Select Page

Protecting Pluralism

April 28, 2018 | (1,982 words)

William Galston writes for the Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, teaches at the University of Maryland, and was a former policy advisor in the Clinton administration. An expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections, his current research focuses on designing a new social contract, and the implications of political polarization.

His latest book, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, was just published by Yale University Press. The Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy article by Mr. Galston in its March 17-18, 2018 edition that was adapted from the new book.

At one point in the article Mr. Galston states, “… a modern democracy … stands or falls with the protection of pluralism.” What exactly do we mean by the term “pluralism,” though, and why should it be protected?

Probably the most common understanding of the term is its religious connotation. Historically speaking, religious pluralism (i.e. religious “freedom”) emerged as a desirable alternative to a series of wars waged by religiously affiliated factions that did so much damage to so much of Europe. Rather than fighting with a side-bar interest over which iteration of Christianity one country or monarch or prince preferred, it was deemed better to let people profess as they saw fit, in an enlightened attempt to set such faith-based strife aside, and get on with the business of enhancing the wealth of nations.


… democracy stands or falls with the protection of pluralism.


Emphasizing economic cooperation as the best way to avoid military conflict between independent nations whose interests or cultural backgrounds may not be in perfect alignment proved to be a good move, and has taken us quite a long way in terms of advancing the overall level of material well-being.

But despite the hearty consensus on the matter, you may have noticed war has not yet been eliminated from the recent history of so-called cooperating nations. So maybe in hindsight one’s religious affiliation wasn’t the main source of the conflict, after all.

In addition to which those same nations have still not solved the vexing riddle of how to facilitate the equitable distribution of the gains in material well-being that have unquestionably been achieved. (Editor’s note: “equitable” not being the same thing as “equal”)

Which latter fact brings us to yet another definition of the term under discussion. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in political science, “pluralism” is the view:

“…that in liberal democracies power is (or should be) dispersed among a variety of economic and ideological pressure groups and is not (or should not be) held by a single elite or group of elites. Pluralism assumes that diversity is beneficial to society and that autonomy should be enjoyed by disparate functional or cultural groups within a society, including religious groups, trade unions, professional organizations, and ethnic minorities.”

“Pluralism was stressed most vigorously in England during the early 20th century by a group of writers… who reacted against what they alleged to be the alienation of the individual under the conditions of unrestrained capitalism. It was necessary, they argued, to integrate the individual in a social context that would give him a sense of community, and they pointed to the medieval structure of guilds, chartered cities, villages, monasteries, and universities as an example of such a society.”


… the need to pursue inclusive economic growth.


These early 20th century “pluralists” argued that some of the negative aspects of modern industrial society might be overcome by economic and administrative decentralization. Needless to say, events of the latter half of the 20th century have conspired to mitigate against any such decentralization, as just the opposite has taken hold: expanding business conglomerates, mirrored by an increasingly large and all-pervasive governmental apparatus.

Also needless to say, today’s champions of pluralism like William Galston are not the least bit inclined to reference any sort of medieval (i.e. “Catholic”) structure as a means of addressing the alienation still being produced by unrestrained capitalism. A cadre of contemporary political theorists is nevertheless giving it their best shot, in their own, decidedly secular way. Mr. Galston, for one, believes we should:

“..pursue inclusive economic growth – that is, policies to improve well-being across demographic lines, including class and geography. Allowing the highest strata of society to commandeer most of the gains from growth is a formula for endless conflict. So is allowing growth and dynamism to concentrate in fewer and fewer places. Public policy cannot eliminate the rural-urban gap, but it can at least slow down the divergence.”

Mr. Galston’s analysis of the increasingly dire economic situation is welcome, and bears a striking resemblance to what writers such as R.H. Tawney were saying in England in the early part of the 20th century. But his prescription to correct the problem is a very thin gruel, indeed. His only concrete suggestion is public policy with the tepid aim of merely slowing down the divergence.


… claiming a monopoly on virtue, while condemning others as evil.


Kudos to senior research fellow Galston for including the existence of an overwhelmingly economic component in his detailed analysis of the current populist uprisings that have spread across Europe, and that delivered an unexpected result in the November 2016 presidential election here in the U.S.

But the majority of his analytical energy seems to be focused on maintaining the integrity of what he defines as a truly diverse society, rather than correcting institutional economic injustice suffered by those who occupy the middle and lower rungs of society’s ladder, and who have grown increasingly frustrated at their mistreatment by those on top.

