What Is Pluralism?

Man is a limited being; limited by his own finite experiences and limited by his own predetermined biology. This is why humans with dissimilar histories will tend to be dissimilar people, in proportion to their historical distance.  Customs, beliefs, and even languages themselves mold human minds into distinct entities, fundamentally inaccessible to one another. Pluralism is the idea that two people whose minds have developed in substantially different contexts can thrive in an integrated society.

Rather, pluralism hopes that Group A, which is composed of a tribe of minds formed in Context A, will play nice with Group B, Group C, Group D, etc., simultaneously. Pluralism accepts that Group A and Group B may deeply disagree or mistrust one another. Rather than championing one side or another (in theory), pluralism hopes that the state will simply mediate a peaceful antagonism between groups A and B. We will call this peaceful antagonism “agonism.”

Pluralists are sufficiently convinced that Group A will never be able to rationally persuade the members of Group B to defect to Group A, and vice versa. Both Group A and Group B are legitimate, independent of one another. But this does not mean that Group A and Group B are equal in relative political strength or savvy, and this is where agonism comes into play. Whenever a dispute between A and B arises, the state should allow peaceful squabbling to freely erupt, and then a simple counting of ballots will resolve the matter.

Imagine a scaled-down model of this type of democratic pluralism involving a bank robbery mediated by an agonist police officer. Whereas a real-world police officer would likely end the bank robbery in favor of the bankers with the use or threat of violence, the agonist police officer cannot. Remember, pure pluralism cannot place a higher qualitative value on the bankers’ desire to keep their property than on the bank robbers’ desire to steal it. The agonist police officer’s job would be to disarm each side and have a vote. Each side would try to rally as many votes as possible, drawing electoral support to the best of its ability. One can see how the bankers might convince a large enough swath of the locals that the continued existence of banks as institutions would be more socially beneficial than the robbers’ proposed one-off cash grab. One can also see how a groundswell for the robbers would eliminate the bankers as a political force for the foreseeable future.

True agonism, in which the state is fundamentally secular in its equal disregard for property rights, civil rights, etc., is merely a self-help system for conflict resolution without bloodshed. Pluralists point out that a key theoretical feature of agonism is its ability to mediate between Group A (say, progressives) and Group B (say, hardcore ethno-nationalists).

Under pluralist agonism, if Group A wins an election, it is satisfied with its hard-earned triumph, and Group B is satisfied that its voices were heard and that it was not shut out of the debate. This function reinforces the legitimacy of democracy and robs Group B of its “outsider” cachet (“the mainstream is afraid of us!”). But losing in the public forum will also discredit the opinions of Group B in the eyes of the electorate, at least temporarily. And, depending on the scale of A’s victory, Group B may never be heard from again. Pluralists sometimes sell this argument by tacitly implying that Group B’s views were undesirable anyway.

But it is fundamentally important to remember that true pluralism accepts that the mental rifts that exist between social groups cannot be bridged by reason or rational consensus-building. Political factions are not a reflection of some misunderstanding between two friends with society’s best interests at heart, but are composed of combatants who have locked horns in a bloody deathmatch. The only role of the state is to ensure that political fights do not spill over into real violence. A truly secular state cannot stamp out one group or another with force, because pluralism insists that every possible viewpoint has a valid claim to existence. The mode of discourse is therefore not “thesis + antithesis yields synthesis” but “thesis + thesis yields royal rumble.”

Agonism is the only tenable position for a democrat who understands and accepts the implications of relativism. It is also an anarchic model of domestic politics, because while the state mediates in order to prevent violence, it has no authority to actually resolve the underlying tensions. In other words, Groups A and B (and C and D and E) are equipped with a kind of absolute license.

Does Pluralist Democracy Exist?

Needless to say, I cannot answer this question definitively. Simply eyeballing the issue, and applying a little structural realism, I would venture to guess that any truly pluralist state with dozens of initial groups would be unstable and anarchic, and would continue to be unstable until all its competing pluralities were resolved away into hegemony. This would happen as discredited groups are killed off by continuous electoral defeats, or are devoured by their more powerful conquerors. The competitive nature of the electoral process ensures that one highly adaptive, dominant group will survive and capture the state indefinitely. This is a competitive, self-help system, and any such system with multiple powers should be expected to decay into a unipolar state (hegemony). In anarchy, the crushing logic of game theory means that the small fish are eaten by the larger fish until only the largest fish remains.

So let’s take a step back and examine a prime candidate for an existant model of the pluralist democracy: the United States. The United States is diverse, right? It has elections, right? Let us assume that Democrats are Group A and Republicans are Group B. There are certainly many ways of dividing the United States into groups, but this simple reduction has the benefit of maintaining the two major, coherent, politically-active blocs.

Obviously, the United States is not purely pluralistic. The state is not totally secular—it has a long history of rooting out certain types of dissent. It has also built qualitative judgments into its structure: property rights, civil rights, representative government, etc. Thus there are a few “political” positions that are simply out of the question, if not actually illegal to hold. But the United States does do a pretty good job of protecting freedom of speech, and it definitely has a regular election cycle. There are certainly a lot of racial, cultural, religious, and political differences among its people. It is also huge. Diffuse brain-creation contexts abound! Does the United States have a pluralist system of government in which two groups have managed to survive?

Certainly, as Waltz would point out, bipolar systems can be stable. Look at the US and USSR. But even that bipolar system produced a hegemon after a mere forty years. There has been a bipolar domestic system in the United States since roughly 1800—if the United States has a pluralist system, why hasn’t a hegemon arisen by now?

Ah, dear reader, perhaps you have guessed the answer. The hegemon is in our midst.

We can uncover the beast by ignoring the spectacle of national elections and focusing on the union of forces civil (the federal agencies) and ecclesiastical (academia, the media). This pairing might sound familiar. Not without some sense of irony, this modern Leviathan is also called the Cathedral.

I am not sure exactly when Leviathan emerged out of American pseudo-plurality, but I do have a couple guesses. Needless to say, when the most adaptive and powerful group finally seized control of the state apparatus, it did not waste much time capturing it and subverting it to its own ends. The Cathedral’s erasure of whatever pluralism existed is analogous to Leviathan’s erasure of whatever anarchy existed before it. It inevitably emerged and destroyed the conditions which created it, because self-help systems do not tolerate anarchy.

To re-state, the Cathedral does not merely exist: it is the necessary end-state of pluralist democracy. This is because a pluralist democracy is sufficiently anarchic, and therefore unstable. Groups do not persuade one another with reason (because, according to the limits of the system, they cannot); they conquer one another at the ballot box. Groups that fail to adapt are vanquished and cannibalized until one group remains—Hegemon, Leviathan, Cathedral.