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A Path to Institutional Pluralism
A renewal of civil society + better internal norms supporting value pluralism + more political competition. (Part three in a new series.)
The genius of the American political system—as envisioned by James Madison in Federalist No. 10—lies in the fact that no one faction or combination of factions can easily impose its will on everyone else thus preserving individual liberty and reducing opportunities for majoritarian tyranny. In this pluralist system, the proliferation of interest groups and the widening of their geographic distribution naturally leads to compromise and coalitions, since no one group can dominate all others and any momentary political victory will be fleeting in a system with multiple checks and balances and division of powers between the federal and state governments.
In pluralist theory, political competition works much like market competition by eliminating the worst performing ideas and factions and rewarding the better and more successful ones that can attract a wider audience. Like market concentration, however, if political competition is reduced the worst ideas and performers—or those with the most power and money—will gain strength rather than face elimination or scrutiny. Without sufficient competition, like-minded factions can easily align themselves internally to consolidate power within states and localities to achieve narrow ends in a political monopoly.
Much to James Madison’s chagrin (from the grave), a lack of real political competition and dispersal of various factions across society is the exact situation American politics finds itself in today.
There are few genuinely competitive states and districts in U.S. presidential and congressional races. American cities and counties are virtual one-party polities controlled uniformly by either Democrats or Republicans. Value pluralism is almost entirely absent from most political institutions including the two political parties and the elaborate non-profit and media infrastructures that support them. There’s one way of doing business inside these political monopolies. It’s “us versus them”—pick a side.
Rather than promote competition and compromise, the American political system today encourages a “give no quarter” mentality among partisans built on internal complacency and little tolerance for dissent.
How might we change these unfortunate conditions to better support genuine pluralism as Madison and others envisioned?
The previous piece in this series examined how cultural pluralism may be encouraged. Here we will examine some potential ideas for increasing institutional pluralism.
American civil society needs a serious reboot. The single best antidote to ideological and partisan conformity within politics is a true blossoming of divergent ideas and groups across civil society. The philanthropic world is currently arguing over how best to encourage value pluralism in America as ideological and partisan conformity has taken over many institutions that were once dedicated to different philosophical approaches, the pursuit of individual group interests, or more neutral and analytical policy research and development.
The networks of astroturfed “grassroots” organizations, think tanks, and other giant campaign organizations on both the left and the right today no longer function as independent bodies developing new ideas, gathering and analyzing neutral facts, brokering compromises, and supporting mutually beneficial, big-tent politics. Rather, the institutions that make up these political networks often converge on the same set of ideas and positions within a commonly accepted and enforced partisan framework that serves the interests of those currently in power—or those seeking power.
Dissident ideas are pushed to the side. Competing or uncertain evidence about what works in public policy is mostly ignored as so-called independent institutions churn out propaganda to bolster the issue positions of specific political parties or leaders. This is a relatively new phenomenon. After the Supreme Court eliminated most restrictions on campaign financing, leading “non-partisan” organizations on the left and right dispensed with the fiction that they are neutral research institutions merely going where the evidence takes them. Rather, using unlimited and often untraceable private dollars, these groups aligned their work intellectually and politically with respective partisan interests to advance whatever positions are most important or pressing at any time.
Instead of investing in a competition of ideas within and across political movements, as pluralism requires, most civil society work in contemporary politics amounts to little more than advocacy in support of the two parties.
What is desperately needed from philanthropists and citizens themselves is a serious recommitment to independent research and genuine grassroots or interest-based organizing that seeks concrete objectives across partisan and ideological lines. Rather than plop another billion dollars into fake political activism that encourages partisan standoffs and over-the-top ideological rhetoric, philanthropists should spend more of their money on groups and institutions that encourage diversity of thought, that look for compromises among competing segments of society, and that value political tolerance on a wider scale.
Existing institutions need a genuine commitment to viewpoint diversity and free expression. Ideology and politics have invaded nearly every aspect of contemporary life from the workplace to schools to religious and secular organizations. On the left, a stated commitment to “diversity” in major institutions includes every demographic group under the sun with no concomitant desire to include people with different moral or political views. On the right, stated opposition to these leftist initiatives and a supposed commitment to “free speech” has morphed into yet another set of ideological dogmas about what people can or can’t say, read, do, or think.
Neither the left nor the right—and the moneyed interests fueling each side—cares one lick about including people with different perspectives or listening to those with divergent views. Activists on both sides enforce this institutional conformity by punishing and shunning those who stray from the party lines.
More institutions need to follow the lead of the University of Chicago with its statement of principles supporting free speech and diversity of thought. The most important value that should be universally enforced by institutional leaders is a true liberal, pluralistic commitment to free expression for all:
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.
Other non-academic institutions in civil society would benefit greatly from a similar commitment to free expression and the unimpeded exploration of ideas within a framework of mutual respect, tolerance, and equality for all.
The two-party duopoly needs to be broken up to support a range of parties and ideas. The Atlantic recently ran an interesting piece on the different ideas within the political science and democratic reform communities to help loosen the iron grip of the two political parties on the American system. Without going into elaborate detail on each proposal, the one that makes the most sense in terms of Madisonian pluralism is the idea of proportional representation in national, state, and local governments.
The idea is simple (if difficult to pass legislatively given current politics): eliminate winner-take-all systems that lead to one-party dominance and instead set up larger political boundaries with multi-member representation based on the percentage of votes for any given party. Instead of states, cities, or congressional districts being controlled entirely by one party or the other—locking out all minority viewpoints—political competition would be restored and additional parties would have a real shot at representation based on the percentage vote for each party.
As explained in The Atlantic:
Supporters of proportional representation—which is used in advanced democracies such as Australia, Israel, and countries throughout Europe—view the system as a prerequisite for breaking the two parties’ stranglehold on American politics. It would foster coalitional, cross-partisan governance, while larger, multimember districts would all but eliminate partisan gerrymandering. “Your enemies are never permanent. And your friends today might be your opponents tomorrow, and maybe your friends the day after,” Grant Tudor, a policy advocate at the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy, explained to me. “So there’s something structural about a multiparty [system] that depresses polarization, depresses the risk of political violence—that depresses extremism.”
Take a medium-size state like Wisconsin as an example. Wisconsin has eight districts that are gerrymandered in such a way that Republicans reliably win six. Under proportional representation, the state would have fewer districts—perhaps only two, say, composed of five and three members. Less reliance on geographic boundaries would make the state harder to gerrymander, and when combined with proportional representation, its elections would likely be far more competitive. The results, therefore, would be more reflective of Wisconsin’s closely divided population.
Larger, ideologically diverse states such as California and New York might elect representatives from the Working Families Party or the Green Party; Texas could send Libertarian members to Washington. In 2020, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told a reporter that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” In a multiparty democracy, they wouldn’t have to be.
Ideas like this are a long way from reality given our current political gridlock—at least at the national level. And no one electoral redesign will solve the problems of diminishing pluralism in American politics.
But, in combination with other shifts in cultural norms and institutional arrangements to uphold pluralism, structural changes like proportional representation could support more viewpoint diversity in society and promote a multitude of competing interests, parties, and ideas that will be forced to encounter each other more regularly—and consequently, make more compromises to help advance their own interests and those of the country overall.
Americans can keep stumbling along hoping that partisan polarization and over-heated politics will somehow subside, or we can take steps as citizens to improve the situation and begin rebuilding trust in collective action and government.
James Madison and the other founders would certainly approve of some pluralist experimentation to uphold individual rights and the common good—so let’s give it a shot.