Pluralism is both an academic and a public perspective on the good life, the good society, and good government. Because we all inhabit the same universe, pluralists recognize that there is some ultimate uniformity about what is good in personal, social, and political life, but because we also live in a pluriverse of many competing values, pluralists emphasize diversity in lived conceptions of what constitutes goodness.
Academics in such fields as philosophy, sociology, and political science can be engaged in developing and defending pluralist theories. Of course, we don’t always do so, but I believe more work advancing pluralism is needed. Ordinary citizens, social activists, and political leaders can be attached to pluralist themes and draw upon them when addressing the moral, social and political issues that arise within our personal lives, our social groups, and our political communities. Of course, we don’t always do so, but I believe we should.
Moral pluralism focuses on the individual and his or her quest for a good life. The starting point of this perspective is that individuals have a wide variety of interests: needs, desires, values, and principles.
Moral pluralists believe that individuals have different and changing needs, that they can identify their own vital and enduring needs, and that they should focus more on the fulfillment of such needs while giving less attention to instant gratification of other desires. Different individuals have different capacities and resources to fulfill their vital needs. When individuals lack the capacities and resources needed to effectively pursue such needs, they should have access to social and public assistance to help them do so.
People hold or emphasize different values. When defined in particular ways, diversity, democracy, and justice are three values that I hold most strongly, while others may give greater emphasis to security, liberty and /or authority (as they define them). Treating others as social equals, having governments that respond more to the needs of ordinary citizens than to corporate elites, and increasing public assistance for the disadvantaged are three principles that I support, while others might believe that the economically successful deserve the greater social status they receive, that governments should first and foremost facilitate business investment and activity, and that the disadvantaged must become more responsible for their own well-being. While such principles are not among those I personally see as needing more attention, as a moral pluralist, I understand and can respect their expression.
Under different circumstances and at different times, individuals prioritize their values and principles differently. Moral pluralism claims that differences in values must be respected and that each of us should have extensive liberty to pursue our preferred values as long as we do not violate widely-accepted principles of justice, such as not infringing on the rights of others.
Moral pluralism claims that the extent to which individuals lead good lives depends on our having many experiences that make us familiar with alternate values and employing reason to make effective and just value judgments. Moral pluralism provides insights that facilitate making such judgments.
Social pluralism focuses on how a good society accepts and facilitates the moral diversity that exists among the members of various political communities. Social pluralists honor the wide variety of social groups that exist in their communities. They identify with and become embedded in those groups and associations that provide for their vital needs and reinforce their genuine values. And they applaud the role of many associations and organizations with which they do not identify but that sustain others in society. Such understandings lead to a deep appreciation of social diversity.
Social pluralists understand that individuals often have social identities as members of partisan, ideological, and religious groups whose members generally share common needs and values. A pluralist society thus contains Republicans, Democrats, and those who identify with other parties. It contains conservatives, liberals, socialists, libertarians, the alt-right, the radical left, and people having other ideological orientations. It contains Jews, Christians, Muslims, and those having other more specific (often cultish) religious convictions.
In a pluralist society, people also have social identities based on such characteristics as class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, and age. Discrimination, stereotyping, exclusion, marginalization, and other forms of social and legal oppression based on such characteristics are illegitimate in a society committed to social pluralism. But social pluralists accept self-identifications with others who share such characteristics. They are thus comfortable with class consciousness, racial consciousness, and other such social identities that can help the working class, Blacks, ethnic minorities, women, gays, lesbians, trans, and other historically oppressed groups pursue their common concerns.
In a pluralist society, various associations exist to unite people having common interests and social identities. These associations can be based on family ties or can exist among friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. They can be long-standing or ad hoc. They can involve informal and formal organizations.
Social pluralists believe that all these social groupings, identities, and associations help knit society together – that social diversity makes societies more productive, efficient, fair, and interesting. Social pluralists claim that such groupings help individuals live good lives, enabling them to experience the moral choices that are potentially available, guiding judgments among these choices, and giving purpose or meaning to their lives.
Despite the virtues of social pluralism, we have increasingly become an atomized society, where individuals have few and weak social ties to others. Or we associate exclusively with fairly narrow tribal interests. Unfortunately, we are increasingly ignorant of the needs and values of diverse social groups. Social stability is jeopardized as we increasingly distrust, disparage, dislike, and even hate others.
