What Is Pluralism?

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A Definition of Pluralism

Pluralism is the idea that people of different cultures can coexist in society even though they have different political opinions. Pluralists believe that society benefits from various people with different beliefs equally participating in the same society.

Photo a group of young people

Different people will suggest alternative solutions to problems and work together for the common good, even though their ideas oppose each other. 

Pluralism Is an Ancient Political Philosophy

Like many philosophical concepts important to the United States’ Founding Fathers, pluralism has ancient origins. The ancient Greeks argued that people splitting into factions was bad for states. Aristotle argued that citizens must intermarry to avoid splitting into factions. 

Pluralism Is About Sharing Power

Different groups that live in and contribute to the same society need to share power. If one group has all the power, they are not likely to use it justly, plus it is unjust to keep all the power in one group’s hands.

Divergent groups also need to communicate, state their point of view, criticize the other group’s viewpoint, and be willing to negotiate. Sometimes, the rights or freedom of one group can infringe on the human rights or freedom of another. 

Minority Rights Require Legal Protections

A lot of the time, one group will oppress another group unless there are laws against this. It is also possible to pass laws that discriminate against a group unless people’s attitudes are against this, and the constitution forbids these laws.

Photo of man drinking water
Segregation was eventually made illegal in the United States.

There was religious pluralism, diversity, and freedom in the United States right from the start. Over time, The US abolished slavery, equalized voting rights, and made segregation illegal. These achievements are defended by constitutional amendments, laws, and Supreme Court cases. 

James Madison and Pluralism

James Madison, a founding father, wrote many of the Federalist Papers, a very important series of political essays. He argued for legal pluralism and political pluralism in the Federalist Papers (No. 10).

He argued that different political factions and political parties in the United States should tolerate each other and not completely shut each other out of the government. If different factions have no toleration for one another, the United States might not survive.

People have always been worried about an eventual breakup of the United States, which temporarily happened during the Civil War. James Madison believed that too much animosity between political factions could split the United States into a few weaker countries. While James Madison never used the word “pluralism,” he more or less defined what it means in the context of American politics and democracy.

How Does Pluralism Work?

Pluralism is about more than equal rights for minorities and freedom of religion. These things are part of pluralism, but not all of it. 

A pluralistic approach is about compromise and negotiation between groups of people with incompatible interests. If both groups can’t have all they want, they must agree to a compromise.

Unions are part of pluralism. Pluralism does not always apply to different races or religions but negotiations between workers and employers. Unions and laws that protect unions/workers are an aspect of pluralism. 

The Clean Air Act (1955) and Environmental Protection Agency (1970)

Environmental protections are also part of pluralism. If some people can make money by polluting the environment, they can make money at the expense of others.

As far back as the 1880s, there was clean air legislation in some cities, and by the 1950s, it was time to do something bigger about it. Serious smog problems in the 1940s made people think something needed to be done about air pollution at a national level. In 1955 the government passed the air pollution control act.

The 1955 Air Pollution Act was the beginning and not the end of more environmental protection laws. In 1970 they passed the Clean Air Act, which was a significant turning point in the history of environmentalism. Since 1970, environmental protection has been an important part of American politics and popular with voters. 

Environmental Protection Laws are Partly Successful

While the world is more polluted today than it was in 1970, things have improved in some ways. The hole in the ozone layer is going away – it has the power to naturally heal itself over time. Environmentalists were able to get some chemicals banned, and this was enough to solve the problem. 

This is an example of different groups of people successfully working together, sharing ideas, and compromising. Protecting the environment requires people to respect the rights of others and requires the law to protect people’s rights. Without pluralism, a company could pollute a river and ruin people’s drinking water, and there would be nothing anyone could legally do about it. 

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act

One of the most obvious examples of successful pluralism in the United States is the civil rights movement. Even in its early years, the United States, in some ways, respected the idea of rights and equality. For example, religious freedom was important to the Founding Fathers. 

However, while the United States was founded on the principles of freedom and equality, it took a long time to abolish slavery and then another century to equalize voting rights. It took a long time for the ideas of freedom and equality to change the laws. 

The End of Apartheid in South Africa

South Africa remained a segregated society without legal voting rights for decades after the United States. Even in the sixties, seventies and eighties, it was still a society where people could be forcibly removed from their homes and sent to segregated neighborhoods. People could not live where they wanted, and voting rights were restricted.

South African bank notes
1993 saw the first all race election in South Africa.

At the time, it seemed like a civil war might eventually happen in South Africa. However, pluralism reached the country eventually. Prime minister F. W. de Klerk legalized the banned African National Congress, released Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and ended censorship.

After this, it did not take long to make the country truly democratic. The first all-race election happened in 1993, and the United States ended trade restrictions and increased aid to South Africa. 

Do Governments Only Exist to Serve the People?

Arguably, governments exist to serve the people because a government is a contract that people agree to. Social science calls this idea the social contract and was developed by the philosophers Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke in the 17th century.

According to this pluralist theory, people in “a state of nature” (perhaps a tribal society long before civilization) would voluntarily accept laws as long as they would have more to gain than lose by accepting these laws. 

How People Arguably Created Laws

People would voluntarily agree that theft or murder should be illegal and that the group should punish anyone who commits these crimes. Everyone would have something to gain by agreeing that one should not kill or steal and that there should be punishments for anyone who does this.

Governments eventually formed from these early agreements because people voluntarily agreed to live in complex societies with laws. However, laws and governments can eventually become corrupt and not good for the people under them. In those cases, people should revolt against their governments because their government and laws no longer serve them. 

The Social Contract and Pluralism

Pluralism must be present for a government to serve its people as it should. While Rosseau does not use the word pluralism, he does refer to the same concept when he talks about divisions. He says that divisions involving factions and parties are harmful and against just government.

Photo of a contract
Government should serve the people in accordance with the social contract.

Religious and Cultural Pluralism

Pluralism exists outside of laws, government and politics. How people treat each other can change even if the laws stay the same.

Civil rights laws, on their own, are not enough. People can still treat each other badly or exclude each other in ways that the laws do not forbid or that are difficult to enforce laws against. People also need tolerance.

Different groups of people need to treat each other well even if they have different values and attitudes. A person may think that their religious view is correct and another religious view is wrong, but still, respect members of the other religion. 

Pluralism and Tolerance Can Either Succeed or Fail

In many times and places, people with very different cultures and religions can coexist under the same government and laws. However, it fails and leads to oppression and violence in other times and places. Pluralism is likely to fail if a majority group does not respect a minority group or does not respect the idea of minority rights.

Pluralism is about interacting with other groups and not only about tolerating them. If you have people of many different religious groups living in the same city and under the same laws and getting along peacefully, then that is tolerance. However, tolerance is not pluralism – pluralism requires different groups to interact with each other.

Pluralism Is About Multiple Groups Participating in Society

Political philosophers say that modern society is truly pluralist if people participate in society equally without giving up too many of their cultural differences. If a government consists of different types of people of different national backgrounds, religions, and cultural backgrounds, there is a pluralistic society.

Giving up cultural differences and accepting a common culture is not pluralism. The “melting pot” idea – that people come to the United States and become cultural Americans, regardless of their background – is not pluralism. Pluralism is not about assimilation but different cultures sharing the same society. 

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