Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Whither Pluralism?

So I have Democracy Now! on in my car this morning and as is not infrequently the case, Noam Chomsky is on, giving a recent speech in Boston and having just returned from a trip to South America.

Anyway, you probably know Chomsky's schtick: Our Democratic System is being manipulated by The Man or The Men in Suits; our so-called democracy is a farce, distorted by the Money Power, the media and other elites who finance the two political parties and suppress the Wishes of, or at least the Opinions of, The People.

Now, it so happens that I tend to agree with much of Chomsky's schtick, so I poke him in well-meaning jest. I do think he's too much of the kind of moral absolutist I deplore when it wears right-wing garb. And I also tend to think he overemphasizes economic structures to the neglect of religious and cultural ones, but more about that later.

For now, if I think Chomsky is largely correct about American political power, how do I square his "elitist" view with the classic pluralist case made famous by James Madison in Federalist 10? Put more broadly, where do Chomsky and his ilk fit in with the various Theories of Democracy?

Chomsky, like C. Wright Mills before him, and blogger/authors such as David Sirota subscribe to what is known as the "elitist" theory of power and of politics. Whereas classic American Constitutionalism, articulated best by the writers of the Federalist, and reinforced by generations of American political scientists in the centuries afterward, viewed power and political conflict from the lense of pluralism.

In Elite theory, political conflict and decision-making were carried out among a relatively small circle of power brokers, with the masses playing small, negligent roles. Mills sketched a system comprised of (1) business and wealth elite; (2) military elite--what Eisenhower would a few short years later call The Military Industrial Complex; and (3) political elites--namely the President and members of the Executive branch. The legislative branch, in this system, was subservient to the three pillars of power and typically rubber-stamped their decisions.

Under pluralist thought, power was more evenly-distributed. A federalist system with checks and balances in both the national government and between the national government and the states made it difficult for any particular group to exercise power.

According to James Madison,

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.


The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

So, while not actually uttering the word, Federalist #10 sets out the basic parameters of political pluralism, for which the establishment of a federal republic was designed to promote.

In Who Governs? the political scientist Robert Dahl examined the distribution and implications of power in New Haven, Connecticut and what he found largely conformed with Madison's ideal: decision-making was widely dispersed and no one power or group exerted power for any length of time across or within any set of issues.

Dahl's conclusions about New Haven attracted a spirited and elaborate set of responses, mostly by theorists who argued for a more thorough treatment of decision-making, emphasizing not just those decisions that could be easily identified (and which might have achieved that level by virtue of a pluralist-like process of compromise) but those decisions made elsewhere, or those decisions not made, and those conflicts not raised by virtue of the system of political control, which excluded certain types of conflicts.

This latter notion of conflict expansion and conflict suppression was treated at some depth by the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider in The Semi-Sovereign People. Schattschneider wrote that political minorities, in seeking representation or resolution of a problem, first needed to expand the zone of conflict to which they were subject, bringing other groups into the conflict and hoping to reverse current policy. Beneficiaries of the status quo, quite understandably, sought to minimize conflict, as many "neo-elitists"--as they came to be known--argued.

Which brings us back to Chomsky and Sirota. What of Madison's concepts of power dispersion? Was Federalist #10 wrong, or was it relevant to Madison's day but inadequate to describe today's political realities? If so, Why? Under what conditions does pluralism not work?

I'll try to develop this line of questioning in future posts, perhaps taking as my point of departure, such recent "reform" initiatives as tort legislation and bankruptcy "reform". Under typical pluralist theories, pro-business reforms should face the same obstacles as do other groups--varieties of interest that impede the interests of any one group (say the credit card industry) and minimize the likelihood of any one group's having its policy ambitions carried out. But with a unified Republican government, some business interests were yet successful in realizing their wishes. In what sense did American pluralism not function in this case, or others? Why?

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