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Pluralism of Robert Dahl

This broad question can be asked in a few different ways to help us decipher what its intention is, and also to provide a rough guide to the path to be taken to answer it. Can the existence of pluralism be said to also mean the existence of democracy? Is pluralism the closest we can get to democracy, for the type of societies we live in today (in the West)? Or, is pluralism a diluted form of democracy, in the classical sense, which does not meet the definition of ‘rule by the people’?

Without turning the investigation into a question of definitions it is necessary, before we embark, to briefly say a few words about the two key concepts in the question: pluralism and democracy.

Since the inception of the term, Robert Dahl has been one of the most prominent pluralists. He, and his contemporaries, sought to theorise the ‘actual’ workings of democracy in a modern society. They documented objectively what is achievable in modern societies as opposed to theories of ‘classic’, or ‘populist’, democracy (Dahl, 1956, ch.

2). For brevity’s sake, we will use the broad definition given by Hague and Harrop

Literally ‘rule by the many’, pluralism refers to a political system in which numerous competing interest groups exert strong influence over a responsive government. However, each of these groups concentrates on its own area (for example education, medical care) so no single i?? lite dominates all sectors. New groups can emerge easily, bringing further competition to the political marketplace (Hague & Harrop, 2001, p.

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159). We will return to this description of classic pluralism and its implications later. First, a brief word about the other term in the question: democracy.

The main difficulty we have with this question is the meaning we ascribe to ‘democracy’. For the meaning we do ascribe will fundamentally affect the answer we give. I will distinguish between the democracy that the pluralists admitted modern societies cannot approach, that of classical democracy (Athenian, Renaissance republican and the kind of democracy anticipated by Rousseau or Marx), and a version of democracy that the pluralists saw as ‘realistic’ and ‘objective’, and which considers the adaptation of democracy to a contemporary society (Held, 1996, p201).

Because democracy is an essentially contested concept it is misleading to assess pluralism’s faithfulness to it per se, mainly because if you are a pluralist you will have one view, whereas if you hold a different concept of democracy to the pluralists, you will have another. Returning to the central point of the question, the faithfulness of pluralism to democracy. Bearing in mind the above contention that any answer to the question will depend on the particular stance of the answerer, I will first consider the pluralist’s view of their theory’s adherence to democratic principles.

This will expand on the definition of pluralism given above to link this definition to ideas of democracy or at least ‘realistic’ and ‘objective’ democracy. Secondly, I will consider some criticisms of pluralism’s faithfulness to democracy and the counter-criticisms of ‘neo-pluralists’. From within the pluralist arena, there is an unequivocal belief that a form of democracy is being discussed and developed, not something apart from democracy.

Dahl, and pluralists in general, saw pluralism as being faithful to democracy, ‘hence, they referred to their own brand of democratic theory as ’empirical democratic theory” (Held, 1996, p. 201). This belief that pluralism is intrinsic to democracy equates with the belief that pluralism is not only faithful to democracy, but cannot be unfaithful to democracy. If you have, or desire, democracy then you must have, or desire, pluralism. The ‘numerous competing interest groups’ referred to above is the crux of the pluralist’s theory of democracy.’

In the absence of such intermediary institutions, in a ‘mass society’, dictatorial or totalitarian regimes are likely to emerge, whilst their presence is at least a necessary if not a sufficient condition for a stable democratic regime’ (Lively, 1975, p. 71) [My italics]. Dahl, in his early writings, uses the American model to demonstrate an actual, living example of pluralism. He referred to this as a polyarchy. Even though this example was seen as a minimalist version of democracy, it nonetheless sets out the first cementing of the pluralist-democratic bond (Dahl, 1956, p.84).

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