How Pluralistic Is American Government?

A Critique of Pluralism

Is pluralism really how the United States operates in general? Although differing on details, many journalists, social scientists, and politicians would probably agree that it does work in roughly this fashion, at least most of the time. But pluralism has its critics too. They charge, first, that it does not adequately describe who governs and, second, even if it did, pluralism is an undesirable form of government.

Pluralism Is a Faulty Description.

The principal objection to the pluralist interpretation is that it overstates the opportunities to use political resources. Certainly all kinds of resources are potentially available, but some appear to be superior to others. Money, for instance, is a resource that can buy many others. The chief executive officer of a corporation like Rockwell International or DuPont can purchase information, free time, advisers, access, prestige--the very things, in short, that make one successful in politics and that many people have difficulty acquiring.

More devastating to the theory, critics assert, is the severe inequality in the distribution of resources. Needless to say, the clergy can vote and hand out leaflets as the B-1 bomber example indicates, but can they really compete for power with industrial giants like Rockwell International? Does a small Quaker committee have the same impact in the marketplace of ideas as the Pentagon and its allies? Or, can a small group of environmentalists compete toe-to-toe with the chemical industry? True, the "movers and shakers" in government cannot and do not ignore the common person. But paying attention to the public is not the same as sharing power with it.

The top layers of society, according to pluralism's critics, have a distinct advantage. Political scientist E. E. Schattschneider put the matter simply: "The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent." Politically valuable resources, in other words, tend to be concentrated among the rich and already powerful members of society. Those at the bottom have much less to work with. Thus, if success in the political arena depends on mobilizing resources, some groups will always have an unequal advantage.

The B-1 story is again instructive. President Carter's cancellation order seemed to give the National Campaign victory over its adversaries, Rockwell and the Pentagon. They were not vanquished, however, and neither was the B-1. Having been dealt a devastating blow, the air force switched tactics. It began pushing for a "strategic weapons launcher" (SWL) to carry cruise missiles. (Launched from the ground, submarines, or airplanes, cruise missiles are rockets that can travel a thousand miles or more with nuclear or conventional warheads.) Not surprisingly the SWL's specifications were designed in such a way that the B-1, now promoted as a missile carrier, would be the logical choice. Nick Kotz, "Money, Politics, and The B-1 bomber, Technology Review April, 1988, pp. 31-40. Congress, perhaps unaware of the ploy, appropriated $30 million for the project, and the B-1 continued to live in the shadows until a more sympathetic administration came along.

It didn't have to wait long because Ronald Reagan, a staunch proponent of increased military spending, won the presidency in 1980. Early in his term he persuaded Congress to allocate $4.8 billion to the B-1, and by 1990 more than 90 had rolled off the assembly line. Why did Rockwell and its supporters ultimately triumph?With the advantage of hindsight it appears that it was a flawed victory. The B-1 has encountered countless technical problems since it became operational, and many military analysts doubt that it can perform its missions satisfactorily. The entire fleet was grounded in 1989, for example, after one plane's movable wings ruptured a fuel tank. New York Times, March 29, 1989, p. 1.

Pluralists respond that in the give and take of politics everyone has to expect victories and losses. After winning in the early going, the B-1's opponents simply lost in the later rounds. Critics, on the other hand, claim that the fight was fixed from the beginning. Yes, the plane's opponents theoretically had the freedom to organize and fight. But what chance did they really have against an enormous company with friends in the legislature, subcontractors in nearly every state, and a cabinet department that ranks among the world's largest employers and that has classified data at its fingertips proving that the B-1, and nothing else, would meet the Soviet menace?

Such lopsided contests, critics contend, mock pretensions about competing groups, potential power, resource mobilization, and the rest of the pluralist dogma. Unused resources do not give people potential power. On the contrary, the concept only legitimizes the vast inequalities in influence in American political life, by creating the illusion that everyone who wants to can participate in decision making. The hard fact is that we live in a country dominated by a few extremely powerful groups. And, in fact, without abandoning the idea that politics is characterized mainly by competition among organized groups, many pluralists have conceded that the system frequently works to the disadvantage of the lower classes and the poor.

Pluralism is Morally Bankrupt System.

A second criticism is that pluralism contains a contradiction. The system, it appears, functions best when ordinary citizens govern the least. For this reason, the theory has been called "democratic elitism." It is an interesting contradiction, for how can a government of elites be considered democratic?

The answer, pluralists rely, is that the system is neither autocratic nor totalitarian; that is, leaders do not possess unlimited authority. Instead, the groups that ultimately make decisions draw members from all segments of society and govern by rules that most of us would consider fair. Furthermore, there are hundreds of these organizations at all levels of government--local, state, and national--none of which totally dominates the others. And the vast majority of citizens, while perhaps not in direct control, nevertheless have an indirect voice through the attention paid to public opinion. Last, and most significant, pluralistic politics is an open and dynamic process in which unused resources are available to both established groups and their potential opponents. If one group goes too far, others can take up the slack to bring it back in line.

Skeptics, however, point out that even if pluralism works as well as claimed, it still leaves 90 to 95 percent of Americans on the sidelines as spectators rather than participants. What are needed are institutions that encourage public involvement. Individuals are not truly free until they learn how to make decisions and accept responsibility for their choices. Holding leaders accountable is not enough: insofar as possible, the people themselves should formulate the policies that their nation will follow. A pluralistic type of government does not encourage this sort of involvement. With its emphasis on group competition, pluralism does not motivate personal development. Lane Davis, a political scientist, summarizes the point this way:

Popular participation is reduced to the manageable task of choices in elections. This kind of participation is, at best, a pale and rather pathetic version of the responsible and active participation which was the aspiration of classical democracy. Lane Davis, "The Costs of Realism: Contemporary Restatement of Democracy," Western Political Quarterly 17 (March, 1964) p. 43.

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