Pluralism is the theory that a multitude of
groups, not the people as a whole, govern the United States. These
organizations, which include among others unions, trade and
professional associations, environmentalists, civil rights activists,
business and financial lobbies, and formal and informal coalitions of
like-minded citizens, influence the making and administration of laws
and policy. Since the participants in this process constitute only a
tiny fraction of the populace, the public acts mainly as bystanders.

Indeed, some pluralists believe that direct
democracy is not only unworkable; it is not even necessarily
desirable. Besides the logistical problems of having every citizen
meet at one time to decide policies, political issues require
continuous and expert attention, which the average citizen does not
have. Robert Dahl, a noted pluralist, suggested in one of his early
writings that in societies like ours “politics is a sideshow in the
great circus of life.” Most people, he explained, concentrate their
time and energies on activities involving work, family, health,
friendship, recreation, and the like. Other pluralists go further.
They worry that the common person lacks the virtues–reason,
intelligence, patience–for self-government and that direct democracy
leads to anarchy and the loss of freedom.

Nor do pluralists think that representative
democracy works as well in practice as in theory. Voting is
important, to be sure. But Americans vote for representatives, not
for specific policy alternatives. A candidate’s election cannot
always be interpreted as an endorsement of a particular course of

Politicians frequently win office with only a
“plurality” of the votes–that is, they receive more votes than their
opponents–but not with a majority of the total eligible electorate.
President Reagan, for example, received approximately 51 percent of
the ballots cast in 1980, but his total constituted only about a
quarter of the votes of all potential voters, since only 55 percent
of those eligible to participate actually went to the polls.
Furthermore, a first choice among candidates is not necessarily the
same as a first choice among policies. The people who elected
President Clinton, for example, did not all agree with his positions
on health care, taxes, national defense, Bosnia, and the environment.
Many of them, in fact, were probably voting against his opponent,
George Bush, rather than for Clinton himself.

If Americans do not decide major controversies
themselves or indirectly through elections, how are such matters
resolved? Pluralists are convinced that public policy emerges from
competition among groups. Since relatively few people participate

actively in this process, power, it might seem, would be concentrated
in few hands. Before drawing any dire conclusions about the possible
undemocratic nature of this form of government, however, it is
necessary to look at political power as pluralists see it.

The Pluralist View of

Everyone recognizes political power when they
see it: Congress raises taxes; the president sends troops to Bosnia;
the Supreme Court declares the death penalty constitutional; a police
officer tells a motorist to pull off the road. In each instance a
group or person makes others do something they would not otherwise
do. Seen from this perspective, the definition of power seems simple
enough. Yet the term is loaded with implications that must be fully
grasped if one is to understand pluralism.


In the first place, power is not an
identifiable property that humans possess in fixed amounts. Rather,
people are powerful because they control various resources. Resources
are assets that can be used to force others to do what one wants.
Politicians become powerful because they y command resources that
people want or fear or respect. The list of possibilities is
virtually endless: legal authority, money, prestige, skill,
knowledge, charisma, legitimacy, free time, experience, celebrity,
and public support. Civil rights activists in the 1960s relied mainly
on their numbers and the legitimacy of their cause to get their way
whereas corporations frequently depend on their access to
officeholders, control of information, and campaign contributions.
Whatever the case, pluralists emphasize that power is not a physical
entity that individuals either have or do not have, but flows from a
variety of different sources.

Potential versus Actual Power.

Pluralists also stress the differences between
potential and actual power. Actual power means the ability to compel
someone to do something; potential power refers to the possibility of
turning resources into actual power. Cash, one of many resources, is
only a stack of bills until it is put to work. A millionaire may or
may not be politically influential; it all depends on what the wealth
is spent for–trips to the Bahamas or trips to Washington. Martin
Luther King Jr., for example, was certainly not a rich person. But by
using resources such as his forceful personality, organizational
skills, and especially the legitimacy of his cause, he had a greater
impact on American politics than most wealthy people. A particular
resource like money cannot automatically be equated with power
because the resource can be used skillfully or clumsily, fully or
partially, or not at all.

Three of the major tenets of the pluralist
school are (1)resources and hence potential power are widely
scattered throughout society; (2) at least some resources are
available to nearly everyone; and (3) at any time the amount of
potential power exceeds the amount of actual power.

Scope of Power.