Social pluralists also claim that our social identities and associations help us know where to stand on the political issues that inevitably arise in a pluralist society. They help position us when political conflicts arise. They give us various partisan perspectives that prompt us to engage in political activity. But social and political stability requires that these partisan perspectives not be held so strongly that we are intolerant of those with alternative beliefs.
Political pluralism focuses on achieving good government in societies characterized by moral and social diversity. The ideals of political pluralism stress resolving conflicts that arise out of moral and social differences through political institutions and processes that are adequately democratic. Democratic pluralism also stresses achieving outcomes that are just and consistent with what has been referred to as “the overlapping consensus” within a pluralist society (which I have tried to elaborate as the pluralist public philosophy).
Various kinds of political communities seek to resolve moral and social conflict. Normally, we think of political communities as polities – as territorial political communities such as cities, states, nations, and regional and global entities having some legitimate social control or sovereignty over residents. But sometimes political communities are not territorial and their sovereignty is more limited than that of territorial governments. Universities and departments within universities illustrate such political communities that are most familiar to me. But most of us are also familiar with the politics of workplaces, unions, churches, other voluntary associations, and even families. Political pluralism is relevant to good governance in all such political communities.
Pluralist democracy does not mean that every political issue must be resolved in ways that reflect dominant public opinion, but high levels of democratic performance will normally occur as elected officials exercise their authority in ways that are informed about and sensitive to citizen preferences. Pluralist democracy does not mean that everyone will be satisfied with each decision and accept each decision as just, but if, over many issues and over time, there are no persistent patterns of bias against any segment of the community, the overall system is as just as possible.
Political pluralism supposes that we have (or could have and should have) two political philosophies. We need a partisan perspective that is specific enough that it provides an initial starting point for knowing where to stand on the issues that arise from moral and social conflict. Various forms of conservatism, liberalism, socialism, and many other political ideologies are among the possible partisan perspectives that can guide us, but perspectives that are religious (e.g., Islam), scientific (e.g., ecologism), and philosophical (e.g., Kantianism) might also be a person’s primary partisan outlook, and we can also generate our own comprehensive and mutually-consistent set of partisan ideals and ideas (e.g., Schumakerism)!
But good governance in a pluralist democracy requires that leaders and citizens temper their partisan views by holding and adhering to a second common public philosophy. Effective pluralist democracies contain widespread commitments to an underlying (or overlapping) set of principles that is more general than specific partisan principles. On this website, I will try to specify these general principles and their underlying philosophical assumptions, but for now a single illustration should suffice. There has long been partisan disagreement over whether elected representatives ought to be “delegates” (who always act on the basis of constituent preferences) or “trustees” (who always reach their own independent judgments about what serves the common good in the long run), but pluralist philosophy claims that neither of these (Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian) orientations are absolutes. Instead, the more general pluralist principle here is that elected officials should normally have the authority (or at least more authority than others within the community) to resolve moral and social disagreements, and that they should be “politicos” who understand both the importance and limitations of being guided by constituent preferences and exercising independent judgment. In pluralist democracies, elected officials adapt the orientations of delegates or trustees as circumstances require. While elected officials must have the freedom to choose when to be a delegate or a trustee, institutions and processes must be in place that can be used to hold them accountable for their choices. This and other pluralist principles are based on giving due respect to conflicting partisan orientations. They seek to establish norms that are minimally acceptable to as many community members as possible. While pluralist principles provide less guidance than partisan ones, they are not without force. In the above example, the pluralist principle would provide a basis for criticizing officials who simply abstain to avoid having to choose between being a delegate or a trustee, and they would provide a basis for removing (perhaps impeaching) those officials who undermine processes for holding them accountable for their choices.
Pluralist public philosophy includes many principles, norms, and laws beyond those involving accountability. In a pluralist democracy, people identify with multiple communities, tolerate those having different moral, social, and political values, balance individual rights with social responsibilities, limit market justice with social justice, and practice forbearance in the exercise of power. While these broad norms illustrate some key pluralist principles, effective pluralist democracies are open to progressively better understandings of and elaborations of the principles of political pluralism. Articulations of pluralist principles are adequate to the extent that they are widely shared, but this requires that they be general and broad. Thus pluralist philosophy seems unnoticeable and often mundane because it contains our basic common sensibilities about politics.