To wit, in the gospel according to Galston: We must acknowledge that different social groups will have different interests, values, and origins. There can be no such thing as uniformity of thought, given these differences. It follows then, that no one group can have a monopoly on virtue. To assume otherwise undermines the democratic process. Most importantly of all, Mr. Galston tells us: “Decision-making in circumstances of diversity requires compromise, which is difficult to achieve if one side believes the other is evil or illegitimate.”

Wow. Claiming a monopoly on virtue? Believing a group other than your own is evil? This takes our attention far away from what should be a widely-held consensus on the need for correcting rampant economic abuse. That’s because realigning economic behavior is apparently not Mr. Galston’s top priority.

While not claiming to be a student of this man’s extensive body of work, it would appear to this general reader, based solely on this one lengthy article in the Wall Street Journal, cribbed as it is from his new, crowning achievement book, that Mr. Galston’s overriding concern is on making the world safe for “different values.”

This sounds eminently reasonable in the abstract, as does the need for “compromise” in the decision-making process. But what, exactly, are the different values he feels are in need of protection?


… are values just another political interest subject to debate and compromise?


Populism is bad, by Mr. Galston’s lights, because, “It plunges democratic societies into an endless series of moralized zero-sum conflicts; threatens the rights of minorities; and enables strong leaders to dismantle the safeguards that keep society off the road to autocracy.”

So here it is, once again: We are repeatedly told these days the only alternative to the liberal democratic order, which insists on the implementation of pluralism across the board in every field of human endeavor, is autocracy and tyranny.

The obvious question is: How did this become our only option for governing? With pluralism so elevated in the mind of our citizenry, any consideration of “principle” has been surreptitiously removed from the discussion, set aside as too contentious.

As a political idea, compromise between different groups with conflicting interests is a practical strategy. But are “values” merely just another political interest that should be subject to debate and compromise? Apparently they are, to defenders of our pluralist democracy.

But was Roe v. Wade a compromise? Was Obergefell v. Hodges? Mr. Galston’s well-thought out positions should not be allowed to fog our minds. There are times when one is simply unable to avoid a “moralized zero-sum conflict,” though Galston and his ilk obviously consider such conflict to be anathema to the maintenance of public order.

Even for those of us with pedestrian intellects who clearly lack Mr. Galston’s impressive erudition, it dawns without too much mental effort that in combating the corrosive effects of economic inequity, pluralism can be a very good thing. When it comes to objective moral issues of right and wrong, however, pluralism is an unreliable guide.

What, you may ask, does the Catholic Church have to say about evaluating the relative worth of different values in light of Galston’s preferred goal of pluralist compromise? Perhaps not surprisingly, it has historically taken a dim view of the idea. The short version goes something like this:


… what informs the political order and guides our actions in the public square?


The political order should align with the common good. Government should therefore be a positive force for human flourishing. Eternal life is good for mankind, the ultimate end of all human flourishing. Since religious belief and practice promotes virtuous behavior that will one day lead to eternal life, government should in turn show deference to such belief and practice. And to the Catholic Church in particular, since it is, after all, the one, true faith.

Not only is this “policy statement” diametrically opposed to the pluralist democratic model that has reigned supreme throughout the West for hundreds of years now, but we Catholics no longer see things this way either. It all changed for us in the wake of Vatican II (1962-1965). If the changes were not technically to be found in the letter of the somewhat ambiguous Council documents, then they were certainly made manifest in the way the Council’s “spirit” has been applied.

And so today Catholics find ourselves at the mercy of smooth talkers such as William Galston, who in the name of diversity and compromise have managed to carve out a respectable niche in our society for those free thinkers who are of the opinion abortion is no longer infanticide, and marrying someone of your own gender makes perfect sense.

Maybe, as one current observer has recently quipped, we must turn our sights to a potential “Council of Nairobi in the year 2088,” and hope it clarifies the ambiguity created by Vatican II on the issue of pluralism as applied to values, and on whether Catholicism can still legitimately be regarded as the one, true faith.

Returning to the world stage, there is a widely held belief at the heart of the pluralist mantra, that religion has been the source of all human strife. Things are better in those regions where faith has been put in its place, well removed from the pressing concerns of governance and the churn of economic activity.

The best response to this jaundiced view may be the immortal words of G.K. Chesterton, who wryly noted: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Those of us who are daily humbled by the degree of difficulty involved in living out this example, but who have not lost sight of the prize, must continue trying to put the ideal into practice, no matter how flawed or feeble our efforts may prove to be.

This includes charitably fending off criticism that paints us as ignorant, or evil. While not a popular position at the moment, where immutable values are concerned the moral consensus of the last two thousand years still stands. Even though many claim it has been recently replaced by the will of the people, or even worse, by a new social contract.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
April 28, 2018

Use the contact form below to email me.

15 + 12 =