Finally, and perhaps most important, no one is
all-powerful. An individual or group that is influential in one realm
may be weak in another. Large military contractors certainly throw
their weight around on defense matters, but how much sway do they
have on agricultural or health policies? A measure of power,
therefore, is its scope, or the range of areas where it is
successfully applied. Pluralists believe that with few exceptions
power holders in America usually have a relatively limited scope of

For all these reasons power cannot be taken for
granted. One has observe it empirically in order to know who really
governs. The best way to do this, pluralists believe, is to examine a
wide range of specific decisions, noting who took which side and who
ultimately won and lost. Only by keeping score on a variety of
controversies can one begin to identify actual power holders.

The pluralists’ view of power underlies their
interpretation of how the American political system operates, a topic
to which we now turn.

The Characteristics of

Perhaps the key characteristic of American
government, according to pluralists, is that it is dominated not by a
single elite but rather by a multiplicity of relatively small groups,
some of which are well organized and funded, some of which are not.
Although a few are larger and more influential than the others, the
scope of their power, far from being universal, is restricted to
relatively narrow areas such as defense, agriculture, or banking.

A second characteristic is that the groups are
politically autonomous, or independent. They have the right and
freedom to do business in the political marketplace. How well they
fare depends not on the indulgence of a higher authority but on their
own skill in rallying political resources. Because a diverse society
like ours contains so many potential factions, political autonomy
guarantees constant, widespread, and spirited competition among these

Third, inter group competition leads to
countervailing influence: The power of one group tends to cancel that
of another so that a rough equilibrium results. Group memberships
overlap as well. Members of one association, in other words, might
belong to another, even competing, group. Overlapping memberships
reduce the intensity of conflicts because loyalties are often spread
among many organizations.

A fourth characteristic is the openness of the
system. It is open in two senses. First, most organizations are
seldom if ever completely shut off from the outside. They
continuously recruit new members from all walks of life. Second, the
availability of unused resources constantly encourages the formation
of new groups. Stimulated by threats to their interests or sensitized
to injustices, or for whatever reason, individuals frequently unite
for political action. In the process groups mine untapped resources.
This happened in 1989 when a Supreme Court decision gave states
greater latitude in restricting abortions. The Court’s action so
scared and angered pro-choice groups that they accelerated their
organizing efforts to prevent states from enacting stiffer
antiabortion laws.

Pluralists judge society not by its actual
equality but by its equality of political opportunity. Americans,
they contend, have a comparatively equal chance to participate in
government. By mobilizing resources (collecting signatures on a
petition, for example) they can make existing groups share their
influence, or they can create new organizations that will compete
with established ones.

The fifth characteristic of the system is the
endless quest by groups and office seekers for public support. Even
though the masses do not govern directly, their opinions are a
resource that can be used by one organization against another. In a
country where the belief in popular control of government is so
deeply ingrained, people feel compelled to sell their causes to the
public, and are frequently judged winners or losers by their
standings in the polls. What else explains the millions of dollars
spent on advertising? What else accounts for the demand for public
relations consultants? Why else is so much attention lavished on
public opinion surveys? The answers lie in the widely shared belief
that a group with popular backing has an important advantage over one
that lacks it, even if the masses do not actually take part in
decision making.

The public also exerts influence by choosing
leaders, most of whom back and are backed by organized groups. So
important is this responsibility that one scholar defined democracy
as “an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions
in which [groups] acquire power to decide by means of a
competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”

The final characteristic of pluralism is

consensus on the “rules of the game.” Consensus, or widespread
agreement, among political activists and leaders on democratic
principles and values holds the system together. These people accept
regular and open elections, the right to vote, majority rule,
political equality, free speech, the right to assemble, and the other
rules that make peaceful and orderly politics possible. They tolerate
differences of opinion. And, of utmost significance, they abide by
the outcomes of elections.

Some pluralists contend that, since this
acceptance of democratic norms is higher among leaders than the
general public, political disagreements are best settled at the top,
where they can be dealt with fairly and dispassionately. Keeping the
intolerant and shortsighted masses at bay helps ensure the system’s
safety and stability. The theory, in short, argues that American
government stays free because its main participants, the individuals
who actually make policy, agree on a code of conduct that is not
always shared by the public at large.

Reprinted with permission

Author: H. T. Reynolds, Ph. D. 1996. email –