Political Pluralism

Political Pluralism

Pluralism in Politics

On the basis of some decades of experience, one can reasonably argue that eclmic pluralism is entirely compatible with the existence of a unified republic. Kallen would have said that it is simply the expression of democracy in the sphere of culture. It is, however, an unexpected expression: the American republic is very different from that described, for example, by Montesquieu and Rousseau. It lacks the intense political fellowship, the commitment to public affairs, that they thought necessary. “The better the constitution of a state is,” wrote Rousseau, “the more do public affairs encroach on private in the minds of the citizens. Private affairs are even of much less importance, because the aggregate of the common happiness furnishes a greater proportion of that of each individual, so that there is less for him to seek in particular cares.” This is an unlikely description unless ethnic culture and religious belief are closely interwoven with political activity as Rousseau insisted they should be). It certainly misses the reality of the American republic, where both have been firmly relegated to the private sphere.

The emotional life of U.S. citizens is lived mostly in private which is not to say in solitude, but in groups considerably smaller than the community of all citizens. Americans are communal in their private affairs, individualist in their politics. Society is a collection of groups, the state is an organization of individual citizens. And society and state, though they constantly interact, are formally distinct. For support and comfort and a sense of belonging, men and women look to their groups; for freedom and mobility, they look to the state.

Still, democratic participation does bring group members into the political arena where they are likely to discover common interests. Why has this not caused radical divisiveness, as in the European empires? It certainly has made for conflict, sometimes of a frightening sort, but always within limits set by the nonterritorial and socially indeterminate character of the immigrant communities and by the sharp divorce of state and ethnicity. No single group can hope to capture the state and tum it into a nation-state. Members of the group are citizens only as Americans, not as Germans, Italians, Irishmen, or Jews. Politics forces them into alliances
and coalitions; and democratic politics, because it recognizes each citizen as the equal of every other, without regard to ethnicity, fosters a unity of individuals alongside the diversity of groups.

American Indians and blacks have mostly been excluded from this unity, and it is not yet clear on what terms they will be brought in. But political life is in principle open, and this openness has served to diffuse the most radical forms of ethnic competition. The result has not been a weak political order: quite the contrary. Though it has not inspired heated commitment, though politics has not become a mass religion, the republic has been remarkably stable, and state power has grown steadily over time. [1]


The growth of state power sets the stage for a new kind of pluralist politics. With increasing effect, the state does for all its citizens what the various groups do or try to do for their own adherents. It defends their rights, not only against foreign invasion and domestic violence, but also against persecution, harassment, libel, and discrimination. It celebrates their collective (American) history, establishing national holidays, building monuments, memorials, and museums; supplying educational materials. It acts to sustain their communal life, collecting taxes and providing a host of welfare services. The modem state nationalizes communal activity, and the more energetically it does this, the more taxes it collects, the more services it provides, the harder it becomes for groups to act on their own. State welfare undercuts private philanthropy, much of which was organized within ethnic communities; it makes it harder to sustain private and parochial schools, it erodes the strength of cultural institutions.

All this is justified, and more than justified, by the fact that the various groups were radically unequal in strength and in their ability to provide services for their adherents. Moreover, the social coverage of the ethnic communities was uneven and incomplete. Many Americans never looked for services from any particular group, but turned instead to the state. It is not the case that state officials invaded the spheres of welfare and culture, they were invited in by disadvantaged or hard-pressed or assimilated citizens. But now, it is said, pluralism cannot survive unless ethnic groups, as well as individuals, share directly in the benefits of state
power. Once again, politics must follow ethnicity, recognizing and supporting communal structures.

What does this mean? First, that the state should defend collective as well as individual rights, second, that the state should expand its official celebrations, to include not only its own history but the history of all the peoples that make up the American people, third, that tax money should be fed into the ethnic communities to help in the financing of bilingual and bicultural education, and of group-oriented welfare services. And if all this is to be done, and fairly done, then it is necessary also that ethnic groups be given, as a matter of right, some sort of representation within the state agencies that do it.

These are far-reaching claims. They have not received, any more than the earlier pluralism did, a clear theoretical statement. They are the stuff of public pronouncements and political agitation. Their full significance is unclear, but the world they point to is a corporatist world, where ethnic groups no longer organize themselves like voluntary associations but have instead some Political standing and some legal rights. There is, however, a major difficulty here: groups cannot be assigued rights unless they are first assigued members.

