What is Pluralism?
Understanding the fact of difference and how we respond to that difference
A few years ago, my friend Tish and I were at a restaurant following a conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As we waited for a table, the guy next to us struck up a conversation.
“What are you doing in town?” he asked.
Tish responded, “We’re here for a conference on pluralism.”
To which our companion quickly responded: “I hate pluralism.”
The amusingly forthright nature of this response called to mind a related question I frequently encounter: “What is pluralism?”
We can think of pluralism in two ways: (1) the fact of deep differences in our society; (2) the way that we respond to those differences.
In the News
We have no shortage of current events that demonstrate our deep differences. I'll explore some of them in later newsletters. But I’d like to start by suggesting that how we see those differences affects our ability to respond to them. Pressures on traditional media, social media algorithms, and our own dispositions increasingly pull us toward partisan news coverage that influences how we see the world.
Consider just one example from the past few days: Beto O’Rourke’s interruption of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s press conference on the Uvalde school shooting.
The exchange created two different narratives. If you were watching Fox News, you heard Karl Rove say:
This was a terrible moment... a stunt, an attempt to sort of inject himself into the middle of this controversy in an entirely inappropriate way. There's plenty of time for him to make political recriminations, but at least let the bodies be buried of those children and let their families grieve without turning it into a political circus.
If you were watching MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell offered a different view:
Beto O’Rourke went to that news conference in Uvalde, Texas to listen and then to tell Greg Abbott and other elected Republican officials on the stage, “This is on you.” . . . Beto O’Rourke was being shouted down by the Republican mayor of Uvalde, a sometimes guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show.
Many of us weren’t watching either Fox or MSNBC, but we encountered versions of these stories in Tweets, Facebook comments, Instagram posts, and other social media. We see the world differently, and we amplify those differences through the ways we encounter stories.
In my Head
Let’s return to the two definitions of pluralism: the fact of deep differences, and the way that we respond to those differences.
Start with the fact of difference. We disagree about trivial matters like ice cream flavors and fashion. And we disagree about fundamental matters, like the purpose of our country, the nature of a human being, and what happens when we die. The existence of these differences is one way to think about pluralism.
Importantly, most of our deep differences manifest through groups not individuals. James Madison called them factions; Alexis de Tocqueville called them associations; the First Amendment refers to assemblies. Today’s assemblies include interest groups, book clubs, churches, synagogues, mosques, social clubs, nonprofits, labor unions, political parties, and many other parts of civil society.
We form—and in turn, we are formed by—assemblies. These assemblies stoke divides, entrench conflicts, and raise suspicions. They create insiders and outsiders, sometimes through express exclusion and other times by setting cultural norms that make others feel unwelcome.
For all of these costs, assemblies are, and always have been, essential to our democratic experiment. They are how most of us come to understand what we think and believe and how we live our lives. They create networks of support and bonds of affection. They serve as buffers between the individual and the state—and increasingly, between the individual and the corporation.
This brings us to the second meaning of pluralism: our response to the fact of difference. A pluralist political response (the version I have suggested is called confident pluralism) seeks common ground even when we can’t agree on the common good. We don’t have to share the same goals or values to find consensus interests. And we can live, work, and play with people who disagree with us on fundamental matters without embracing or endorsing their beliefs. The art of politics in a diverse democracy requires engagement and compromise, not isolation or control.
In the World
Many factors hinder the political response of pluralism. One is our media consumption—too many of us knowingly or unknowingly consume our news from overly partisan or ideological sources. I’m not sure we can or should aim for a complete rejection of partisan frames; sometimes I want to read a smart partisan take on an issue or event. But most of the time, I want news coverage that is more descriptive than prescriptive.
One way I’ve worked toward this goal is to follow an ideologically eclectic mix of Twitter accounts, some publicly, and some privately through an app called Tweetdeck that lets me create and filter multiple lists on one screen. I also use free news aggregators that seem committed to conveying information rather than scoring political points. Here are two:
The Flip Side compiles perspectives across the political spectrum from over thirty major news sources.
Wake up to Politics by Gabe Fleisher is a clear and concise summary of political issues, usually covering all three branches of government.
If you know that you are deep down the partisan rabbit hole—or you think you might be headed in that direction—my hunch is that subscribing to these two newsletters will be a good way to start digging out. And the more people we have thinking carefully about nuanced issues, the better positioned we will be to respond to the fact of pluralism with the politics of pluralism.
I will unpack more about the various dimensions of pluralism—and assembly—in future posts.