Pluralist principles are most likely to be forgotten and ignored when leaders and citizens are highly partisan in their political orientations. In contemporary America, there seems to be far more allegiance to our particular partisan perspectives than to a common pluralist public philosophy. According to most commentary (and much political science), contemporary America is deeply divided between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans – despite the diversity of partisan views that people hold and because allegiances to pluralist philosophy is often hidden by partisan differences.
Our partisan polarization has reduced and often thwarted our capacity to achieve the primary purpose of politics: to take collective political action to resolve common problems and achieve common goals. Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain our current polarization. Political pluralists suggest that the deepest underlying cause of our polarization is that we too often see liberal democracy, rather than pluralist democracy, as the means of settling the conflict that arises from our moral and social differences.
Liberal democracy stresses electoral processes for choosing among partisans and constitutional constraints on those elected. Fair competitive elections are held, and they are thought to reveal citizen preferences, which in turn are the basis for public policies and programs pursued by political leaders. But electoral rules and procedures can be made that may seem fair while actually serving partisan purposes. While constitutions do provide limitations on the ability of a winning party to unilaterally pursue its partisan philosophy, major battles ensue on how to interpret the constitution. Parties manage to work around constitutional restrictions when they succeed in getting their partisans into judicial positions. Such judges can then interpret the constitution in accordance with their partisan goals.
America’s two-party system is thought to have furthered liberal democracy, at least when one party controlled most governmental institutions either directly or indirectly by securing consecutive electoral victories. A dominant party – such as New Deal Democrats or Reagan Republicans – could thus legitimately enact its agenda. Liberal democracy was viable in America when the two parties were fairly heterogeneous. Because the Democratic and Republican parties were comprised of people having different partisan perspectives, the dominant party had to give some attention to diverse views – compromising with others and accommodating more than the party base. But more recently, both parties – especially the Republican Party – have been captured by extremists who are far more active than ordinary citizens in elections, often controlling the nomination process through primaries. No longer are parties and their nominees controlled by established politicos who understand the need to abide by constitutional and legal limitations and by the pluralist consensus. The highly partisan leaders of both parties increasingly view those in the other party as their mortal enemies, rather than as adversaries having important roles in pluralist democracy and representing other legitimate voices within pluralist society. They inflame political opinion and generate partisan polarization, which leads to stalemate and the inability to address common problems and goals. Partisan polarization also amplifies class conflict, ethnic/racial conflict, and culture wars. It is not too far-fetched to worry about this all ending in bloody civil war.
Populist democracy has been proposed and pursued as an alternative to the problems of liberal democracy. Populism occurs when there is a strong and fairly direct relationship between a charismatic leader and citizens. Such a leader is typically a person who has been a political outsider, who seeks to replace current elites, and who promises to run a country in a way that is responsive to the wants and needs of ordinary citizens. He (it is difficult to name such a women) makes dubious claims – and often tells outright lies – that existing leaders and established alternative leaders are some combination of being foreigners (either by birth or orientation), unpatriotic, disloyal, incompetent, and/or corrupt. He makes rhetorical claims that he will act in “the national interest,” and “the will of the people,” even though these ends are known more by his personal intuitions rather than by any intersubjective process of identification. In a pluralist society where citizens have diverse preferences and understandings of the common good, neither “the national interest” nor “the will of the people” is easily known. Indeed, in most cases, they simply do not exist, as academic analyses of these concepts have long revealed.
When populists come to power, they usually become authoritarians. They find constitutional, legal, and electoral constraints on their power to be barriers to solving the problems they wish to address, to doing things that they proclaim to be in the national interest, and to carrying out (their conception of) the will of the people. While they may use police and military power to rid themselves of their opposition, they more often change the rules of the game to tilt electoral and policymaking processes decisively in their favor. Through incremental revisions of existing formal rules and informal norms – none of which alone is sufficient to trigger widespread concern – the media cease to perform their watchdog function and become subservient lapdogs, oppositional parties are weakened, and electoral rules are changed so as to effectively disenfranchise those segments of the population that would be expected to oppose the populist leader. By such processes, populist democracies become authoritarian democracies like that of Maduro in Venezuela, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, and Putin in Russia. And authoritarian democracies can become dictatorships, like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and Peron’s Argentina.