There has to be a fixed population with procedures for choosing representatives before there can be representatives acting officially on behalf of that population. But ethnic groups in the United States do not have, and never have had, fixed populations. American Indian tribes are a partial exception).

Historically, corporatist arrangements have only been worked out for groups that do. In fact, they have only been worked out when the fixity was guaranteed by a rigid dualism, that is, when two communities were locked into a single state: Flemings and Walloons in Belgium, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. In such cases, people not identified with one community are virtually certain to be identified with the other. The residual category of intermarried couples and aliens will be small, especially if the two communities are anciently established and territorially based. Problems of identification are likely to arise only in the capital city. Other sorts of problems arise more generally; these examples hardly invite emulation.

America’s immigrant communities have a radically different character. Each of them has a center of active participants, some of them men and women who have been “born-again,” and a much larger periphery of individuals and families who are little more than occasional recipients of services generated at the center. They are communities without boundaries, shading off into a residual mass of people who think of themselves simply as Americans. Borders and border guards are among the first products of a successful national liberation movement, but ethnic assertiveness has no similar outcome.

There is no way for the various groups to prevent or regulate individual crossings. Nor can the state do this without the most radical coercion of individuals. It cannot fix the population of the groups unless it forces each citizen to choose an ethnic identity and establishes rigid distinctions among the different identities, of a sort that pluralism by itself has not produced.

It is possible, however, to guarantee representation to ethnic groups without requiring the groups to organize and choose their own spokesmen. The alternative to internal choice is a quota system. Thus, Supreme Court appointments might be constrained by a set of quotas: a certain number of blacks, Jews, Irish and Italian Catholics, and so on, must be serving at any given time. But these men and women would stand in no political relationship to their groups; they would not be responsible agents; nor would they be bound to speak for the interests
of their ethnic or religious fellows. They would represent simply by being black (Jewish, Irishl and being there, and the Court would be a representative body in the sense that it reflected the pluralism of the larger society in its own membership. It would not matter whether these members came from the center or the periphery of the groups, or whether the groups had clearly defined boundaries, a rich inner life, and so on.

This kind of representation depends only upon external bureaucratic rather than political processes, and so it can reactily be extended to society at large. Quotas are easy to use in admitting canctidates to colleges and professional schools and in hiring them for any sort of employment.

Such canctidates are not elected but selected, though here, too, there must be a fixed population from which selections can be made. In practice, efforts to identify populations and make quotas possible have been undertaken, with state support, only for oppressed groups. Men and women, marked out as victims or as the children and heirs of victims, have been assigned a right to certain advantages in the selection process; otherwise, it is said, they would not be present at all in schools, professions, and businesses.

This is not the place to consider the merits of such a procedure. But it is important to point out that selection by quota functions largely to provide a kind of escape from group life for people whose identity has become a trap. Its chief purpose is to give opportunities to inctividuals, not a voice to groups. It serves to enhance the wealth of inctividuals, not necessarily the resources of the ethnic community. The community is strengthened, to be
sure, if newly trained men and women return to work among its members, but only a small minority do that.

Mostly, they serve, if they serve at all, as role models for other upwardly mobile men and women. When weak and hitherto passive groups mobilize themselves in order to win a place in the quota system, they do so for the sake of that mobility, and are likely to have no further raison d’etre once it is achieved.

Considered more generally, there is a certain tension between quota systems and ethnic pluralism, for the administrators of any such system are bound to refuse to recognize differences among the groups. They come by their numbers through simple mathematical calculations. It would be intolerable for them to make judgments as to the character or quality of the clifferent cultures.

The tendency of their work, then, is to reproduce within every group to which quotas are applied the same educational and employment patterns. Justice is a function of the identity of the patterns among groups rather than of life chances among inctividuals. But it is clear that ethnic pluralism by itself would not generate any such identity. Historically specific cultures necessarily produce historically specific patterns of interest and work.

This is not to say that pluralism necessarily militates against egalitarian principles, since equality
might well take the fortn (socialists have always expected it to take the form! of roughly equal recompense for different kinds of work. It is not implausible to imagine a heterogeneous but egalitarian society: the heterogeneity, cultural and private; the equality, economic and political. Quotas point, by contrast, toward group uniformity, not inctividual equality. Though it would be necessary for inctividuals to identify themselves (or to be identified) as group members in order to receive the benefits of a quota system, these identifications would progressively lose their communal significance. The homogenization of the groups would open the way for the assimilation of their members into a prevailing or evolving national culture. [2]




1. MICHAEL WALZER, Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980)
2. Id.

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