Deomocracy: The Pluralist Perspective Research Paper Starter

Deomocracy: The Pluralist Perspective

(Research Starters)

This paper offers an analysis of one side of the debate over how one political system, that of the United States, truly operates in its representation of the people. By analyzing the variety of factions and socio-political groups that comprise the American political system, the reader is given an understanding of the pluralist perspective and how it applies to the modern democratic system.

Keywords Grassroots; Ideology; Interest Group; Oligarchy; Pluralist; Polyarchy

Sociology: Politics


In 1787, James Madison, writing "Federalist #10," said that a well-constructed Union would be an exceptional asset in the cessation of inter-factional conflict. Factionalism, in the minds of Madison and his contemporaries, was an element that often tears apart a nation. However, he acknowledged that the development of a diverse state, particularly one that welcomes and encourages public input from the countless social groups, creates avenues for intra-state factions to form. Madison understood that these groups, which more often than not seek to serve the public good by way of their own agendas, will inevitably come into conflict with one another. It is in vain that leaders can presume to control these competing interests, he said, or claim to have the ability to redirect such conflict in a positive manner toward the collective good of the society.

The alternative, Madison said, was therefore not to control the causes of factional development, but instead to target the effects of inter-factional conflict. If, for example, a group represents a minority interest within the whole society, the people should be able, through the electoral process, to address the needs of that group or quell their agenda (should that platform work against a strong, unified nation). On the other hand, if a group represents a majority and initiates endeavors that are adverse to the minority, safeguards should already be in place within the nation's constitution that protects the individual rights of the minority. If a significant threat of inter-factional violence and conflict exists, Madison concluded, a republic that represents the interests of the entire society "promises the cure … which we are seeking" (Constitution Society, 2008).

A myriad of diverse, active participants is arguably the heart of a representative democracy. Under ideal circumstances, such government systems are as President Abraham Lincoln proffered in his Gettysburg Address: "of the people, by the people, for the people." Within this ideal framework, legislators and executives are selected to represent the people via a mandate from the voters, and if those elected officials fail to follow that mandate, others will be selected to replace them.

Of course, in a practical setting, such ideals are not as easily applied. The Founding Fathers, for example, established the Electoral College instead of creating a "one person, one vote" presidential election system not because of a distrust of the people but to accommodate the diverse geographic populations of the new nation. In another example, the very factions that Madison simultaneously acknowledged and criticized, which became manifest in political parties, have also muddled this ideal by creating slates of party platform-adherent candidates rather than individual aspirants.

With such complexities built into the modern democratic system, questions arise as to whether variations of this model are representative of the interests of the society they govern and, if so, how that governance takes shape. This paper will offer an analysis of one side of the debate over how one political system, that of the United States, truly operates in its representation of the people. By analyzing the variety of factions and socio-political groups that comprise the American political system, the reader will glean an understanding of the pluralist perspective and how it applies in the modern democratic system.

David Truman, Robert Dahl

As suggested earlier, James Madison viewed the formation and interaction of interest-oriented political groups as a natural result of the democratic system. David Truman certainly shared this view. In 1951, Truman authored his seminal work "The Governmental Process," in which he would proffer the notion that politics can only be understood by studying the interaction of the myriad of social and political interest groups that surface as part of the institution. In fact, Truman argued, a political man is a product of group influences (Kansas State University, 2008). These elements rest at the heart of what is known as "the pluralist perspective."

A delicate line is thus drawn between the concerns of Madison and the reality of democratic institutions (at least as seen by loyalists or this framework). Madison expressed concern that the interest groups that would form as a natural byproduct of democracy, absent of protections and checks built into the constitutional system, would not find common ground and therefore place strains on the fabric of the nation.

Following Truman's thesis was the framework introduced by Robert Dahl. Whereas Truman focused his attention within the pluralist model on the interaction (and often competition) of various interest groups, Dahl asked a more pointed question about leadership within the democratic system that contains pluralist ideals. In his most compelling work on the subject, "Who Governs," Dahl asks who, in a society in which every person is able to vote even though his or her personal and political resources are unevenly distributed, assumes the mantle of leadership.

The key to Dahl's pursuit of the answer is in the distribution of power. In his view, an effective polyarchy (a government ruled by a coalition of varying parties) as well as an effective pluralist society depends not on how the parties interact, but how the resources themselves are distributed. Without reasonable distribution of such resources, what is currently a pluralist society could be turned into a system by which political power is held by a singular group (Jordan, 1990).

Group Interaction

At the core of this discussion is the interest group. In the minds of political scientists and sociologists, interest groups are borne of the aggregate of individual interests. In other words, an interest affecting one area of political representation or social demographics attracts individuals who sympathize with the cause. The group in question next seeks representation by political candidates or elected officials to act as the vessels of their cause. As the cause attracts more and more interested individual members, the interest group becomes more and more powerful and influential in the political process.

Collaboration, Competition

There remains a two-sided concern for interest groups in terms of the goals and methodologies they employ. In one hand, interest groups, all of whom remained focused on pursuing the common good (even if tactics and ideology separates them politically), are concerned that a lack of communication or coalition-building might drive wedges between interest groups, diverting attention away from a collective fear that such divisions might give rise to an oligarchical system that forces its own brand of political management (Alford & Friedland, 1985).

On the other side, interest groups that move toward their goals without forging alliances or who are otherwise in direct competition with other groups may end up experiencing very little success in seizing control of the political system they seek to change, whereas groups that are able to jell and forge cooperative networks may climb closer to power. As one expert succinctly states: "Nothing categorical can be said about power … If anything, there seems to be an unspoken notion among pluralist researchers that at bottom nobody dominates" (Luger, 1999).

It is in this arena that individuals like James Madison offered cautionary words about the dangers of inter-factionary fighting and competition. Indeed, as is the case for other socio-political groups, unilateral (or at least minority) pursuit of power may offer validation of Madison's fears. Then again, the positive gains that can be seen by the successful interconnectivity and partnership between groups can and often...

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