I believe that Donald Trump has emerged as the leader of a populist-authoritarian brand of democracy in America, a further realization of such recent tendencies within the Republican Party. Trump and his Republican allies have placed their populist and partisan goals far ahead of their commitments to pluralist public philosophy. While the Democratic Party is not immune from populist and authoritarian tendencies, they seem to have more regard for pluralist public philosophy than their Republican rivals.
A note to rally academics. As a political theorist, I believe that pluralist theories should provide paradigmatic guidance for guiding and disciplining the research and teaching of those in the political science profession. Research agendas in political science ought to be more focused than the pursuit of whatever political and policy issue is of interest to the researcher; they should aim at promoting as much consensus as possible about the fundamental characteristics of political institutions, processes, and norms that contribute to good government in a pluralist society. Teaching in political science should focus on the moral and social differences that exist in a pluralist society, but the political scientist should never be satisfied with students merely giving voice to their (prior) moral convictions and social identities. The classroom should help students understand and tolerate positions and policies with which they disagree, but it should also be a forum that seeks as much consensus as possible among those having conflicting moralities, social identities, and political principles.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, political science sought to achieve a paradigm – a set of common philosophical, conceptual, theoretical, and methodological commitments – that would further these goals. When pluralism approached becoming paradigmatic, many political scientists found many things to reject about its “orthodox” expression, especially its suggestion that politics could be adequately understood by focusing on power and its contention that the wide distribution of power enabled good government even when ethical values and principles were ignored. Pluralism is still looked upon with skepticism by many academics, perhaps because of misunderstandings of its tenets, perhaps because of ignorance of its revision and evolution, and perhaps because it focuses on common sense rather than provocation. Perhaps there is too little professional payoff in working within consensual understandings. Professional political scientists chafe at the disciplinary constraints of working within any paradigm, even one so general and open-ended as that of pluralism. Thus, while I hope to advance pluralism as a disciplinary paradigm, I recognize that most political scientists will regard this as a fool’s errand.
A note to rally the public. To the limited extent that I am a public philosopher, I believe that ordinary citizens, activists, and political leaders should have some understanding of pluralist concepts. Even ordinary citizens – those characterized as within the apolitical stratum by orthodox pluralists – are interested in living good lives and living within a good society, and thus lessons derived from understanding moral and social pluralism are relevant to them. Ordinary citizens possess the vote, and political pluralists beseech them to identify those in the political strata who undermine constitutional basics and whose views are outside pluralist norms. We should reject those activists and political leaders who threaten the political stability that pluralism promotes. Demagogues use dishonest, uncivil, and cruel language and present stories of doubtful conspiracies and unsubstantiated corruption to whip up the worst passions of ordinary citizens to get their support. Such citizens indeed have many legitimate complaints, but demagogues rarely provide solutions to them. Many demagogues have played outsized roles in politics, but now, it seems, one has ascended to the White House. Every citizen, even those with little interest in political affairs, should understand that they have civic responsibilities. They should have basic understandings of elections and use their vote and other means of protest to resist those who threaten and undermine our common sensibilities and our pluralist ideals.
Political activists and governmental officials may have some intuitive appreciation of pluralism, but they increasingly put their partisan interests and views far ahead of their commitments to pluralism. As a result, they have often imbued their followers with messages that their partisan opponents are misguided, incompetent, and evil. America and other democracies are increasingly polarized into competing partisan camps, and consensus and civility has pretty much vanished. Everyday politics and governance has become ugly and ineffective.
As a public philosopher, I have been greatly concerned with recent departures from political pluralism, evidenced during the past few decades by increasing polarization and extremism, and in our inability to resolve our differences in a respectful, civil, and peaceful manner. I have become distraught by recent elections that have failed to live up to basic democratic norms and have resulted in a President who fails to have much appreciation of the principles and philosophical assumptions of pluralism.
This webpage is my way of expressing and pursuing my resistance to Donald Trump, who I believe presents the greatest threat to pluralist democracy that this country has yet to encounter. There are many ways that people in a pluralist society can resist Trump, his minions, and future incarnations of such demagogues, but my means of resistance is trying to educate other academics, public leaders, and citizens of the many virtues of pluralism.