removed from scientific inquiry, and they developed other methods than the decisional method to uncover and theorize such power. In general, Pluralism II contested Pluralism I’s conclusion that power is widely or democratically distributed, as can be illustrated by three major contributions to this revised form of pluralism.

John Logan and Harvey Molotch’s Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (1987) had pointed out that most key community issues are initiated by a “growth machine” comprised of actors like developers, real estate brokers, banks, and even local newspapers whose primary goal was economic development. Such actors do not exercise influence in response to existing issues; rather, their projects become the community issues to which public officials respond. The growth machine recruits mayors, councilmembers, urban planners, and other public officials into their “machine” that dominates city politics. Growth-machine initiatives sometimes spark opposition—such as by activists in displaced neighborhoods. From this perspective, the power of the growth machine is extensive and even dominant, but it does not always succeed.

Paul Peterson’s book City Limits (1981)—sometimes denoted as the “economistic perspective” or as “domain theory”—stressed that capital accumulation is an imperative for everyone in the community, not only those involved in the growth machine but also those involved in providing various community amenities like educational, cultural, and recreational facilities. Without the greater resources provided by economic growth, communities stagnant and lose their capacity to attract mobile wealth. Given economic imperatives, generators of wealth and jobs have disproportional (elite) power, but there are domains of community decision-making, such as the provision of basic community services, where elites are little involved and the provision and allocation of such services reflects a broader dispersion of power.

Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946–1988 (1989) can also be seen as within the Pluralist II tradition, but it claimed that urban officials are not merely responsive to the preferences of the growth machine or to economic imperatives but are themselves moral agents who have their own ideals about the common good and social justice. These officials recruit various kinds of people from the private sector within the community to participate in broad public-private coalitions—or various kinds of urban regimes—to generate public policies. From this perspective power is not the ability to control (or at least influence) policy outcomes (as conceived by both elite theorists and pluralists); instead, power is the capacity to get things done. Subsequent regime theorists have pointed out that communities form various types of policymaking regimes, some having more dispersed distributions of power while others have more concentrated power structures.

While orthodox pluralism was normally interpreted as providing a grand theory or general paradigm of politics, contributions to Pluralism II can be seen as “middle-range theories” concerned with important but limited aspects of community power. Scholars contributing to this perspective described and theorized specific departures from adequate democratic performance.

While I conceived Pluralism III as advancing a third generation of studies in the pluralist tradition, I primarily envisioned its III as representing three critical democratic norms—standards for evaluating democratic performance that were sometimes achieved, sometimes partially achieved, and sometimes sorely underachieved. I conceptualized these ideals as occupying different ideological spaces along the democratic continuum. In In Defense of Politics, Bernard Crick (1962) had stressed that conservatives, liberals, and socialists are the primary “friends” of democratic pluralism and that they can remain on friendly terms within a pluralist community as long as these friends recognize the legitimacy of each other’s main goals and as long as their own main democratic aspirations are not persistently or egregiously violated.

In this formulation, the central goal of conservatives is to have political leaders who are skilled at the art of governing in ways that uphold traditional cultural values or norms. Such norms are not universal but are particular to local communities, and so enduring local cultural principles must be identified to determine whether political leaders have succeeded in resolving local issues in ways that are consistent with principles that are predominant in the local culture. I called this conservative ideal principle-policy congruence.

The central ideal of liberals is upholding liberal democracy. From a liberal perspective, elected representatives—not economic elites—should be the primary policymakers of communities, but they are expected to be responsive to citizen preferences or at least accountable to citizens. Liberals believe that representatives can form and follow independent judgments about the resolution of policy issues, but the threat of electoral defeat must discourage them from wandering too far from public opinion. I called this liberal ideal responsible representation.

The central goal of (democratic) socialists is the removal of illegitimate inequalities such that lesser-advantaged segments of the community are dominated, exploited, suppressed, and marginalized by the more advantaged segments of the community. Insofar as communities exhibit such inequalities in policy benefits, these inequalities should, at least overall and in the long run, have legitimate explanations and serve everyone’s interests. I called this socialist ideal complex equality.

Beyond theorizing these ideals, I devised methods for measuring the extent to which they are generally achieved in particular communities, theorized some of the processes and conditions that enhanced (or undermined) their attainment, and sought to lay the foundations for future longitudinal and cross-community studies that could enable political scientists to identify the factors that lead to higher democratic performances on these three democratic ideals. I believe that Critical Pluralism was more successful at measuring and theorizing responsible representation and complex equality than it was at accessing principle-policy congruence. By using a comparative-issues approach that sampled not only key or controversial issues but also more routine issues and nonissues and by using extensive interviews and survey research to measure the preferences of various actors and the policy changes on these issues, I was able to estimate the direct and indirect influence of representatives and citizens as well as the lesser power of economic elites, bureaucrats, group leaders (mobilizers), and individual activists. I was also able to measure class, gender, racial, and various other forms of conflict on community issues. I was able to show that cleavages frequently occurred, especially among participants and that advantaged segments usually dominated their counterparts, but that these inequalities had, at least arguably, legitimate explanations. Since these findings seemed rather apologetic for existing power arrangements, some readers and reviewers questioned entitling the book Critical Pluralism. My response to such queries was and continues to be that that the book provides a theoretical perspective and a methodology that can provide critical evaluations by exposing shortcoming in three dimensions of democratic performance, even if these deficiencies were relatively minor in Lawrence during the 1980s.

Measuring principle-policy congruence proved more difficult because of the many competing values within local cultures and because making causal inferences between cultural norms and outcomes proved difficult. But I think Critical Pluralism at least suggested that broad cultural norms are important supplements to specific policy preferences and the power brought to bear on behalf of such preferences as factors affecting the policy outcomes of communities. Much of my subsequent work in community politics thus focused on understanding how community norms—how principles of justice and morality held by various actors—affect community politics. My subsequent work on community politics examined how and when “ethics matter” in community politics and sought to enlarge pluralism as a political perspective by bringing attention not only to the dispersion of political power but also to the diversity of normative ideals that political participants bring to community politics. Readers interested in my efforts to wed pluralist political science with the work of such pluralistic political philosophers as Michael Walzer (1983) and John Rawls (1993) can consult other articles and books on this website

It would be lovely to look back at the thirty years that have passed since the publication of Critical Pluralism and to my subsequent efforts to integrate moral pluralism and political pluralism as having a significant influence on community power studies but, alas, that has not happened.

While elements of pluralism continue to be incorporated into political research and theory at the community level, interest in pluralism as an overarching theoretical and methodological approach has pretty much vanished. As the most general explanation for this I would offer that political science is simply no longer interested in any paradigm. If and when a paradigm exists, it is, by definition, disciplinary, because a paradigm seeks consensus within a scholarly discipline about what should be studied (e.g., the distribution of power), how to study it (e.g., the decisional method), and what constitutes disciplinary knowledge (e.g., theoretical findings that are consensually held by experts in the field). Political scientists no longer think that such consensus is possible or desirable. In the postmodern age we live in, political scientists prefer to let a thousand voices speak.

As interest in pluralism has receded, scholarship on more focused agendas has expanded. Community politics scholars now research and write impressively on many policy topics: urban economic development and redevelopment, policing strategies, dealing with homelessness, promoting affordable housing, resolving culture war issues (such as expanding LBGTQ rights), instituting voucher programs for schools, pursuing local contributions to alleviating environmental problems, providing local sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, curtailing human trafficking, and other such current and recurring issues. Such work has been produced even if scholars regard grand theories like pluralism as irrelevant to their concerns. Researching and theorizing such matters strikes many urban scholars as more urgent than disciplinary concerns for advancing pluralism or any other disciplinary paradigm.

While political scientists have turned away from pluralism as a paradigm for studying community politics, my casual observations lead me to believe that Lawrence has advanced as a pluralist democracy. It is not just that Lawrence is a “blue island” in the “red ocean” that comprises the state of Kansas. After all, pluralism is a more general political philosophy than any ideological perspective such as the brand of liberalism that is currently dominant in Lawrence. Because I have not conducted in-depth studies of Lawrence issues since the publication of Critical Pluralism, I have only impressions of how its key issues have been resolved. Here is a brief list of how some of its key issues have been addressed and (at least partially) resolved.

Women now constitute majorities on the Lawrence City Commission, the Douglas County Commission, and the Local School Board. The community has selected Black people to be chief of police and superintendent of schools.

The various “suburban” mall projects that have threatened downtown both during and after my study have been rejected, enabling downtown to be transformed into a vibrant mixed-use “heart of the community.” Some downtown retailers have closed shop, but they are more than adequately replaced by a host of dining and drinking establishments, by loft apartments, and by professional offices. The community has also built a downtown “cultural triangle” consisting of a new public library, a new public arts center, and a renovated and expanded historical museum.

After decades of community conflict over a Southern Bypass to relieve traffic congestion and to facilitate economic development, not only has this trafficway been built but also the impacted Baker Wetlands has been preserved and expanded and recreational amenities have been achieved by incorporating bike paths into the project. Those from the adjacent Haskell Indian Nations University were the most outspoken opponents of this project, and they would probably critically assess the outcome of this issue as a violation of complex equality.

During the 1990s, the community supplemented its older private country clubs with a public golf course. More recently, other recreational facilities have been built, sometimes in cooperation with nonprofit organizations such as those supporting youth soccer, and sometimes in cooperation with the University of Kansas, such as Rock Chalk Park and the Lawrence Sports Pavilion.

After years of resistance to building a second high school, for fears of spreading more thinly the city’s athletic talent and ending Lawrence High School’s domination in state championships, Free State High School not only sprung into existence but also, with city acceptance, the school district was able to locate it in a place intentionally intended to address racial and class balance between the two schools.

The city resisted efforts by HCA, a national for-profit hospital chain, to locate in Lawrence, ensuring that the nonprofit Lawrence Memorial Hospital would not only continue to serve all residents (the affluent as well as the less well-off) but also be able to vastly expand its services, including into more extensive mental-health treatment.

The city began public transportation (T-bus) services designed primarily to serve lower-income residents and integrated this municipal system into an expanded university bus system for KU students. Taxpayers approved increased sales taxes to fund such facilities.

A curbside recycling program, banning smoking in public places, and passing a living-wage ordinance are among the other programs and policies that the city has adopted since the publication of Critical Pluralism.

In short, community issues have continued to arise and be resolved in ways that have resulted in many public improvements in Lawrence. I believe that such outcomes have been consistent with broad community goals and norms. They have occurred without problematic elite, bureaucratic, and special-interest domination. And they have been resolved with less community conflict than was observed during the 1980s and without persistent and unjustified inequalities. But because I have not bothered to study these issues with the care of earlier issues discussed in this book, I must admit that I can provide no evidence derived from adequate political science to support this belief. Nor has it been possible to study how Lawrence has so far – and will in the near future – handle local political decisions arising from the crises of 2020: the pandemic, the economic shutdown, and the anti-racist protests arising from police brutality. Critical Pluralism provided a 10-year snap-shot of one community’s politics during the 1980s, but community politics keep changing.  New studies and theories will always be needed.